One woman looks back at the “good old days” in Williamsport

April 1, 2012

My 50th high school reunion was last August. My husband and high school classmate, Richard Allen, and I were excited about the prospect. It would be great to see old friends and celebrate 50 years. It was Williamsport High School Class of 1961. School reunions, especially big ones like 50 years, are an invitation to reflect. Sort of like each December, when you can’t help but conjure up the memories of “Christmases Past.”

Those were the “good old days” in Williamsport. We had L. L. Stearns, Brozman’s, Carroll House, and Lynn Hayes for those with a little more money. We had three dime stores in a row, drug stores with soda fountains, and many specialty shops. We had the gracious Lycoming Hotel and the quaint Village Tea Room. In our minds, we had no crime, children played happily outdoors, and we were all safe.

Reflecting back, I think that perceived “safety” was really insulation from some harsh realities of the time. The invitation for the 50th came six months in advance. I give my heartfelt thanks to the organizers. They worked hard and made it happen. Richard and I filled out our profile sheets and sent in our money. The big reunion dinner was to be held at the Williamsport Country Club.

My mind raced back in time. It had been several years since I had been to the Country Club.  Neither Richard nor my family were members in 1961, but we had been there for dances and our families might have been members. The families of our Jewish and black classmates, however, were barred from membership. I knew that then, but that was just “the way it was.” A few years later, Richard’s family helped start the Grampian Hills Club, which was open to Jews.

Richard and I were on a track to succeed—he was elected the boy “most likely to succeed”; I was the “most studious” girl. He was the business manager of La Memoire, our yearbook. I was the assistant editor of the school newspaper, The Billtown Banner. (Yes, the editor was a boy.)  We were both going off to private liberal arts colleges. It took many, many years for me to fully realize how very privileged we were.

It was only lately that I learned that blacks at that time could not stay at the Lycoming Hotel. Nor were blacks welcome at our quaint little café, Gordon Ade’s Village Tea Room. Nor were they welcome, I am sure, at dozens and dozens of other places that this little white girl never thought about.

Although Gordon Ade, owner of the Tea Room, was clearly gay, no one said it out loud. If we had, we probably would have called him a “fruit,” “fag,” “fairy” or some other not so nice word. It seemed so strange when l learned, a few years ago, that the gracious gay man would not serve those delicious sticky buns to blacks.

Richard actually had the program from our graduation in June 1961. We looked at who had gotten the honors and the prizes. I was surprised to see that there was a prize reserved for “the highest ranking Negro boy and the highest ranking Negro girl of the graduating class.”  The honors went to Jack Evans and Marilyn Fairfax. The wording of that prize popped right out at me now, whereas I did not give it a second thought 50 years ago. The prize was $10.

Again, years later, I heard stories about our guidance counselors—counselors who suggested that Italian students not even consider college, but get jobs where they could work with their hands, because “they” were good at that.

Richard and I recalled a classmate who became pregnant our senior year. She could not attend classes at Williamsport High School once it was known. The teenaged father could. It would be at least 10 more years until a pregnant girl was allowed in class. There was no legal abortion then, and most likely the girl went to live out of town with an “aunt” or went to the Florence Crittenton Home and “gave away” her baby.

Ten or so years before that at Williamsport High School, each student had to pass a swimming test to graduate. There was no pool at the school, so the test was at the YW. Black girls were not allowed to swim in the Young Women’s Christian Association pool, so the late Dr. Mamie Diggs, noted local historian, took her swimming test in Lycoming Creek.

For the members of the class of 1961 at WHS, being “out” if you were gay or lesbian was definitely not an option. Richard and I wondered how many of those smiling faces in the yearbook photos were hiding secrets—maybe even from themselves. Richard recalled that one of our classmates was outed. Local people viciously attacked his house.

Our class members were required to “pray” every day in homeroom. I was in Mr. Singley’s homeroom. The prayer was the Lord’s Prayer and, as a Catholic, I learned to be silent for the last part, which was the “Protestant” part. Every day one student was chosen to read a verse from the Bible—maybe that was a nod to our Jewish classmates who read from the Old Testament, but what about classmates of other faiths or no faith?

In my Williamsport High School experience, advanced math classes were restricted to boys—not by rule, of course, but by the taunting that any girl in the class received. I was one of those and dropped math for journalism. I had one of the highest math SATs in the graduating class.

Where our classmates’ families were allowed to live in Lycoming County was a matter of their race and ethnicity, although that really did not occur to me then. There were no blacks or Italians in Montoursville and few, if any, in South Williamsport. If you lived in Loyalsock Township, the deed to your house most likely stipulated that you could not sell to a Negro or an Italian. Most blacks, then, lived in Williamsport, but where one could live was circumscribed. High Street was the northern boundary of where a black family could get a mortgage. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I fully realized that—when I attended a program at the Lycoming County Historical Society and African Americans in the audience began to talk about growing up in Williamsport. I guess it was just the way it was in those “good old days.”

I heard more stories about prejudice and discrimination against Catholics. Were there restrictions on me, a Catholic who went to elementary school at St. Boniface, that I never even realized?

The reunion was lots of fun. We met old friends and made some new ones and remembered the “old times.” Yes, there were many fond memories, but, wow, the things I did not know—and I am sure what I know now is only the tip of the iceberg. And, yes, I am very happy to be living in the Williamsport of today.

But, more importantly, the whole experience makes me wonder what hidden barriers there are today that I do not see.

One Response to One woman looks back at the “good old days” in Williamsport

  1. Mary Walker
    July 27, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Execellent piece. Let’s have more by this writer!

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