At age 91, Jack Kelley and Verla (Thompson) Tomlinson are still presiding over the Pendleton High School class of 1945.
The pair of nonagenarians kept up a lively presence at the class’ 73rd reunion, held Friday evening at the Eagle’s Club. The cohort, once 114 strong, now has 38 living members. They met every five years for a while, but of late, have come together annually.
“We figure we better do it every year,” Tomlinson said.
“We’re all our 90s,” Kelley said.
Their sophomore and junior years, the class elected Kelley and Tomlinson as president and secretary. The pair presided over the entire student body their senior year. Now, they organize class reunions together.
“We’re still co-chairing the these reunions,” Kelley said. “It’s a natural.”
“And no one else wanted the job,” Tomlinson said, with a laugh.
Members of the class and their spouses chatted over dinner, meshing high school memories with tales of recent adventure and the latest on the grandchildren (and great-grandchildren). Six name tags sat unclaimed at the registration table. All had sent regrets, citing health reasons for not attending. The action in the lodge was low-key, lacking the high-octane activities of earlier reunions.
“We’re all in our 90s, so we don’t do a lot of dancing and whooping it up,” Tomlinson said.
The class attended high school, located in what is now the John Murray Building, in a time that was both simple and so complex. In an era devoid of computers, cell phones and social media, teachers stood in front of a blackboard with a piece of chalk.
For Esther Richards, Pendleton as she remembers it is a recollection from years passed. She moved to Portland 50 years ago with her husband and thought she would always come back home, but by the time she retired her husband had passed away and she had the comfort of family on the west side of the state.
Richards’ Pendleton was “very small, with no traffic lights and fewer cars.” Yet similar to the town today, Main Street was a popular locale, and had stores with soda fountains where she could buy a Coke for a nickel, she said.
On weekends, the teens attended movies at three movie theaters or attended dances at grange halls. Most worked part-time jobs. Kelley played trumpet at dances. Tomlinson worked as a soda jerk at the drug store and on the line at the pea factory. Classmates drove trucks during wheat harvest. After school, Kelley played football, ran track and played in the high school band. Tomlinson played volleyball and tennis and acted in school plays.
Though the class was the last class of the World War II era, the first member to die wasn’t a soldier, Kelley said. Classmate Jake Gorfickele (and his wife) died at age 19 or 20 in a car accident. Kelley dubbed his class “The Survivors.”
“We survived the Depression of the ’30s, the Second World War and all the subsequent wars,” he said.
The experience of the class was shaped by World War II. During the war, the American government implemented rations on various commodities, including gasoline. Richards remembers that the school didn’t have out-of-town games because no one had gas. And she recalled metal and scrap paper drives with competitions between different grades.
Richards said she “distinctly remembers” the moment she heard about World War II breaking out in America. She had gone to see a movie at the Rivoli theatre and was walking out into the street.
“And there were paper boys in the street yelling, ‘Extra, extra! Pearl Harbor bombed by the Japanese,’ It was Dec. 7, 1941,” she said.
Many people didn’t get to formally graduate because they entered the service, she said.
Henry Downing was one of those people.
“My mother picked up my diploma,” he said. Downing enlisted in the Navy and was later recruited to the Marine Corps. He got called for service in November of 1944 and spent about four of five months in Guam and another nine months as a dental assistant in China. Because the war ended in 1945, there weren’t many people in the class who served on the front lines.
Tomlinson lost one of her brothers in the war. His remains, identified only recently, were buried in Pendleton’s Olney Cemetery in 2013.
Kelley and Tomlinson never dated. Good friends, they lived a block apart and often sat on one or the other’s front porch and talked about life. As an adult, Kelley owned a Pendleton music store and Tomlinson raised five children with her husband, Ray.
One renowned classmate was contemporary sculptor Kenneth Snelson, who used wires and tubes to create towers and arcs. He died in New York City in 2016. Rudy Enbysk became Pendleton’s mayor. The longest-working member is Albert Thews, a California attorney who retired last year at the age of 90.
In 1990, some class members started meeting for lunch monthly in Pendleton. Tomlinson still drives from Spokane and Kelley from Walla Walla.
Next year’s class reunion is already on the graduates’ minds.
“We wouldn’t miss it,” Tomlinson said. “Our friendships have kept us young.”