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Class of '53 still close after 65 years
• Less than half the class is still living
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Friday’s 65th anniversary reunion of the Ceres High School class of 1953 gave a chance for classmates Muriel Bradley Wilson (left) and June McCarter Lutes to catch up on each other and share in happy memories. The event was held at Pastas Pronto. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Despite the passing of 65 years, members of the Ceres High School class of 1953 proved they remain a close group of friends as they turned out for their 65th anniversary reunion held Friday at Pastas Pronto in Ceres.

“Many of them we’ve lost,” said Marge McKnight Derby, a retired teacher who organized the reunion. “I started doing this every year. For a while I did it every two years and then I finally looked at everybody and said, ‘you think maybe we’d be better off with it every year?’”

Over half of the 98-member class has passed away but Friday’s gathering drew around 44 classmates, many attending with longtime spouses. Derby proudly noted that more Ceres High graduates show up for her class reunions than do Modesto High School class of 1953.

“Percentage wise, we overshadow them every time there is a reunion,” said Derby. “Our class comes together.”

Bob Earl, 85 and now living in San Andreas, fondly recalled the good times with his classmates. He was one of the class’ more popular graduates, having played all sports while at CHS. He retired as a Stanislaus County Sheriff’s marshal in 1990. He survived a serious accident but said he has played eight softball games this year. The active senior was inducted into the Stanislaus Senior Softball Association Hall of Fame.

“We were close to each other back in ’53 and we still are.”
Bob Earl, member of Ceres High's class of 1953

“We were close to each other back in ’53 and we still are,” noted Earl, a former Sheriff’s marshal. “It was a unique community that, when you needed something, they all came together and pretty much stayed together.”

Derby chimed in: “And everything we wanted was on Fourth Street.”

Derby’s father was pharmacist Claude McKnight, a well-known figure in Ceres of that era. He served as mayor, a post he had to give up in 1939 when he moved his family past the city limits to a home at Hatch and Moffet. When Marge’s father learned that Gus Pallios was moving his Richland Market from the southwest corner of Richland Avenue and Evans Road, he pronounced “this is the beginning of the end of downtown” and said, “Ceres will never be the same.”

“I remember,” said Derby, “when he took me to see the first Long’s Drug Store that ever came to Modesto and he said, ‘This is the end of a pharmacy. You are now going to see what new drug stores are like and you can buy oil for your car in them.’ ”

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1953 graduate Paul Lytle enjoyed visiting his old classmates on Friday.

Myron “Andy” Anderson of Oakdale came to the event, shocked at seeing how his old workplace, the Ceres Post Office, was transformed into an Italian restaurant.

“It was spooky,” said Anderson of walking through the door.

Anderson played high school football under Coach Wayne Harden and helped the Bulldogs become the Valley Oak League champs in 1949 or 1950.

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Marge Derby and Joanne Ludden catch up with each other. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Sitting around Derby’s booth were her lifelong friend and classmate Joanne Ludden and her CHS class of 1951 husband Tom Ludden. He was the son of Chesley Ludden who served as mayor from 1954 to 1956 but stepped down once he moved outside of Ceres to work for Albers Feed & Feed. Ludden did, however, become Ceres’ city manager in 1956. 

“Joanne lived on the west side and went to Westport School so those of us who thought we were the only ones who existed from Ceres Grammar School once we got to high school, we had a whole another set of friends,” explained Derby.

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Ceres High School class of 1953 graduates Sid Long, Marge McKnight Derby and Bob Early were among those who came to a 65th anniversary class reunion on Friday. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Lisa Mantarro Moore, whose father was a member of the class of 1953, helped Derby organize the reunion. She also announced that lunch was on her boss, state Assemblyman Adam Gray who was impressed that the class still has strong ties.

“This is a lot of people for a class,” said Moore. “I mean, my class reunion wasn’t this big.”

“We’re pretty much a tight-knit group to be 83 years old and have this many show up,” commented Caroline Bowers Sherman. “It’s pretty good.”

In 1959 with then husband Doug Lane, Caroline opened and operated Doug’s Den, a pizza parlor where Family Pizza is located today. She later ran The Feed Lot restaurant from 1993 to 2000 in the former Moffet family house, which was moved to Mitchell Road (now home to Las Cascada Mexican Restaurant). She then leased the building to Frank Machado who operated The Elegant Bull for three years.

Sherman, now a Denair resident, remembers arriving in Ceres in 1945 when about 2,500 residents lived in Ceres. While in high school she worked weekends as an usher and cashier at Ceres’ walk-in theater once occupying the Fourth Street building across from Wells Fargo Bank. Strong in her mind was an incident in which a Charles Strombaugh walked up behind her and clapped her ears. “It really messed my ears up for a while.”

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Kenny Leuenhagen of Ceres, a member of the class of 1953, converses with a classmate. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Classmate Sid Long, who has enjoyed an illustrious career as one of the owners and manager of Superior Fruit Ranch east of Ceres, and who served on the Turlock Irrigation District board director, attended with his wife Carol, a 1954 CHS graduate. Long now suffers from congestive heart failure and uses a walker to get around. He remarked how it was nice to see his old friends.

“It’s terrible having a 30-year-old mind and an 82-year-old body,” said Long. “I think like I can do when I was 30 but …”

June McCarter Lutes and husband Harold drove down from Medford, Oregon for the event. They enjoyed lunch next to Muriel Bradley Wilson and her husband, class of 1954 graduate Rhodus “Rod” Wilson, now of Manteca. June and Muriel shared a laugh about the time they played hooky and drove to Columbia for the day.

“We sent a card back to the school (and) told them that we ditched,” said Muriel. “We confessed but the bad part of it was a bunch of other kids ditched the same day – and we didn’t know about – so they had to give us detention.”

Muriel observed that many graduates in the class stayed married for life.

“Divorce was just not heard of back when we grew up,” said Wilson. “They just didn’t marry and divorce.”

Drugs were also unheard of – with the possible exception of the “one or two” attending CHS who were known to dabble in them, she said.

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Reunion guests Tom Ludden (left), a 1954 CHS graduate, and John Derby, husband of 1953 grad Marge Derby chat at the reunion.

“It was a good school. A good time to go to schools,” said Muriel. “We thoroughly enjoyed it. You can tell we all enjoy each other.”

Paul Lytle of Turlock has faithfully attended all the reunions.

“All my classmates look great. I started second grade in Ceres schools so I grew up with most of these people. We’ve lost a lot of really special ones, believe me but we’ve got a lot of special ones left.”

To Lytle, growing up in Ceres was “the best of times – great times, absolutely.”

“After World War II into the late 40’s and early 50’s, anybody could work that wanted to work. I don’t think we’ll ever see those times again.”

Principal Fleming Haas was also his football coach.

“Back in those days, when he was the coach, we could maybe play hooky a day and get away with it but that was about it,” said Paul, a former Turlock Irrigation District ditch tender, now known as “water distribution operators.” He retired as a water operations manager.

John Kelley, who came to Ceres from Oklahoma at age 10, remembers being the envy of his classmates for owning a 1940 Ford which everyone wanted to go drag Modesto’s Tenth Street and hang out at Hendy’s Drive-In in Ceres.

“My brother gave it to me but it was almost in parts. I had to buy parts at the wrecking yards to put it all back together again. I remember getting a ticket for mufflers being too loud.”

Kelley remembers how peach orchards surrounded Ceres, and of the nights where he ventured up into the bell tower of the Baptist Church to catch pigeons. He kept them in cages until he sold some at the flea market. He explained that the reunions have long been a priority for his attendance but fears he may not be able to attend many in the future. “I probably won’t be able to any more because I’m 85 years old now so it’s about over with.” He reported having had a heart valve replacement and said his mind is “starting to fade.”

Missing the reunion again for another year was Jim Burgett who became famous as a singer in South Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1961 Burgett recorded for Columbia Records the spooky ballad, “The Living Dead” and “Let’s Investigate.” Later he would marry his wife, Marlene Ricci, who toured with Frank Sinatra. Derby said Burgett, now living in Las Vegas, skipped the event to meet up with old friend singer Engelbert Humperdink on Sunday.

Also missing was classmate Don Nicholas, who hangs out in Maui and Borrego Springs. He was popular in the class for playing the drums at assemblies, said Derby.