Class of '76 Got Chatty

Times Staff Writer

We became a notorious crook, a movie star, a cartoonist. We broke gender barriers, designed nuclear weapons and cleared the skies after Sept. 11.

And across time and distance, we became friends.

As Claremont High School's class of 1976 geared up for its 30-year reunion today, the teenagers who went on to become teachers, cops, car salesmen, lawyers, architects and pilots reconnected over the last couple of months with technology none of us could have imagined then -- and all of us take for granted today.

A couple hundred of us are in touch on the Internet. We reflect on coming of age in the mid-70s in eastern Los Angeles County -- in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War era of civil rights and equal rights, when Gerald Ford was president and disco ruled the airwaves.

This online "preunion" allowed us to recount our successes and failures, showcase our families, lament our expanding waistlines and receding hairlines. As we swapped ancient memories, we got to know again -- or for the first time -- classmates with whom we shared our youth.

I missed out on knowing many of them the first time around. I spent my senior year in Japan with my family while my professor father took a sabbatical. To make up for it, I started a chat group on Yahoo that now includes almost half of our class of 500.

E-mail exchanges have blossomed on the subjects of teachers we despised and loved -- sometimes going back to kindergarten -- teenage crushes and first kisses, life's embarrassing moments, disabled children, politics, freedom of speech, corporate greed and global warming.

The semi-anonymity of our cyber-conversations has encouraged people to open up. One pal recalled his reddest-faced moment in high school, when someone stole his jockstrap and hung it up in English class, its owner's name emblazoned in big block letters. Others spoke of brushes with life-threatening illness.

So when we get together today at Claremont's Cahuilla Park, we'll be able to dispense with many of the usual pleasantries. We'll know what so-and-so has been doing all these years. With luck, we'll be able to do what is rarely possible at high school reunions: form new bonds. Thirty years ago, we felt immortal and unique. Now, as we close in on 50, we feel our mortality -- at least 18 classmates have died -- and recognize that, for all the things that make each of us special, we are more alike than different.

"I've learned so much more about the people I spent my childhood with, and who they've turned into, than I ever could have at an ordinary reunion party," said Eric Daniels, whose lifelong fascination with movies and art led to a career as an animator. He won a technical achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2003. "People who wouldn't spend two minutes with me in a roomful of people with drinks in their hands are opening up about deep, personal things.

"I find it much more fascinating than the inevitable who- looks-more-like-hell-than-whom comparisons or struggling to put that I-recognize-you expression on your face when, in fact, you don't. I think this virtual reunion has gone a long way toward breaking down the social walls that we, perhaps unwittingly, erected 30 years ago.

"I mean, hey, I've actually had conversations with our cheerleaders."

Hundreds of high school graduating classes mark their 30-year anniversaries every year in Southern California. But this class in the unassuming, leafy college town of Claremont always felt it was different.

We were situated among the Claremont Colleges, which many saw as bestowing a lively intellectual cachet on our cultural oasis amid L.A.'s suburban sprawl.

Plus, we were the class of 1976, graduating on the bicentennial. It was a presidential election year, an Olympic year, the year "Disco Duck" by Rick Dees & His Cast of Idiots and "Disco Lady" by Johnnie Taylor hit No. 1 on the Billboard magazine charts -- though so did the syrupy "Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Band and "I Write the Songs" by Barry Manilow.

We felt the class had a spirit of '76 running through it. Claremont High's class of 1975 didn't even have a 30th reunion.

Until three months ago, not having a reunion would have been fine with Ben Waldman, who said he in effect flunked as a junior and left Claremont High a year early, earning credits at Citrus Community College before getting a GED.

He hardly looked back and didn't count any high school contemporaries among his close friends. But like me, he has made fast friends online with people whom he never had spoken to in high school.

"Music, art, travel, science, politics are all discussed with passion and knowledge," said Waldman, who went on to work in Ronald Reagan's White House and served as televangelist and presidential candidate Pat Robertson's press deputy. "It is said that small people talk about people, average people talk about things and big people talk about ideas. This is a group of big people."

Martin Hewitt dreamed of making it big in Hollywood, and it happened much quicker than he expected. He had envisioned a Shakespearean career, but suddenly he was starring opposite Brooke Shields in Franco Zeffirelli's "Endless Love," a steamy 1981 tale of forbidden teen romance.

Hewitt got into acting after high school, studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, at the time in Pasadena. His only previous experience was an eighth-grade role in "The King and I." But he answered an open casting call and beat out 5,000 men for his first screen part.

Another aspiring actor also made his debut in the movie: Tom Cruise, whose Hollywood trajectory gathered a bit more upward momentum than Hewitt's.

"I started at the top. My first professional acting role was in a starring role in a Universal Studios film," he said. "I didn't even get the chance to get my feet wet. So after that film, it was sort of a downward path."

The movies got smaller, with titles such as "Carnal Crimes" and "Night Rhythms." He eventually left show business. The father of two now owns a home inspection service in San Luis Obispo.

"Now, I do theater locally, which is fun and I love it," he said. "And I'm making better money now with my business than I was acting. Being an actor is a full-time job looking for work."

If Hewitt became our most famous alumnus, Rick Cunningham was our most infamous. For a guy no one has seen or heard from in more than 25 years, Cunningham is a hot topic among the class of 1976.

In 1980, Cunningham allegedly pulled off what at the time was the biggest insider heist in the history of Brink's, the security and armored car company. Cunningham was one of five guards at the Brink's gold vault in Los Angeles. One day in July 1980, he didn't show up for work, and a hurried inventory found $1.55 million in South African gold Krugerrand coins missing.

The FBI determined that Cunningham had probably removed the coins a few at a time. He apparently made a clean getaway. Police found his car abandoned at Ontario International Airport that August.

They've been looking for him ever since.

I didn't know Cunningham in high school. He was no stranger to the wrong side of the law, according to classmates. Stories abound of his pocketing the contents of the cash register at the Taco Bell where he worked; claiming to have been robbed; getting hold of a master key to campus by being football team manager and stealing math and history tests along with money from the coffee fund; erasing his late fees from logbooks; and swiping football jerseys from the gym.

Cunningham's story has been the subject of much speculation among us.

"I am so fascinated by that story to this day," said Tawnni Lockhart, a classmate who remembers standing lookout while Cunningham swiped a math test. She was not in Cunningham's math class and didn't benefit from the pre-knowledge, she was quick to add. By now, she mused, "he could have had plastic surgery, show up at our reunion, and no one would be the wiser."

Tom St. Clair is another classmate who's had a brush with history. After being introduced to airplanes by a Claremont High math teacher, he became a supervisor at the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Control System Command Center, the office that grounded all civilian and commercial planes after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

St. Clair was painting furniture in the sunroom of his suburban Maryland home that morning, when his wife called him to watch the awful news on TV. He headed into work and manned the phones with FAA offices all over the country.

His work schedule will prevent St. Clair from attending today's reunion the way he did the 10th and 20th. He's disappointed. At a typical reunion, he said, "you don't even talk to everybody. You kind of walk up and say, 'Who the heck are you?' "

After reading some of the nearly 10,000 e-mails that were exchanged within three months, St. Clair became "excited and impressed about what people are doing with their lives. It's fun to reconnect, especially with the people I didn't know. I regret our cliques kept us from knowing each other in high school."

Carrie Gronewald, formerly Banwell, shared St. Clair's fascination with planes and broke barriers even in high school. A straight-A student, she was the first female president of our Science Club and the first woman to join the men's varsity swim team.

She went on to the Air Force Academy as part of the first class of women to attend the previously all-male military academies. She put up with the sometimes-ferocious hazing that causes many cadets to break down and drop out.

After earning degrees in biology and electrical engineering, Gronewald spent her Air Force career as a missile project officer and manager on avionics, weapons and NASA space station projects. Currently she's a software project manager for a wireless communications company.

A fascination with math and physics led Blake Wood to design nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, specifically B-61 gravity bombs carried by B-52 and B-2 bombers and F-15 fighters and W-78 warheads attached to Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles.

"The reason I'm so excited about the 30th is that there are all these people I didn't know in high school, and these people are now my friends. Robbie Haerr -- before, I'd look across the room, maybe nod hello," Wood said, referring to an ex-football player and drummer for the band the Ravelers who is one of the most prolific posters to the list. "For the last couple of months, we've been hearing the intimate details of everyone's life. Now, we're truly friends."

High school threw us together. But its cliques kept many of us apart. Thirty years later, as we muddle through middle age the way we muddled through adolescence, we are discovering what our own high schoolers find on websites like MySpace: The Internet can create a social glue that transcends cliques and time and distance.

"All these years have gone by, and I deprived myself of the pleasure of getting to know all of these great people," Waldman said. "My addiction to this list is fueled by the shared history, but also by the current struggles and interests we now share."

Hewitt hopes that tonight, he can continue the conversations begun online.

"We've had this forum for looking at each other without seeing each other directly," he said. "I'm getting to know individuals whom I never even met in high school. For the few hours we're going to spend, it's going to be worth the drive."

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