Next June, the St. John's High School Class of 1965 will assemble for their 40th
reunion. These reunions can be bittersweet affairs. When they graduated at age 18,
the whole wide wonderful world lay before them. Now, only an eye's blink away from
60, their lives have turned out as they have turned out. Some of their hopes and
dreams have been realized. Far too many have been dashed on the jagged rocks
Most of the 30 members of the St. John's class of '65 will return to this North
Central Kansas town of Beloit where they grew up. For the first 18 years of their
lives, this was their home. They went swimming in the Municipal Pool at the
Chautauqua Park. They played Little League baseball at the Cookie Baseball
Field. Well, the boys played ball and, in those years, the girls cheered them on.
Many of them belonged to 4-H which was highlighted by the County Fair in
early August. In the year 2005, those days will seem like a lifetime ago.
Some of the class members moved on to greener pastures after graduation and
left Beloit. Some returned home after college. Some never left and are still
here. Those that are still in the Beloit area will organize the reunion activities.
Most likely, there will be an open house at the school on Saturday afternoon.
A dinner will be held in the evening in the school cafeteria and a dance in the
gymnasium. Everyone will be invited to attend mass on Sunday morning. At noon
a potluck dinner will be held at the shelter house in the park near the swimming
pool. As the afternoon progresses, like they did so many years ago, the class
members will drift away.
It has became a common practice these days for reunion attendees to wear a badge
with their name at the time of graduation accompanied by a black and white
photo of their senior picture. This avoids those blank stares, as onetime
closest friends no longer recognize one another. The boys, who had curly,
black hair slicked back with Brylcreme, may have white hair, salt and pepper
hair, or simply no hair at all. Some of the girls who had beehive hairdos will
face the same dilemma as the boys. Most likely, the decision will be "to color"
or "not to color."
Those slender teenage bodies that once sprinted down the cinder track at the
Beloit Relays have became thicker and heavier. Those legs that once jumped
with ease to grab down a rebound or to perform the most complicated of cheers
have been slow by arthritic knees. Those energetic teenage bodies that could
dance all night and then get up and go to work at their part-time Saturday job
seem to take much longer to recover these days.
As they meet, they may peer at each other's senior photo and then look up at the
face before them. Some of the kids in the class who were somewhat heavy
may have turned into slim, well-conditioned adults. Some who were the star
athletes may now carry thirty extra pounds around their middle while they walk
carefully because of that knee that was injured in the big championship game.
The Pep Club? Some will look great, some will look okay and some will be "wow,
she sure let herself go." Back in 1965, Title IX had not mandated that girls
must be given the same opportunities as boys to compete in sports. The top
of the female pecking order would be serving as Head Cheerleader. Being
named as a cheerleader was down just a bit, then president of the Pep Club,
and finally, serving as a dedicated loyal member of the Pep Club who cheered
the boys on to victory on Friday night.
The members of the class of 1965 will gather in groups of two or three or a
half dozen to reminisce about their high school days. Without a doubt the women
will congregate together and as will the men - just like in high school. Because
St. John's was a Catholic High School, the nuns were the teachers in 1965. Since
that time, fewer and fewer were called to teach and the last ones left in 1991.
In 2005, the teachers are all lay people. However, in 1965, the nuns ruled with a
stern hand. Other classes that will gather in other towns will also congregate and
talk about how tough the teacher was in Math class or how easy it was to get the
football coach off the history lesson and to talk about the game. This reunion
will be held in Beloit, but it could just as easily be held in hundreds of towns
The guys will replay old football and basketball games. They will rerun races that
were held on cinder tracks. These memories will burn vivid as they talk about
passes that were caught or dropped. Memories of jump shots or free throws that
swished through the net or rimmed out will be as real today as they were forty
years ago. Together they will agonize over the coach's brutal workouts and the
miles of wind sprints they ran in the hot Kansas sun.
In the back of their minds they will remember that some of them had dreams
of playing ball at K-State or Fort Hays. They were such great high school athletes
that everyone in the community just knew they were big college material. They
found out that being a star athlete in a small farming community is a universe
away from playing Division One college athletics. They made their peace with the
reality of big time athletics and they continued attending classes and became
teachers or pharmacists or accountants. Some studied Animal Science and
Agronomy and returned home to take over the family farm from their dads.
The women will also recall their high school days. Those were the days when
girls could not wear jeans to school. Most likely, they would not be allowed
to wear them anywhere. They would recall football and basketball games
from their perspective in the pep club or as cheerleaders. They will recall
that on "game day" the boys had to wear a coat and tie to school. The
cheerleaders would wear their sweaters and the pep club members would
wear their pep club uniforms. Of course, there would be a Pep Rally at the
end of school to show the team how much they were supported.
They will remember the cars they drove. Some had great ones and some had
not-so-great ones, but they all got them to school and allowed them to
"Drag Main" to see where the action was. They will recall going to Raney's
Drug Store to get a Green River. At the edge of town was the Fiesta Drive-In
Theater. Memories of that will foster hours of conversation as everyone
recollects his or her favorite Drive-In story.
In 1965 there were no large supermarkets in Beloit. Instead, small Mom and
Pop grocery stores were scattered throughout the town. You might say
that each neighborhood had its local market that was frequented by those
who lived close by. These had wooden floors with three or four isles
lined with groceries. At the back or to the side was the meat section.
You could choose from the items in the glass-fronted meat case
or have the butcher cut your selection for you. He would wrap it up in
white freezer paper, weigh it, and then write the amount of the sale on the
paper with a grease pen.
The conversations will slowly shift to "what did you do after graduation?"
At 58 years of age, most will have put 35 years into the work force. Some
members will have been very successful and some will have been highly
unsuccessful. Most will be somewhere in between. Some will have labored
away with their hands as blue-collar craftsmen. Some will have been white-
collar employees and worked with their minds. Some will have found great
pleasure and fulfillment with their careers and some will have made a career
of starting over doing something else.
By now, most will have had children who are now approaching their
thirties. Their children will have had children. All of the women and most of
the men will have pictures of the grandchildren to show to anyone who is
interested. They will also show them to those who are not interested because
they are proud grandparents. Like their careers, some will have kids that
turned out very well and some will have children who are in terrible shape.
Most will have kids that are somewhere in between.
Some members will attend the reunion with his or her original spouse. Some
will leave the little lady or the big guy at home so they won't get bored with
conversations about events of which they have no recollection. Chances are
some of the members will bring a second spouse because of death or divorce.
There is a slight chance that somebody may come with a third partner. Divorce
and remarriage and stepfamilies were very rare in rural Kansas in the early
1960's but have become commonplace in the 2000's.
For most people, change will be overwhelmingly evident. Instead of Sam
the Sham and the Pharaohs belting out Wooly Bully, kids listen to Rap music.
Instead of The Dick van Dyke show viewed on a black and white TV with fuzzy
reception from the antenna, kids have 100 channels available by cable television
or satellite dish reception. Few kids congregate at the Corral Drive-In where
carhops scamper out to take their order. Now they sit at home and communicate by
instant messaging on their computer or text messaging on their cell phones.
One of their classmates will have changed very little over the years. Jerry Long
has not had to struggle with his hair going gray or his joints getting stiff and
creaky. Jerry has not had to worry about his eyesight becoming dimmer or his
hearing less acute. Jerry has not had to deal with career decisions or financial
ups and downs. He has never dealt with martial problems or disobedient
children. No, Jerry has not had to face the problems of growing older in a
world that constantly changes.
Jerry won't be attending the 40th reunion of the St. John's High School class
of 1965. Classmates won't be able to compare his face in 2004 with that black
and white senior picture most will have on their name badge. Time has stood
still for Jerry Long since December 4, 1968. You see, that was the day that
this young, unassuming man paid the ultimate price for his country. On that
day, Jerry was killed by enemy gunfire in a far away country called Vietnam.
On that day, he became the only boy/man from Mitchell County to die for his
country in the turbulent and confusing war.
What makes Jerry's story so poignant is that his story could have belonged to almost
any young man in the United States at that time. It was he who was killed but it
could have been you or me.
Jerry grew up on a farm, the youngest of seven brothers and a younger sister. He
attended St. John's Catholic School in Beloit. He had an older brother who
entered the priesthood. Jerry even attended seminary school during his freshman
year. He discovered that the priesthood was not what he wanted to pursue so he
completed his sophomore, junior and senior years at St. Johns.
By all accounts, Jerry was a good student and particularly liked math and science.
Classmates tell me he made good grades but never bragged or called attention to that
fact. He was not a gifted athlete but like almost every boy at that time, he went
out for football and helped the team however he could.
In so many ways, the word ordinary comes to mind when I interviewed his
classmates. Once again, he could have been you or me. Some of his classmates
were tremendous athletes. As a matter of fact, John Eilert, Max Heidrick,
Larry Heidrick, and others had one of the best, if not the best, basketball teams
in the school's history. Like most of us, Jerry was not the star athlete. He didn't
even go out for basketball. Like most of us, however, he was in the gym every
Tuesday and Friday night, cheering on his classmates.
There were some kids who drove '58 Chevy's that could easily lay long strips of
rubber on the brick streets of Beloit. I understand one of Jerry's classmates had a
"hot" '59 Pontiac that was the envy of many. Jerry and his two brothers shared an older
model Plymouth that they carefully drove back and forth from the farm to school.
Like most of us, it was good enough to get us to school. Like most of us, we had
to hurry right home in those days to help with the farm work and the chores.
During the summers, many kids would attend movies at the Fiesta Drive-In. They
cheered aloud for Lee Marvin in the movie Cat Balou. They envied the super spy
007 James Bond in the movie Thunderball. Jerry and his family didn't. A lot of farm
kids did not have the luxury of going to town to see movies. Jerry's sister, Joyce,
told me that a memorable occasion for them was watching the fireworks displays
at the Fiesta on the 4th of July. They lived south of town and would drive to the top
of a nearby hill so they could see the fireworks.
Yes, Jerry "Jerome" Long grew up pretty much like any other farm boy in Kansas
at that time. It could have been Texas or North Dakota or Alabama or Ohio. All
the kids who grew up then had a similar background. What happened to him
could have happened to you or to me.
After graduation, Jerry choose to attend K-State University in Manhattan. Like
the rest of us, Jerry would watch the evening news and watch as the war in
Southeast Asia continued to grow. At first, the news coverage was only fleeting
and momentary. By the time it ended, the war in Southeast Asia would dominate
the news and divide our nation.
I remember the first time I heard of anything in Southeast Asia. It was the fall
of 1964. I had finished my chores early and was watching Walter Conkrite giving
us the evening news. There was a segment about guerilla warfare in Laos. At
first, I thought he was talking about gorillas. I remember thinking, "How can
those big monkeys shoot guns?" I soon found out as I watched that they were not
monkeys. Instead, they were a very determined people who had been fighting
outsiders in their country for centuries.
I am sure that Jerry and his brothers grew up watching old World War II movies
just like my brother and I did. War heroes were our idols. We grew up believing that
"real men" go off to war and do their duty and protect their country.
By 1965, President Johnson had sent U.S. ground troops to Vietnam to protect our
country from invasion by the communists. The war continued to escalate. The
military draft kept taking more and more kids. The Generals said, "Give us just
a few more men and we can win this war in a short time."
As the war grew, so did the protest movements. At first, we thought the
protesters were just cowards who didn't want to be "real men" and protect their
country. However, as more and more kids were chewed up in the conflict and
still the war was not won, people began to wonder. Most kids in Kansas wrestled
with the confusion. Most, however, felt like it was necessary to serve their country.
He attended college for two and a half years at K-State. According to his classmate
Max Heidrick, Jerry had plenty of "brains" to make good grades and stay in school
and avoid the draft. Kids who failed to do well in college would lose their student
deferment and then be eligible for the military draft.
Jerry decided to join the military service. His family is known for doing things
right. Jerry, wanting to do things right, joined the U.S. Marines. When I first
heard of this choice, I was puzzled. From all accounts, Jerry was, at least in my
mind, not the kind of person who would join the Marines. I had been told he was
quiet and reserved. He was not particularly athletic. He spent one year in
preparation for the priesthood. This did not seem like the gung ho type of
person who is attracted to the United States Marine Corps.
One of his friends at college, Ivan Young, told me why Jerry chose the Marines.
Ivan and Jerry and a few other friends got together in the Student Union and played
cards between classes. Ivan was a member of the class of 1965 at the public
school in Beloit. He said he did not know Jerry very well when they attended
different high schools in Beloit but got to know him quite well in Manhattan.
Ivan said that the question of whether or not to "join up and do his duty to his
country" weighed heavily upon Jerry. He could stay in school, make good grades,
and avoid the draft. On the other hand, lots of other Beloit boys had joined the
service or had been drafted.
At Christmas time in 1967 Jerry reached a decision. Like it or not, the only
honorable course of action was to quit school and join the military. He reasoned
that if he was going to fight in a war, the Marines seemed the place to be. They
were known as having the toughest training and the strictest discipline. For a
person who wanted to do the right thing, joining the U.S. Marines was the only
So...Jerry Long joined the United States Marines in February of 1968. He met
their strict entrance standards. Jerry made it through boot camp and advanced
training. He was sent to Vietnam and arrived in July of 1968. On December 4,
1968, not quite a year after he made that fateful decision to serve his country, he
paid the ultimate price. He and another Marine were killed by hostile gunfire
while helping conduct a sweep patrol.
Within the past few years, several Vietnam era veterans have created a moving
display of soldiers from North Central Kansas who answered the call to serve
their country and gave the last full measure so those of us who did not go can enjoy the
lifestyle we have. An outgrowth of the Faces On The Wall has been the creation
of a web site also called facesonthewall.com. Because of the web site, a fellow
Marine responded with his remembrances of Private Jerry Long. I could not
think of a more appropriate way to describe the last day of his life than by Mr.
Hicks' words. (Please scroll down to read "Terry Hicks remembers his friend...")
Jerry Long returned to his hometown in a metal, government-issue casket. On
December 18, 1968 he was given a funeral with full Military honors. A contingent
of Marines served as pallbearers. A guard of honor kept vigil over his casket until
the Funeral Mass. Eleven priests concelebrated and seventeen other priests
participated in the Requiem High Mass.
It was estimated that over 800 people attended the funeral services. Some say it
was the largest funeral held at St. John's Catholic Church in Beloit. The church
filled up early and many people had to stand outside on a cold, stormy, Kansas
winter's day. Shortly after the burial in the St. John's Cemetery, a tremendous
snowstorm blanked the town with several inches of snow.
The Vietnam War would continue on for seven more years after Jerry laid
down his life in the service of his country. Jerry and over 58,000 other soldiers
heeded the call of their country when they were needed. In many ways, it could have
been me or it could have been you, but it wasn't. It was Jerry and all those like him.
As we approach Veteran's Day, we should take note of Abraham Lincoln's words
spoken at Gettysburg. "That from these honored dead we take increased devotion
to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here
highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain." These normal, regular
kids did their job. It is now left for us to do ours.
This message was left in the Faces On The Wall
notebook that travels with the tribute...
He was quite the soldier. He's the nicest guy.