Sixty-plus years after leaving Roseburg High, members of the 1957 graduating class are still reuniting to stay connected and do good work in their community.
Story by Jim Hays Photos by Tristin Godsey
You can drive the two miles from Roseburg High School to Karen’s Coffee Cup on Diamond Lake Boulevard in about six minutes. But for the 30-or-so members of an RHS graduating class who meet at Karen’s on the first Monday of each month, the trip took about a half-century.
More than six decades have passed since 232 Roseburg High seniors in caps and gowns marched into the school’s 3-year-old Physical Education Building to the strains of Mendelssohn’s “March from Athalia” on a warm Monday night in late May 1957.
Among them was Jim Conn, a self-described farm boy from Melrose, and this story starts with him and how he and some of his classmates revived more than a little Roseburg school spirit among the Class of ’57.
Like so many others at countless schools, Conn and his classmates accepted their diplomas that May night, then walked out of the RHS gym and scattered into the world. Some would go off to college. Others joined the military or went to work. Some married and stayed close to home. Others moved away and found their niche elsewhere.
“I don’t think we were any different than any other high school class in the country,” says Conn. “We have people from all walks of life. We have 94 men and women who served a total of 741 years in the military. Sixteen made the military a career. We also have people who went into the medical field, pilots, a seamstress, a saloon owner, a gunsmith, a wood carver. We even had a guy who became a professional clown.”
Now 78, Conn was listed as “James Conn Jr.” in his class’ commencement program. He joined the Navy after high school and saw the world, became a 30-year member of the Naval Reserve, married a classmate, had a family, was widowed, remarried, completed a distinguished career at several posts in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and volunteered for many committees and organizations. After his retirement from the BLM’s Medford office, Conn moved back to Roseburg.
The occasional high school class reunion brought some 1957 grads back to see who and what had changed in their hometown while reconnecting and reminiscing with old pals. But after the 10-year gathering — “That’s the one where you go to show everybody how successful you are,” Conn jokes — attendance and interest lagged to the point that the class as a whole passed on its 45th-anniversary re-assembly.
That’s when Conn, a guy who likes to stay active as much as he can, decided a different approach to the reunion might revive it. And by the 50th in 2007, that’s what happened.
“We really didn’t coalesce until our 50-year reunion,” Conn says.
Conn doesn’t see himself as some sort of alumni president — “I’d say I’m more of a ‘facilitator,’” he says — but he’s definitely an organizer. Or re-organizer, in this case. The traditional reunion committee for the Class of ’57 went out the window. The replacement was something that involved literally everyone.
“I decided to see if we could have a committee of the whole,” he says. “Whoever attended the meetings got to make the decisions. No parameters, no boxes.”
The approach, and the 50-year reunion, were a big success. There was a dinner, yes, but instead of a formal program, Conn and his one-time classmates decided to just allow people to mingle and talk, reminisce or just say “hello.”
“That really got us started,” Conn says.
About a month later, the “committee” met again to decide how it wanted to move forward. Did it want to meet regularly? Perhaps not, but another meeting was scheduled for three months later, in January 2008.
“WE THINK WE HAVE A CLASS OF SPECIAL PEOPLE. WE KNOW THAT SOUNDS EGOTISTICAL, BUT AT OUR AGE, WHAT THE HECK?” —Jim Conn
“So we met, just to visit,” Conn says. “At the end of that January meeting, we talked about when we should have the next one and someone said ‘How about next month?’”
The visits soon begat a quarterly newsletter that Conn and his “bride,” Jan, get into the hands of 192 subscribers via both email and hard copies. Not everyone graduated with Conn’s class, and a few earned diplomas elsewhere.
“It helps us keep track of one another,” Conn says. “Unfortunately, at our ages I have to mention (in the newsletter) the classmates and spouses we have lost. But mostly, it’s about what’s going on in our lives.”
Then there’s the scholarship fund. The class started it in 2008 and Conn says its endowment has reached $50,000. The group has awarded 11 scholarships to Roseburg High seniors so far.
Getting the group organized has had personal benefits for Conn.
“That’s one of the quirky things,” he says. “I was totally under the radar in high school. I had work to do at home. I knew the kids in my class by sight, but I didn’t associate with them much. I’d say a high percentage of the people in our group that I’ve become friends with are those I didn’t know very well in high school.”
He also still enjoys seeking out classmates.
“We have seven people we haven’t had any contact with since graduation,” he says. “They got married, left town. We don’t know where they are, and at this age, they may have passed on. But until I can find hard records of that, I’m going to keep searching.”
Conn has kept records of the group, so it can continue if he is unable to, and updates his files quarterly.
“We think we have a class of special people,” he says. “We know that sounds egotistical, but at our age, what the heck?”