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Count your age by friend - not years
by Valerie Davia
"I have good news for you, the first 80 years are the hardest," shared Mary Janet Winter Damon in a note to her fellow members of Columbia's Class of 1940. "And the second 80 are a succession of birthday parties."
The Class of 1940 started celebrating the second 80 in style at their ninth reunion in this 62nd year since high school graduation. "Even though we had a reunion two years ago, turning 80 is a great excuse for a party," explained committee secretary Jean Nason Stobaeus, together with committee treasurer and husband Dick Stobaeus. "We wanted to meet again before we started to lose more classmates."
In Canoe Brook Country Club's festively decorated Vista Room, Stobaeus greeted 52 of her classmates in her high school era "beer jacket," a cotton canvas coat adorned with athletic letters, awards, and the faded signatures of childhood friends. The jacket was specially cleaned for the event but sure didn't need letting out, since Stobaeus looks as though she can swing a tennis racket every bit as well as she did during her days as a student athlete.
At 80 years, the attending classmates shared Stobaeus' upbeat attitude and energetic vigor. At one table where "you had to have a letter to sit," former football stars Bob Agnew and Jack Van Ness reminisced about their senior season in which they won eight out of nine games. "Six of them in the last quarter," noted Van Ness, as if it were yesterday, "and some of those in the last play." Anne Scott Agnew, a member of the class of'42 and Bob's wife of 58 years, declared it "Columbia's most exciting season ever with all of the late wins." (Or could it be because she was watching her future husband score so many touchdowns!) "Jack Van Ness was our all purpose guy," adds Bob Agnew, "and he still has the longest punt (79 yards) in Columbia football history." Surprised to learn about the three girls on today's squad, both men shared their concern that it might create a "hesitancy to fully engage."
United in football glory, these classmates share a lot more than fond school memories. Agnew and his brother Bill (Class of'33) unexpectedly found each other at the military hospital in Guam, one with a chest wound and one with a leg wound, after fighting with their separate units on Okinawa. During their recuperation, Jack Van Ness' submarine happened to dock and the three shared what Bob declared "the best meal I had during the war." Meanwhile, Anne Scott Agnew, who'd married Bob while he was on leave in 1944, anxiously waited for news with countless other soldiers' wives at a time when information didn't travel with electronic speed.
As a sophomore at MIT, Leonard Harris was waiting for class to begin on Monday, December 8, 1941. The professor arrived to report what had happened the day before at Pearl Harbor, ending prophetically, "Everyone in this room is going to be involved in this, believe me." By the next year, Harris, along with nearly all of his Columbia classmates, had left college or work to join the armed services. He looks back: "We were as unprepared as imaginable. In 1339, the army was training with sticks because they simply didn't have enough guns. But by 1942, the entire country was incredibly well organized."
Female classmates were not left behind in the effort. Many enlisted, like Ethel Christie Smith, who served as a nurse and army officer at Fort Dir and in the Marianas Islands in the Pacific. She was among the first group of Americans to visit the site of Hiroshima after the bombing. But amidst the horrors of the war though, she also met her husband, a junior officer with whom she was not allowed to fraternize. "We had to sneak around," she confessed. "It's a real love story." At age 20, Jean Stobaeus donned a uniform to become Maplewood's first Coast Guard SPAR (short for "semper paratus," the Coast Guard's motto meaning "Always Ready"). Others worked for government agencies or the private sector, churning out the paperwork and products needed for war.
Nancy Forsberg blazed the way for women on a different field. She worked her way through college and seminary to become an ordained Congregational Church minister, the only one of the three women in her Yale Divinity School class to do so. After the war she served as a volunteer in rebuilding efforts in Holland and later on a kibbutz in Israel. "It was fun being a pioneer," she smiles, "but that's not why I did it. It was my calling. I love God and I love people. And I always felt accepted in that, wherever I went."
To a large extent, the challenges of their times defined the Class of 1940 and they rightly belong among those honored by journalist Tom Brokaw as "the greatest generation." Brokaw writes: "...1940 was the fulcrum of America in the twentieth century, when the nation was balanced precariously between the darkness of the Great Depression on one side and the storms of war in Europe and the Pacific on the other." Full of admiration for their courage and sacrifices, Brokaw credits these young people with shaping the world as we know it today. "At every stage of their lives, they were part of historic challenges and achievements of a magnitude the world had never before witnessed."
Yet as Brokaw learned when researching his 1998 book, their inspiring stories are not readily shared. They are a group with "towering achievement and modest demeanor," claims Brokaw, "a legacy of their formative years when they were participants in and witness to sacrifices of the highest order. " True to form, the reunited friends of the Class of 1940 preferred to laugh about high school moments of 60- something years ago, recall inspiring teachers, and discuss the world's many changes than to recount their achievements as members of Brokaw's venerable age group.
Every one of these loyal alums praised Columbia as being the "greatest of schools." Fred Blum, now living in Cranford, reported that it had the highest scholastic rating in NJ and was second only to Boston Latin in the entire country. Nearly 85% of the class went on to college immediately after graduation, especially remarkable at a time when a college education was not the norm, even for those from relatively affluent families. Edward Sternberg, now retired and living in Knoxville, TN, "graduated from college in three years by having taking the honors curriculum at Columbia." Ed Feeley of Hackettstown went to work right out of high school but eventually studied at Ohio State. "I was surprised by how well prepared I was. We grew up in an era of hard work and discipline but the teachers at Columbia had a lot to do with it."
One such teacher was Anna B. Caswell, Latin teacher and guidance counselor for Dick Campbell, now a resident of Manasquan. "I didn't plan to go to college," he reports, "but Miss Caswell insisted that I take college prep courses." Campbell graduated, went to work and then to war. At age 23 he applied to Newark College of Engineering. "I told you so," was all Miss Caswell said," Campbell remembered, adding that he'll never forget her.
Bruce Hopping of Laguna Beach, CA claimed not to have been the best student himself but sees "a definite relationship between the education at Columbia and the success classmates have had in a wide range of professions." Hopping runs a foundation that supports student athletes. "Combining sports and academics helps kids develop self esteem so they wont want to do things that hurt them. It's a real immunization against drugs."
Comparing current times to those when they began their adult lives, many class members lamented that it's a more difficult world. "It's much harder to raise children today," asserts Hank Niemitz, Maplewood resident and member of the reunion committee. "As children of the depression we didn't have a lot and we didnt expect a lot; we learned the value of not wasting anything." Stuart Hammond from Florham Park agrees with his childhood friend: "Youngsters have too much today. We wanted to give our kids everything we thought we lacked, so we started the ball rolling but now it's out of hand."
"I don't know if we're the greatest generation," concludes Len Harris, "but we're definitely the luckiest. We came out of depression and war but then there was such tremendous growth, you were almost guaranteed to make a good living. Times were simpler but we were good at making our own fun."
Judging from the birthday reunion, fun is something the Columbia High Class of 1940 continues to be quite good at.
Valerie Davia appreciated gaining a better understanding of her parents generation through meeting the members of the Class of 1940.