My high-school class recently held its 70th and final annual reunion. And I could see in my classmates, the 1951 graduates of Bellingham High, the remarkable changes in America in the decades since we were young. I could see how despite those changes, we held to the best values and outlooks of our growing-up years.
There were 375 in our graduating class in northwestern Washington state. About a third are still alive, beating life-expectancy odds, and around 40 of us, now in our late 80s, managed to attend the reunion. Distance or health kept others away.
The first reunion I attended was our 40th in 1991. It was a several-day event highlighted by a dinner. The men all wore suits and ties, the women their best dresses, and a formal class portrait completed the dinner. Our 2021 reunion consisted of only a luncheon. Everyone wore casual clothing. No professional photographer had been hired, but classmates with cameras and cellphones lined us up and took group photos nonetheless.
All of us had been vaccinated, which didn’t seem strange. During our childhoods, we had received multiple vaccines for dangerous illnesses. Vaccination teams came to our grade schools. No parental approval was required. It was just accepted as something to protect ourselves and others. Those were days when group solidarity seemed vital. Since we were born in the early Depression, our school years extended from World War II to the Korean War. All able-bodied men did military service. Several in our class became combat heroes in Korea. My own service was stateside, and no one fired a shot at me. A number of women in the class were pathfinders, entering professions. About 1 in 6 entered college right after high school, and others got degrees later.
While we were growing up, Bellingham was a blue-collar smokestack place. There were sawmills, pulp mills and paper mills. A huge fish cannery, a coal mine, shipyards, a cement plant. Just north of the city were two oil refineries and an aluminum smelter. Now Bellingham is a city of education, healthcare and services. It had a population of 30,000 when we grew up, and is now more than 90,000, with three high schools rather than our one. The Ku Klux Klan had been active once, and there was discrimination against Asian workers. But all that was replaced during our lifetimes by general tolerance and openness.
There was talk at the luncheon of welcoming an expected influx of Afghan refugees. The country was seeing hard times now, we agreed, but we had endured far worse and things worked out. No cause for panic.
After the photo-taking I talked with classmates and then began to leave. But as I looked back into the dining room, I saw that no one else was leaving yet. They clustered together for this last contact. Most of us will never see one another again but, I thought, these were good and valuable people—the kind badly needed now during our country’s illness of spirit.
Mr. Van Dyk was active in Democratic national policy and politics for 40 years. He is author of “Heroes, Hacks and Fools.”
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Appeared in the September 15, 2021, print edition.