Mesa High Class of 1944 gathers for last big reunion - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Mesa High Class of 1944 gathers for last big reunion

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Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 8:00 am

This could start in a “way-back-when” manner by comparing how much a gallon of milk or loaf of bread cost in 1944 compared to 2014 — it’s not even a fair comparison without adjusting for inflation. This could begin with a brief waxing about the nature of time and particularly relativity — how 10 or 20 or 70 years go by with little regard until the days end — but that doesn’t feel quite right either.

A simple beginning feels more apropos, because the beginning in this case doubles as the end of an era. So the start was a gathering last weekend at the Landmark Restaurant in Mesa where a collection of people pushing 90 years of age, along with friends and family members, congregated for one last grand reunion for Mesa High School’s Class of 1944.

Technically, it was Mesa Union High School back then, and this won’t be the final time members of the class will meet up with one another — they meet for lunch on a monthly basis. Class member Larry Leavitt, however, acknowledged it’s getting more and more difficult to get everyone together, and Saturday’s shindig may have been the final time they could pull this kind of thing off.

“We’re realizing we don’t have many more years to have reunions,” he said.

So that led to this last one – the first sizable one Leavitt said the class had in 15 years – that followed the theme of “Memories of Our High school Year.” The theme offered a means of linking back to the graduation year through time-appropriate music and pieces of nostalgia for the year before the end of World War II.

It was a prime opportunity to reconnect with as many of the remaining class members as possible – 1944 graduate Reed Peterson estimated approximately 50 of the graduates are still alive – although the 70-year span has changed the class’ social dynamic.

“In some cases students we knew in high school weren’t the same ones in your social groups, but now there are fewer and fewer of us,” Leavitt said.

This is the appropriate time to tie the past to the present, at least to provide a comparison of how Mesa has changed over the course of 70 years. A quick and dirty device is to weigh Mesa’s educational environment in 1944 to 2014’s reality, and the weighting is a bit stunning: 1944’s graduating class had approximately 146 people; Mesa High School currently has an enrollment upwards of 3,000. Mesa Union was the only game in town; Mesa Public Schools now has six high schools under its umbrella.

You can look at a number of other factors – two spring training fields, several malls, the airport, population, etc.– to judge 1994 against 2014, and a few members of this class played roles in that change. Leavitt served as an elementary school principal in Mesa and worked in the post office; class president Tom Nesbitt was an engineer in Mesa; and Peterson was the Mesa High School football coach from 1964 to 1978.

“Everyone has a story, and I’m just one of them,” Peterson said.

There were the classmates who’ve stayed in the city for almost their entire lives, but the class also had members like Grant Gunnell, who made their own marks outside the boundary. But he did come back, moving from California in 2000 for the weather and to be closer to friends like his 1944 classmates. As Gunnell put it, he always knew he’d return to Mesa.

Others joined Gunnell for at least a temporary return for the reunion last Saturday, where they engaged in the reminiscence of the gone days and of the members lost inevitability over the seven-decade stretch.

The ones who are still alive though have stuck together, as Gunnell, Peters and Leavitt said the members of the Class of 1944 are filled with love and respect for one another. It’s one of the factors that makes last weekend’s last hurrah so impressive; the only thing that has come close to breaking the class’ bond is time itself.

“Not many classes have stayed together like we have; few classes could have a 70th anniversary,” Peterson said.

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