The email from Cindy Behney was distressing. The former Suzanne Berger was going through some very difficult and tragic times. Among other things her brother Charlie had passed away in February.
As I wrote in The Moyer Connection, Suzanne was a high school classmate (Elco class of ’67) and her brother was a year behind us; plus they are related via my paternal grandmother and are third cousins of mine. That’s Charlie on the left, as he looked during his high school days.
Little wonder that my mind drifted back to happier days.
It was the waning days of our junior year in 1966, and the election of the student body president was on the horizon. That honor would traditionally go to a senior with the vice-president being a junior; the voting was really just a pro forma show of esprit de corps, an exercise of democracy in name only. Everybody knew this.
So the inevitable next president of the student body was current junior Ken Rittle. Soccer star, all round sports star actually, National Honor Society member, Student Council officer four years running, other extracurricular activities too long to list, all round good guy Ken Rittle. It was his turn. Everybody knew it. That’s Ken down there on the right.
The token challenger was Charlie Berger. It was a given that he would come in second and take his place as vice-president, while waiting until next year when it would be his turn. That’s just the way things worked. That was the system. It’s the way things had always worked. It’s the way things always would work.
And then Debbie came along.
Debbie was fellow classmate Debbie Miller. For some reason she appointed herself a one-person campaign manager for Charlie, and in short order (the campaign only lasted a few days, maybe a week, I think) she blew in like a hurricane, or perhaps a tsunami, and upended everything. Every chance she got she was bending fellow classmates’ ears about what a dynamic president Charlie would make. Yes, Ken was fine, but he was too laid back, too stuck in his ways, too much part of the old way, the old system, whereas Charlie would bring a youthful vigor to the position. We needed new blood, fresh ideas.
And suddenly what had seemed like an inevitable trot to the finish line now turned into a real race, a true nail biter.
The day of the election came, the votes were cast, and the student body waited for the ballots to be counted and the results to be announced.
Why did Debbie do it? That’s the question. I remember asking her about it at the time, but I can’t recall what her answer was. What makes it all so much stranger is that when this occurred, she already knew she would no longer be in Elco for her senior year; her father, a doctor, had decided to give up his practice and move the family to New York City over the summer break. My suspicion is that she was simply trying to shake things up a bit, but that’s only a suspicion.
Also, the position of student body president was, how shall I say this, pretty much just a ceremonial job, rather like the Queen of England. It didn’t carry with it any real responsibility, the president mainly represented the school at various functions and maybe made a speech here or there. It wasn’t as if he actually did anything like governing or passing laws or whatever. Oh, and it probably looked good on a college application.
So when I received the sad news about Charlie’s passing, I emailed Debbie and reminded her about those events 50-odd years ago. To my surprise, she had no recollection of it at all. She said she didn’t recall having any negative feelings about Ken, so she couldn’t imagine why she might have campaigned for Charlie.
To say the least, that was not the response that I expected. For the past few years former classmates have been telling me that I have great memories for high school events that they’ve long since forgotten, but surely something as momentous as this seismic student body presidential election where Debbie was the prime seismic mover, surely she’d remember that?
Well, I’d just go to the yearbook and find the relevant page showing the winner and send that to her. Maybe that would jog her memory.
To my surprise and disappointment, there was no mention of a student body president in our Sigma ’67 yearbook.
So I emailed Cindy. She’s the keeper of all knowledge about the Class of ’67. And she was a classmate of Charlie’s. She’d certainly remember.
Her reply was short and sweet:
I’m sorry, I am of no help. I have no memory of a student body president.
Am I the only one who remembers that campaign and the election?
Or…or am I losing my mind? [That’s a cue for a Sondheim song.]
Did I make the whole thing up? Am I delusional?
But no! I recall at least two occasions where the president of the student body and the vice-president appeared on television because I was there both times. I didn’t make those up, did I? Unless my psychosis was even worse than I imagined.
Who else might remember? Well, there’s Ken Rittle. I have his email address, but we’ve never exchanged messages and I felt just a wee bit uncomfortable having my very first message to him be a reminder of what might be an unpleasant memory.
Then I remembered the newspaper archive and the weekly articles that Maryann Shelhamer used to contribute to the Lebanon Daily News for its Around the Schools page.
So I signed up for a month and began searching for those Friday write-ups.
It didn’t take long. On page 22 of the LDN for May 6, 1966, Maryann wrote:
Amid cheering, yelling and waving banners, the campaign for the Elco student body president was officially launched Wednesday afternoon.
Kenneth Rittle, a junior, and sophomore Charles Berger, contestants for the coveted office, revealed their platforms to the assembled senior high school students.
The ballots will be cast Monday, after their strenuous week of campaigning.
That, at least, confirmed that there was a student body prez and that Ken and Charlie vied for the position. But how about my memory of the outcome of the election? That was the more important data point as far as I was concerned. Presumably that should be in the following Friday’s write-up, but did the newspaper archive have that issue? Sometimes, I’ve found that the issues that I most want are missing.
Happily, it was there, and the following week Maryann had this to say about the outcome of the election:
The clanging horns and waving banners which launched last week’s campaign for Student Body president proclaimed a new record Friday as the ballots were counted.
For the first time in Elco’s history, a junior-to-be, Charles Berger Jr., was awarded the coveted title.