By LAURA CARRELL
Courier staff writer
---- — OTTUMWA — Very few Ottumwans remember when Central Catholic High School stood next to St. Mary's Catholic Church, where the parking lot is now.
The 10 remaining graduates of the Class of 1953, the last class to graduate, gathered this weekend to revive those memories.
The all-boys Catholic school started in the 1930s with the top floors housing the high school and the St. Mary's grade school on the bottom floors. When the building was deemed no longer sound, it was torn down and Walsh High School was founded. The 21 seniors of 1953 were the last boys to graduate from CCHS.
Of those 21, 10 men are still living but have spread all across the country. They have become farmers, doctors, businessmen, husbands, fathers and grandfathers. Many have kept in touch, and knowing there are fewer and fewer of them as time passes, they decided to reunite in Ottumwa.
This was the first time they held a reuinion just for them - that special, historic last class. Five of the remaining 10 men living brought their wives and spent two days remembering, enjoying and remembering some more.
"We're in our 70s now, and we decided we'd better have one before it's too late," John Reardon explained. "There were several who wished they could have been here, and we've lost quite a few."
Pat Larkin, Dick Emry, Reardon, Jim Rater, Lewis (Lew) Gray and their wives gathered for the Friday night fish fry at the Knights of Columbus hall and dinner at Roe's Restaurant Saturday night.
The other five still living — Joe Conroy, John Howard, Larry Dawson, Don McKillip and John Yochum — were talked about with smiles, knowing they would have been there if they could.
Since there were only about 60 boys in grades 9-12, they were all very close, Reardon, who stayed in town for many years at KBIZ Radio, explained.
"There were only 21 people in our class, we were pretty close," he said. "My wife graduated from OHS with about 400 people, and she didn't know everyone. Since we were the last class, decided to have a little party. (Friday) night we got together and just hooted and hollered. Even this morning at breakfast, we were just sitting around telling stories."
Those stories and those memories may have happened 60 years ago, but they're still vivid for the men who lived them. Looking back at 60 years of life is a powerful thing, as the five couples soon learned. Lewis (Lew) Gray, who retired from IBM as a corporate vice president and president of U.S. National sales/marketing division, says he never would have guessed where all of his friends would have ended up at this point in their lives.
"Back then, we were just wondering how to get out bicycle tire fixed," Gray said. "Every one of these guys came from humble beginnings, but just look, here we are."
During that 1952-53 school year, there were 11 boys from the south side of town and 10 from the north side. Because they had the deciding vote, all four class officers were from the south side.
Because the building they were in was already quite old, the men remember many of its special features.
"It had very old, wooden staircases," Reardon said. "I could sit in study hall and hear the pigeons twittering up there."
Some stories they told will never make it into print, but the men were glad to share many others. There was the time one boy brought a dead cat to biology class. And there was the hole they made through the hall into the library to hide from the nuns. And then there was the pool hall.
"Some of us enjoyed the pool hall, so we'd go to school and then skip classes to go over to the Ottumwa pool hall," Emry recalled. "The nuns got used to where we were going, so they'd call the Ottumwa pool hall looking for us."
Since the owner of the pool hall refused to lie for them, the boys were given five minutes to get back to the school under threat of losing their basketball eligibility. That usually did the trick, they readily admit.
"But we had some pretty famous 8-ball players," Reardon added with a smile.
Then there was the time that the boys decided to pull a prank in typing class. At the end of class, they typed up a letter and sent it to the principal saying they were from the recruiting office looking for 17-year-olds to recruit.
"We signed it 'Col. U.R. Duped," Rater said. "We never thought she'd do it, but here comes a sargeant from the actual recruiting office, telling us we were guilty of impersonating an officer. He was in a blue suit and sunglasses - it scared the bajeezes out of us."
Nothing actually came from the incident, but it taught the boys a lesson about their pranks.
"And I'm probably still in the FBI databse," Rater said.
The girls all attended Ottumwa Heights College, which was sold and became Indian Hills Community College. But the distance between the two schools didn't deter the boys.
"We'd sneak out and hollar for the girls," Reardon remembered. "The nuns would be yelling back, 'You'd better not!'"
CCHS and then Walsh were known for their basketball teams. The school itself had no gym, so they practiced and played anywhere they could find space - the YMCA, the YWCA and the basement of the coliseum all housed the CCHS basketball team at one time or another. They played their home games at Ottumwa High School, usually on Thursday nights to coordinate schedules.
"If we won the game, we usually lost the fight after the game," Reardon said.
Before leaving town after the wonderful weekend, some other activities were fit into the schedule. Some of the couples were able to visit family while others went to the movie theater. And, of course, there was a trip to the Canteen — one made within 30 minutes of hitting the city limits.
"There are some great memories here. We've not been together for a long time," Gray said. "I feel bad we've lost so many - they would have loved to be here for this."