Reunion Speech for Northfield High School, Class of 1955 Reunion, July 1-2, 2005
Then and Now by Stan Frear
You were about three years when I first came to Northfield as a freshman at St. Olaf in 1940. My destiny has pretty much been tied to this town ever since. I left in 1943 for military service, returned on the GI Bill in 1945, met my future wife, a pretty blond coed, in the Ole Store that same year. We became engaged in 1946 and married in 1947 two weeks before final exams, you can imagine how much studying we did then.
I began teaching in two majors; biology and English in Wisconsin then came to Northfield in 1950 to teach English at 9th and 12th grade levels. In 1962 I was offered a position at St. Olaf College to direct English education and teach literature and composition. I retired in 1986.
This may be my last opportunity of talking with you as a group so bear with this old relic as he reviews the past and looks to the future. Recent events wand the death of Pope John Paul remind me of standing in St. Peter's Square in Rome receiving the papal blessing of Pope Pius but as I recall more vividly visiting the protestant cemetery in Rome where two of our greatest lyric poets are buried, Percy Bysse Shelly and John Keats. Keats died there of tuberculosis at age 26. On his grave lay a single red rose and the epitaph he wrote for himself: HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME IS WRIT IN WATER. He considered himself a failure. All of us here this evening are testaments to lives fulfilled, your names writ in more than water. You share those lives with children and grandchildren after successful careers and a good many years to come. In review of your careers, they are well documented in your class notes. But I would like to think that we teachers played some small part in your lives.
I don't know about you but the world in which we lived then is not the same world we live in today. That our world changed after September 11 is undebatable. We will never be what we once were. The fears and dangers we face in a world seemingly beyond our control will remain for years to come. We must face the lessons of history, for example: even the best equipped armies cannot fight a prolonged war against irregulars - witness Britain in America in 1775 the French in Indo-China and Algeria, the British in India and Palestine, the United States in Vietnam, the Russians and British in Afghanistan.
It is certainly more dangerous now despite great strides in science, technology, medicine, space exploration, and communication. Genocide is commonplace still, and wars though smaller are more frequent and more deadly to military to military and civilians alike. Our town has changed from a comfortable, convenient small town where one could find the necessities of life in shops run by people we knew. We lived without supermarkets, multiple fast food joints and freeways. Now in place of familiar stores we have big box retailers run by faceless corporations, a myriad gift and antique shops and coffee houses selling strange coffees and Cappuccinos - Italian for over-priced caffeine.
Our cars are larger, more complex and consume more fuel: huge pickups that don't pick up anything, and SUV's that pick up everything clog our streets. Our homes cost ten times what they did when we shared a classroom in the old High School, or is it the old new High School, or the new old High School. The house my wife and I built in 1960 for $28,000 sold in 2003 for $255,000, a slight case of inflation.
Houses now stretch from Woodley which used to be our southern border to Dundas and East and North a mile or more with row after row of humongous houses with three garages and two or more baths. Big box stores and small shops fill the space from here to Dundas selling every thing from gourmet breads, computer software, airbrush tans and shish kebabs. Dundas used to be Northfield's outback but is now curbed, guttered and filling with expensive condos and town houses and a post gourmet restaurant selling cuisine at $25 a throw. We miss stores run by similar names whose children were classmates and students. Have you had a genuine malt lately, made from milk and ice cream, the extra in the can? We can now dine on Chinese, Lebanese, Mexican, Greek, East Indian, Mid-eastern and Central American along with a dozen fast food places offering chicken bits, finger, hunks and Caesar salad in a paper cup.
I'm not saying progress is not good, but I'm not so sure it isn't just change and not progress. Our world is less personal, less leisurely, less accommodating, less fulfilling and less accountable to the future or the past. Northfield High School still puts out excellent scholars, productive athletes, fine musicians and more college-bound students. Girls can now compete in every sport but football. But I miss the Grand Theater filled with necking couples in the balcony, stores where one could buy a decent man's suit and shoes. We did not have I-Pod, the NET, cellular phones, palm pilots, digital cameras or flat screen TVs. But we did have, at least for a while, a world without war, school shootings, AIDS, worldwide famine and genocide on a huge scale. We lived in relative security with no fear of Muslim fanatics, road rage, and guns in schools. We lived without frontal nudity, moaning and groaning in and on the sheets in movies and TV, and the F--- word as adjective of choice in films, and virtual reality. What's wrong with real reality? We now live with an inflated dollar and a national debt that could finance a couple of dozen smaller countries, and which will keep us in bondage to China, Korea and Japan for years to come.
How did we let the good life slip away? We read les of substance in this world and cable TV and satellite communications. Great books like great marriages take effort and are not to be slurped up like a smoothie. Are we more literate with hundreds of cable TV choices and our PDQ, DVD, ASAP lives. Life is not one vast Mall of America, IKEA or Camp Snoopy.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not as much bitter as perplexed and probably a bit behind the times. I have neither cell phone, computer, digital camera, E-Mail, or palm pilot. I do have an ATM card but have forgotten my PIN number so I never use it. I drive a ten-year-old Ford Contour with no backseat DVD or satellite navigation system. But I do remember about days together in Northfield High School, expectant, pleasant and rewarding. We did not need Malox, Nexium, or 36 hour Cialis for erectile dysfunction, something we never knew we had or at least never talked about it on TV. Now we can have lunch on a bun, a bagel, a taco, a tortilla, Arab flat bread, five kinds of exotic loaves at Subway and breakfast on a biscuit.
The whole world is wired for instant communication but we communicate less effectively than we did before. How many Iraq's can we bear, how many Rwanda's, Darfur's, Dudan's or Kosovo's? How much longer can we watch the polar ice caps shrink, the Alaskan Tundra succumb to oil drilling, the disappearance of whole species of birds, animals, fish and insects? How many more Red Lobsters before there are no more lobsters? We worry about obesity and half the world goes to bed hungry. We guzzle exotic water like babies on a nipple, a cell phone in the other hand while our satellite tracking system tells us where to go, as if we didn't know.
Gatherings such as this remind me that we lived in a world of plenty, less confusing, less threatening. You must help make the world safer and saner, more genteel for your children and grandchildren. An old Woody Guthrie song runs through my mind time and again: "where have all the flowers gone, long time a growin', where have all the young men gone . . .?" and a snatch of Bob Dylan's Bridge Over Troubled Waters. You cannot embrace a world in 60 minutes of virtual reality.
Pass on to your children what we attempted to pass on to you. Your Norhian spoke of promise and you had great expectations. Let's hope the promise and expectations hold no regrets for you and your children. I'll probably not join you for your 60th reunion, but who knows, one of your children may invent a longevity pill. But I'm not so sure I would want to take it . . . . .