Willoughby: The disappointing 2020 graduation vs. the traditions of 1926 | AspenTimes.com
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Willoughby: The disappointing 2020 graduation vs. the traditions of 1926

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

The new coronavirus wreaks havoc with the high school class of 2020. Students lament the loss of traditional activities and events. Honored traditions provide closure to the hard work and growth of the high school years. They ease the passage to the next stage of young adults’ lives. Hollow virtual graduations and goodbyes only mimic the 3-D experience. What bounty will the class of 2020 share at their 50-year reunions?

The graduation of the class of 1926 provides a stark contrast.

Willmina Sheehan Willoughby, my mother, graduated from Aspen High School in 1926. She and most of the 25 other seniors had attended school together since first grade. Alongside 100 other first graders, mother started school at the Washington School, to the west of the Aspen Historical Society’s current site. The 1918 deaths from influenza, and a loss of population when mines cut back on workers, reduced the size of the class. Dropouts, mostly by male students, further cut their number during ninth and 10th grades. Fifteen females comprised more than half the graduating class.

Aspen High School had moved into the D.R.C. Brown mansion, modified to handle 100 students. Large events, dances, basketball games and plays took place in public spaces such as the Wheeler, Armory Hall and the Isis Theater.

The class featured unusual demographics. Three non-triplet sisters graduated together: Aina, Astred and Alice Ericksen. Siblings William and Kathlyn Harrington graduated in the same class. Svea and Laurence Elisha, a married couple, received their diplomas. During high school years they had married and had a child. Although other schools would not have allowed them to attend classes, AHS supported the new family. Laurence’s father owned and operated the Jerome, a position Laurence assumed after his father’s death.

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Starting more than a month out, seniors began the countdown to graduation. Last-time spring events included baseball and track and field competitions. The annual Literary Contest pitted two rival societies, the Avants and the XLCR’s, against each other at the Wheeler. AHS held exams every six weeks, and students with a grade average below 90% had to wade through them.

The final week included daily events. Monday, the Community Church held Baccalaureate Services. Tuesday, a favorite then and now, the Junior Senior Prom, rewarded a new level of maturity. Wednesday featured class night exercises at the Isis, an opportunity for all grades to show off their learning.

Thursday, the community attended the Senior Class Play. In ’26 the class produced “What Happened to Jones.” The Aspen Times’s review commented on the Aspen High School Orchestra, and the actors’ “histrionic ability.”

The week and year capped off with commencement at the Isis Theater. Rev. McSweeney opened and closed the ceremony with prayer. Valedictorian Aina Erickson addressed the audience, as did salutatorian Willoughby. Other students read their essays. Ruth Beck wrote and read Observation, Elinor Gerstle Recreation, Viola Holmes Climbing and Astrid Erickson Character.

Music formed a backdrop for the occasion. Viola Holmes played a violin solo. My mother performed H. Engelmann’s Grande Valse Caprice on piano. After the awarding of diplomas, some seniors did double service with the Aspen High School Orchestra to close the event.

The Depression started early in Colorado and the class faced tough times. Many class members stayed in town. They had lived most of their lives in Aspen, and their parents offered work with the businesses and ranches they owned. A few students attended college, some to become teachers. Others left town for greener pastures. After graduation, Willoughby worked for Kobeys clothing store.

I remember sitting with my mother as she wrote her Christmas cards during the 1990s. More than 60 years after graduation, she maintained contact with eight high school friends. Although 2020’s seniors may not cease the academic year with a traditional graduation, they may seize a bounty of friendships forged in hardship.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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