by Ken Root
Last weekend, I went home to Luther, Oklahoma, to attend an all school reunion on the forty-ninth anniversary of my graduation in 1967. I spent the first eighteen years of my life on the family farm a couple of miles outside this little town. The community was already changing from a farming town to a bedroom community for Oklahoma City but we didn’t know it. My parents lived very conservatively and every penny mattered. Although Oren and Marie argued every day, they agreed that their children should get an education. Hence, I faced great expectations from them each time a report card was sent for their signature. I only made a “B” twice in grade school. The subjects were penmanship and art, which should tell you something about my dexterity and visual skills.
The heat was on in high school as I was expected to attend college so my focus was on school and work that would put money in a savings account. I worked every summer and all year when I was a senior. We also had a small herd of registered Hereford cattle that were to be sold off as needed for college. Other than trying to play sports and destroying my right knee, I had no other focus besides school and work.
Looking back at this eighteen year beginning of my life, I really never raised my head up and looked around until I graduated and moved to Oklahoma State University. At that point, I felt like I was free from stern teachers, conservative parents and hard work. I have to say that too much freedom, too fast was a bad thing for me. Social life took away from studies and spending more money than necessary took away from assurance I would make it to graduation.
As we gathered on Main Street on a beautiful Saturday in May, I saw the one block long town with some pleasure and some sadness. My first memory of the street was on a Saturday afternoon in the mid 1950’s, when old farmers lined it from one end to the other. They talked about crops and kids as they waited for the weekly merchant drawing for twenty dollars. Now the buildings are either missing or repurposed. The town hasn’t died, it has just shifted to individual stores on the other road that goes through town with the school district expanding and new buildings dominating the landscape.
Mid-afternoon we found our way to the new high school and noticed the football field had been named after one of my friends who served as coach, principal and superintendent for his career. I tried to put him into the same perspective as Mr. Cox, the superintendent for thirty-eight years during the era when my family attended the school. I remembered too much about him to allow that ascension…yet. That may have also been the situation as another of my high school heroes introduced me as the evening speaker. I looked out at faces I remembered from early grade school years, now much more the faces of their parents. I realized I had known them for only one fourth of their lifetime. I had little idea of their careers, families or passions in life.
As much as I wanted to be me, I felt like Oren and Marie’s youngest child. I felt apologetic that I had left as soon as I could do so. I wished I could have remained entwined with the lives of my classmates rather than thinning the cords of friendship by a thousand miles. The hardest part was realizing the number of classmates who are no longer living.
We were youth of the Vietnam era when the military was waiting for any young man who could not avoid the draft. Two classmates died in combat just a couple of years after we graduated. I had a very hard time with the war and their death’s and the bad memories came flooding back. Others had died in car accidents, misadventures, cancer and other health problems. Seven out of twenty-four are gone.
I didn’t want to talk about myself so I focused on the educational experience we shared so many years ago. There were many people older than me in the audience of three hundred and a smattering of young graduates right up to this year. All I could say was what my father professed: “Education is the great equalizer.” When I started school, I was not equal but each year I showed more promise and each teacher accepted the responsibility to bring me and my class to a higher level of competency. I complimented the men and women who served in the school from cooks to administrators. Each made a positive impact on our lives, for which I am grateful. I thought about walking through the audience and bringing up a good memory of each person, their deceased parents or spouse. I also thought of telling several to give twenty dollars to the alumni association or I was going to embarrass them! I did neither.
In my final comments that evening, I saluted those who stayed in our home town. Remaining in the home village is often viewed as a negative by society. We have such room to roam in this country and there is no taboo on relocating to a new city or state. Those who stayed took their parents places as community leaders and the names of several are on building plaques showing their service to the school board or other administration. I was pleased to see two more generations of some families that evening. A young man introduced himself to me and I asked him to identify his family. He named his grandfather who was my vocational agriculture teacher and the man who encouraged me to get a degree in the same field.
My speech didn’t move anyone very much but I didn’t intend to profess any accomplishment other than graduating and going forth into the world, raising a family and having a career in communications. Most of all, I wanted them to know I was pleased to reacquaint myself with them, talk about shared experiences of early life but also bridging to the present and expressing hope for the future.
My home town is supposed to get a new superhighway through it in the next few years. That could make it more attractive for housing and the school district seems ready to handle whomever moves that way. I expect I will observe change each time I go home. I hope I will also see these great friends at reunions for years to come.