So here we are…… 50 years post our high school……we’ve survived and emerge in tonight as senior citizens eyeing our elder years on the horizon…….. 50 years ago we witnessed the end of a prior generation’s era that was marked by the death of historical notables like Albert Schweitzer, Winston Churchill, Edward R Murrow, and, …… favorite, Trigger….he was only 25, but I guess that’s good for a horse…..and the beginning of a new generation with the birth of Charlie Sheen, Jon Cryer, Brooke Shields, Chris Rock and…….. the
Pillsbury Dough Boy “Poppin’ Fresh”……. In most ways we are no different than others who have found their way to a 50th high school reunion, but in one way that gnaws at my being and has shaped my perspective on life….. we are very different…….. Our formative years, our teens and early twenties, the time period when we came of age were the 1960’s. ……..A decade that in my opinion was like no other…..filled with change, turbulence, rift and life altering events that made our experience unique.

Let’s recount some of those realities.

  • When we were twelve the world we knew was largely static and comfortable.
  • Our one great threat was nuclear war with the Soviets;
  • the comings and goings of our society was wholly dictated by white males, their authority was uniformly accepted and everybody knew their place and lived with it;
  • space travel, with the sole exception of a Russian dog , was the stuff of fiction;
  • computers were the size of bedrooms;
  • more than 95% of the automobiles in the US were made by US car makers;
  • dancing involved physical contact;
  • In CT and MA among other states it was illegal for persons to make use of any drug, medicinal article, or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception;
  • the Republic of South Vietnam had 300 US advisors;
  • Catholic mass was in Latin as it had been for nearly 2000 years;
  • there were no McDonald’s in Massachusetts and only 100 in the US;
  • Africa was largely a continent of European colonies;
  • and there had been only four political assassinations in US history and 2 since 1900, McKinley and Huey Long.

In the space of 10 years………. while we grew of age……… our world was transformed. There was nothing subtle about the changes or the pace of the changes……many of the events at the heart of these changes were broadcast into our lives by television for us to witness first hand…..and interpret for ourselves……..many of these images are still vivid in our memories

  • By the early 70’s the threat of nuclear war was reduced by signing of nuclear arms treaties, but not before we experienced the emotional traumas of the erection of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile crisis…….. sitting in our high school classrooms…….. waiting potentially for the beginning of a third world war.
  • By mid-decade we had watched while the injustices and unfettered prejudices of the Jim Crow south were exposed to the entire nation and ultimately subdued by the enforcement powers of the federal government and outlawed by the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
  • The Civil Rights Act also legitimized the causes of women in our country and opened the doors to a level of equality that was previously non-existent. Notably, in 1968 Yale elected to admit women to the undergraduate college…..
  • The civil rights actions we observed on TV taught us that mindless, unjust authority was wrong and that protest in favor of more righteous positions was not only a right, but a responsibility. It had many faces and causes throughout the decade including minor ones like dress codes and dorm hours and most importantly monumental ones like the draft, and Vietnam. The emergence of peaceful protest as a powerful tool of change was a characteristic of this decade.

Goodbye, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon……..hello to Neil Armstrong………. In July 1969 Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module onto the surface of the moon. It had taken mankind 8 short years to go from the first man in space to the moon. And we sat in our living rooms that summer evening and watched it happen.

  • By the end of the decade, the Texas Instruments had received a US patent for a handheld calculator….…..a computer that fit in your pocket…….  In spring 1969 I used a slide rule for the last time in my life on a college physics exam.
  • The fraction of US auto sales by foreign car makers had quadrupled to 17%.....”made in Japan” was no longer the joke I recall from my youth.
  • The Twist introduced us to dancing without physical contact……thank God there we’re some slow songs.
  • In 1965 the Supreme Court ruled that the laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut banning the use of contraceptive devices and medicines were unconstitutional. The first birth control pills came to market in 1961, condoms came out from behind the counter in pharmacies, and the sexual revolution began.
  • By 1968 there were almost 600,000 US military troops and advisors in South Vietnam, more than 50,000 Americans had died and we were still seven years way from our final inglorious exit in 1975.
  • I was an altar boy and painfully struggled through the Latin responses that were a part of the Catholic mass until 1963…….and then one Sunday  morning it was all in English and I could eat meat on Friday.
  • The first McDonald’s opened in Massachusetts in 1960. We drove to Reading to find one in high school. By the end of the decade they and their  fast food competitors were everywhere. There were 1500 of them in the US………1400 of them opened during the sixties……… a rate of three a week.
  • The map of Africa I learned in eighth grade with places like the Belgian Congo, Dahomey, and French West Africa had disappeared. In its place  were Chad, Niger, Zambia, and other nations whose names and locations I have never learned.
  • And finally we all sat in class in November 1963 and were told that Jack Kennedy had been assassinated, we watched Walter Cronkite cry, and JFK, Jr, salute his father’s casket as it rolled by his somber family and thousands of tearful onlookers in Washington………. ..
  • In 1968,…….. just when those painful images were beginning to heal,……… we lost Martin Luther King, the courageous champion of racial justice in April and then…….. less than 3 months later, our hope for a new beginning…….. Robert Kennedy….. was shot in Los Angeles. Those two tragic  and senseless assassinations caused us to lose our collective way and we burned and rioted our way through the following summer…….that fall we elected the law and order candidate our next President, Richard Nixon.

In the 1950’s there was a TV show featuring Walter Cronkite that took us behind the scenes at major historical events. It was titled “You Are There!” Thinking about the 1960’s I can imagine him saying as he always did at the conclusion of the program, What sort of a day was it?A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times…….all things are as they were, except YOU ARE THERE!........ yeah, we were there and the experiences have influenced us for all time

Class President Tom Kennedy's Speech at the 50th Reunion