'Statehood' class of '59 returns in July

Posted: Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fifty years ago, 381 classmates and I collected our Anchorage High School diplomas on the stage of what is still called the "Anchorage High Auditorium," even though the school was long-ago renamed West High.

In July, those of my classmates who are still alive and so inclined will come together in Anchorage to celebrate statehood and the 50th anniversary of our graduation. If you are interested in the history of Anchorage and Alaska, and the kids who grew up in a Territory but graduated in a brand new state, you're invited. We've got some stories to tell.

Classmate Marti Turinsky sums up her life: "Flight attendant; ski bum; model; mother of nine; realtor; ... insurance career; realtor again; pilot; fisherman; hunter; back in Alaska where I belong, at least for the summers, winters in Arizona, now what more can you ask?"

Life changed for classmate Faye Braun and husband Jim Palin when her step-daughter-in-law ran for vice-president of the United States.

"Now we have to be careful what we say, and who we say it to," she writes on our class Web site.

Bruce Means was one of my best buddies; a tall, strapping fellow, who on the weekends helped his dad build a fabulous log home in the wilderness of Rabbit Creek. One evening in September of our sophomore year, Bruce and I hiked to just below the tree line on Flattop Mountain, pitched our tent, and drank, between the two of us, a full bottle of Old Granddad. Bruce was so excited by our developing intoxication that he leapt in the air, did a somersault, and suffered a back injury. It has bothered him ever since.

Notwithstanding our excesses, Bruce earned a doctorate in ecology, and has had a fascinating career living by his wits as a free-lance herpetologist, a reptile guy. He has named dozens of new species, needled the scientific establishment, and published more than 235 scientific and popular articles in journals, as diverse as the National Geographic and Herpetological Review.

Along the way he has endured life-threatening snakebites, and testified as an expert witness for federal prosecutors in the trial of a guy who attempted to murder someone by mailing the victim a venomous snake. His web site, http://www.brucemeans.com, says lecture fees are negotiable.

Another buddy, Ben Holeman garnered a national drag racing record, before going to work for the Alyeska pipeline in 1976 as a "materials buyer." After only a week on the job, Alyeska sent him to Houston with instructions to fix a problem with a critical supplier, a multi-million dollar company. Ben got the job done. Based on his success at Alyeska, he went on to a remarkable career "expediting" things for oil companies and shadowy U.S. government agencies in places like Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.

Today Ben owns a pristine 1957 Chevy, which I'm sure he will bring to the reunion, and is president of Alaska's largest car club. But I remember he and I sitting on the opposite window ledges of someone else's Chevy hardtop, zooming God-knows-how-fast up the Palmer highway, as we tried to slide open beer cans back and forth across the car's roof. It's hard to do, even sober. None of us were into drugs in those days, but we more than made up for it with alcohol. I'm surprised we survived.

Of course, some of us didn't. Accidents, alcoholism, depression and suicides harvested a number of my male classmates. Of the 382 who graduated we know of 31 who have died from all causes, but my demographic tables tell me the actual number is probably more like 85.

Like many of my classmates, the only view I wanted of Alaska when I graduated was in my rearview mirror. Most of us scattered, and fewer still, returned. Counting those that we know died, we've located less than half of our 382 classmates, and only 45 of those still live in Alaska. For many, our reunion will be their first time returning to Alaska in nearly 50 years.

As far as I have been able to determine, Anchorag''s class of '59 is the only one in the state to be holding a reunion in this statehood celebration year. Details on our reunion and registration information are available on our class Web site at http://www.classreport.org/usa/ak/anchorage/ahs/1959/.

All are welcome, including graduates in classes before and after, and anyone - young or old - who wants to come. I guarantee you will be welcome, and I guarantee that you will not have the chance again.

• Juneau economic consultant Gregg Erickson is editor-at-large of the Alaska Budget Report. E-mail, gerickson@alaska.com.

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