By KAREN PARKER | County Line Editor
“I am behaving myself tonight,” Jerry Von Haden of Tomah shouted to me at the Wilton High School reunion for the classes of 1962 and 1963 on Saturday.
And indeed he did, but it was not always so. The class of 1962 was naughty, extraordinarily naughty, and the Wilton High School class of 1963 paid the price. But more about that story later.
Before the reunion, I was not overly thrilled. I’ve never attended my class reunions for either high school or college, though they were not terrible years. All in all, they were relatively pleasant times. But for my high school class of 300 and my much larger one in college, our closeness didn’t survive the years, particularly for those of us who don’t live in the school communities.
I thought an evening of sentimentality was more than enough punishment for my past sins, but my daughter disagreed and made me go to the reunion anyway. And the event was only a few miles from my house, at the summer home of Lowell (class of 1962) and Arlys Zellmer.
Consequently, I did not have time to leap out of the car and run away. Perhaps the role of super sleuth would make the evening more palatable, I thought.
What really happened a half-century ago that landed these two classes in the soup and unleashed the wrath of Superintendent Al Schraufnagel? Do they harbor dark secrets that bind them together like mafia? Why do they stay in touch throughout the year, and then gather for class reunions that more closely resemble royal events?
My first clue could be found in the Zellmer barn, now converted into a bar and lounge. In one corner, where Bossy once stood waiting to be milked, was what could be described as a shrine to the two classes. Photographs depicted their ascendancy from shy grade-schoolers to gawky pre-teens to swaggering teen boys in leather jackets and girls in puffy poodle skirts. The photos featured confirmations, sports teams and the usual activities of school years.
This group grew up together. But isn’t that the case in any small town? Lots of classmates grow up together, but not all sustain their friendships for 50 years.
I thought my best source of information could be someone who had not attended Wilton High School but knew the inside story. I honed in on Carol (Radke) Martalock, who did not graduate from Wilton and furthermore was among the defectors – the Brookwood High School class of 1964.
We spoke for a while about the school debate during the early 1960s, when families battled over whether Wilton children would be Panthers or Falcons. In the end, most of the Wilton School District was incorporated into the Royall School District, but parents from Black Valley, once Wilton School District territory, decided to send their children to Brookwood High School instead.
The controversy brought about angry meetings and threats, and families that had been close forever were bitterly divided over the issue.
The Wilton High School classes of ’62 and ’63 were in the center of the civil war, but for some reason they resisted the acrimony and furor their parents had created.
Or maybe, like most youth, they reacted to it by taking the opposite view. It was, after all, a time of national uproar, with the civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis and, in 1963, the assassination of President John Kennedy.
Whatever the case, the Wilton class of 1962 held its prom. The classmates didn’t know it at the time, but it was the last prom ever for Wilton High School.
I imagine it was your typical prom with the guys uncomfortable in tuxes and the girls dolled up in pastel gowns. They probably did the twist and whirled around the floor to Bobby Vinton’s “Roses are Red” or Gene Chandler’s, “Duke of Earl.” They munched on snacks, did the prom march and crowned Judy Brandau Bever as queen and Ed Fick as king.
Maybe they talked about what was coming. Would they go in the service and risk a trip to Vietnam? Would they go to college or head to Janesville for a good-paying job at the GM plant?
And then the 1962 prom went astray, as events often do when youth think they are invincible. Instead of kissing their sweethearts goodnight and going home, the party continued into the night, with drinking, carousing and even a vehicle rollover.
That’s it? That was what brought down the house and canceled the prom for class of 1963?
As Martalock recalled it, the Wilton kids had a reputation for major drinking. No amount of scolding had altered the course toward what adults feared was a full-blown case of group drunkenness. That’s when Schraufnagel stepped in and lowered the hammer: No prom next year for the class of 1963.
Schraufnagel was on hand for the 50-year reunion and admitted that, yes, he was the one who decided to get the miscreants’ attention by canceling prom.
But, wait, why are we punishing one class for the sins of another? For that, I sought out ’62 class members Larry Bever and Jerry Von Haden. Was there more to the story? Well, yes, as it turns out the ’63 classmates were active participants in the merrymaking. And unknown perpetrators punched holes in the bathroom walls at Spring Valley in Union Center. Oh, my, the plot thickens.
I asked Larry Bever if that class resented his class for wrecking the premier event of high school years.
“Must not,” he said. “One of them married me.”
In fact, the two classes contain lots of instances of cross-marriage, which both men said factored in the closeness of the two classes years later.
Neither man could think of a class member who has shunned reunions, although not all attend each time.
But a strain of guilt might have haunted Lowell Zellmer. This year, he decided the class of 1963 would get the prom they had been cheated out of 49 years ago.
Stringing up the lights and striking up the music, he transformed his hayloft into the Wilton gymnasium, complete with desserts much better than anything the kids would have eaten back then. For the class of 1963, Lorrie Meacham Bever was crowned queen, and John Barden joined her as king.
And thus the gray-haired grandparents were transported back in time, and if they limped a bit from arthritis and knee surgery, it was too dark to tell. Fortunately for them, it was also too hot in the barn to dance for long, and most found their way outside to sit by the pond or belly up to Zellmer’s tiki bar.
I assure you that the classes still like to drink, but many appeared to nurse the same beer all evening. As one might expect from a crowd closing in on 70, they have matured and vanquished their devilish ways. I think.
I never did figure out why these two classes remained so close after so many years. They have attended the funerals of each other’s parents, traveled together, reunited often and now keep up with one another on Facebook. They have bridged their political differences, agreed to disagree on social issues and found common ground despite varying degrees of educational and career success.
I gave it one more try with Larry Bever and Von Haden. What is it?
They both shrugged.
“I guess we just really like each other,” was their conclusion.
And that, to my mind, is certainly good enough.
And, by the way, contrary to my expectations before the reunion, they really do throw great parties. You should be so lucky as to be invited.