John F. Kennedy was elected president, and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human launched into space.
Elvis Presley was big and so were Del Shannon, Bobby Vee and the Marvelettes. The Beatles were yet to come.
In Hawaii, Barack Obama was born.
Closer to home, Billings Senior High’s graduating class of 1961 was making a little news of its own. With 750 seniors, it would be the last of the huge classes the town would see.
“We were the last graduating class before West High opened,” said Tom Brown, who was Senior’s student body president at the time.
He and fellow alumnus John Niemi traveled to Billings for a planning session for the class of 1961’s 50-year reunion. The gathering is slated for June 24-25.
Brown lives in Gilbert, Ariz., and Niemi resides in Denver. The two met with about 20 others to work on details for the coming gathering.
Brown figures well over 600 members of the class are alive today.
“We’re having trouble finding a few of them,” he said.
The Internet makes finding people and getting the word out about the event easier than in the past, the two agreed. Another classmate designed a website that includes yearbook photos of all the seniors, a list of alumni who have passed away and members who are “missing.”
Those photos show most of the guys wearing ties and girls in short or curly hairdos that were popular at the time. At school, Levi jeans were the choice of boys, Niemi said, “with the red tag on the back pocket.”
Senior’s principal in ‘61 was Chuck Borberg, and one of the most popular instructors, Niemi said, was social studies teacher Dewey Hansen.
“He was a great guy,” Niemi said.
Hansen, who died in 2009, left a $2.7 million endowment to the school district.
Niemi graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in history and geography. He worked in the insurance industry for 30 years before he got into the sale of promotional products.
Brown also graduated from UM with a degree in business administration. He was in the military for two years and then worked for 34 years with the U.S. Army Audit Agency before he retired.
Other alumni went on to become attorneys, doctors, CIA agents and scientists, and at least one played professional baseball.
A lot of the members of the class of 1961 live in Montana, Niemi said. There are also pockets of alums in Seattle and Northern California.
Larry Portis lives in Paris, Mark Ruth lives in Guam and Lew Williams is a “fairly well-known opera singer in Germany,” Niemi said.
Foreign exchange student Knute Folsatd, a Norwegian who now lives in the Canary Islands, will make the trip back for the reunion, Brown said.
When the class gets together in Billings, it will be a much different place than it was back in the early ‘60s. Twenty-fourth Street West “was a long way out,” Brown said, and marked the western boundary of town.
The Heights, known back then as the Bench, was predominantly farmland.
“West Park Plaza had just opened and was quite a way out,” Brown said. “And it was huge.”
Downtown was the heart of the city, Niemi recalled.
The two look forward to getting together with classmates, catching up and reminiscing. They hope for a turnout of 350 people, with 75 already signed up.
“It’s always fun to come back,” Brown said.