In the fall of 1940 the new Billings Senior High, at 425 Grand Ave., opened its doors to students for the first time.
“It was on the edge of town,” exclaimed Maeona Weldon Smith.
It was a crazy notion, sending students into the wilds of underdeveloped Yellowstone County to attend school. For years, they had been in the heart of downtown attending class in what is now the Lincoln Center.
But the new Senior High, three stories tall and dominating the landscape, was exciting.
“It was really something,” said Lorraine Vaughn Baker. “We were in a brand-new school.”
The building’s first graduating class — the class of 1941 — will hold its 70th anniversary next week. It’s the eighth reunion they’ve held since graduating, and it will be the last.
That first graduating class was 360 students. Only 28 of them are scheduled to attend this last reunion.
Seventy years on, most of the graduates are 87 or 88 years old. Some who would like to attend simply can’t because of deteriorating health or the stress of traveling.
Many, of course, are no longer around.
“We lost a lot to the war,” said Harriet Wise.
The class of 1941 was the last graduating class before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Once America became involved in World War II, it was the recent high school graduates who lined up to enlist.
“A lot of our boys went into the service at that time,” Wise said. “I think it hit our class more than any other.”
Many of the Senior High girls married servicemen and dispersed across the U.S. Others, like Betty McFarland Martin, ended up engaged in the war effort themselves. Martin was a riveter on B-17s.
With many of the original graduates gone from Billings, it was those who stayed behind or returned who got involved with the class reunion committee.
Willard Baker, an Army veteran, said this core group has been meeting for decades.
“That’s why it’s the last,” he quipped. “We’ve had it.”
The members of the committee — Wise, Smith, Martin, Bob Graham, Willard Baker, Lorraine Vaughn Baker, Doris Harringen Zagorda, Jack Yost and Glenn Combellick — have become good friends over the years.
But in high school, they all walked in different circles and hung out with other people. It’s given them a unique bond and a drive to keep gathering through the years.
“We’re Senior Broncs forever,” Willard Baker said.
Because they stayed, they continued to attend Senior High sporting events long after graduation and many had children who graduated from Senior High.
They gather now, tell stories and reminisce about lives now in the distant past. They help one another recall names and add missing parts to favorite stories.
Like the high school. It was so new, Willard Baker said, it might not have been ready for students.
“The clocks didn’t work when we moved in,” he said. “I remember that vividly.”
He also remembered coming home to Billings on furlough in 1943 and running into his good friend, Yoshi Honkawa, senior class president when they graduated.
He had been the only Japanese-American at the school and by 1943, as the Marines spread across the Pacific fighting the Japanese, Honkawa had faced blunt racism at home, Baker said.
It took a bit for Honkawa to even make eye contact with Baker, who was in uniform, and Baker remembers trying to remind Honkawa that he still had good friends. It ended up being a touching moment, Baker said.
Honkawa’s family wound up moving to California shortly after his encounter with Baker, and Honkawa joined the service, fighting in a regiment of all Japanese American soldiers.
The two stayed good friends.
Wise said awakening memories like that is one of the good things about getting together. Making the decision to do it one last time wasn’t so hard to make.
“It’s kind of fun to think we could have a 70th,” she said. “We still have a lot of friends.”