Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Holy Cats! Puyallup High School Class of ’39 stays in touch

An annual measure of age is the high school reunion, which usually comes in 10-year increments and almost always brings up things we’d rather not think about.

Like how much older we look since the last one, or how clothes don’t seem to fit us as well or look as good. Like how much hair we had in our senior-year photographs — and how little of it we can find today.

The group of grads who met earlier this month at Mrs. Turner’s Restaurant in Puyallup has moved beyond all those petty concerns.

“Half a dozen of us meet there every month,” Bob Aylen said.

This time, however, it was more than the first Monday of each month get together. It was a full-on reunion of the Puyallup High School class of 1939, with about twice as many of them attending and purple and gold decorations everywhere.

“Seventy-five years since we graduated?” Ruth Valenta said. “Holy cats!”

Holy cats, indeed.

“We were the only high school in town at that time, so we had just over 300 students in our graduating class,” Valenta said. “We weren’t all friends, but we all knew one another. We started having reunions right out of school.

“Quite a few of us stayed in Puyallup. A lot of others left but came back, decided they loved the area and their friends.”

Aylen is one of the latter, a Puyallup High graduate who joined the Air Force.

“After I’d served, I was a pilot in California, traveled quite a bit,” he said. “But there’s not a better place to live in the world.”

Aylen is 92 ½ years old now, insisting that “at my age, you start counting half-years,” and has long enjoyed the monthly meetings at Mrs. Turner’s.

“We stay away from politics, make a lot of small talk about how it’s going, how the grandkids are doing,” he said. “One of the girls is in a wheelchair; one of the men is, too. We talk about our health problems.

“School stories come up.”

Gladys Johnson lives in Tacoma, but son Dan got her to the reunion this time.

“We had a 25th, then a 50th, now a 75th reunion,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure any of us will be alive for the 100th.”

At the reunion, the graduates had a guest drop by: Puyallup School District Superintendent Tim Yeomans.

“What a wonderful thing to get to attend,” Yeomans said. “I run into fourth- and fifth-generation families in Puyallup, but this is a group that’s always kept the spirit of the school, the spirit of community service.

“They were curious about the school, asked what the kids are studying. I just turned 50, and it was kind of overwhelming to be 40 years younger than the rest of the room.”

Yeomans was a popular guest. He brought gifts.

“I had a quick conversation with each of them, and I brought coffee mugs, pens, lapel pins for them, probably spent $1.50 a person,” he said. “They loved it all.”

Once a year, the high school has an alumni assembly, and graduates from various classes visit.

“We had someone from the Class of ’34 a year or so ago, and he turned 100 not long afterward,” Yeomans said. “This class has always been active in those assemblies.”

Many of the Class of ’39 have stayed in one another’s lives.

“Esther Kinsey Ferris and I met when we went to second grade at the old Maplewood Elementary School,” Valenta said. “She lived at one end of town, I lived at the other, but we just hit it off.”

They remain close, and though Ferris lives in Denver, the two talk frequently.

“A year or two ago, she decided she was going to jump out of an airplane, and so she did,” Valenta said. “Would I do that? Lord, I don’t even drive anymore!”

Aylen has had good fortune at the reunions.

“My first wife, Patricia, was in the Class of 1940 at Puyallup,” he said. “She died, and when I went to our 60th reunion, I was alone. One of my classmates was June Mitchell, and she’d been widowed.

“We talked at the reunion and I told myself, ‘You’d better get to courtin’.’ We’ve been married for 13 years.”

Aylen’s memories of high school are mixed.

“I didn’t work as hard as I could have,” he said. “I loved being on the golf team. I remember most of those I went to school with. In those days, everybody knew one another. Very few of us had cars.

“You might walk down to the ice creamery, get a soda or a milkshake, sit and talk.”

Ruth Valenta never moved away from Puyallup. She spent 40 years working in a bank and married her husband, Jerry.

“He’s from Fife,” she pointed out.