Strolling down Memory Lane

Members of Washington Class of 1970 reflect on experience 50 years later

Jan Wagenknecht
Jan Wagenknecht

WASHINGTON — It was 1967, the infamous “Summer of Love.” Gas was 19 cents a gallon. Both boys and girls wore bell bottom jeans at the popular hangouts – Winga’s and the State Cafe.

And 179 young students walked into Washington High School to make their mark as the future class of 1970.

Fifty years later, four members of the class met with The Union to reflect on their experiences. The class entered the high school building as sophomores because freshmen were still housed with the junior high students. Although they were not technically the underdogs, a few of them felt that way.

“I was afraid I would get lost in the building. I was a lot shyer back then,” Kathy Wallace said.

Classmate Jan Wagenknecht echoed that sentiment, saying the building was much larger than she expected.

“There were three flights of stairs to go up and down every day,” she said.

For Wallace, the stairs made her fearful of being late to class. For Wagenknecht, they made her fearful of missing lunch.

Being a sophomore, her locker was on the third floor. When the bell rang for lunch, she had to race to the parking lot to meet her brother at his car. Because he was a senior, his locker was on the first floor, and he got to the car faster.

Wagenknecht said if she wasn’t there fast enough he would leave without her. He did once, but her mother reprimanded him and the pair left for lunch together the rest of the year.

In school, Wallace was involved with the school newspaper, the Washingtonian. As the business manager, she was in charge of opening the checks and ensuring the advertising was paid for. Wagenknecht was involved in everything the art club was involved in.

“All through school I took all the art classes I could take,” she said.

Typing class was required, and students all had to use typewriters. When electric typewriters came out, Wallace said the school had five the students could take turns learning on.

Kevin Caldwell, another classmate, became involved with sports and was on the basketball and golf teams. As far as academics, his least favorite activity is one that stands the test of time with high schoolers today: dissecting frogs.

Mike Whittaker said school was not enjoyable for him because he did not learn how to study. Not until much later in life when he was studying for his stock broker’s license did he get the hang of it, he said.

“Everybody has to find their learning curve,” he said.

As the years progressed, the Vietnam War draft became more prevelant. Whittaker was drafted with a number of 35, making it incredibly likely he would serve. However, a medical issue prevented him from going.

Whittaker said he grew up in a military family and wanted to serve, but never had the opportunity. For him, it was a way out of school.

Wagenknecht said that was a common story at the time, and many people they knew were drafted.

“There were a lot of people that we knew that died and a lot of friends that were just a couple of years older than us in the service,” she said.

Caldwell had a high draft number, in the 300s, but because he was in college at Northeast Missouri State, now Truman State University, he never had to enlist.

Although protests were shown all over TV, students were not allowed to make political statements in the classroom. All boys were required to have their hair cut above their ears. Those who refused faced expulsion.

Whittaker said a few classmates met that fate, and a few others took the issue to court. However, Whittaker did not let shorter hair stop him from having a good time.

Once, he and a group of buddies attended a Three Dog Night concert in Des Moines – a life changing moment, he recalled.

“I came out a hippie,” he said with a laugh, commenting on the bell bottom jeans that were the latest fashion craze at the time.

Outside of school, the popular hangouts were Winga’s and the State Cafe, a small restaurant adjacent to the State Theater.

Caldwell said his favorite stop was the Chocolate Shop, but getting in was tricky because the establishment served alcohol. Minors were not allowed in.

With gas prices so low, Whittaker said students would drive all around the county. An A & W drive-in in West Chester was a popular hangout spot.

Caldwell said the drive-in movie theater in Washington was one of his favorites and where he was first able to see “King Kong vs. Godzilla.”

As the years progressed the technology changed, too. Wagenknecht said cellphones were never a thought as their phones were attached to the wall. Wallace said she had a telephone party line on her block and being a chatty teenager was frowned upon by her neighbors who wanted to use the line.

In school, everyone was in the same class. Diversity was virtually nonexistant with only one Black student in the entire building.

Special education students, too, had a tough time, Wagenknecht said, as there was only one class and two teachers allotted to handle all of the students. Learning disabilities were not diagnosed or discussed, and each student had to fend for themselves.

Whittaker said this was especially a challenge for him. Some teachers would publicly shame the students who did not succeed instead of offering assistance, he said.

However, one class he was able to succeed in was drafting, which eventually lead to Mr. Eichelberger’s wood shop class in high school.

Looking back, the classmates agreed they learned many lessons, but one of the most important ones was to respect and value each other.

“We learned how to get along with people,” Wallace said.

“You had your ups and downs, but I don’t think we ever had any fights,” Wagenknecht agreed.

Every five years they try to plan a reunion. The 50th reunion this year was postponed due to the pandemic. However, the classmates are looking forward to getting together once more as soon as its safe to do so.