Spotlight Biographies

What have we learned since high school graduation?

By Allen Johnson

I’m not sure where the idea originated.  Maybe it came in a dream; I do get ideas from dreams, but I don’t remember waking up with this notion in my head.  Or, it could be that I have been thinking about my own life from the elevated vantage point of 66 and, like the song, have been wondering “What’s it all about, Allen?” 

Whatever the source of literary impulse, I decided to survey eight of our classmates—four men and four women—regarding their assessment of what they had learned since graduating from high school so many decades ago. (Over the years, the interviews have expanded beyond the original eight classmates.)

It did not take long for me to create my list of interviewees.  I gravitated toward classmates who in our nascent years were, relatively speaking, more visible in high school—students who were, in our small world at Pasco High school, household names (or schoolyard names, to be more precise).  They were students who distinguished themselves by their talent, intellect, leadership, athleticism, and, in some cases, their shenanigans.  That said, I am sure that any classmate could have been a source of inspiration and insight, for we all have registered enough experiences to have an opinion or two on how the world goes round. 

As a matter of fact, an interesting exercise would be to interview classmates who were less visible—those who kept to themselves by choice, temperament, or undisclosed distress.   What about those classmates?  Although they may have been less flamboyant in high school, they certainly were a splendor in the eyes of someone.  Their stories are surely equally stirring, equally exceptional—quite possibly even more so.  But, for the time being, that story will have to wait for a second wave of inspiration.


The themes

So, let’s get to it.  What have our classmates learned about life on our tiny blue planet that spins in space at a speed of 1041 miles per hour (at the equator)?  With few exceptions, my respondents had no trouble in expressing their viewpoints.  And, often their words were spoken with such alacrity that I was swept away by their passion and certitude.

As I listened to their thoughts, I began to see some recurring themes—six to be exact:

  • The value of hard work
  • The importance of being grateful
  • The preciousness of time
  • The treasure of relationships
  • The sustenance of spirituality
  • The meaning of true success

The following is what our classmates had to say about each of these life lessons.


The value of hard work

Ron Rhoads was the first classmate I interviewed.  When I asked him what he had learned in the last 50 years, the first thing he said was “I am a big proponent of hard work.”  He went on to explain that his uncle was a naval recruiter, who always said, “If you work hard, you can succeed in life.”  Ron proved his uncle right; he had a distinguished career in two military services. 

I heard Ron’s tough-mindedness echoed in Dan Tingley’s comments.  When Dan told me he chose to be an elementary school teacher, I said, “I bet your classes were fun.”  His response was telling.  “Sure, we had fun,” he said, “but I was also a strict disciplinarian.” 

With both Ron and Dan, I got the feeling that it was important to knuckle down and get the job done.

Russ Rehm, who is clearly sedulous by nature, spoke to a different aspect of work.  “For me,” Russ said, “creativity is always the key.”  He went on to explain that he loved all forms of creation.  “It starts with experiences,” he said.  “I take joy in creating experiences.  I love writing.  And I especially love building.”  I could hear his voice light up.  “Right now I’m building a 17-foot sailboat; I even bought an industrial sewing machine to make my own sails.”  He took a breath and then added, “I never get tired of seeing people express themselves through creation.”

Lois Benson expressed her work ethic in another way.  “Life is a great unknown,” she said; “You never know what will be around the corner.  So, live every day to the fullest—even in business.”  I asked her how she made that real.  “I was a cheerleader in high school,” she said.  “And I am a cheerleader in business.  I get up every day thinking I could conquer the world.”


The importance of being grateful

As I interviewed our classmates, I had the sense that although they believed in hard work and the certainty that they could make things happen, that toughness was always softened by an equal measure of humility and thankfulness.

Ron said, “Your successes are not all about you; there are some natural blessings.  So, be grateful.”

Dan expressed his gratefulness for the joy of working with children.  “Children are life,” he said.  “I’m so grateful that I have participated in the lives of hundreds of kids—some of whom I still see from time to time to this day.”  Then he went on to say, “The world is a wonderful place; I’m grateful that I had a role in placing that sense of wonderment in the brains of my students.”

Russ underscored his gratefulness for God’s guidance—especially a God who is able to calm the anxious heart.  Russ explained that his number one learning in life was immortalized in the poetry of the 23rd Psalm:  The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.  I wasn’t sure what Russ meant, so he explained by taking me back to his childhood.  “When I was a boy,” he said, “my father traveled from city to city, and job to job.  As a consequence, I was always fearful of not finding the next job—even as an adult.  Today, I trust God to provide, and that is a part of my spirituality.  The verse from the Psalmist is a faith statement:  The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.  I’m deeply grateful for that.”


The preciousness of time

Our classmates also expressed gratitude for time—that our time was not infinite, and, therefore, needed to be treated with high honor.  Wasting time was seen as tantamount to denying the sacredness of life.

For some of our classmates, it was personal trauma that drove home the sanctity of time.  Ron spoke lovingly of his daughter, Brandee, who died in 1993 when she was only 19 years old.  “It is in times like that when you appreciate what is important,” Ron said.  “Although Brandee didn’t love me any less, I felt sad that I had not spent enough time with her.”  Then, after a pause, he added, “Lost time is not something you can take back.  So, now I carve out as much time as I can with my kids and grandkids.”

Dan told a similar story.  He shared how he lost his first daughter, Dresden, to cystic fibrosis when she was only eight years old.  “My other daughter, Lisa, also has cystic fibrosis.  Lisa had a lung transplant when she was 40.  But despite the disease, despite the medication, Lisa is bright and vibrant.” 

“And what have you learned from all this?” I asked softly. 

Dan answered in his typical steady voice, “I learned about the importance of appreciating every little thing.  Let’s have fun.  Let’s not worry about the small stuff.  I’m glad that I learned that lesson at an early age.”

When Russ spoke of time, he characterized it as being unending.  “My mantra,” he said, “is to never give up, because the best is yet to come.”  Russ elaborated by confirming his belief that heaven was waiting. 

I thought I understood Russ’s trust in eternal time, but I wondered how he could be so positive about his time in this life.  I was frank:  “Russ, do you really believe at age 66 that the best is yet to come?” I asked in a tone that could not completely mask my incredulity. 

I could hear a smile in Russ’s response:  “I’m an optimist at heart.  Sure, the concept of entropy exists, but I see the new day as an opportunity to construct the very best home, build the very best boat, and even have the best sex ever.”  Then he said in classic Russ Rehm style, “Dang, score on that.”

I could sense that Russ was on a roll now, as he recounted a story about his undying optimism.  “When was it?  Yesterday?  No, two days ago, I just had a feeling.  I said to Mary Ann [Mary Ann Finney, also our classmate], ‘Let’s go to the Factory Outlet.’  And there, at the back of the store, I found my favorite work shirts—a regular $20 shirt—for just $7 each.  I bought seven,” he said jubilantly. 

“What are you telling me, Russ?” I asked.  “Are you saying that it was divine intervention that directed you to the Factory Outlet?” 

“Oh, come on, Allen,” Russ said in a voice that pushed right back against my thinly veiled skepticism.  “I’m talking about taking joy in the little delights.  Look, Allen, I tend to depression, and I resist that impulse with my full force by celebrating the wonders of each day.  And that’s a good thing.”

Lois Benson’s thoughts on time resonated with Russ’s eternal perspective.  “I know our time is finite,” she said.  “You can think of life in 20-year blocks:  20, 40, 60, 80.  I don’t know if I will reach 80.  But whatever time I have, I know upon my death, I will immediately step into another life—a life that is beyond my limited imagination.”  Then she said with stout resolution, “Death does not cast a shadow over me.”

Ray Eads spoke articulately about time, and, incidentally, not unlike one might expect from a financial planner.  “Most people aren’t selfish.  Every day, we face a frantic rush of family, friends, and job responsibilities, putting them first, thinking that we will pay attention to our personal needs later, until—whoosh—all of a sudden it’s 15 years later and our needs are still at the back of the line.” 

So, what was the answer, I wondered aloud.

“I counsel my clients to start by painting the most clear and detailed picture possible of their future,” Ray said.  “I instruct them to answer three questions:  (a) if you had all the money you ever needed, what would your life look like? (b) If the doctor said you had only three years to live, what would you have to do? And (c) If you didn’t get those three years and died tomorrow, what would you regret?”

“OK,” I said, letting my voice lilt up as if to say “and then what?”

“The answers to those questions will help uncover hopes, dreams, fears, aspirations, maybe even those dreams you thought were silly or unobtainable.”

“Even the silly stuff?” I asked.  With my intonation, he may have heard my eyebrows rise.

“Listen, Allen,” he said, “as long as we are daydreaming about the perfect future, let’s include those too.  Isn’t it possible that the very thing we dismiss as ‘foolish’ is exactly what we need for an adventuresome kick in the pants?”


The treasure of relationships

As I spoke with our classmates, I could see that they made a direct link between time and relationships.  If the question was determining what we should do with our time, the answer was to “build our relationships.”  Others might read it differently, but for me, building relationships became the elixir to our own mortality.

When our classmates spoke about their relationships, they spoke in a way that was deeply personal.  Ron said definitively, “You have to make an effort to continue to communicate.  For example, I am still close friends with [our classmate] Mark Bell.  He has been struggling with arthritis these days, and I have found that the more I talk with Mark, the better he feels.  That’s important for both Mark and me.”

When Dan greeted me over the phone, the first thing he said was indicative of his passion for travel and relationships.  “I spent a month on the Baja Peninsula, camping on the beach.  And then my 19-year-old son Jordan and I traveled to India for a month.  What an incredible country that is!”  As I listened to the excitement in Dan’s voice, I was struck again by his joie de vivre and, especially, his exuberance about making life-long memories with his son.

For Russ, the concept of relationships is aligned with his vision of service.  “I was born to serve,” he said.  What a powerful statement, I thought.  “The mission for my [building contracting] business is ‘Fine craftsmanship with a servant’s heart.’  I like to do things for people; it fulfills me—emotionally, spiritually; it is part of my genetic makeup.  If there were such a thing as reincarnation, I surely would have been a servant.”

Then Russ spoke about his relationships at home.  “Mary Ann taught me very early about the importance of relationships.    For example, early in my career, when I was in the Merchant Marines, our ship docked in Hong Kong, certainly one of the most captivating cities in the world.  But my heart was not in it; I had no desire to go ashore.  I didn’t know anyone in Hong Kong; I had no relationships there.  What is there to see, without someone to share it with?” 

Russ took a breath.  “Sure, I like money, but it has its limitations.  What makes things valuable is heart-to-heart relationships.” 

I could understand that; I have felt it myself:  Without a partner—a spouse, a sweetheart, a son or daughter, a friend— with whom you can share life’s experiences, you are simply standing in the middle of a lonely street, regardless of the maelstrom of humanity swirling around you.

When I shared the first draft of this paper, Candy Gregson offered another point of view regarding my reflection that “without a partner, you are simply standing in the middle of a lonely street.” 

“Your sentence saddened me a little,“ Candy said, “until I recognized that I am rich in a way I have not consciously appreciated until Jim’s passing.  I am not ‘standing in the middle of a lonely street.’  I am more aware of my close relationships with family and friends, and your sentence illustrated that for me rather graphically.”

“Lois also shared Russ’s passion for service.  “In our business, customer service is king.  I have learned that if I listen empathically, it becomes clear why the clients are anxious or angry.  And often I get the feeling that no one has ever listened to them before.”  Lois continued by attributing her service orientation to her faith.  “When I was 22, I became a Christian,” she said.  “That experience turned my world upside-down.”  I asked what she meant by that.  “I mean I learned that it was not about me.”

There was one other story that Lois told about relationships that I thought was important.  When she and Ralph decided to get married their senior year at Pasco High School, they did not know what the future would hold.  Pasco High’s history teacher, Mr. Banks, eased some of that tension.  One day, Mr. Banks asked Lois and Ralph to step into the hall.  He looked deeply into their eyes.  “I just wanted to congratulate you both on your marriage,” he said.  “And I wish the very best for you both.”  That brief moment of human connection was etched into Lois’s memory.

Carol Maxson is perhaps the most perspicacious person I know.  Although she wouldn’t put it this way, she operates from her gut.  So, how does that internal orientation relate to relationships, I wanted to know.  “In relationships, which is everything for me,” Carol said, “    I figure out how I feel, and initially how I feel tells me how to move forward.  My feelings give me direction.  I think we have an internal gyroscope that helps us to recognize patterns, pathways, and human spirits, even before having logically identified them.”

Carol seems to have a prescient sixth sense about her relationships with others.  “When I meet someone for the first time, I may feel like I know him or her already.  I am fascinated to hear that person’s life story; often, as it turns out, we share an affinity for the arts.  In such instances, we are mutually energized and even transformed by our conversation.”

I asked Carol to define good communication.  She did not hesitate:  “It is self-disclosure—on both sides.  It’s not good enough to talk about the weather,” she said, “unless the condition of the weather has something profound to say about you or me.”


The sustenance of spirituality

For many of the interviewees, the ultimate relationship was divine.  Although they used different words for this relationship, they all seemed to have a common understanding of that ineffable something that was larger than themselves. 

Ray put it this way:  “The older I get, the more faith I have in what I believe, rather than in what I know.  What I know is constantly changing; what I believe has held fast for a lifetime.”

Russ resolved to always work toward righteousness.  I asked what that meant.  “It’s universal,” he explained.  “We have to build on righteousness in the world and to believe that the world can be a better place.  Likewise, in business, loving people are righteous.  It’s really simple, Allen:  Just be nice; it works.”  Then, almost as an afterthought, he said, “And remember to be nice to yourself.”

When I asked Lois what she did to enhance her personal growth, she, too, conveyed a reliance on a source beyond herself.  “Each day, I ask myself, ‘What does God want for me today?’”  When Lois made that statement, I thought that it was interesting that she used the preposition “for”:  “What does God want for me?”  If she had said, “What does God want of me,” it would have had a different sense.  What does God want of me is an obligation.  What does God want for me is a gift.  I may be making too much of this; still, I have a hunch that Lois chose her preposition with intention.

At about this point, Lois wanted me to know that what she was saying was very personal.  Generally, she did not talk about her faith.  Her hope was that her life would be her testimony.  I encouraged her to continue.

“My personal growth comes through my relationship with the Lord,” Lois said.  “It is a relationship that has to be nurtured and honored.  It is Bible- and faith-based.”

I asked her if she prayed.

“Throughout the day,” she said.  “It is a part of who I am.”

I then asked if she was directed by God and, if so, how she knew it.

“Yes, God does direct me.  I know it through a gut-level intuition.  Sometimes I just know.  God gives me a nudge, and another nudge, and then, for good measure, one more nudge.  Those nudges are God’s leadings.”  And then Lois quickly added, “But I’m not a super-spiritual person.  I’m very ordinary.”  I can’t say for sure, but I imagined that Lois made that last statement—that she was “very ordinary”—to make it clear that she was not to be lauded as a saint or even a near saint.


The meaning of true success

In answering the meaning of true success, the interviewees, as would be expected, drew upon their unique life experiences.

Ray said, “Wealth is too often defined as financial strength, ignoring the other meaningful areas of our lives.”

“Like what?” I asked.

Ray didn’t lose a beat:“Like health—not just physical health, but emotional, and spiritual health.”

“Anything else?”

Ray paused for a moment.“I think of a balanced life is like a heartbeat.”

“Huh,” I said profoundly.

“Sure. The first part of the heartbeat feeds the heart; the second part feeds the body. It’s the same thing in our lives. First, we feed ourselves: our intellectual and spiritual lives. And then we feed our community—supporting, encouraging, mentoring, teaching. Balance is having both pulses of the heartbeat.”

I was enjoying Ray’s metaphor.“And when one is missing, that is equivalent to a heart attack.”

Ray laughed.“Right on.”

I asked Ray to be more specific about his own view of personal success.

“Okay, here’s my crash course on ‘personal success.’  The first thing on my list is this:  Life is precious.”

He drew out the word “precious” like a preacher on fire.

“So we have to ask ourselves honestly, ‘How do we want to spend our time?’  Our lives are short and sweet; we’ve got to use our time wisely—meaning in support of that which is most important to us.”

“What else comprises personal success?” I asked.

“Circumstances do not determine happiness; attitude determines happiness.”

“You are what you think,” I offered.

“That’s right,” Ray said.  “But attitude is not enough.  The right attitude without action is just daydreaming. “

“Is that it?”

“Just one other thing,” he said.  “It has to do with community.  It’s very simple:  I can do well for myself and my family by doing good for other people.”

For Jan Cruzen, one of the critical characteristics of true success was continual learning.“Learning never stops,” she said. “As you get older, you find out how little you truly know. In elementary school, I was labeled as smart. But that label was downgraded in junior high and high school, impelled by a line of nondescript teachers who did not care, who did not teach. I was never taught to write (I learned that in college). An exception to the long line of disengaged teachers was Mr. Brown, who taught biology; he expected everyone to learn and to earn a B or A; so I did learn. But when expectations were low, I did not learn. So my life after high school became a life of self-education. I listen to and read scores of self-help books. If I have achieved any semblance of success, it has been due to my commitment to continual learning.”

In talking about the meaning of true success, I would like to finish by quoting from Candy Gregson.  I mentioned earlier that Candy has crossed into new territory, dealing on her own with all of the complications of work and home.  As she reflected on this challenge, she said, “Many people go on alone and do it very well.  There are some good examples in my own family.  But each experience is unique and only known by the one going through it.  Maybe ‘going through it’ is the key phrase; stagnation would be totally unacceptable.”

It was clear that Candy did not want to feel sorry—or allow others to feel sorry—for her.  “I don’t want to be regarded as a ‘poor widow,’” she said.  “There is much more life to be lived, and I look forward to the adventure ahead.”  (As Candy said that, I was reminded of the earlier interview with Dan, who recently celebrated life with a 30-day sojourn to India with his son.) 

Then Candy said something riveting about a strong woman making her way in life.  Although it was a single sentence, I had the sense that it could easily be the thesis of a dissertation on courage.   “Getting used to the empowerment forced upon me,” she said, “is a work in progress; all decisions are now mine alone to make—and live with.”

I asked if she could give me an example.

“An always-prepared Eagle Scout, Jim was a born handyman, and I depended on him to know what to do and how to do it.  Some years ago, I acknowledged that dependency and made a conscious effort to watch him and ask him to teach me those things we playfully called ‘boy work.’”

“And did you learn?” I asked.

“Yes,” Candy said flatly.  “When the snowblower needed a new belt last winter, I studied the simple illustration in the owner’s manual, ordered the part online, gathered the appropriate tools, and threaded the belt into place.  The blower performed beautifully—and that’s what I mean by ‘forced empowerment.’”

I have always perceived Candy as a powerful person (as I have recognized in all the interviewees for this class self-examination).  And, consequently, I don’t think she needs my sympathy.  Although I do think she needs my love, as I need hers—and that I give freely.

Final thoughts

The writing of these pages has been a joy for me.  I’ve had the enviable task of exploring the minds of eight intriguing people—all of them life-long friends whom I respect and praise for their courage, their honesty, and their undaunted vision to do the right thing.  The American psychologist, Wayne Dyer, once posited that if you have a choice between being kind or being right, chose “being kind.”  Being right is about ego; being kind is about spirit.

I would like to thank all eight of my fellow classmates for their kindness—to me, to our class, and to the community that swirls around them.

Finally, I’ll close with this call for action.  The “Naked City” was a popular TV police drama that ran from 1958 to 1963.  The famous closing narration read, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City.  This has been one of them.”  I feel the same way about our class:  There are 300 stories to be told, all of them captivating in their own right.  I invite you to write about the classmates you knew and perhaps still know—people who made their mark on you.  You can submit those stories to me for publication on our website.