Teenagers declared their ambitions alongside photos of their smiling faces in a high school yearbook.

They planned to become teachers, pharmacists, secretaries, chemists, dentists, nurses, business owners, doctors and mechanics. Their yearbook's foreword said the young graduates would "add their star ... to the universe of life."

Such journeys begin this time of year. In a few weeks, Vigo County's high school seniors will start their futures after picking up diplomas.

Back in 1947, 241 seniors graduated from Wiley High School in downtown Terre Haute. They were the aforementioned group preparing to hang their star in the sky.

Today, the surviving members of Wiley's Class of '47 are in their early 90s. Their old school — built in 1885 — closed in 1971 and was quickly torn down. At least a few of Class of '47 members plan to reunite this summer, just as they've done every five years since donning caps and gowns all those years ago. They'll gather July 2 at the Saratoga Restaurant. It will be their 75-year class reunion.

"We talk about it, but nobody's heard of a 75th," said retired Terre Haute businessman and Wiley Class of '47 member Bernie Carney, now 92.

Indeed, 75th high school class reunions are rare. Most recently, high school classes reunited 75 years after graduating in places like Columbus, Indiana in 2016; Fitchburg, Massachusetts in 2018; and Concord, Florida in 2019. Folks at the Vigo County Educational Heritage Association Museum on Lafayette Avenue couldn't recall a local high school 75th class reunion.

"Fifty is easy, but 75 is just exceptionally hard to do," said Sandy Billing, a retired teacher and museum volunteer. "But the Wiley people will be determined. They're such a tight, well-knit group."

The class's 50th anniversary gathering drew 150 people in 1997. Five years ago, 30 people attended the 70th reunion for Wiley's Class of '47. "Some of those, we've lost already. And some can't travel," Bill Streeter, a Class '47 member, said Monday by phone from his home in Kingwood, Texas near Houston.

Streeter, now 92, intends to travel to Terre Haute for the class's 75th reunion. So far, six alums and six relatives have committed to be there. Carney hopes to locate other alums, spread across several states. Perhaps as many as 40 are still living, he said.

They all graduated just two years after World War II ended. A post-war baby boom had begun. The nation's fascination with the automobile was blooming. Social changes were coming in America. Terre Haute was in a growth spurt, and its population would peak at 71,700 just 13 years after the Class of '47 graduated.

Mark Bennett: 75th class reunions are rare; so is Wiley's Class of '47

Courtesy Vigo County Public Library Special CollectionsAlma mater: This photo of the Wiley High School entrance appeared in the 1947 edition of the school’s yearbook, The Wileyan. Seventy-five years later, the Class of ‘47 plans to reunite on July 2 in Terre Haute.

It was a unique time to be a Wiley Red Streak.

"When I was in high school, I felt that we were in a very special place at a very special time," said Class of '47 member Maryanne Burke Battistini by phone from her home in Avon. "We were mischievous, but we didn't do anything bad."

Battistini's family experienced the hard times of the Great Depression in Terre Haute. Her dad, a local prosecuting attorney, died unexpectedly in 1938. Her mother took a job as a school teacher to support the family. Her brother served in the military overseas in the war. Americans rationed gasoline and tires during World War II. Many families couldn't afford cars.

"I walked everywhere I went," Battistini said.

Nonetheless, she and her Wiley friends managed to find fun, like swimming in local strip pits. "Some of my friends invited us to go to the country club, but we had so much fun at the strip pits, we'd rather go there," Battistini recalled with a laugh.

A dean at Wiley, Thelma Jobe, influenced Battistini's career choice. "Because of her, I got my master's degree and became a guidance counselor," Battistini said. She retired after 47 years in education, finishing at Merrillville High School in northern Indiana.

"I've traveled to a lot of places, and all my memories come back to Terre Haute," the 92-year-old Battistini said. She captured many of those recollections in her 2004 book, "Hometown Potpourri."

Those memories include strolling along Wabash Avenue and shopping at an array of department stores. "I used to love walking downtown," Battistini said. "Downtown Terre Haute was unique. The stores could not be any more elegant than if they were in downtown Chicago."

Streeter — a retired insurance agency owner — played football at Wiley, liked physics class, hated Latin, and learned about the world from English teacher Gertrude Kearns. He later served in the U.S. Navy and wound up in England, where he visited Westminster Abbey, the historic church of the British royals. Streeter's studies in Kearns' class featured that famed structure.

"I wrote [Kearns] a letter that said I felt like I'd already been there," Streeter said.

The Class of '47 also included the acclaimed American philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, who died in 2017. Dreyfus delivered a commencement speech "A New World" to his classmates at their graduation ceremony on June 12, 1947. He later earned degrees at Harvard, taught at MIT and California-Berkeley, and wrote pivotal critiques of artificial intelligence and the landmark 1972 book "What Computers Can't Do." The animated TV sitcom "Futurama" character Professor Hubert Farnsworth is partly based on Dreyfus, thanks to a former student being one of the show's writers.

Dreyfus attended a few Wiley reunions. "Hubert was not the most outgoing person," Streeter said, "but he was very accomplished."

Some former Wiley teachers attended the Class of '47 reunions years ago, including Red Streaks football coach George Ashworth.

"He said this was the best class at the best time for this school," Carney remembered the coach saying to the '47 alums. "Of course, Ashworth probably told that to every graduating class." Carney chuckled.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

React to this story:



Trending Video

Recommended for you