By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Reunion dredges up memories of Ceres High School 60 years ago
IMG 4135
Caroline Bowers Sherman met up with former school chum Ken Leuenhagen during last weeks 60th anniversary reunion. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

A little fewer than 100 people gathered in Oakdale on Thursday to rekindle younger days at Ceres High School dating back 60 years ago.

Marge McKnight Derby, who has remained in Ceres following a successful teaching career, organized the reunion of the class of 1953 and looks back with fond memories of her days at Ceres High School.

"We really did live in a good generation," said Derby. "The Korean War was ceased a month before we graduated. Very few were military men so I can't think of anyone who was in the Vietnam War. We all had summer jobs so unemployment was low and the price of gas was pretty cheap. It was just a good time. I think and reflect on my grandchildren and think, oh wow, it's far different."

A total of 98 seniors graduated in 1953 from CHS, which had a sum total of about 500 students on campus. Because of the significant loss of classmates since then, the class of 1953 decided to include 1954 class graduates in Thursday's reunion at the Oakdale Golf & Country Club. A total of 93 grads and their guests signed up.

"We have lost half of the class or more," said Derby.
"Many we can't find. We don't where they are."

Some members were shocked to see new classmate photos added to the memorial board. Frank Malone's photo was up since he died since the last reunion.

The class had been meeting every five years but increased it to every other year now because, Derby said, "we're just losing too many in our class much too rapidly."

Derby's face lit up when Bob Earl, 80, walked tall into the luncheon, recalling how he was the class' most popular graduate who played all sports while at CHS. Having retired as a Stanislaus County Sheriff's marshal in 1990, Earl still plays senior softball and lives in San Andreas. The active senior who cut back from a four-game-per-week schedule last year to double headers every Thursdays, was recently inducted into the Stanislaus Senior Softball Association Hall of Fame.

"When I think back on the community and these people, we were a family, nothing like today," commented Earl. "Whenever somebody says, ‘Don't you wish you were younger?,' I say, no I had the good days. I feel sorry for my grandkids for what they've having to go through these days."

Derby's popularity was evident as she flittered around the room as a social butterfly. She was the daughter of town pharmacist Claude McKnight, a well-known and important figure in Ceres during that era. He served as mayor, a post he had to give up in 1939 when he moved his family out of the city limits to a home built at Hatch and Moffet. The McKnights farmed 40 acres of peaches on land that was once known as "Shady Neuk," the home and blacksmith shop of early-day blacksmith Robert Craig.

"In a small town like Ceres we knew everyone. My dad had the drug store and soda foundation in town, and knew every kid in town so I couldn't do anything, couldn't put anything over on him."

Derby's family is replete with locally significant people. Her mother was a Parks and her aunt was Virginia "Betty" Parks for whom the Ceres school is named. Her dad's sister, Eleanor McKnight Haines, is the namesake for the Johansen High School Performing Arts Theatre.

Derby and her classmates recounted the school traditions during the days when Nicholas Koschell was the principal and Fleming Haas was vice principal. Haas, a chemistry teacher, later became principal.

"Everybody turned out for a football game and we filled out the gym for basketball," said Derby. "We were very supportive. The dance floor was filled after a football game. We had one of the best marching band and orchestra. Everyone wanted to be in band. Bert Stevens was our band director and we never came back with less than a superior score. Junior and senior plays were big too."

Jack Wilson, a 1953 grad, recalled Coach Wayne Harden and the championship teams of 1951 and 1952. Wilson, a telecommunications engineer who retired from the state Department of Water Resources, drove down from Sacramento.

In leisure time, classmates enjoyed hanging out at Hendy's Drive-In, Ceres' version of an authentic American Graffiti drive-in burger establishment, or dragging Modesto's Tenth Street to hang out Burgess' Drive-In.

"We were American Graffiti," commented Derby. "We really were. We had the white buck shoes and rolled-down socks and the guys in their Levis and T-shirts with the sleeves rolled up. We had the poodle like skirts."

A few classmates lamented that their parents didn't attend their games or watch their plays.

"Parents worked hard to become upwardly mobile and a lot of them didn't have the time to attend the games," surmised Derby.

Because of their example, many of the graduates learned the value of hard work.

"We went out into the world and did quite well for ourselves," said Derby. "We had all assorted occupations. Many went into real estate or worked in commercial properties. A lot became teachers or nurses."

Classmate Charles Reynolds, who became a very successful home builder and title company owner, arrived and was recognized by virtually everyone.

Sid Long, who took over his family's Superior Fruit Ranch in operation today growing produce between Ceres and Hughson, also attended the reunion with his wife. Long served on the Turlock Irrigation District board of directors for many years.

Derby recalls that classmates, nurse Martha Thompson Johnson - now deceased - had her fingerprints all over the Stanislaus County disaster plan when it was drafted.

George "Bud" Norwood, a popular student and key class leader who became student body president, showed up Thursday after a 10-year hiatus from reunions. Now living in Trophy Club, Texas, Norwood became a Del Monte Cannery executive and well-off. When he was a child, Bud was the shoeshine boy at Ceres Barber Shop, which was owned by Chub Sterling and his father, J.D. Norwood.

Norwood recalled also working for Claude McKnight, who became like a father after his own dad was killed in 1952 when a gust of wind flipped his small plane into the drink at Don Pedro Reservoir as he tipped a wing to anglers in a boat.

"I did whatever he wanted done," said Norwood of McKnight, who died in 1980. "I'd make soda pop at the ice cream bar, stocked shelves, cleaned windows, swept floors and cleaned his car. He had a Mercedes Gullwing. And I worked a lot on his ranch. I was just a poor kid since my dad was a barber. So he would always give me jobs when I wanted the money. As time went on, he and I became very good friends. He counseled me a lot about what to do after high school. He was a trusted friend."

Derby herself found success by being selected as 25 of about 200 who tried out for a pilot program where San Francisco State University offered summer college classes for teaching credentials in the Valley. She taught school in Turlock starting at age 18. She remained there four years and then paused from work to raise a family.

"Those were the June Cleaver days. Your goal was to stay home and take care of your children."

When her youngest child was old enough to attend junior high, Marge went back to teaching. She taught special education at Caswell Elementary School in Ceres in the early 1980s and retired in 1999.

Caroline Bowers Sherman, a Hughson resident, enjoyed her reunion visit. Caroline remembers bringing an idea to Ceres High from her native Imperial Valley. As a journalism student, she suggested the idea of creating the football princess contest where votes could be sold for charity. Sherman also became what was the forerunner of a Homecoming Queen.

Sherman, who operated the Feed Lot restaurant in Ceres from 1992 to 1999, has pledged to take over the reunion effort in the future.

Also attending was Oakdale's Annette Service VanNorman, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ceres pioneers John and Julia Service.

"It was kind of an important name in Ceres because we were the second ones to arrive," said VanNorman. "The Whitmores were ahead of us."

Ken Leuenhagen shared how he hated high school until his senior year. When the school hired a track coach in Guy Wilson his high school experience turned around.

With a twinkle in his eye, he pointed out pictures of two girls on the memorial board. "She was a good kisser" bragged Leuenhagen over the photo of Lela Peyton. The other "good kisser" was Diane Koschell, the principal's daughter.

"My senior year they had to damn near kick me out. I didn't want school to ever end."