The two men and three women sat side by side beneath a few balloons in a private room at the Golden Corral in Mesa, laughing over the memories that haven’t yet faded with time and occasionally lapsing into silence when they remembered a classmate who had passed away.
Memory lapses were understandable.
After all, they were marking their 80th high school reunion.
The four Mesa residents and one who now lives in Gilbert – all 98 years old or heading there this year – are all who’s left of a small group of about 20 or so friends among the 155 seniors who graduated from long-gone Mesa Union High School in May 1938.
“We were part of the in crowd,” explained Molliemae Hatch Taylor, the Gilbert resident whose father, Harvey Taylor, was the school’s principal.
“That connection didn’t give her a pass”, she smiled.
“He called me into his office too,” said Taylor, who was inspired by her father to become a teacher for 20 years before she retired to raise her four children fulltime.
The other two women – Cecile Bradshaw and Margaret LeSueur Steverson – opted to raise their six and eight children, respectively.
And every year since no one can remember, they’ve been gathering at one inexpensive buffet restaurant or another each May to reminisce.
Steverson confessed that her family moved to St. Johns before her senior year, but she was allowed to walk with the Mesa Union class at commencement.
“I was very close with all of them,” said Margaret, whose first husband, the late Norris Steverson, was the first Arizona State Teachers College athlete signed by a professional football team – though the Chicago Bears traded him to the Cincinnati Reds, which folded a year after he joined and left the name to be picked up by the baseball team.
“I used to take them to school in college in my father’s car,” she said, nodding at her girlfriends.
Taylor playfully interjected, “She was dangerous.”
“I was not,” Steverson replied fondly as the two softly chuckled.
Sharing their laughter was Joe Davis, who carries business cards that read, “Arizona’s Oldest Barber.”
Although he stopped cutting hair a few years ago, he still makes almost daily visits to his shop on University Drive just west of Mesa Drive – one of several he either owned or rented in nearly half a century of trimming and shaving in a career he began when haircuts were only 25 cents.
Davis bypassed sports at Mesa Union.
“I weighed about 122 pounds. There were a few of us who were so small we looked like we were in sixth grade,” he explained. “I was 5-foot-6 and finally shot to 5-foot-8.” Now I’m 5-foot-3.”
The five friends generally don’t see each other during the year.
But their annual reunion is a must, organized by the fifth member of their party, Oakley Ray, the senior class president.
“We were a very close group of kids and we were united in school,” he said of the quintet, the only surviving members – as far as they know – of a group of about 20 or so kids who hung out with each other regularly.
“We were the it crowd,” Taylor explained.
Ray was a popular guy in school, a basketball star who, as a sophomore, was on the school team when it won a state championship.
His prowess on the court was sufficiently impressive to get him a scholarship to Arizona State Teachers College, from which he eventually moved to a naval officers training in Flagstaff and then to Harvard University for additional training.
He makes light of both programs.
“I say I was in the battle of Flagstaff,” he said, then adding a few minutes later, “It only took me six weeks to graduate from Harvard.”
He was on a ship that was sent to Iwo Jima “to soften up the enemy – only as it turned out, we didn’t soften them up enough.”
But he’s proud that through binoculars while standing on the ship, he watched a band of battle-wearied Marines raise the American flag in what became one of World War II’s most iconic photographs.
He also recalled how a Kamikaze pilot came at the ship and was shot down less than 200 feet before making target.
When Ray returned after World War II, he earned his law degree, but practiced for only two years, opting to start buying small, old Army houses in Southern California that were made of plywood and bringing them back to Arizona, where he could sell them for $3,000.
Once he took one of his grandkids to a South Phoenix neighborhood and an occupant told him he grew up in that house and that the price was right for his father. “He said the price gave his father a chance to own his own home.”
“I liked the freedom with the construction company,” he said. “It gave me a chance to be with my family.”
Family was uppermost in the minds of all five classmates, who after all these years seemed satisfied with what life brought them after they left Mesa Union High.
Ray’s alone dwarfs the size of his Class of ’38 – with 10 children, 88 grandchildren, 290 great-grandkids and three great-greats.
Asked about her family, Steverson, a grandma to 23, quipped, “I’m not like some of these people. I only have 60 great grandchildren.”
And Bradshaw, who has 25 grandkids, 90 great grandchildren and “one great-great baby with more on the way,” added: “I’ve got a wonderful family, really wonderful.”