Stadium Grads, now in their 90s, have a grand old time

The ice didn’t really need breaking with this crowd, but Herman Kleiner did it anyway.

Cradling a microphone in one hand, he said, “Welcome to the amalgamated reunion of four classes of ... old people.”

The laughter set the tone for Saturday’s reunion of some of Stadium High School’s most senior graduates — members of the classes of 1939, 1940, 1941 and 1942.

More than 2,000 people graduated from Stadium in those years, but, over time, the number who still make it to reunions has fallen to fewer than 4 dozen — all of them in their 90s.

With spouses and caretakers who came along to push wheelchairs, there were just enough to fill seven eight-person tables at the banquet room at Joeseppi’s Italian Ristorante on North Pearl Street.

The group included writers, professors, government workers, engineers, real estate developers and career military men, all of whom shared the experience of attending Tacoma’s iconic cliffside school and having had the good genes and good fortune to outlive most of their contemporaries.

Kleiner and his wife, Barbara, organized Saturday’s gathering, as they have many times over the years.

“I do it because I can’t get enough of the people,” Kleiner said. “I can’t get enough of the Class of ’39. When they leave this world, it’s like I lost a part of my family.”

According to a yellowed copy of the school newspaper, The Stadium World, from April 14, 1939, that year’s class may have been the second largest since Stadium’s opening, with 663 students — 349 girls and 314 boys.

Many of the boys wound up in the armed forces soon after graduation. Quite a few never came back home. Understandably, the war was still a topic of reunion conversation.

Harvey Johnson, who turns 93 this week, said he was drafted after the Battle of the Bulge. For part of the time, he said, one of his superior officers was Jimmy Stewart, the actor. “He was so tall, when he went by in a Jeep all you could see was these knees sticking up.”

The great thing about high school reunions at his age, Johnson said, is that nobody’s trying to impress anybody anymore.

“I didn’t age with beauty,” he said, “but the biggest thing is, I don’t worry about it anymore. I’ve got a little dog at home, so I’m fine. I just take one day at a time.”

“Why worry?” he said. “Does it do a damn bit of good? No.”

Esther Walker, 92, an author who writes under the pen name E.G. Walker and is now legally blind, traveled to the reunion from her home in Indio, California.

Walker is proud of having gone to Stadium, she said, so much so that she keeps a picture of the school on a wall of her home.

According to the 1939 yearbook, Walker was known as “Red,” but in fact, she said, she was barely known at all.

“I was a klutz,” she said. “I was shy. I came to the 25th reunion and no one knew me. I came to the 50th, and by that time the number of people had dwindled down so they knew who I was.”

“Stadium was a great school,” Walker said. “I loved the teachers, and I loved the ambience of the school. You could do so much. We weren’t controlled the way kids are now. We were pretty much loose and pretty much fun.”

Doris Driscoll Floyd, Nita Hanssen and Nina Hansen Larson, members of the class of 1942, sat side by side at lunch, something it turns out they’ve been doing for decades.

“We’ve been together since first grade,” Hanssen said. “We went through all the schools together.”

“I think kids stayed together more than they do these days.”

Ed Hungerford brought his old Class of ’39 yearbook from his home in Ashland, Oregon. He still has it, he said, because as the assistant yearbook editor, he got an extra one. “It survived by accident,” he said, “It wasn’t a conscious treasure thing.”`

Hungerford said he most liked English classes at Stadium and wound up teaching literature and writing at several colleges before finishing his career in 1988 at Southern Oregon University.

“Since its founding, Stadium has been a very good academic school,” Hungerford said. “It was always better for people going on to college than people in the trades.”

Jim Lee, a former Boeing engineer who made millions with his invention of the Therm-a-Rest backpacking mattress, said he has fond memories of his time at Stadium. “It was a great school that we loved,” he said. “I was good in engineering, but awful in English.”

Popular as the reunions are, Kleiner said, he’s not sure how much longer he can keep on organizing them, mainly because it’s too hard on his wife, Barbara, who does most of the work.

“Next time I think we’ll have it done,” he said

Kleiner said one Class of ’39 graduate, a man who struck it rich selling real estate to Walt Disney for Disneyland, couldn’t make it this year because of a conflict with a cruise he took through the Greek islands on his yacht.

“He offered to hire a full orchestra for the reunion next time,” Kleiner said. “I told him I don’t need that. I found that entertainment only confuses everybody now. They just want to talk.”