October 5, 2011
I can't think of a better way to begin this column than to let a fellow pundit get things going. So I'll turn things over to Allene Arthur, who's been writing columns for the Palm Springs Desert Sun for 32 years:
"Fiftieth high school class reunions are a dime a dozen," Arthur wrote in a note to me recently. "Sixtieth reunions are rare enough to get our attention. But a 70th class reunion is an uncommon big deal. The Manual Arts High School class of Summer, 1941, will hold its 70th on October 3.... This was the last class to graduate before World War II."
That was how Arthur invited me to her 70th class reunion, arguing that it would make a better L.A. column than a Palm Springs column. Besides, she said, she didn't want her readers in the desert to know how old she is.
"We will try not to talk too much about our arthritis, blood pressure and medication," Arthur promised.
I had a lot on my plate when I read that pitch, including the continuing misadventures in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, an anti-Wall Street encampment outside City Hall and a nice little boondoggle inside City Hall.
But all of that will just have to wait a while longer.
I knew as soon as I arrived at the reunion on Monday that Arthur had steered me right. It began with two former Manual Arts "yell leaders" — Chet Tolson and Clifford Thompson, both just shy of 90 — re-creating the cheer they called as youngsters.
"We did flips back then," Tolson told me before his performance. "I don't think either of us will do flips today."
They didn't, but it was a spirited delivery, with 27 of their former classmates joining in.
"M, M, M-A-N. U, U, U-A-L. Manual Arts. Manual Arts!"
The grand event took place in Torrance at the Alpine Inn, a convenient location given that the class of 1941 has scattered north, south, east and west of the old campus on South Vermont Avenue near USC in Los Angeles.
Nobody seems to know how many of the nearly 600 grads are still above ground, but this year's turnout topped last year's by two. When Julius Frank asked how many people intended to come back in 2012, every hand was raised. As one class member, Annette Metkovich Lievense, has been known to say, "We'll keep holding them until it's just four of us sitting around a card table."
After the 50th, my column-writing buddy told me, the class of '41 toured Manual Arts, and one student tried the combination on his old locker. It still worked.
At the 70th, George Azadian brought his '41 yearbook along to see if he could add more signatures to it, and Barbara Duncan Motter was happy to oblige. She signed near the photo of classmate Donald Bean, about whom Azadian had written in the margin: "My best friend. Killed in Korea War."
Azadian himself, like many men in the room, served in World War II, fighting in Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.
"I made it home in one piece," he said, and he married actress Maria Cortez, whom he met at a party "at Marion Davies' mansion."
Dick Cooper, another '41 grad, had quite a story. He was a high school football stud who became student body president, then ended up back at Manual Arts 21 years after his graduation — this time as the school's principal. Later he went on to become a Los Angeles Unified area superintendent. So he seemed the perfect person to talk to about changes in his old neighborhood and at his old school.
The high-performing high school remembered by Cooper and others does not exist today; left in its place is a far more challenged school that has become one of the district's reclamation projects.
In the time between his graduation and his return as principal in 1962, Cooper said, the neighborhood had taken a sharp turn. In his day, kids took the streetcar downtown to the grand old movie theaters and felt safe, innocent, full of hope.
Twenty years later, when Cooper returned, crime was up, and the high school population had soared by nearly 2,000 students. The neighborhood had gone from mostly white and middle-class, with an emerging post-Depression economy, to one lacking in opportunity, mostly black, with all the simmering unrest that would lead to the Watts riots.
But Cooper said that he was still impressed with the hard work and ambition of many of the students and that he still believes in L.A. Unified today.
"I have hope," he said. "I do."
You have to think of a school district as thousands of young individuals looking for a chance to realize their own potential, Cooper said.
"Kids are going to shape up if you just give them an education," he said, telling me he wishes he was young enough to still be on the job.
As I spoke to Cooper and many others, I began thinking about the innocence of the time in which they came of age, an innocence shattered six months after they got their diplomas.
Part of the exuberance of their era, historian Kevin Starr told me, might have stemmed from the fact that a storm was visible on the horizon, with events in Europe signaling the inevitability of war. People drove beautiful cars. They danced the jitterbug. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland celebrated youth in the movies.
Seventy years later, the 1941 class of Manual Arts celebrated a moment in time.
"You look great. We all look great," Tolson, a minister, told the group. Then he bowed his head and offered a blessing. "We thank you for the privilege of attending that high school," he said. And mostly for the fact that "we're still here."
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