Friday, August 5, 2011

Class of 1971

On August 6, 2011, many of my surviving classmates will be at our 40-year high school reunion on the shores of Lake Madison. I'll be there in spirit with the Madison High School Class of 1971.  We were a "big" class for our small town—about 150 students in a town of about 5,000.  Madison, South Dakota's claims to fame back in the day were a recently-closed meat packing plant, a poultry processing plant, and a small teacher's college.  It was situated between two beautiful lakes and surrounded by small farms.  It was a plain little town – very vanilla.  It bears a striking resemblance to Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake Wobegon.


Until I was in 4th grade, only town kids went to Madison High School, my alma mater.  Country kids, like me, who attended one-room schools until 8th grade, were bused to General Beadle High School on the campus of the small teacher's college, where they were taught by a wave of student teachers.  All of that changed when Beadle High burned to the ground, and the town had to face "integration" of city and country kids long before it was ready to do so!


Reorganization of school districts followed.  Country schools were closed, and we were bused to town schools, where we were segregated into "combination rooms" with other country kids.  With the exception of music class, we were entirely segregated. We were even marched three blocks to the "old hospital" for school lunch.  One teacher told us, "You are pigs!  Go back to the farm where you belong!"


But my principal, Mr. Wilbur, led the fight to allow country kids to be fully integrated into the town schools.   By the time I was in high school, country kids were integrated in all classes and allowed to fully participate in extra-curricular activities.  Mr. Wilbur was truly an unsung hero. 


Our high school years (1967-1971) were turbulent times.  My kind, selfless, and supportive father quite literally dropped dead of a heart attack during my freshman year.  My mom and little brother and I had to leave the farm where I'd spent my entire life to move to a small apartment in town.  The town community was shaken by the loss of one of the only big employers.  Three years of drought had hurt the farm economy that supported small businesses on Egan Avenue (Madison's equivalent of Main Street). 


Nationally, the country was reeling after bitter fights over the Viet Nam War.  Many of the boys in my class were part of the Selective Service's draft lottery by birth date.    Every night on the evening news Walter Cronkite recited that day's war casualties:  Killed, missing in action, and prisoners of war.  We had felt the aftershock of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.  We had no real hippies in my class, but even in rural small town America, in a high school with strict dress codes and full detention halls, there were drugs, sex, and rock and roll.   We could not relate to the race riots and protest marches we saw on TV, but we could understand the yearning for equality.  And we could sense, as Bob Dylan told us, "The times they are a-changin'…."


When we lined up in the armory in our maroon graduation gowns, one of the other honor graduates turned to me and whispered, "Have you counted how many of the honor graduates are country kids?"  I had.   Nine out of ten :-). 



LeAnn aka pasqueflower


  1. I graduated one year before you did, in suburbia though. I did go to a country college though, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

  2. LeAnn, what an interesting story for someone like me coming from a foreign country. Hope you are having a fabulous time at your reunion today:):)

  3. Wow...times definitely have changed! My dad graduated in '71 also :) He was a country kid, but went to town school his entire time. We're only a town of about 1,000 though.
    I love that the "country kids" were the honor kids :)

  4. Thank you for your story! I was a city(Atlanta) kid during my high school years, class of 74. I've lived in the country since 83 and love it. My kids both graduated from the only high school in the county. Enjoy your reunion!

  5. OMG, I can't believe all you had gone through at such a ripe young age. It confounds me to think that they had to keep the country kids segregated. It just freaking boggles the mind. Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. This brings back so many memories for me. I graduated in 1972, so I was right with you!

  7. I hear you, I graduated in 1971. A time it was, a time of innocence, long ago it must be, I have a photograph....
    Paul Simon