Guest commentary The long road home to Beloit Memorial High

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By Jerry Huffman

I graduated from Beloit Memorial High School in the summer of 1974. And I spent most of the next 45 years pretending it never happened.

I didn't hate high school. In fact, most of my memories of those years are still good. The few athletic skills I had deserted me by the time I was a sophomore, but I always had a way with words. Words that I could turn into stories. Stories that eventually led to a journalism career and a desk drawer full of expired passports.

But I never went to go class reunions. I had no desire to look back and I never understood why. Excuses are easy when you live twelve time zones away. It was just too far but you guys have a good time and e-mail me some pictures, okay? Eventually, I married a Wisconsin girl I met in Germany, moved back to Madison, but I still wouldn't take that drive down I-90.

Yes, it would have meant stepping back through the looking glass but all of us would have had to. No one will remember me. Carol would be bored. With apologies to the Boss, my "Glory Days" were long gone and I preferred it that way. Until this year.

I had reconnected with several friends through Facebook and the stories flowed easily as we closed the gap of years. Joe Kobylka was still funny. Jan Buell Waters Harrison shared some touching memories of common friends. Bill Elliott had become a sailor. These were the people who mattered to me in high school and to my surprise, I mattered to them as well.

One of my oldest friends, and classmates, Teresa Clark Derfus, agreed to be my reunion date. I was thrilled and my wife was delighted as she was now off the hook. We talked about kids. Teresa had two whereas I chose backpacks over diapers.

The next morning, we were the first to arrive at the Fourth Street doors of the high school for a promised tour of our alma mater. Probably the smartest guy in our class, Byron Hadjokas, came walking across the parking lot like it was just another Saturday morning. Debra Hoppe Moon who always marched to her own drummer arrived, with pink highlights in her hair and sparkling like she was still a teenager.

Hugs and laughter replaced the nerves. Most of us hadn't seen each other since Richard Nixon was in the White House but we were all talking as easily as if we had seen each other in the cafeteria yesterday instead of nearly five decades ago.

John Kaminski, Memorial's current Assistant Principal threw open the doors and greeted us like old friends instead of returning gray hairs and grandparents. He was our tour guide and the man had stories to tell.

Memorial is much larger than it was in '74. In fact, Kaminski says BMHS is now Wisconsin's largest high school. The good souls of Beloit, in their infinite wisdom, bet on the kids by ratifying multiple referendum questions through the years. Diane Hendricks, a local businesswoman and philanthropist did her part by investing not only in the students but Beloit's future.

Clearly, Kaminski's affection for the 1,700 students and Memorial itself runs deep. He showed off a special student lounge called The Knight Spot. It takes a 3.00 average, good attendance, and nearly perfect behavior to get in.

State-of-the-art seems to be the standard in many ways at Memorial. There is a focus on education tracks that prepare students for a 21st century economy instead of assuming everyone should head to a four-year university.

Teresa and I went for the tour and a downtown lunch but begged off on the big party. Some of my old fears were still there and I was reluctant to go any least this time. Good wishes flooded my Facebook feed, all wishing Teresa and I well and hoping we would make it to the 50th.

In that moment I understood what I had dreaded all those years because of one classmate who wasn't there. Tasha Bolton and I dated a few times senior year. She had spent her junior year in Thailand and told me stories about a world I could only dream about. She pushed me to see the world. And I eventually did. Reporting from so many countries I've lost count.

Of course, I had skipped our five-year reunion. Teresa broke the news to me that Tasha had been killed in a car accident the year before. The young woman who lit the fire in me to travel and write was gone. That was the day I closed the door on high school. For me, Tasha represented the good things about high school and I couldn't have one without the other.

45 years later I opened it again and I'm so glad I did. Byron is a dentist. Deb helps American kids gets scholarships to overseas high school. Jan is a first-time "nana." Teresa, also a grandma, works in health care communications. I'm so grateful for these dear friends, and the teachers at Memorial who helped me find my life's path.

That morning I stood for a moment behind the school looking at the Rock River. I could hear someone laughing and have to wonder if it was Tasha needling me one more time. It had taken 45 years, but I finally got the point. True friends are always happy to see you no matter how long it's been.

Jerry Huffman is an Emmy award-winning journalist. He's reported from three continents and two war zones before coming home to Wisconsin, less than an hour from Beloit.

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