MAHOPAC, N.Y. - While Mahopac High School students were on the football field for their Homecoming pep rally, the class of 1969 alumni were returning to campus to reminisce with former classmates and create new memories.
A time-capsule reveal, a tour of Lakeview Elementary School (the district’s original school building), boat rides on Lake Mahopac and a celebratory banquet were highlights of a weekend of reunion events organized by two Class of 1969 classmates, Tina Stokes and Leonard Shore.
While some had traveled far and some still call Mahopac home, members of the first class to graduate from the Mahopac High School building filled the hallways with big hugs and laughter. Linda Whalen, who now lives in Albany, said, “Although some things have changed in Mahopac, it still feels the same to me as it did in 1969.”
As the marching band could be heard coming in from the pep rally, Donna Jagger, who lives in New Jersey, recalled a favorite high school memory.
“I was a cheerleader and loved the pep rallies before the big Homecoming football games,” she said. “Each year, we would burn an effigy of the opponent in a bonfire on a neighbor’s lawn that was just across Lakeview [Drive].”
The Class of 1969 was the first to graduate from the “new” building.
“It was exciting to be in the new high school, but I still think of Lakeview when remembering my years as a student,” said Rene Head Mohnani, who now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Much like today, Lake Mahopac was an integral part of social life in town 50 years ago.
“I have a lot of fun memories of being at the lake. I still ache for the lake and get back whenever I can,” said Judy Brady Witherspoon, who now lives in the Chesapeake area of Virginia. Her uncle was the late Art Brady, who owned A.C. Brady Store, a general store and fuel oil business on Myrtle Avenue in Mahopac Falls, which was founded by his grandfather and father in 1912.
A highlight of the reunion was the reveal of the Class of 1969 time capsule. This copper metal box was dug up during the high school renovation 12 years ago and had remained in a safe until last Friday evening. Class of 1969 alumni, high school students, teachers and administrators filled the auditorium for a discussion before the time capsule opening.
Members of Mahopac student government fueled the discussion by asking alumni such questions as, “What made your time at Mahopac unique?” This fostered moving responses as memories of Vietnam and Woodstock were shared.
“Vietnam had a big impact on us. Some young men who graduated before us were drafted and I remember one coming back with half a leg,” Russell Plaeger recalled.
“Billy Todd was lost to Vietnam,” another alumnus added.
“And Woodstock changed everything,” Witherspoon added. She said that on the heels of Woodstock she believed the Women’s Liberation Movement really could be felt across the country. “I was in college in the South during this time, and we went from never leaving our dorm without wearing gloves, pearls and dresses to wearing jeans all in one year.”
The discussion also included watching Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the Moon, on black-and-white televisions and what they were doing when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“I never saw a teacher cry except for that day,” Plaeger recalled.
The reflection appropriately concluded with advice from Class of 1969 to Mahopac High School students, including:
• “Be curious. Ask questions. Never stop learning.”
• “Use your resources wisely. Mahopac High School has a host of counselors, teachers and opportunities for help and guidance. Take advantage of the help and use it to make your high school experience the best it can be.”
• “Get involved. Be part of clubs, plays, sports or music groups. It helps mold you into your future self and gives you a much more rewarding high school experience.”
• “Turn to each other. Depend on each other. This builds relationships and skills that help over a lifetime.”
• “Chase your dreams. Find a profession you really like and really want. Then things really fall into place.”
• “Call your mother!”
The time capsule was opened by Stokes and Shore, the 50th reunion co-chairs, and the high school principal, Dr. Matthew Lawrence. Class of ’69 members said they had little memory of what might be found in the capsule, which included two issues of The Chieftain (the student paper), an issue of the literary magazine, a typed staff manual, a graduation program, an invitation from the Board of Education to dedicate the new high school building, and a few coins.
“Everything is in pristine condition,” Shore noted.
“Now-and-then” conversations were overheard among the alumni, students and teachers as they perused the capsule’s contents. Perhaps the most poignant reflection came from Julie Rotta, Class of 1969 alumna and Mahopac resident. She shared her story of Mahopac High School giving her the opportunity to be a “normal” student and thrive. Rotta and her brother are people of short stature. When the siblings lived in the Bronx, they had been placed in special-needs classes because her schools didn’t know what to do with them. She so resented going to school that she did a two-week sit-out protest “because that’s what you did in the ’60s.”
Things markedly improved when the family moved to Mahopac, just as Rotta was entering high school.
“Going to school in Mahopac changed my life and allowed me to have an education like everyone else,” said Rotta. She and her brother were given extra time to get from class to class, Rotta recalled, and her educational experience was the same as everyone else.
While telling her story, classmate Plaeger chimed in, “Julie was the best artist in the whole school.” Perhaps this is how Rotta continued to be part of the Putnam Arts Council for 30 years. More of her story can be found in the book forward of “The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity Toward Social Liberation” by Betty M. Adelson.
“Hearing the Class of 1969 share memories instills what makes Mahopac a special place,” said Anthony DiCarlo, the superintendent of schools. “It also shows us how as much as things change the more things stay the same, like how to pronounce Mahopac.”
The time capsule and its contents will now live at the Town of Carmel Historical Society for public viewing.
Laura Lee Holmbo is the communication consultant for the Mahopac School District.