Reunited - LHS grads reminisce about war, football at class reunion
- Stories by Dick Mason
La Grande High School's Class of 1945 September reunion had something for everyone.
Tasty meals, raffle prizes, historic memorabilia, skits, songs, a local history quiz, great conversation and more.
Still, something was missing something class members never saw 62 years ago and today are thankful they never did.
The item of mystery?
Roosevelt High School's best 1944 football uniforms. The uniforms may be the reason the LHS Class of 1945 made history in 1944. That year LHS, led by members of the Class of 1945, advanced to Oregon's state championship football game.
LHS beat Roosevelt High School of Portland in the semifinal game on a snow-lined field in La Grande. The Tigers defeated a supremely confident Roosevelt team. The Roughriders' coaches were so certain their team would beat LHS that they left the team's best uniforms in Portland.
"Roosevelt did not want to get its best uniforms dirty for the championship game,'' said Phil Evans, a member of the 1944 LHS football team.
LHS head football coach Cecil Sherwood made sure his players knew this. Sherwood stoked the team's emotional fires with a pep talk emphasizing why Roosevelt had left its best uniforms in Portland.
"We were never so fired up,'' said quarterback Bob Carey, who now lives in Lake Oswego.
The Tigers beat Roosevelt 33-7 on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, 1944. La Grande fell to Medford 14-0 in the state championship game on Dec. 2. If not for quagmire-like conditions in Portland that day, many La Grande players believe they may have won the game, said Evans, who now lives in the Spokane area.
Football was harder six decades ago than it is today, said Pete Russell of Ogden, Utah. A big reason is that helmets did not have face masks then. The absence of face masks hurt centers more than most because they could not get their hands up quickly to protect their faces after snapping the ball.
"The center took a terrible beating. He had tough time,'' Russell said.
He noted that centers were particularly vulnerable to broken noses.
Many seniors on the 1944 LHS team did not attend their graduation ceremony in the spring of 1945 because they left school early to enlist in the military. They were among many in the United States who left high school prior to graduating to enlist during World War II.
The young men had tremendous incentive to enlist early. Anyone signing up before turning 18 could select which branch of the service they would serve in. Those who waited until age 18 would be drafted and then have no enlistment options.
Some youths were not leery of going to war because they were not fully aware of the dangers they faced, said Helen Evans, a Spokane area resident. One reason is that stark video images of war causalities had yet to reach living rooms in the pre-television era.
"There was no TV, there was just radio and newsreels,'' Evans said.
Her husband, Phil, agrees that people were not fully aware of the hazards of war.
"People were not afraid because they were not aware of what (war) was until they got there,'' Phil Evans said. "Uniforms made it easy to pick up girls. Then you found yourself staring down the barrel of a gun.''
Jim Sams said that some enlisted because they were looking for excitement.
"Everyone had an adventurous spirit in those days. A lot joined in one group,'' said Sams, a California resident.
Members of the LHS Class of 1945 did not share many war stories during their reunion, but they did talk a lot about the efforts they made on the home front to help the war effort. Carol Larson McDonald, now of Sequim, Wash., talked about how she would get in a school vehicle and drive around the community looking for scrap iron to donate to the war effort.
Others discussed things like how the rationing of gasoline during WWII affected their lives. Several noted that those allotted the most gas ration stamps were often farmers. This meant students living on farms frequently were the only ones who drove to school.
"If you wanted to date a guy with a car you had to find a farm boy,'' said Sibly Smith Bolkin, now of the Kennewick, Wash., area.
Gas rationing stamps during WWII were like gold.
"We almost killed ourselves for gas,'' said Gerry Lou Kuskey of the Portland area.
Sugar was also rationed, which made it hard to prepare for weddings. Several members of the Class of 1945 recalled how they had to ask neighbors for their sugar rationing stamps before baking wedding cakes.
The days of ration stamps ended long ago but the bonds of friendship formed among the Class of 1945 remain strong.
"We are all great friends. We are very cohesive,'' said Jerry Cantrell of Haines. "We are one for all and all for one.''
All members of the Class of 1945 are approaching or have reached their 80th birthday. Still, many exude a contagious sense of vibrancy, one amplified at reunions by their camaraderie.
"We want to have fun while we are here,'' Kuskey said. "We have learned how precious life is.''