SOUTH TAMPA — The Plant High School class of 1944 is a close-knit group. While attending high school, they shared wartime rationing, concerns about their futures and fears for their classmates headed off to war. They also shared many a fun time, seeing shows at the Tampa Theatre, swimming in the Bay, winning the 1943 football state championship and dancing at the Villa Del Rio. At their 70th reunion May 31, all seemed to agree that the best thing about their high school years was each other.
Compared to this year’s graduating class of 579 students, the Plant class of ’44 had no more than 250 graduate on June 1 out on the football field. About 30 of them attended the daytime reunion at Canterbury Towers, 3501 Bayshore Blvd., where co-chairs Calvin Johnson and Sarah Jane Rubio reside. The fun continued with dinner at the Colonnade restaurant.
A little more than half the attendees traveled from outside Tampa, but those living here have not become strangers. Some Plant High 1944 graduates choose to meet for lunch every Friday and share dinner together monthly. Several of these former students — all now in their late 80s — have been friends since elementary school, attending Gorrie and then Wilson Middle School before entering Plant in 10th grade.
“All of life was vivid; there were no pastels,” said Maude Fowler Pallardy, 87, describing the time period.
Wearing name tags emblazoned with their high school portraits and sporting braided bead necklaces in Plant’s colors of white, black and gold, the former classmates enjoyed a buffet brunch, live piano music, a raffle and, best of all, reminiscing and getting each other up to speed on their current lives. Current Plant football coach Robert Weiner spoke about life and sports.
“As much as things change, things stay the same at Plant High School,” he noted.
Some of the changes that have occurred in the last 70 years are that the woods once surrounding the school have become houses and paved streets, the lawn students relaxed on at lunchtime has been replaced by buildings and now hundreds of students drive themselves to school.
“We walked everywhere because, even if you had a car, you didn’t have any gas,” Rubio recalled. “We were in so much better shape. We didn’t have sugar, we had to walk everywhere; we didn’t have chocolate. We didn’t have any of those things and we got along beautifully without them. I enjoyed it too much. I should have done more studying than I did. That was a period of time when we were all trying to make ends meet in many different ways, a most unusual time. So many boys had gone off to war.”
After Pearl Harbor was bombed — Dec. 7, 1941 — Rubio and friend Margaret Davis joined the Red Cross, taking coffee and doughnuts to servicemen and taking wounded soldiers to the hospital, which is now the Don Cesar Hotel.
“Wounded men were flown back here for treatment,” said Davis, 87. The invasion of Normandy occurred five days after graduation on Tuesday, June 6, 1944. Davis, who has two children and four grandchildren who are also Plant graduates, remembers riding in a friend’s father’s convertible in a joyful celebratory parade up Franklin Street.
“In those days, we cooked with Crisco and we’d bring our cans to the home ec class and they would send them somewhere to be turned into bullets,” Davis recalled.
Johnson, class president and ROTC member, tried to sign up for the Army before being drafted, because volunteers were treated better than those who were drafted. Turned out, the Army refused him.
“I had bad ears,” he said.
About 80 percent of his classmates did enter the Armed Services, and not one died in combat.
“We rode a street car for dates to Tampa Theatre,” he said. “Frequently after school, groups of us would gather at a girl’s house to play records and dance. Different girls would take different days of the week and we’d have a lot of fun just talking and dancing.”
Advice to current Plant students?
“Look after your health and your wealth first and then enjoy life. I don’t mean a whole lot of money, I mean your future. But enjoy life,” Rubio says.
Margaret Williams Baumgartner added, “Make friends while you are in high school because they will be lifelong friends.”
Additional reunion committee members included Duckie Smith, Virgil Smith, Pallardy, Louise Schmidt, and Mary Lib Stephenson. The 70th reunion followed reunions for the graduates’ 60th, 50th, 40th and 25th.
“We may do a 75th,” said Rubio.
“We always had a good time,” said Virgil Smith. “If you ask any member of our class, they’ll say we were the best class that ever graduated. We had an unusual class.”