Dr Lee Pelton's Speech


North High School Reunion Address

October 6. 2018

First of all, I want to thank Dick Watson and the other members of the reunion planning committee fortheir sustained and dogged commitment to bringing us all together. It was heroic work.

I’ve now learned that Dick may be the most optimistic man on earth. In a couple of email exchanges he and I had about the class gift, he wrote that one of the fund-raising goals was to “have some seed money for our next reunion.”

Dick… our next reunion? Really? Do you mean when we or what’s left of us are nearing 80 years old and we can say, “My memory is great. I never forget what’s his name. “

 I also imagine that not a few of you have spent the day squinting into name tags hopelessly trying to match the name with the 18-year old that you used to know. Or that a spouse or partner elbowed you just a few moments before I took the podium and whispered in your ear: “Who’s that?” To which you replied “I don’t have clue.”  No worries because I’m at that age when, sometimes, I don’t even remember who I am.

There is a Vietnamese proverb that says: “When drinking clear water, remember who dug the well and when eating sweet fruit remember who planted the seed.”

This a proverb about legacy.

We have all arrived at this wonderful moment together because of countless gestures of hope made by the generations that preceded us -- the baby born, the family begun, the care and nurturing of our schools, our communities, a wonderful variety of faiths and, of course, our families and their families before them.

While we are here to celebrate and be reunited with old friends and perhaps even make new ones, our reunion is mostly about honoring the legacy of our class.

So, I want to say a word or two about that legacy, at least as I see it.

When we entered North High School in 1965, The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago, the two most nominated films for the Academy Awards – each with ten nominations and five wins, premiered. In April of the following year, The Sound of Music won best picture at the Academy Awards, hosted, of course, by Bob Hope. The ceremony was broadcast on ABC and was the first to be broadcast live in color. It turns out that both films remain in the top 10 of commercially successful films ever made when adjusted for inflation.

Other notable films of that year included The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Sandpiper, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, The Agony and the Ecstasy, starring Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston and Shenandoa, with James Stewart.

Of course, the best movie of the year didn’t even receive a single nomination: Beach Blanket Bingo, starring the dreamy Frankie Avalon and the alluring Annette Funicello. How a movie with Frankie and Annette was overlooked by the Academy remains a mystery and disappointment to many of us more than a half century later.

The Beatles, newly arrived to America, dominated the music top hits with Eight Days a Week, Ticket to Ride, Help! and Yesterday. The Supremes were close behind with Stop! In the Name of Love and I Hear a Symphony. Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe, Petula Clark’s Downtown, The Righteous Brothers, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’, The Rolling Stones, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction and The Four Tops, I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)"were also notable. And, of course, who can forget the immortal Herman Hermits I’m Henry VIII, I Am. I get teary eyed just thinking about it.

During our three years at North, we watched Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, the Mod Squad, Bewitched, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, the premier of 60 minutes, My Three Sons, The Smother Brothers, the last season of The Andy Griffin Show in 1968, Carol Burnett Show, Mission Impossible, the Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday evenings, Star Trek, The Avengers, That Girl, Peyton Place, Ironside and Room 222.

The year we graduated, Heat of Night, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, won the Academy Awards, touching on the racial conflicts of the day. Steiger won best actor.

I remember that some of us worked over the administration until they cried ”Uncle,” and created in our senior year a student lounge where I listened to Otis Redding singing Sitting on the Dock of the Bay over and over again. No doubt, Pat Williams had a hand in that. The best hamburger I ever had in my life was at Jack’s, which I washed down with a strawberry shake, the idea of which is a lot less appealing today than it was then. Perhaps you recall when McDonald’s and its Golden Arches arrived just down the street from Jack’s, where you could get a double cheeseburger, fries, a pseudo apple pie and large soda pop for less than two bucks. We all remember the River Festival, crisp weather and blue skies, our competing canoes flailing about in the Arkansas River as if our lives depended on it. There were football team pep rallies on Friday morning. The players wore suits and ties to school as a distinguishing honor. Games against East High at Cessna Stadium under the lights or playing other rivals, including West High School and the Kansas City Shawnee teams were highlights that linger today. I remember someone – Larry Maxwell maybe – someone tall and lean – hit me so hard in a one on one football drills that I separated my right shoulder (it’s still cranky), but I refused to tell the coaches because it would have meant going to the bench.

I joined several clubs, including the non-Euclidian math club, which then and even today, I have no idea what it a non-Euclidian is.

Had we been old enough to appreciate and comprehend it, seeds of change could be seen all around us.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, who began his first full term in office as president when we were in the last year of junior high school (now known as middle school), proclaimed in his State of the Union Address what he called the Great Society, a set of domestic programs whose purpose was to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. Later, that summer, Johnson declared the War on Poverty, establishes Medicare and Medicaid as well as signs into law the Voting Rights Act.

In February, Malcolm X was assassinated. Next month, more than 3,500 United States Marines arrived in South Vietnam, becoming the first American combat troops there. I heard the news on the back of my uncle’s motorcycle on the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Terrified, I threw up a mile high up in the mountains.

Martin Luther King led march from Selma to Montgomery, the Voting Rights Act, NASA’s launch of Gemini 3 putting Gus Grissom and John Young into orbit service, draft card burnings at UC Berkeley, the Watts Riots, the Quaker Norman Morrison sets himself on fire outside the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War were the backdrops to our early teenage years.

I’m not sure if we knew then – how could we – but we lived in a special time in American history.

The world had changed. Some of us had classmates who would go off to Vietnam and return with a parents’ tears soaked in a flag draped coffin.

1968, the year that we graduated, was the year that changed America forever:

As US News puts it:

“One traumatic event followed another as a wide array of social and political trends that had been building for years reached critical mass. During the span of 12 months a half-century ago, there were two shocking assassinations, growing and sometimes violent opposition to the escalating Vietnam war, hardening class differences, severe economic problems, and an increasingly impatient civil rights movement that gave rise to combative and angry black power advocates. And that wasn't all. Add in the rise of feminism, doubts about the credibility of the nation's leaders, a growing rebellion of young people against their parents' values, campus revolts against authoritarian administrators and lifestyle constraints, a new sexual freedom made possible by the birth control pill and, overall, a ferocious culture war over "values issues" such as abortion, crime, patriotism, prayer in school, freedom of speech and respect for institutions. It was all dramatized and magnified by popular culture and an increasingly aggressive news media eager to hold political and cultural leaders accountable for society's shortcomings.” https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2017-12-31/1968-the-year-that-changed-america-forever

We were at a nation at war with itself as we struggled to understand who we are and what we stood for. And so, it is again, 50 years later

But there is something profoundly different this time.

[Hold up iPhone]

We anachronistically refer to this as a phone. It is not phone. It is a time machine – that is to say, it obliterates the distance between “I want it and “I have it.” It allows us to purchase all manner of goods and services, merchandise, household appliances, furniture, rent apartments, rent out apartments, check in and out of hotels, manage our finances, deposit checks, move money from one account to another, buy books, watch films and television shows, create films and television shows, take photographs, receive photographs, listen to multiple music and news radio programs and podcasts, create music, read the news, create the news, play games, plan and navigate travel, order land, air and rail transportation, buy groceries, make dinner reservations or buy dinner and have it delivered, forecast the weather, find love, escape from love (or even from friends) in a blink of an eye. It wakes us up in the morning and tucks us in a night from a playlist of meditative chants and music. And the most anachronistic, old fashion app of the dozens on this time machine is, in fact, the phone.

Technology and social media in particular, challenge our conception of knowledge, truth and beliefs as the distinction between what is true and what is fabricated – but posited as true – becomes increasingly blurred. Because our access to content is so swift and uncurated, it is less knowable, less verifiable and more relativistic – more akin to reality television, which is not real at all, but rather a fictionalized, rehearsed, directed, staged and edited version of what is real. It is representational only, a shadow – sometimes a dark shadow – of what is true.

Social media unmediated, destabilizes and unsettles the truth. Truth is relative and fluid, not absolute and fixed.

In this convergent world, recorded history is everywhere and nowhere. In fact, today nothing is truly real until it has been digitally recorded on a time machine – [selfie anyone?] – and then shared with others. Time has collapsed on itself. 

Sadly, we live in a “heads down” world, not a “heads up” world. The heads down world is digital; the heads-up world is analog.

What have we missed, what will we miss, our heads down, our gaze fixed, as it were, on our time machines rather than the living, breathing world around us? If life is the process by which we comprehend the profound connectivity of the individual self to all that lies outside of the self, then what has been lost to us?

Is this our common humanity?

What I miss most about those years – our years at North – is the analog world. Life was not perfect by any means, but we lived with our heads up, not down. We talked – even shouted – to each other because the stakes were so big and the issues so important.

We didn’t hide behind the anonymity of social media meanness and crassness.

As I grow older, my appreciation of growing up in Wichita, Kansas increases.

And as I reflect on my time at our school, while I believe I received a great education, I am mostly grateful for how it taught me to be a person, even during those times that were difficult for me and all of us.

I have come to believe that North was a special place in a special time and it remains a special place in my memory of it. It prepared us well for a life of meaning and hope.

In that analog world, we learned to exercise when we can and especially when it seems most difficult, our sympathetic imagination, knowing that sometimes it is important to stand in another person’s shoes before we pass judgment on them.

I hope it taught us to resist the temptation to put people in boxes until we have opened up those boxes and peered inside. Increasingly, we tend to shout at each other through these digital boxes rather than taking the time to see what’s there.

Discourse is a form of a form of action.  Listening and talking are twin virtues, but of the two, listening is the most important for “there are more things in heaven and earth… Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” said Hamlet to Horatio.

It taught us to be, if possible, humble in the face of conflict without sacrificing our core values.

To be patient and resist the urge to act, especially when our understanding is incomplete.

Our school was founded in 1929. North is one of the few high schools in the United States that teaches canoeing in the physical education class – at least I hope it still does. In 1928, the Wichita Native Americans built a ceremonial lodge on the north end of Meade Island in the middle of the Arkansas River. When the city decided to build a new bridge across the river, Mrs. Ethel Parker, English teacher at North, suggested to the city planners that the construction incorporate a design similar to that of North High School. Upon completion, the bridge was named "Minisa" which means "Red Water at Sunset." A beautiful and apt description.

When North opened in 1929, it had an enrollment of 800 students and forty faculty members. Our principal C.E. Strange retired the year we graduated after having served in that role for almost three decades.

I know that some of you have stayed in touch over these five decades; some of us, not so much.

North was not perfect; nothing is except in our imagining it.

I didn’t expect to be so moved by coming back. But, boy, am I glad that I did. It has reminded me of what’s really important in living my life and it has reunited me with the legacy of our great high school. I hope it has done the same for you.

Thank you for inviting me back and for listening to my reflections.

It has been a gift.

And Dick, I’ll see you again in 10 years.

Good luck and good cheer.