Walt Whitman High School Reunion

Walt Whitman High School Reunion

50 years later, some of the first graduates returned to the school

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ON A FRIDAY in early May, Walt Whitman students funnel out of their classrooms and cluster in the halls. Many are sprawled on the floor, eating lunches, checking cellphones and chatting while shuffling through papers and folders. This scene would look like any other day at the Bethesda high school—except for the presence of about 50 adults in their late 60s milling around the library, studying the trophy cases, and winding through halls narrowed by the legs of seated students.

The original school with the dome (above) and the school today (below).

Though the visitors have reached retirement age, and many sport heads of gray hair, they look as though they’re evaluating Whitman—checking out the classes, gauging academics, sizing up the student vibe. And in fact they are, comparing the present-day school to the one they knew 50 years ago.

Here for a reunion, these alumni are from Whitman’s classes of 1964 and 1965, the first two to graduate from the high school.

“There is definitely a feeling of ownership, that as teenagers we were building something special,” says Bethesda resident Mary Slaby, a 1965 graduate and reunion organizer. “We were told that we had an opportunity, that the school’s reputation was based on what we did with it. And we believed in that.”

More than 340 people attended the reunion events, which culminated with a party at the William F. Bolger Center, a conference hotel in Potomac. Some of the graduates had stayed in touch over the years or attended past reunions, but others were reuniting with fellow alumni for the first time.

“When we arrived at Whitman, it had blank walls, an empty trophy case,” says Craig Davis, a ’65 graduate now living in South Carolina. “It had no history, no reputation. It was a blank page that we could fill.”

WALT WHITMAN was one of several public schools built in Montgomery County during the 1950s and 1960s. Schools sprouted like mushrooms then to accommodate the many baby boomers reaching school age. WJ opened in 1956 to alleviate the burgeoning population at B-CC, and that same year officials announced plans for another high school, between the two, in West Bethesda.

Opened in 1962, Walt Whitman was a modern, sprawling, multilevel building, offset by a large, white-domed field house that quickly became a defining icon for the school. That fall, 1,400 students entered Whitman, a mixture of  9th-, 10th- and 11th-graders from area junior high schools, as well as B-CC and WJ. Because administrators thought it would be unfair to displace rising seniors for their last year of school, Whitman didn’t have any 12th-graders that first year.

At the time, some parents were leery about sending their kids to a new school. “I overheard my parents arguing about it,” recalls Jeffrey Small, from Whitman’s Class of ’65. “My folks assumed that I’d be going to Walter Johnson, but then Whitman opened. Parents worried about our college options.”

As for the juniors who moved from B-CC or WJ to Whitman in 1962, their allegiances and school pride straddled the line. “We had mixed feelings, and at first, everyone stayed latched to WJ or B-CC friends and went to those games,” recalls Chevy Chase resident Jim Jamieson, one of the 1964 Whitman graduates who attended B-CC in 10th grade. “Eventually we came around.

There was something wonderful about being at a new school. We were unencumbered by long-standing traditions. We weren’t subject to history.”

Whitman’s first students helped select the mascot, logo and school colors. “I recall that ‘Titan’ was a potential mascot, but it wasn’t as popular as the Viking,” Small says. “Before we picked the Vikings, The Washington Post referred to Whitman’s winning tennis team as the ‘Poets,’ and we wanted to get rid of that. It was all about building an identity.”

Left: Jim Jamieson and Diana Holtz at Beach Week in 1964. The couple met and dated at Whitman, and were married in 1969. Right: Jim and Diana Jamieson, who have two children, in front of their Chevy Chase home. Current photo by Hilary Schwab.

As for colors—black, white and Columbia blue—Diana Jamieson, class of ’65, says, “I can remember thinking, ‘What’s Columbian blue?’ I don’t know where that came from. But picking colors, a mascot and naming the yearbook were ways to sweeten the deal, to get kids on board and let them be a part of the school. And it worked. We felt very invested in Whitman.”

Students created the Saga yearbook and The Black & White newspaper, along with a core of clubs, including drama, forensics and “It’s Academic.” Many of these clubs continue at Whitman today, while others, such as the bridge club and the Future Homemakers of America, have disappeared. Whitman also launched a slew of sports, including football, wrestling and basketball for boys. Girls’ athletics were represented through a club, members of which played basketball, volleyball and field hockey.

From the beginning, Whitman proved its academic mettle and gained a college-preparatory reputation, similar to the standing it maintains today. Whitman students dominated mathlete and debate competitions, and several of Whitman’s first graduates in 1964 attended respected universities in the Ivy League and elsewhere. “Whitman was academically rigorous, to the point that it made those first years of college seem easy,” says Small, who attended Cornell University and law school at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Raymond Taetle, a ’65 graduate now living in Arizona, says his classmates “constituted the smartest peer group I have ever encountered. Whitman was one of those rare times when public education realized its full potential.”

Though Whitman gained academic notoriety, its students were not unlike teenagers at other high schools: They drank beer on darkened golf courses, plotted senior pranks at school, and plastered graffiti on Whitman’s dome. “Whitman was a great school, but it was a little like the Wild West,” says Bethesda resident Mark O’Hara, a ’65 grad who still goes by his high school nickname, “Schlitz.” “I remember one time we took the economics teacher down to the Zebra Room for lunch and had pizza and a couple of beers.”

IN THE ERA of social media, it might seem that everybody is accessible through a few computer clicks. But toss in five decades of marriages, name changes, divorces, moves and jobs, and finding a single person can be a Herculean task. In preparation for their 50th reunion, five graduates from 1965 launched an exhaustive search to locate more than 500 classmates.

Classmates Kathy Smith Daniels and Guy Clifton at the reunion (above) and in the school yearbook (below). Above Photo by Hilary Schwab.

“We didn’t want this reunion to be an event just for friends who’ve stayed in touch, or those identified through a single search,” says Bruce Frank, class of ’65, a reunion organizer who headed the search committee. “We didn’t want people to miss out because we didn’t know where they were.”

The group began tracking classmates early in 2014, using information from previous reunions, but found that many people had moved or abandoned landlines for cellphones. So the committee scoured college and university records, connected with siblings through a Whitman alumni directory, and located graduates through engagement and wedding announcements and their parents’ obituaries. The group contacted employers, ex-spouses and friends of siblings.

“We made thousands of phone calls, often to wrong numbers or those no longer in service,” Frank says. “We located wedding announcements, including one from the ’70s where we had to track down the wedding party to find the classmate. We had to stretch our tentacles very wide.”

At times, the search yielded more frustration than success, and committee members learned in the process that 54 classmates were deceased. But 375 living classmates were located, including people in Australia, the Middle East and throughout Europe.

“They tracked me down through my brother,” says Georgia resident Isabelle Claxton, who has moved 13 times in 30 years while working in international health care policy and communications. In high school, Claxton served as sophomore class president and editor-in-chief of the yearbook, but she lost touch with classmates over the years.

Other grads had remained in the Bethesda area, or returned after several years, and maintained friendships that predate Whitman. “I’m grateful for a group of friends who’ve stayed close, who I’ve known for 60 years, since Wood Acres Elementary,” Chevy Chase resident Diana Jamieson says. “Something about the process of planning this reunion made me feel like a kid again.”

“If there’s one thing to take from this reunion, it’s the community that’s been rebuilt,” Slaby says. “It put people in touch who otherwise wouldn’t have reconnected.”

Tom Fields was one of these recently reunited alumni. A retired architect living in Florida, Fields is deaf, and he attended Whitman without the support services provided to hearing-impaired students today. “I was totally on my own,” he says. “I came to Whitman after attending a school for deaf students, and didn’t know what I was getting into. But I graduated from Whitman with honors.”

Fields hadn’t been in touch with any classmates for 50 years. “When I got Bruce Frank’s email, I was shocked,” he says. “Utterly shocked.” Spotting Frank at a reunion event, Fields asked him, “How’d you find me?”

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