Downey High alumni reminisce at reunion

DOWNEY - In planning for a combined reunion of mainly 1940s-'50s Downey High School alumni for June 15, none of its chief organizers ever imagined a sizable number would be interested in the proposal, much less turn up for the event. But as contacted alumni residing in such far-flung places as Virginia, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico and Tulare, signified their keen openness to the idea and, after a couple of e-mail exchanges back and forth confirmed their intention to attend, it became clear that this wasn't going to be the usual backslapping, regular-type reunion, featuring time-consuming speeches and the conferring of recognitions and the like. So they had to plan accordingly.

The committee could only commit to a total of 262 attendees, and 32 people had to be turned away, because of the limited capacity of the Rio Hondo Event Center, said Jeannette Kemp, a '50 alumna and one of the reunion's three organizers. A resident of Indio, she said the organizing committee was not really surprised at the gratifying response since "People do love reunions" even though the committee promised "no frills but only a sit-down chance to talk to one another."

She told the alumni: "The whole premise was simply for everybody to have a good time. You accepted this idea, and while some people helped us [organizing committee] with all this preparation, it was you who did this because you called each other up."

And indeed when June 15 finally rolled around last week, everybody seemed very relaxed and at ease with the informal and natural way the gathering unfolded, and everybody most definitely seemed to have a jolly good time of it.

The alumni were grouped according to the year of their graduation. The classes with the biggest representation were the classes of '50 and '51, who occupied several tables, with a smattering of '41, '43-'46 graduates all lumped together in one table. The classes of '47, '48, '49, '52, '54, and '55, also had a relatively substantial presence, with the '56-'59 graduates sharing a table with other adjoining alumni.

The Downey Historical Society's Bob Thompson, class of '59, provided an extra touch to the proceedings: among his contributions was a mounted pictorial display of '50s Downey; a few class and individual photos; individual postcard-pictures of Downey's past, including a 1930 photograph of Charles and Anne Lindbergh as they were about to board their new Lockheed Sirius for an eventual record-setting transcontinental flight, as well as its designer Jerry Vultee-which Thompson said was there for the taking.

Emceeing was Charles Carpenter, another of the organizers and '50 senior class president, who said it was inevitable to see fellow alumni "go in different directions" and it was nice to "see you back so we can talk about old times." He then introduced 95-year old Catherine Corkum Eckstrom, class of '35 and a resident of Balboa Island, who was in her wheelchair; it was learned that she earlier wrote to the committee that "I really want to come."

Two '38 graduates also in their nineties were present as well: when asked to narrate the highlight of her high school experience as a cheerleader, (still) Downey resident Jane Terrel Bessent said, "I can't remember"; the other was Ruth Lang Bonham of Simi Valley.

Alfonso Cabrera, class of '41 or '42 and now residing in Compton, was popular among the alumni: they apparently knew or heard about his exploits as a high school track and field standout as well as his stories about his role in WWII. He said he could not in conscience talk about himself at length and wanted to defer to the other speakers.

Rev. Bill Hansen, class of '46, who gave an eloquent invocation, said he's the retired pastor of Hollywood Presbyterian, and still volunteers there for one of the church's pet projects. He said driving down Firestone Boulevard "brought back a lot of memories."

Guest speaker Tom Houts, current Downey High principal, wowed the former (and older) students with his mention of the 964-member graduating class this year, when the graduating seniors of yesteryear barely approached 50; the number of graduates getting acceptance letters from prestigious colleges and universities such as Cornell and others; and the great variety of courses and programs now available to students. He assured them, "The kids [here today] are great, and Downey High is a great, great school," to loud applause.

Addressing future alumni, Houts suggested it will mean a tremendous amount to their teachers if their former students were to let them know how they're doing after leaving Downey High. Speaking prior to Houts, Lisa Guerrero, ASB president and about to graduate, didn't need to say much about the school's current 4,000-student population, and held up a copy of this year's practically coffee table-sized Downey High yearbook and said it costs $100 apiece, as compared to the older versions.

Updating the gathered alumni further, the other scheduled student speaker, David Saenz, who's this year's senior class president and also due to graduate, noted Downey High has a farm on campus and that his senior class has also fashioned and secured a time capsule containing 2012 items of interest and artifacts that won't be opened until 50 or 100 years into the future.

This reporter came upon a time capsule of sorts when he flipped the pages of a thin 1952 yearbook laid out on a table alongside some other denser-looking yearbooks representing different years. This was what he read: 1952 median family income -- $3,890; price of a gallon of gas -- 27 cents; loaf of bread -- 19 cents; postage stamp -- 3 cents; minimum wage -- 75 cents.

In looking at future reunions, Kemp said they don't have to be regular, cyclical, 10-year or 25-year affairs: "It could be held any time." If the classes from the '40s and '50s really love reunions, they know the numbers to call, or send their e-mails to, next time.

********** Published: June 21, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 10