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The First Class – 50 years later

By Janet (Krider) Duncan ‘58


Manhattan Senior High School as it looked in 1958. Photo from the 1959 Blue M.
Manhattan Senior High School as it looked in 1958. Photo from the 1959 Blue M.

The Class of 1958, 154 of us, were proud to be the first class to walk as graduates across the new MHS stage at Sunset and Poyntz. We published a 50 Year Memory Book for our past reunion, and it was a gratifying experience. Two-thirds of the class responded with reminiscences and/or photos. Here’s what has happened with us in the last 50 years.

As children we listened to radio serials and ducked our heads at our grade school desks for atom bombs; we were teenagers in the 1950s of Leave it to Beaver and General President Eisenhower (peace from foreign wars and the National Guard in Arkansas because of segregation). A few of our mothers worked, a few of us had plenty of money and some of us didn’t. Some were truly poor, some were rural. All this was normal. The concept of “Mean Girls” didn’t exist, but a few of us were black and very meanly discriminated against by the laws of adults. Too much of that was normal, too. “In God We Trust” was added to the $1 bill and two members of our class protested having to attend a religious Easter assembly at MHS. This history still has a familiar feel.

During our MHS years, we were a diverse bunch. When asked to remember favorite teachers, almost every one of MHS’s 35 teachers and four administrators got mentioned. But there were definitely favorites: Mr. Todd, math and Jr. High coach and Mr. Norvell, band and orchestra one vote apart as Numbers One and Two; and smack on their heels was Mr.. Boles, biology. By subject, math got the most mentions with English a close second. (Isn’t that amazing? Didn’t a lot of us say we hated these subjects then—which must prove some old-fashioned Rule of School.) I was surprised to learn in our book that one friend actually brought an apple every day to a teacher I found dull and pedantic. (I probably made his life miserable, too, although I later majored in his subject, so he obviously knew his stuff.) Wrote one ’58 grad, “The teachers were really great at imparting what they wanted us to learn. I wish some of them were my kids’ teachers.”

What did we do with our working lives? A lot of us became teachers, Fifty years after walking across the stage of MHS (now Rezac) Auditorium, nearly a quarter of those reporting worked or had retired from working in education. The next career grouping included classmates who worked as engineers/scientists/architects/ or in computers (or retired) and then those in business (including both owners and office employees.) A distant third clustering contained careers in government, medicine/mental health, skilled craftsmen, journalism/publishing and real estate. Military careers, musicians, chef/food industry, accountants, law, and airline pilot sum up the categories I chose. These categories are not mutually exclusive. Several retired from a first job to start a second career.

Turning 18 for boys in the 50s meant registering with the Draft Board, so duty called one way or the other for many. We had many men and several women who served in the military, covering all the branches among them. Quite a few served in Vietnam but luckily no one died in a war. A number made a career in the Military.

Most of us are active in volunteer work, whether working or retired. Church work, civic activity, school volunteering and hobbies – as one classmate put it, “I think I’m working harder now that I’ve retired – so many projects, so little time.” The hobbies we enjoy range from crafts through computers, but there is one which runs through our 50 Year Memory Book like a superhighway: do we love to travel! There may be a few places in the world one of us hasn’t lived, worked, vacationed, or plan to cruise to – but there aren’t many. Our MHS teachers, and perhaps the international influences of Ft. Riley and Kansas State, truly gave us itchy feet.

Our addresses now are in the U.S. except for a representation in Canada. Over half are in Kansas, with Texas, Colorado, Missouri and California next, followed by 18 other states. We’ve lost the addresses of nine classmates.

Most of us had good times at MHS while a few of us were glad to see the back of it. Many of us had after-school and evening jobs, with a few working so much they had little time for the fun side of school. Family duties called more than one home as well. Almost all of us remembered our MHS years with two things in common: 50s music and “dragging Poyntz.” Most of us will still feel an involuntary twitch of time-machine magic back to our youth when we hear a good Rock and Roll beat. Elvis was our runaway favorite, but like our teachers, no major recording artist or genre of the 40s or 50s, black or white, was left out of our Memory.

We also enjoyed then, and still like today, Broadway musicals, a love we can lay in part at the feet of our MHS teachers. We inaugurated the stage with Brigadoon. There is no denying the growth in the last 50 years in MHS musical drama—not least of which is a color-blind casting that was not available to our classmates.

When we reported to our new MHS, it was a smaller building than it is today (see below) or will be ‘tomorrow’ – but it was wonderful. We had lockers to ourselves for the first time, such privilege. We also had new rules: a closed lunch hour and a dress code! Jeans were outlawed for girls and boys T-shirts had to be tucked in. “Siberia High!” we moaned and pitched our teenaged-outrage …to absolutely no effect. Many liked the home-cooked, pre-pizza food; others never touched it.

In the 50 years since we left MHS, we’ve lost 27 classmates. For those of us who are able, we look forward to our next reunion. My classmates now are the only people who can look at me and see the kid under the grey hair who really was pretty obnoxious in that math class so long ago. I’m sorry I was, but I’m happy they can still see her.

Thank you to the Riley County Historical Museum for help with photos; some came from Blue Ms not in the MHSAA Museum.