Hughess 50th High School Reunion
Ojai, California
October 6, 2007


        To any classmate who might read this, let me say right up front that I don’t believe I have much credibility as a class or community historian. I’ve never been to a previous reunion, and I don’t have a sense of continuity nor a grasp of class/community history that others own. I left Ojai in 1958 after a year at Ventura JC to continue college in Ohio and then moved on to Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and now Colorado, and I havent been back to town except for one brief visit. I have never kept in touch with any of  you, which I regret, especially after meeting you again and learning your rich life stories. I feel more of an outsider than many others who attended. All I can do is look back with my memories and find new meanings comparing the past with the present.


Downtown OJai        For those who are unfamiliar with the southern California landscape, Nordhoff Union High School is in Ojai, a small picture postcard town nestled comfortably in a southern California valley about two hours north of Los Angeles and 20 miles from Ventura’s Pacific Coast. It is still home to orange groves, artists and eccentrics, Theosophists and free thinkers, and about 8,500 folks who believe there is not a better place on this planet to live.

       The the town was incorporated as Nordhoff in the 1870s, named for noted writer Charles Nordhoff of Mutiny on the Bounty fame and a prominent booster of southern California’s weather and life style. The high school was named after the town. However, during WW I the town was summarily renamed Ojai, a Chumash word that probably means moon, though local lore has it that it means nest.  The name change was accomplished either through the efforts of a local businessman, or an edict by then Senator James D. Phelan, or because of prevalent anti-German sentiment—or all three. In any case, the high school retained the name Nordhoff. Edward Drummond Libbey, who made his fortune in glass in Toledo, Ohio, fell in love with the Ojai Valley in the 1920s and gave his vision (and money) to the town’s development. He was responsible for the trademark arcade, post office, the city park that bears his name, and much more. For a complete history of Ojai, I recommend The Ojai Valley: An Illustrated History by Patricia L. Fry (Matilija Press, 1983), or David Mason’s shorter but interesting “About Ojai.

        My family moved to Ojai from Santa Paula in 1951 and I started junior high on the same campus as the high school. I never knew why my folks chose Ojai, but I was always grateful. My father still had to drive to work in Ventura and Los Angeles, just as he did from Santa Paula. Maybe my folks saw opportunities in Ojai that my sisters and I didn’t see. It was, however, a place we came to appreciate. I still call it home, though I was born elsewhere and lived in Ojai only seven years.

        During my years at Nordhoff, I listened to Mr. Polski read Ernie Pyle during 7th grade math and Mr. Owens read Chaucer in the original. I diagrammed countless complex sentences assigned by Miss Harris and translated Caesar’s  Ga(u)llic Wars for Mr. Neal. I concocted “touch paper” in Mr. Thompson’s chemistry lab that exploded the following period in English. It gave Ruth Simmons quite a start sitting next to me, to say nothing of Miss Harris.
The Cherries
        I played some sport year almost year round. I was never a star, but I managed to make the teams. I did have two memorable sports moments I cherish: I scored all 14 points in a JV football game (two TDs and two PATs, thanks to Bill Williams’ passing), and I hit a grand slam home run (probably with help from some careless play in the opposing team’s outfield) against arch rival Villanova. I played a lot of handball at noon hour with Bobby Cordero, Dick Kerr, and Del Garst, who were really good; I shot pool with John Krabiel on many Sunday afternoons; and I played badminton well enough to win intramural medals and later teach it in college.

        I cried over Darla’s grave in Our Town, the senior play, edited the high school newspaper, and helped Cynthia Quam get the yearbook right. I played in the all-county band three years on trombone, tuba, and baritone, and I sang with “The Cherries” at school assemblies and dances. I had a car, went steady with two terrific girls, and lost my class ring at a summer institute at Northwestern University. I still don't know what happened to my letterman’s sweater. I was elected Vice-President of the Santa Barbara-Ventura Interscholastic Council (SBVIC) my senior year and drove to meetings with Shirley Abbey, who was elected Secretary. After school, I wrote high school sports for The Ojai (the town paper) and for the Los Angeles Examiner, and I cleaned swimming pools at two motels in town.

        I didn’t graduate with many “life skills,” nor do I remember worrying about it. I wasn’t particularly well prepared for college—let alone life. I hadn’t learn to write well (though I could diagram Faulknerian prose with the best of them) or read critically until I got to college, where I also learned to love history. I avoided the sciences in spite of four successful years of math and two sciences, and I can’t speak a foreign language fluently. Hughes

        I did develop an interest in music and sufficient skills so that for many years I sang with the Toledo Symphony Chorale. I still play trombone in a brass band on the 4th of July, and I perform with a local Celtic bluegrass group on guitar and pennywhistle. I even soloed on the bagpipes for our 40th wedding anniversary party. Mr. Kaiser must take credit for some of that. Performing in school plays probably prepared me for 20 years as a professional storyteller, though that would come much later.

        Like most of the class of 1957, I found high school, for the most part, great fun. I actually looked forward to going each day. Yes, I had class obligations and homework, but they came with the package. Sitting next to Freida Lee didn’t hurt either. Having a good time at school (and outside) must have been part of the ethic of the 1950s. When I left Ojai, I encountered a different, more serious, challenging world for which I had little experience and few skills. Graduation from high school was, as the cliché goes, a commencement, a beginning. It was certainly not a culmination. For me it was a starting point. I had to get on with life and I felt quite ill prepared.

        What I did have throughout high school, though it has taken me a long time to realize the truth of it, was a circle of friends who supported, encouraged, protected, cheered, and criticized each other every day. Many of our teachers were, in their ways, part of that circle, though we would never confess it. Perhaps the same was true for the community as a whole (“the village”), though I was never aware of it.

        These were the thoughts and recollections that made my 50th reunion something I looked forward to. If I had reservations about attending a reunion—and I did—it was because I believed that meeting my past would spoil my memories.

        I should not have worried.


        Judy and I planned an extensive road trip to Ojai in our RV, camping through the northern Rockies and down the Pacific coast. We had a great visit with my sister and her family in Spokane. Along the way, Cynthia emailed an invitation to visit her on our way to Ojai. She knew we would be coming close to Mountain View where she lives and we thought the visit would give us a good deal of time to get reacquainted after 50 years. We said we’d love to, and we arrived the weekend before the reunion.
Hughes and Cynthia
        Cynthia was the perfect hostess. She and Judy warmed to each other right away, she loved Sophie and Bella, and she immediately made us feel right at home. Remember, this was after half a century had passed since we had seen or talked with each other! She had some plans, yet waited to see what we might like to do.

        She invited Darla (Grainger) Belshe to have dinner with us and the four of us talked for hours, or at least until Darla felt she should make the return trip over the mountains to her home in Santa Cruz. It was a wonderful evening. We never had the luxury again of the time and quiet atmosphere to learn about our lives since high school. (Reunion parties and dinners tend to be louder than old folks’ ears can stand, and conversations often don’t have the chance to develop in depth.)

        I was delighted and relieved that both Cynthia and Darla had changed very little since high school. Not only would I recognize them at any time, anywhere, but their personalities seem to have remained pretty much the same. Maybe I haven’t changed all that much either.    

        The next day we walked through the Stanford campus and, later, we met her granddaughter, Haleigh, who took a liking to the dogs also. Cynthia also let us get a head start on reading the booklet of reunion biographies, which Darla compiled and Cynthia had printed to take to Ojai. It was fascinating reading and a great help to me to catch up on 50 years in a hurry.

         The list of names on the first page of the 24 classmates who had died before the reunion was sobering. I didn’t know most of them had passed away, nor did I know why or when. I felt way out of the loop. Some, I knew, had died during high school, some shortly after graduation, some just in the past year. Some were killed, others were victims of disease or accidents. All were tragedies. All too soon. Too soon.
Cynthia and Judy
        Each of the 68 biographies showed the rich variety of lives that each of us had made for ourselves:
        Some of my classmates have become nationally prominent, like Academy Award winner Freida (Lee) Sanders, or Bill Rambo, whose life was almost cut down by an airplane propeller but survived to become an award-winning USGS geophysicist.

        Many of my classmates—too many—spoke of dealing with divorce(s) or the death of a spouse, or other family tragedy. Yet each went on with their lives, finding strength and meaning in their children and grandchildren. Some hinted at disappointments, lives that had not turned out not as they might have chosen, yet they are still content because of family, friends, car, career, good health, faith.
     Most of the class spoke of successful careers (a few are even still working!), attachment to their children and grandchildren, and the pleasures of retirement.

        Some biographies were short—simple, all too brief statements devoid of elaboration or detail, leaving me to wonder what the realities of their lives really were, yet respecting the implied privacy.

        Some classmates sent biographies but could not attend. I missed reconnecting with several friends I had been looking forward to spending time with. I have their addresses and emails and will plan to talk/write/meet them in the future.

        I was glad to have had a chance to learn the backgrounds of the folks I’d be meeting in a few days for the first time in half a century.


Ojai House
       Back in August I had called Ruthie Simmons Jones when she was working the front desk at the Hummingbird Inn to see if we could park our RV in their parking lot during the reunion. I tried not to let on who I was, but she had me pegged within five seconds. It was a pleasure to talk with her, even for a short time. She said we would be welcome to park there and that she would work it out with the owner/manager. However, Ruthie went in for back surgery in September and while she was recovering, new owners took over the motel. At the last minute, they didn’t think an RV in their parking lot would be a good idea. Cynthia came to our rescue by putting us in touch with classmate Sharron Reitzel Fletcher and her husband, Charles. Sharron knew the owner of the Woolsey House B&B and she and Charles were planning to park their RV on the property. She put in a kind word with Anna, the owner, and we were invited to park at the beautiful historic Woolsey House for the four days we would be in town. Water and electric hook-ups could be arranged, and please feel free to use the swimming pool. No, dogs are not a problem. What generosity! Thank you so much, Sharron and Anna, for your help in getting us out of a good-sized hole. You have no idea how good that made us feel.

       When Judy and I go RVing we don’t tow a car, but we always travel with bicycles. Ojai is a perfect size to get around town on bikes and see most everything. We easily found my old house on Mallory Way across from the Masonic Hall that’s now an apartment building or very large house. My grandparents built their retirement home just two doors north of our house in the early 50s. Both have been remodeled and look much nicer than I remember. The motel at the end of the street where I worked as a pool cleaner evolved into apartments and the swimming pool has been filled in. Bart’s Books still flourishes a couple of blocks away, and the tiny cottages behind our house where Miss Harris and Mr. Neal lived (separately, of course) are even smaller than I remember them—hardly bigger than a suite at a Fairfield Inn. We couldn’t find the house my dad built for my aunt and uncle. It was, I think, on Aliso Street, but the area’s changed too much to be sure.
Ojai's Arcade
       In the heart of town is Edward Libbey’s arcade that houses a variety of wonderful shops, including classmate David Mason’s Village Florist which he’s owned for over 40 years. We did what visitors to town have done for years: we shopped the arcade stores in shady comfort for art, for gifts, for whatever turned our heads. Just walking through the arcade is a pleasure. Edward Libbey got it right nearly a hundred years ago.

       We discovered the running/bike path that connects Ojai with Ventura. What a marvelous addition to the valley! Judy took her morning runs along it and I rode my bike at the same time. I also rode down to Camp Comfort, which always seemed miles from town. It’s quite modern and paved over from what it was 50 years ago—and not as far from town as I had remembered. In fact, town seems to have shrunk to a much more manageable size than my teenage memory permits. The one thing that has grown is the Country Club where I waited tables 50 years ago. It has expanded the number of buildings and its facilities, but the golf course remains a thing of beauty.

       We rode to the old high school building that now has “Matilija School” in bright letters next to the entrance. There are new buildings of course, but gone is Jack Polski’s math classroom with the tall windows in the back that opened onto a porch that Ronnie Holloway and I might use as an escape route while Ernie was reporting on WW II. Sadly, the handball courts that served many of us so well for so many years are gone. What do the kids do now with their lunch hours I wonder? Do they even have lunch hours anymore?

       One afternoon, Cynthia picked us up for a tour of the east end of the valley, the scenic part where orange groves and avocados still flourish, where interesting eclectic houses are tucked hidden away down secluded roads, where we used to drag race, and where the Thacher School is no longer “for boys” but remains an excellent boarding prep school that has gone co-ed. The highlight of our tour was a visit to Meditation Mount that overlooks the valley. It was built in 1971, thirteen years after I left. There are several buildings for classes or group meditation with wonderful views. The outdoor park has a serene atmosphere for just being quiet, meditating, or, as demonstrated by a couple who got there before we did, a good place for some gentle necking. On the way back, Cynthia drove pretty fast over the treacherous dip in Grand Avenue. That brought back memories!
       The Hummingbird Inn is conveniently located across from Soule Park Golf Course Clubhouse where the reunion would be held. Every day we would ride toward town in the morning and stop in at the Hummingbird for impromptu reunions with those who were staying there. We were having a mini-reunion with two non-Nordhoff couples who stayed there, along with several other members of the class of ’57, so it was a logical place to find out what was happening that day.

        Since The Cherries were scheduled to perform at the reunion, the six of us agreed it would be prudent to have at least one rehearsal (left to right: me, Bobby Baron, Bill Williams who threw the passes, Don Zogg, Paul Downey who was originally our accompanist, and Nelson Russell). Bobby had sent each of us during the summer a CD of what we would perform and he showed up with commemorative T-shirts, a sound system complete with karaoke music tracks, his sock over the microphone, and lyrics flashing on a small TV screen. No need for live music—just follow the bouncing ball. Sounds easy enough. Our first rehearsal was devoted to setting up the sound system and then, after a run through of the songs, we discovered that a second rehearsal would be mandatory. Rehearsals improved from one to the next, yet we were not sure we would be ready. If we had taken ourselves seriously, our mood would have been desperate. Since we were practicing the 1950s ethic of “Have a good time,” getting together like that was great fun. If the ultimate performance was not quite up to our 1957 standards when girls swooned and the other guys listened enviously, well…we had a good time. And I’m told, by a modestly partisan informer, most of the audience did too.


       The day before the reunion, Bobby (seen here with classmate David Mason) hosted a pre-reunion cocktail party at what used to be a biker’s roadhouse (or something like that) west of town. But Bodee’s in the past 50 years has gone upscale and the setting was genteel enough for late afternoon cocktails and cabernets.

        While not everyone came, those who did had an extra two or three hours to talk with old friends and catch up on grandkids, careers, trips, health problems, retirement issues, long term health insurance, and other things that old people talk about when they get together. There was even some “Do you remember the time…?” conversations, but not as many as I would have thought. The focus was more on getting reacquainted with each other. It was noisy and it was crowded; people laughed a lot, no one left early, and there were no fights or arguments, and no one got very drunk. There was a good deal of bragging, the truth was stretched a little here and there, and I saw lots of hugging and back slapping. All in all, it was a really fine party. It set the tone for the main event the next night. You did good, Bobby. I’m glad we came early.

Reunion MCs
       Soule Golf Course is a fine public course that was built sometime in the past 50 years. I wasn’t around when it was developed. I only remember a lot of empty space on the east side of town. The clubhouse had a room that was just right for the 100+ alumni and their spouses.
       Nelson, who was student body president in 1957, and senior class president Jerry Todd were masters of ceremonies. Nelson had some jokes prepared and Jerry offered a few appreciative remarks about those who had planned the reunion. Evidently there were some who felt more should be said and more individuals to be recognized, which led to unscheduled speakers taking the mike from them and rounding out the presentations. Ruthie and Cynthia engaged in a friendly but determined game of tug of war for the microphone.

        In addition to printing the written biographies, the planning committee wisely decided to make buttons for each of us to wear that had our name in large print and our senior class picture. Not only did the buttons help when we all got together, but I found them helpful when I got home and tried to identify faces that were not immediately recognizable. I looked in the photos at the button the person was wearing and could read the more familiar face from 50 years ago.

 Bill Williams      A highlight of the evening for me was Bill Williams reading his poetry, rich in imagery and references to our lives in the 1950s, and dedicated to classmates who had died. His words evoked strong emotions that brought us all to our feet. Maybe even Mr. Owens stood up and joined in the standing ovation Bill received.  His words managed to touch the hearts of each of us who listened:

“I don’t mean to be maudlin just facing the truth
 57s ain’t gettin’ less long in the tooth.
Some of us here may never meet again,
Let’s cherish this evening and enjoy fond friends.”

       While I don’t remember Bill as an aspiring writer—his biography points to military service, a close brush with professional prizefighting, sales, and driving a cab—I’ve long ceased to be surprised that anyone from any background has within him or her ideas, images, and feelings that can be best expressed through poetry. No formal training is necessary, no degree required, only a passion for self-expression. Bill certainly has that passion and he bowled over all of us that evening. I glad I had a chance before we left to tell him how impressed I was with what he had written—and with his passing in that JV football game I remember so well.

       Mr. Owens and Mr. Kaiser, two of our teachers were introduced and each had a chance to say whatever was on their minds. They chose not to chastise us one last time for being “Yahoos” (Mr. Owens’ frequently used literary allusion to slow witted people Gulliver met in his travels). Instead, both were gracious and spoke of their lives since retirement. Mr. Owens took the opportunity to offer a verse of his own—something to do with an outhouse in Alaska?The Cherries

       The dinner buffet took longer to set up than expected and Nelson had the unenviable task of stretching his jokes and patter longer than he’d anticipated. But about the time he seemed to run dry, we were called for dinner.

       After dinner The Cherries performed seven songs that were hits of the 1950s, ones we might have performed during our senior year. We started with Little Darlin’, our signature song from 1957. Apparently our classmates remembered and tossed panties and bras at us before we were even half finished. Just part of the show: all articles were clean, some had been ironed. Bobby took the lead on Why do Fools Fall in Love? and Tears on My Pillow, Bill did a Hughes and Darlaclassic impression of the Big Bopper’s Chantilly Lace, Nelson carried the load (and the tune) with Sea Cruise, and Paul finished off the set with Great Pretender and Unchained Melody solo while I backed up on the piano. Somewhere during the performance, Mr. Kaiser wandered up from his seat nearby to complain about something—his hearing aid, I believe.

        The photo of us in T-shirts above is the only image I have of the entire group on stage that evening—and it’s not very satisfactory. If anyone has a better photo of the group on stage, I’d love to get it from you. Write or email and I’ll substitute it for the one above.

       Our performance closed the evening. It was all over too soon. Some last minute conversations and the hall cleared. The chance for a whole class picture vanished, a photo op we’ll never have again. No one thought to get The Cherries together for one last formal group photo, just in case we would need one for an album cover. Several of us have sent our pictures to Cynthia, who is hosting a free photo site where nearly 200 snaps are available for downloading and making prints. I’d guess everyone who was there is included in at least two or three photos. I’m sure more can be added at any time if you have not contributed to the collection. Just contact Cynthia and she’ll take care of it.


       Two years ago Judy was one of three women who did most of the work planning for her 45th reunion in Pennsylvania. I watched how hard she worked for months to make her reunion a success. I hope Ruthie, Cynthia, David (Mason), Darla, Bob, Lynne, David (Sparks) and Del (and their spouses) feel they received the appreciation of the class for their planning. Thanks also to Bobby, not only for the ice-breaker at Bodees, but also for insisting that The Cherries come out of retirement for one last performance. What a hoot! And Darla deserves heaps of praise for preparing the class biographies for publication. What a great job you all did!

Judy and Hughes Moir
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