First Class of Miramonte High School Graduates Had Too Much Fun

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(Courtesy of The Mirador)
Class ‘59 graduates from Miramonte High School. Photo taken from the first edition of Miramonte’s campus newspaper, The Mirador.

    The class of 2021 graduated from Miramonte after spending an entire senior year on Zoom. But the award for most unique senior year goes not to us, but to 1959 graduates, the first from Miramonte High School. From playing sports without a proper field to drag racing down Moraga Way, this pioneer class paved the way for generations of students roaming the salmon-colored halls.
    Miramonte, drawing students from both Orinda and Moraga until Campolindo High School’s founding six years later, opened in 1956. Orinda Intermediate School did not exist. Students attended Glorietta Elementary through the sixth grade and then completed seventh and eighth grades at the Orinda Union School. Before Miramonte was built, Orinda and Moraga students attended Acalanes High School, founded in 1940.
    The class of ‘59 was the only class on campus its first year. When the Class of ’60 arrived, the two classes bonded and often felt like one big class. In fact, the classes continue to hold joint high school reunions.
    But being first was far from easy. “We were the ones that had to decide everything and figure out what to do,” Nancy (Gosch) Peterson ’60 said. Students attended school against the backdrop of construction as additional classrooms were added, and sports teams practiced without a field or the benefit of older students with more experience.
    “We were breaking trails,” Bruce Hilger ‘59 said. “For instance, when I played football, we played against other teams, and we got beat because they had been playing football for a number of years.”
    With no classes ahead of them, members of the class of ‘59 were essentially seniors every year. When it came time to pick the school colors, they advocated for black and pink, which the staff quickly overruled in favor of green and white. As for the school mascot, the administration also got the final say. “We didn’t think ‘Matadors’ was very strong, but that’s what we got,” Carol (Griffiths) Allen ‘59 said.
    The class of ‘60 stayed at Miramonte long enough to raise money for the first swimming pool, though things did not turn out quite as expected. “We had to sell See’s Candy to raise money to build the swimming pool,” Peterson said. “Then, the last year we were there, the girls were really pretty annoyed as we had done all that work to raise funds for the swimming pool and then had to go swimming for P.E.!”
    Academics at Miramonte were intense, even in its early years. “There was pressure that we needed to succeed so Miramonte would make an academic name for itself,” Kathleen (White) Sudborough ‘59 said. “I’m sure they wanted to have a sports name for themselves, but our sports teams were pretty pathetic.”
    In fact, Miramonte’s football team lost every game its first year. “I went out with a receiver who weighed less than me,” joked Susan (Jensen) Hansen ‘60.
    Bruce Hilger, ‘59, scored Miramonte’s first ever touchdown against Piedmont High School. “I remember running down the field, and they really kinda felt sorry for us because we were a pitiful team. I think they just let me run to the end zone. It would’ve made no difference for the score; it was like 60 to 7,” Hilger said.
    While Miramonte may not have been a sports powerhouse, the hard work of students in the classroom certainly paid off, with many going on to obtain college degrees. “I think we kind of felt a responsibility because we were leading the way. We had to set the tone to model because there was no one above us to guide us. We were the leaders in a new school,” Irene (Ingram) Smith ‘59 said.
    But the school day was filled with fun. Instead of housing complexes across the street, pear orchards surrounded Miramonte entirely. Barbara Stross ‘59 rode her horse, Fadiyah, to school, tying her up in the orchards and visiting her during lunch break.
    Some things haven’t changed. “We had the senior lawn, a little patch of green grass and that was it,” Bill McGuire ‘60 said. “Nobody but seniors were supposed to go on it.” I had to break it to him that this year, with the lunch period divided for social distancing, the sophomores got to sit on the senior lawn two years early.
    Though cigarettes have been replaced with vape pens, the bathrooms at Miramonte reeked, even back in 1959. Students would smoke cigarettes in the bathroom and hope Ms. Giddings, the “Dean of Women,” didn’t catch them.
    Like now, kids worked after school jobs at local establishments. Bill McGuire worked at the gas station next to Casa Orinda, while Susan Hansen worked at the Orinda Theatre for a dollar an hour.
    Miramonte even had a foreign exchange program through the American Field Service, which started after the World Wars to promote intercultural learning. Tore Lindholm ‘59 spent the 1958 to 1959 school year at Miramonte as an exchange student from Norway. Though he wasn’t expecting much from the American school system, when he soon discovered the math and physics courses he had signed up for were quite rigorous, he dropped them to take choir and public speaking.
    He did, however, take Ms. Clapper’s English course, crediting her with being the best teacher he ever had. His American mom taught him how to drive, and after returning home to Norway he continued to visit her until she was over 100 years old. He dated a Miramonte girl, and they went to jazz clubs in San Francisco and often visited Fisherman’s Wharf. They stayed in touch and visited Miramonte together 10 years ago. “If you ask me what it is I didn’t like,” Lindholm said, “I felt that pom-pom girls was a very stupid thing, but then I didn’t like peanut butter. Everything else was great actually.”
    Of course, the early classes also got into a lot of mischief. For its senior prank, the class of ‘59 cut down the flagpole. The students also dumped a truckload of sand in Ms. Giddings’ front yard. One escapade even made the front page of the Oakland Tribune. “There was a whole group of them that blew up the dam at St. Mary’s College,” Carol Allen recalled. The students paid for the damage after the incident. “People would throw cherry bombs into the garbage cans on campus,” Susan Hansen said. “Worse yet, some of these explosives would even get dropped in the toilets.”
    A friend of Barbara Stross created a collection of Miramonte keys. “He would borrow a key and then put the key in a bar of soap to get the impression to make master keys for the entire school. He never misused them; he just liked having access.” After talking to Irene Smith, it’s clear that those keys would still be valuable today: “When I came back for our 20th reunion, I walked around campus and found my old locker,” Smith said. “I put in the combination, and it actually worked, 20 years later.”
    Some aspects of life in 1959 bear no resemblance to today’s world. For instance, multiple alumni gave accounts of Sadie Hawkins Day, an event based on a comic strip where the girls asked the boys to a dance dressed up in backcountry costumes. Kathleen Sudborough won the costume contest one year. “I had a burlap sack that I wore. I had long hair, so I braided it and put wire in it so my braids would stick out. And I wore my dad’s old garden clunker shoes, hiking boots four sizes too big for me.”
    Miramonte students also attended dances called “sock hops,” sort of like this year’s Senior Ball—no shoes allowed on the turf!
    In those days, Miramonte had a strict dress code. “Thoughts of wearing pants to school didn’t even cross our minds. Girls wore skirts with lots of starched petticoats underneath to make them stand out. We had washed and starched those petticoats often to make them do their job,” Kathleen Sudborough said. One of Carol Allen’s friends, “a rebel,” wore tennis shoes to school. Bruce Hilger and his friends once rode their bikes to school, only to be sent home by the infamous Ms. Giddings for wearing shorts.
    Even school safety drills differed. Rather than the “active shooter” drills the class of ‘21 experienced, ‘59 had “civil defense” drills in case the Soviet Union bombed the nearby radiation lab at UC Berkeley. “When the drill happened, we would all parade out, and the mothers would be where the circle was,” Kathleen Sudborough said. “They would drive up to the circle, load a car, and then the next car would come and load up whoever was there, and we would just all load up and drive around the circle.”
    Trying to out-drive radiation sounds about as effective as throwing textbooks at an armed intruder, so apparently Miramonte’s safety drills haven’t changed too drastically.
    Dreaded ninth grade P.E. had a twist, according to Carol Allen: a hula dancing unit. Miramonte’s now-rich Latin program was in its fledgling state, Bruce Hilger recounted, offering only Latin I. But one of the most shocking things about 1950’s Miramonte is that it had gangs. “There were three gangs, if you will, that existed at Miramonte when I was there,” Bill McGuire said. “One of them was a group called the Knights. They had leather jackets and were the real bad guys of the campus, rumbling with people from Concord or Lafayette. Obviously not allowed by the administration, you had to belong surreptitiously.”
    Among the girls, social groups were organized around service clubs. “I belonged to the girls’ group, Ailanthus, a service organization, but basically they were cliques,” Susan Hansen said. “But by the time we got to be seniors, we matured out of that clique and decided we liked all these people in our class.”
    Both the Knights and Ailanthus were modeled after sororities and fraternities. Members of the Knights drag raced in the pear orchards and down Moraga Way, though as Bill McGuire noted, “I think all of them went on to higher education and became very, very successful people. In other cultures, the meanest people would go on to criminal enterprises.”
    Bill McGuire says his time at Miramonte prepared him for the rest of his life: “School generated an expectation of success.” Irene Smith agreed: “I feel very fortunate to have been raised in Orinda and attend Miramonte.”
    One member of the class of ‘59 who did not particularly enjoy high school was William Van Voorhis, who described himself as “a dweeb.” For students who were less academically inclined, Miramonte’s academic rigor and college-preparatory-focused culture could prove difficult. “There was nothing for guys like me who were just floating through. I took three years of mechanical drawing, to give you some idea of how little there was in the way of alternatives to college prep.”
    But Van Voorhis eventually found his way. After high school, he went into the military service, where, he laughs, “they put me into intelligence.” As it turns out, Van Voorhis had a great capacity for abstract thought, like seeing patterns and recognizing where ideas come from. “Nothing that you would find in regular school then,” he says, but “people like that are good at breaking codes. I found my place.” Van Voorhis hopes students in the class of 2021 will find their place. “There must be idiots like me who run around high school for as long as it took to get out of there. They’ll love knowing that I made it.”
    As Kathleen Sudborough puts it, “High school isn’t your whole life, thank goodness. There’s a big world out there with many possibilities.” Carol Allen adds, “Life is unpredictable. “Embrace life; take some risks; you’ll learn from them for sure.” Van Voorhis agrees: “Everything from now on is going to be much more important than what brought you to this point. If you learn to accept what happens to you and look for the opportunities that are ahead of you, what you lose won’t be anything but preparation for what you are about to receive. If you’re mourning the loss, then you aren’t looking for the gain.”

Chaya Tong can be reached at chayatong@yahoo.com.

(Contributed Photo)
Cebe Wallace receives his diploma from Dr. Ralph Hall, member of the board of trustees.

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