Welcome Back, South Hagerstown High School!
A Mega Reunion and Celebratory Weekend Bring Members of South High’s 55 Graduating Classes Together to Reminisce and Reconnect.
by Leigh Hamrick + photos by Michael Maginnis
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When I arrive at Hager Hall half an hour early for South Hagerstown High School’s 55th anniversary party, I pride myself on being ahead of the game. But I hadn’t counted on how eager these former classmates are to see one another again. The lovely hall is already packed with people, exchanging hugs, shaking hands and catching up on gossip.
This is no ordinary get-together. It’s a weekend extravaganza that started Thursday with a golf tournament at the Beaver Creek golf course. The following night more than 100 people attended the gathering at Cancun Cantina. Tonight is the mega reunion, and by 8:30 p.m., 420 South High grads and spouses are in attendance. The class of ’61 is here for its 55th reunion, the class of ’85 is here for its 25th reunion and the class of ’69 is here to celebrate everyone’s 60th birthday. It promises to be a festive night.
Black and white yearbook pictures flicker on the enormous screen behind the podium as I walk in. “Do you have any idea how long it takes to photograph over 400 yearbook pictures by hand?” Don Viar asks me with a smile. He graduated from South High in ’68 before becoming one of its art teachers. He now works for the Washington County Board of Education. “Hours. But it’s worth it. Everyone loves looking at them and remembering.”
He’s right. I hear people around me laughing and saying, “Oh, look! Remember him? Remember her?” Many of those happy, youthful faces looking down on us from the screen, some with Farrah Fawcett hair, others with Buddy Holly glasses, are right here in the room with us.
High School Was The Social Life
For me, a 32-year old who hasn’t seen a former classmate since the moment she left high school, the camaraderie and strong school spirit evident here is as surprising as it was touching. I want to know how they’ve maintained this “American Graffiti”-type bond after so long. “High school was the best four years of my life,” says Johnny Koogle, the owner of Koogle’s Radiator in Hagerstown and a graduate of ’68. “I enjoyed every minute of it. We were just a lot closer back then; there was a closeness in the classes you don’t see today. And we’ve all stayed as close now as we were back then. South High was the top of the line!”
Sherry Itnyre, class of ’71 graduate and president of the Alumni Association, agrees. “High school was our social life back then,” she says, looking vivacious in a bright green dress. “We didn’t have to work to pay for cell phones or computers. We got to be kids. I think that’s why we’ve all remained so close, because we had the chance to grow up together. I don’t think kids now get to do that.” Suzie Gozora, ’68 graduate and the alumni association’s president-elect, takes me to see the pictures of everyone who attended the golf tournament to raise scholarship money for current graduates. I ask her about the enduring friendships in the classes and she nods, then laughs. “I was looking at my brother’s yearbook a few days ago. He graduated seven years before me. I’d written all over his yearbook — he’d probably be furious if he knew — but all of his friends were my friends, too. They came over all the time and that’s just the way I saw them: my friends.”
Sherry invites me to join her table, and I take a seat next to Betty Jones, who leans over to chitchat. “I was 26 years old when I started teaching at South High School,” Betty recalls. She started a year after South High was built in 1956 to accommodate the burgeoning number of students in Washington County. “I stayed with them from 1957 to 1988,” she says, “and I loved it.” She now volunteers at Potomac Elementary School in Montgomery County. She says she’s noticed a big difference in school now as opposed to school in her heyday. “There are police officers on the grounds and locks on the doors,” she says. “Visitors have to press a buzzer to get permission to enter the school. It wasn’t like that back then. All of the students were very respectful and the classrooms were disciplined. We weren’t afraid of anyone. The children were friends and visitors were welcomed.”
As she’s talking, a South High celebrity strolls up: Donald Zilch, one of the first, and the longest-lasting, principals. He looks tall and dapper in a lightweight suit. “Everyone keeps coming up and saying, ‘Hi, Mr. Zilch!’” he says, wearing a big grin. “They forget I graduated so many kids during my 16 years that I can’t remember them all!”
Supporting Future Generations
The South Hagerstown High Alumni Association doesn’t restrict its feelings of goodwill and friendship to past graduates. As a matter of fact, two scholarship winners are recognized tonight: Alexandra Turano and Matthew Terrence Koebel, 2011 graduates of South High. Alexandra, known as “Lexi,” plans to study neuroscience at Gettysburg College, while Matthew is enrolled in finance at University of Maryland, College Park, in preparation for law school. Each student received a $1,000 scholarship.
“People enjoy doing whatever they can to support the scholarship program,” says Suzie. “The economy may be down right now and people may be struggling financially, but you wouldn’t know it here. Even if it’s just $20, people are happy to help.” In fact, the alumni’s fund-raising, especially through the golf tournament at Beaver Creek, gathered so much support that Suzie hopes to be able to award scholarships to four South High graduates next year instead of two.
Wrapping the Night Up
After plenty of cash-prize raffle tickets are sold — another scholarship fund-raiser — and speeches are made, it’s time to have some fun. The lights dim, the dance floor opens up and Kim Carnes rasps “Betty Davis Eyes.” People are shy at first, but by the time “Run Around Sue” begins playing, couples are swinging around as vigorous and energetic as 20-year olds, and several groups of women start letting their hair down like nobody’s business. I badly want to join in but it’s past my bedtime. South Hagerstown High has certainly created partiers with more energy than me.
Mike Parrish and Stephanie Miller Stone, both ’71 graduates, see me off with a friendly goodbye at the door. “What do you say?” Mike asks Stephanie. “Is Hagerstown the best little town in America?”
“Yes, it is!” she agrees with a laugh. “I love it here!” She’s obviously not the only one.