The North Platte High School Class of 1969 is celebrating its 50th year reunion this weekend in North Platte. I was one of 354 graduates in our class, the largest class in the school’s history, according to The North Platte Telegraph reporting at the time.
1969 was a tumultuous time in our nation’s history. There was certainly cause to be pessimistic: The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy (who campaigned in North Platte from the back of a train in a whistle-stop tour across Nebraska) had occurred the year before. The Vietnam War was escalating, with over 28,000 American soldiers killed in action in 1968-69. War protests and rioting filled the nightly television news. There was also reason to be optimistic: a month later (50 years ago this weekend), Apollo 11 landed on the moon, fulfilling John Kennedy’s vision and promise.
The idealism and zeitgeist of the era was captured in our class motto, “Take the world as you find it and leave it better.” The spirit was aptly captured in the words of Colleen Shanahan, one of our class commencement speakers (as quoted in The Telegraph): “Difficult days need not be dark ones. We have been taught to challenge rather than accept the wrongs of the world, taught to defy cynicism and live life nobly and honestly ... to live for a dream.”
But I as think back on my days at North Platte High School, it is not these large world events that I remember, but the personal relationships with friends and teachers. More than 50 years later, I can hear clearly the bell ring as we scurry down the halls to our classrooms, and I can see the teachers, surrounded by chalkboards, waiting for us to take our appointed seats. If it is a test day, I can still feel the butterflies as the teacher passes out the exam.
I believe I can recall most, if not all, my teachers, and to pick out some for special praise is not to overlook the others — I’m sure if you talked to those of us at our 50th year reunion this weekend about their favorite or memorable teachers, you would cover almost all of the NPHS teachers from 1969. But three come especially to my mind as I reminisce: Larry Romeiser, our band director; Margaret (Mag) Morton, our math teacher; and Connie Spence, the debate/speech teacher/coach.
From Mr. Romeiser, who led the North Platte High School Band for more than two decades, I learned discipline. I still remember that when someone was a minute late for band, holding up our practice, he would tell the offender, “You’re one minute late, but there’s 80 of us here waiting for you, so you’ve wasted 80 minutes of time.” He could be gruff at times, but was always fair. He worked our tails off, preparing for the football halftime shows, the Nebraskaland Days parade and college football band days. It’s hard to believe now, but back then the band would travel to the University of Nebraska and University of Colorado band-day football games, when high school bands were used to help fill up the stadiums, playing en masse on the field at halftime.
From Ms. Morton, I learned preparation. Ms. Morton was brilliant and taught us algebra, trigonometry and geometry. The walls of her classroom were filled with chalkboards, and her teaching method was to send as many students as there were chalkboards up to the boards, one section per student, to work out the math problems she gave us. Standing at the blackboard, you couldn’t fake it, and she could see where you were having problems. You had to do your homework and be prepared, or be ready to work out your lack of preparation in front of the whole class. Ms. Morton was always fair but tenacious and wouldn’t give up until you could show her that you understood the solution.
From Ms. Spence, I learned enthusiasm for learning. She was the new North Platte High School debate coach, a recent graduate of UNL herself, full of enthusiastic energy and encouragement. The debate and speech classes were held in Room 400, at the top of the high school building tower (I miss the old building with such character), and what fun we had up there: picking candidates in the 1968 elections and arguing for or against them, staking out positions on the Vietnam War, and vigorously debating them with each other. Back then we went to the library to find our facts in articles listed in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and handwrite quotations onto 4-by-6-inch notecards!
Only in retrospect do I realize how hard these teachers worked, and how many hours beyond the regular work day they put in. Mr. Romeiser leading marching band practices down neighborhood streets at 7 in the morning, directing nighttime concerts and taking buses full of noisy, energetic students to Lincoln and Boulder. Ms. Spence driving the debate team crammed in a high school station wagon to Omaha, Lincoln and all over the state for debate and speech tournaments. Not to mention reading and grading our papers and tests that all teachers do at home at night and on the weekends.
And I never thanked them.
I played baritone in the high school brass sextet, and at Christmas time, Mr. Romeiser would take us to play for the Rotary at the Pawnee Hotel. To this day, I cannot hear a brass ensemble play Christmas music without getting a tear in my eye, replaying those memories. Mr. Romeiser taught me to enjoy beautiful music.
After my high school and college education, I became a lawyer, and to this day, I give Ms. Spence the credit for giving me the confidence and experience to stand up and make my legal arguments. And even though I don’t use my high school math much (those brain cells have gone into permanent hibernation), to this day, I give Ms. Morton the credit for understanding the importance of preparation before you make your presentation.
So it is 50 years too late, but this is a thank you to all those teachers who taught us, the Class of 1969, at North Platte High School.
And, just as importantly, a thank you now to all those teachers who taught those who graduated from North Platte High School in 2019. I guarantee you teachers that you will be remembered and appreciated in many more ways than you know and that in the year 2069, there will more than one former student at the 50th reunion of the NPHS Class of 2019 who will be looking back and fondly remembering you and what you meant to them. That is a wonderful legacy.
Dennis Fogland, North Platte High School Class of 1969, lives and practices law in Omaha.