Photo courtesy of Reda Brooks Foster.

Our Town: The 2022 WSHS Alumni Weekend

Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer-winning stage play, Our Town, played out this past Memorial Weekend, as old friends gathered in Willow Springs to reminisce and celebrate. With apologies to revered WSHS English teacher, Mrs. Jessie Munford, I’ll use passive voice and a cliché and say, “Fun was had by all.”
What brings 300 alums and family, many from out of town and out of state, to the annual Memorial Weekend pilgrimage? Of course, it’s an opportunity to catch-up with old friends, but I often meet some new ones. 
Saturday afternoon at Bailey Chevrolet, Willow’s favorite son Wendell Bailey introduced me to WSHS alum Bobby Smith who set the school record in the 100-meter dash in the 1970s at 10.6 seconds. Bobby said he had also been clocked at 9.9 seconds in the 100-yard dash. That’s some kind of fast. 
The Baileys were out in force: Wendell, Jane, son John the Chevrolet dealer, and son Mike and his wife Laura who were in town from back East. Laura graciously listened to me yap about writing projects.
Later at the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) hanger, Steve Foster (WSHS, 1967) introduced me to former Bear football star Bill Gooch, whom I had mentioned in an article a couple years ago but had never met. Selected for the All-Ozark 2nd team backfield in 1968 and 1969, Bill also received All-State Honorable Mention in 1969. What I didn’t know, was he had more knee operations from football injuries than I did. Moreover, we went to the same orthopedic group in Springfield, Yancey and Sundstrom, that had performed surgery on Mickey Mantle. 
As Bill and I discussed our injuries, I mentioned that after being wheeled into the operating room, a nurse commented that I was from Willow Springs and asked if I knew Mr. Thomas the principal. I told her I did. She said, “I’ll bet he’s a pretty mean guy.” I said, “Oh, no. I really like Mr. Thomas. “That’s good,” she said, “he’s my father.” 
For me, the fun of the weekend comes from the stories people tell. Some retreads, which still generate laughs even though we know the punchline, and new ones I haven’t heard. Two common topics are skipping school and teachers. Ron White, Sr. (WSHS, 1967) managed to combine both—skipping school and Mr. Thomas—in a tale I hadn’t heard.
One fall afternoon Ron and Terry LeBaron (WSHS, 1966) skipped classes and drove to Noblett Lake for a little fun. Ron said, “You could skip school, but not football practice. Coach Meek wouldn’t tolerate that.” So, they headed back to town in time to make practice, but along the way, they accidentally knocked over some mailboxes at the side of the road.
News travels fast in a small town. Bad news travels faster. Mr. Thomas called the two boys into his office. He asked about the damaged mailboxes, and if they had been drinking. They assured him they had not been drinking and explained that a bee had flown into the car. Terry, who is allergic to bee stings, swatted furiously at the bee with both hands and swerved off the road sideswiping some mailboxes. 
After an appropriate lecture and warning, Mr. Thomas directed Terry to go fix the mail boxes. Because he was an accessory to the “crime,” Ron volunteered to go with Terry to help, but Mr. Thomas told him to stay because he had other matters to discuss with him. 
He confronted Ron regarding previous unexcused absences. “I know what you’re doing. You’ve been fishing and hunting.” What he said next surprised Ron. “The next time you decide to skip class and go fishing, I want you to call me first . . . and I’ll go with you.” He added, “It can’t be on a day you have a test, and you have to have your homework done.”
]Sometime later, after hearing that crappie were biting at a lake east of Willow Springs, Ron got the notion to skip school and go fishing. With pluck, and I suspect, some nervousness, he telephoned Mr. Thomas, who lived in Hutton Valley, at 6 a.m. Before Ron stated the reason for his call, Mr. Thomas asked, “Where are you going fishing?” Ron told him where he planned to fish, that his homework was done, and he didn’t have a test that day. Mr. Thomas said, “Come by here first, and I’ll have my canoe on top of the car.” Ron told me that they actually skipped school two different times to go fishing.
Regarding Mr. Thomas, Ron says, “He was one of the biggest influences on me as a person, outside of my family members. He was such a wonderful man.” I’ve previously written about Mr. Thomas, but Ron aptly describes the way many of us felt about our venerable high school principal.
As in the stage play “Our Town,” life is not without sadness. When I arrived on Friday and stopped at the Howell County News office, I learned Marguerite Wehmer had recently passed away at the age of 92. She was one of the people I had hoped to see at the reunion. She occupied a special place in the hearts of many folks in Willow Springs. 
A couple years ago, I received a surprise telephone call from her. I had not spoken to her since the 1960s when I used to pass by the Wehmer house on the way to high school. We chatted for most of an hour. Her mind and memory were remarkable. Occasionally, when I wanted to verify some historical fact, I would call her. It was always a treat.
Even as the decades pass, friendly class rivalries survive. Classmate Buddy Stuart lamented that this year at the reunion, the Class of 1965 had fewer members in attendance than the Class of 1964—supposedly 10. But then, Barbara Sherrill Pigg (WSHS, 1964) had boasted earlier that she and classmate Dee Collins Corn had “closed down” a local restaurant on Friday night. It impressed me until I found out that closing time was at 9 p.m. The sun had barely set.
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Howell County News

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