The East Greenwich High School Class of 1971 graduated 52 years ago on June 15. We’re holding our 50th reunion in August.
Blame the delay on Covid-19(71).
Anyway, it’s in keeping with our history: the brand-new East Greenwich High School wasn’t ready for us when we showed up for our first day on Wednesday, September 6, 1967. Construction was still wrapping up: electricians were putting the final touches on the science labs. Bells, clocks, and pay phones (remember them?) were all silent. The library’s furniture was still in crates. Principal Rufus Brackley implored us to keep our feet off the “unborn grass.”
We were the first freshmen class to occupy the $3 million building at the end of that half-mile long Avenger Drive. As a result, we were the first to graduate after spending all four of our high school years there. Three years before we arrived, the town had tapped a pair of architectural firms to draft blueprints for the school. One of them was The Architects Collaborative of Cambridge, Mass., an eight-member concern whose most famous partner was Walter Gropius, a founder of Germany’s famed Bauhaus school of architecture. “A Dash of Modernism in the Middle of the Woods,” read a headline over an article about the school’s design by the Rhode Island Council on the Humanities. “The team carefully combined red bricks and concrete using them as a primary building material,” it said. “The façade of the building acts as a nice canvas for shadows of the trees surrounding the building.”
Most of us seemed to like it. “These upholstered seats are nice — now I can sleep through any assembly!” one student said, peering into the auditorium on that long-ago opening day. “What’s with the holes in the walls?” another asked, referring to the hollows pocking the inside concrete walls. “Gum disposals?”
Our quadrangle, now more than a half-century old, has changed since we roamed those halls. These days, you can only get to the courtyard from inside the building. Those once-open passageways under the second floor, which many of us passed through to gather in the courtyard before the school building opened for the day, have been bricked over. There’s talk of adding eight classrooms — inside the courtyard. An additional gymnasium has been built, and the old football field is gone. So is (surprise!) the smoking room. The front entrance got a wholesale revamping several years ago, complete with a concrete cornhole game. The rock is still there.
Even with the wonders of the internet, people can still disappear. Web research suggests perhaps a third of our 191 classmates left Rhode Island after high school. East Greenwich is now a town of 14,600, 50 percent bigger than the 9,600 when we graduated. Yet the 184-student Class of 2023 was 4 percent smaller than ours. That hints at fewer kids, which translates into richer residents (there’s valet parking on Main Street, for Pete’s sake). East Greenwich has changed from a town with farms to a bedroom community with evermore McMansions and condos. Don’t go looking for the places we’ll remember all our lives. Local commerce has evaporated. Downtown moved, first to the malls while we were in high school, then to Warwick’s Route 2, which has become Rhode Island’s Las Vegas strip. Now it’s moving on to Amazon, leaving empty parking lots sprouting weeds through cracked asphalt.
Earnshaw’s, Kent, Koch’s and Thorpe’s. Benny’s and Woolworths. E.G. Hardware, the Gob Shop, and Jim Reynolds Sporting Goods. The Beacon Diner, Charbroil, Forge Café, Jolly Jon’s, Newport Creamery, Pal’s, Sun Valley Inn, TarTar’s, Tommy’s Spa, Two Guys, and Zenga’s. Browning’s and Ross Aker. Hospital Trust, Industrial National, Old Colony, and Old Stone. Buz Terry’s Main Street Music, Hathaway’s Music, and Bud Gallup’s. Almacs, Community Foods, First National, and IGA. Dick Cranston Ford, Main Street Garage, and Moone Motors. Pucino’s and Vespia’s garages. Greenwich Auto Parts and East Coast Speed. Bostitch, and East Greenwich Dairy. Silverman’s and Solomon’s. Brown Tailors & Cleaners. Olson & Beattie, and Wood jewelers. McKone’s and Romano’s package stores (“Hey sailor, can you do us a favor?”). Fin & Feather Lodge and Briarbrook Farm. The Rhode Island Pendulum. Scott the Florist and the Embassy Flower Shop. American Legion Post 15, and the Italo-American Club. The Kent and Greenwich movie theaters, and Hilltop Drive-In.
The post office has moved. So has the police department. And the town hall. And, most critically, Dunkin’ Donuts. But our alma mater remains firmly planted, more than a half-century later, at 300 Avenger Drive. Alas, that sylvan safari down Avenger Drive vanished as the state built the new Route 4 alongside it, which opened when we were juniors.
Despite being the Class of ‘71, we spent more than 60 percent of our high school days in the 1960s. We entered with LBJ, and graduated with Nixon. While our high school years brought us terrible politicians, they brought us the best music (the Beatles, Sly and the Family Stone, Woodstock), movies (The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2001: A Space Odyssey), and books (The Godfather, Slaughterhouse 5, The Outsiders). Or maybe we just thought they were the best. Which, when you come to think about it, is pretty much the same thing.
Like our high school years, our reunions have been eclectic, eccentric, and erratic. Befitting our geography, they’ve always been held a short walk from salt water. Closer than EGHS, that’s for sure. They began by ticking as regularly as a metronome.
On August 21, 1976, we gathered at the year-old East Greenwich Veteran Fireman’s Club for our 5th reunion (17,163 days before our “50th” is slated to take place in the very same building). The United States had just celebrated its Bicentennial (200 years old!!) and East Greenwich would celebrate its Tercentenary (300 years old!!!) the very next year. Five years later, on September 5, 1981, we assembled at the Quonset “O” Club, barely a month after Lady Diana Spencer married Charles, Prince of Wales.
But then we lost our rhythm.
We didn’t get back together again until October 8, 2011, at the Dunes Club (thanks, Kit!), our 40th reunion delayed six weeks by Hurricane Irene. Apple’s Steve Jobs, had died three days before, four years after unveiling the iPhone.
Like the local businesses we grew up with, the faculty has moved on, too. Miss Belden, who taught English, was one of several teachers who stopped by the 40th. “I hope so-and-so shows up,” she said that night. “He was the first student to call me a bitch.” Unfortunately, she left us in 2017. And while that old football field is no more, a new one has risen, closer to the school. It boasts artificial turf, a press box above the home bleachers, and a six-lane track looping the gridiron. The Avenger logo sits in the middle of the field, named in honor of “Coach” Carcieri, who passed away in 1997. Others who have gone to that Great Faculty Lounge in the Sky include Mr. Allard, Mr. Behan, Mr. Bocchio, Mr. Brackley, Miss Byrnes, Mr. Greene, Mr. Harley, Mr. Iannazzi, Mr. Laterra, Mr. Nagel, Mr. Pinheiro, Mr. Regini, Mrs. Revkin, Mr. Roberti, Mrs. Roderick, Miss Scialo, and Mr. Wragg. These, and those teachers still with us, did their best. For sure, some of their bests were better than others’. But time’s passage has left most of us grateful for their efforts.
Alas, our classmates are passing on, too. We have lost at least 31 of them, about 16 percent. They’re believed to include Debbie Bell. Richard Bowes. Bob Brennan. Kit Brown. Jim Broz. Mike Bulawka. Nikki Champage. Francie Cliffe. Linda Corrente. Jim Fitch. Chris Hanson. Paul Henry. Judy Johnson. John Kettelle. Jim Lee. Kevin Masse. Carl Mastrianni. Brad McCuen. Gerry McGonigle. Dana McGovern. John Mournighan. Donald Perkins. John Roberti. Mary Anne Sadak. Cindy Shannon. Dennis Ucci. Steve Vander Pyl. Richard Vespia. Robert Vinal. Robert Whitmarsh. Elaine Wilson. (Kindly reach out to the author, here, with any corrections or additions.) When you flip through the Crimson yearbook, its pages beaming with young faces, there is no rhyme or reason for who remains and who has left. Each passing is a heart-wrenching reminder that “we are stardust,” as Joni Mitchell put it just before our junior year.
How we wish they could be joining us this summer.
But such losses were the furthest thing from our minds on Graduation Day. We gathered on the faculty parking lot, behind the school, at 5:30 in the late afternoon on Tuesday, June 15, 1971 (the Class of 2023’s June 4 graduation was held at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence). The Pendulum called ours a “simple and short” ceremony. “Each girl graduate was dressed in a white robe and carried a long-stemmed red rose,” the paper noted (boys wore crimson, sans blooms). Class President Tom Bouchard spoke “briefly,” and Vice President Heidi Russell presented “a yet-to-be completed mosaic” on behalf of the class (anybody seen it?).
School Committee Chairman George Blackburn handed out diplomas. Parents, told not to applaud individual graduates, obeyed. “However, students broke into cheers when Dana McGovern and Robert Brennan received their diplomas,” the paper added. “Both have been residents at the high school for some time.”
And then it was over.
“It was the coolest, most comfortable, most informal graduation ever seen at EGHS,” The Pendulum reported. We were high school graduates. Work, the military, college, marriage — life, in other words — beckoned.
(Click here for a Class of 1971 slideshow)
Although we didn’t know it at the time, we were graduating at a hinge in history. On the good side, six of the 12 humans who have ever walked on the Moon, all American, did so while we were in high school. Neil Armstrong was the first, in the summer following our sophomore year. Gene Cernan was the last, 18 months after graduation. Only four of the dozen are alive. Our fingers are crossed that there will be more, soon. For, among other reasons, for our children and grandchildren, who have never witnessed such a wonder.
On the bad side, we lived through gore — President Kennedy was killed when we were in 5th grade. We had to learn a new, and scary, word: assassination. We learned it again when his brother, Robert, and Martin Luther King met the same fate during our freshman year. Ohio National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State amid our junior year final exams. Two days before we graduated, the New York Times’ Neil Sheehan began publishing the Pentagon Papers. The documents detailed how and why the U.S. government lied its way into the Vietnam War by misleading those who elected them. And their kids. The conflict took the life of East Greenwich native Mark Mellor, 19, on May 30, 1968. That was Memorial Day, amid the deadliest year for U.S. troops in the conflict. He died just before the end of our freshman year. Mark had graduated in June, 1967, 89 days before we became Avengers. Many of us knew his mother, Ruth, as the East Greenwich school nurse who tended to our boo-boos and blahs. His father, Harold, was an East Greenwich policeman, trying to keep us in line. All tolled, 39,574 of the 58,220 U.S. troops killed in Vietnam — 68 percent — died while we were in high school.
As we gathered in the gloaming that graduation evening, President Nixon was complaining in the Oval Office at that very hour to Henry Kissinger about that Pentagon Papers leak. “Henry, there is a conspiracy,” Nixon told Kissinger at 5:13 p.m. “Neil Sheehan’s a bastard. I’ve known him for years.” Two days later, the president gave the illegal order that telegraphed the Watergate break-in exactly one year later. Nixon resigned in disgrace two years after that. Eight months later, South Vietnam collapsed. America had lost its first, but not its last, war. And its innocence.
The Class of 1971 was born, and started school, riding a wave of post-World War II confidence and swagger. But as we graduated, it began to curdle into the cynicism that has ripened into the rancid political rot enveloping us today. So our fingers are crossed again, hoping that our kids and grandkids can get this country back on track. Maybe help repay the $32 trillion, and counting, national debt we are bequeathing them (it was $398 billion when we graduated — it has grown nearly 8,000 percent since then). That $32 trillion is closing in on $100,000 for every American. Think of it as the lottery you never won, but that your children, and their children, and their children, will have to pay (“Thanks a lot, Boppie,” I can hear my grandkids telling me, once they’re old enough to realize they’ve been snookered by those charged with protecting them).
But such thoughts were the furthest things from our minds on that June evening 52 years ago. As the sun set over Frenchtown, Valedictorian Carol Boisclair and Salutatorian Evelyn Christoph read “Your Children are Not Your Children” by Kahlil Gibran.
“Life goes not backward,” it reads, “nor tarries with yesterday.”
But with all due respect, the Lebanese-American writer, who spent some of his own high school years just up the road in Boston, was only 40 when he penned that line. Those of us still here from the Class of `71 passed that milestone nearly half a lifetime ago.
We 1971 Avengers have had the luxury, and luck, of reflecting on our high school education, and the town that nurtured us. We do so with humility, amazement, and gratitude.
So, as we enter our eighth decade, we’ll damn well tarry with yesterday if we want.
With today, for sure.
And with tomorrow, for as long as we can.