A Memorable 50th High School Class Reunion. With Unexpected Success Stories
One thing that was striking at our 50th reunion of the Palm Springs High School Class of 1956, a class of 96 original members, this weekend at the Spa Hotel, was how well several of the black and Mexican-American members from the Indian reservation in Palm Springs -- known as Section 14 -- had done in life.
Palm Springs is a checkerboard, with every other square mile Indian land. There were very few Indians when I was growing up here in the 1950s, but almost all the town's black and Mexican Americans grew up in the square mile just east of the downtown area. Several writers over the years had commented how this was a terrible slum, representative of the disparities of Palm Springs life, out of which nothing good could come. As it turned out, they were wrong.
At the reunion, the main speaker was Charles Jordan, a city commissioner of Portland, Ore. When he was a basketball star at Palm Springs High in my senior year, he hardly ever spoke at all. He was a shy, lanky black youngster who got a basketball scholarship at Gonzaga University, where he got an excellent education. When he returned to Palm Springs, it was then-Mayor Frank Bogert who gave him a job as a recreation supervisor. Jordan said he had suggested to Bogert at the time, 1961, that he might not be accepted by whites in that position. Bogert had been adamant about going ahead with the job offer, and it was the beginning of a brilliant career for Jordan, first in Palm Springs, then in Riverside and Portland.
Two of the five arrangers of the reunion were Victor Reyes and Virginia Marmelejo, both of whom had been popular when we were in high school. The committee arranged for members of the class to ride on a fire truck around the field at halftime of the high school's football game on Friday night.
Reyes mentioned in his reunion talk that all five starters on the championship basketball team in our senior year. all either black or Mexican-American, lived within a mile of each other on Section 14.
When Reyes was 17, he planned to go with other kids in the neighborhood to Indio for an event, but the only one who showed up was a girl of 12 from a block away he had known all his life, Fifi. Out of the night's excursion grew a lasting relationship. Reyes, five years older, dated Fifi from the time she was 13, married her when she turned 18, and they have now been married 45 years. They have three children.
Yes, there was a committee that put together the reunion, but, we were told, the top organizer was Fifi, who is still charming and beautiful.
Mary Alice Harrison, sister of another athlete, was one of the best dressed, most classy women at the reunion. She enlivened my table with witty comments. She too had once been a shy, unobtrusive member of the class.
Three of our former teachers, all of them now in their late 80s, attended the reunion's Saturday night dinner. One of them was the coach of that championship basketball team, Ralph Watt, who had that same year, 1956. been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He had an operation. uncommon at the time, and was told by his doctors he had only a few years to live. Here he is, 50 years later, having served as a school principal and even, briefly, superintendent of schools. Another was a world history and Latin teacher, Letha Cote, the other a former band instructor, Gus Patzner. We gave all three plaques of appreciation. Watt, by the way, has a daughter, Sally, who now is one of the most popular elementary school teachers in Palm Springs.
We spoke about some of the teachers and students who no longer are alive, and each member of the class present got up and told about their lives since graduation.
This was actually our fourth reunion. Marmelejo, who had a long career as a telephone operator, said that this time she had insisted that there be a woman on the organizing committee, and she was invited to join.
Frank Brown, one of the organizers, said at the end, "This is probably the last time we will get together." No, no, said other members of the crowd of about 60. "We'll be back for our 60th."