The year 1969 brings back memories of The Beatles’ last public performance, the first man to walk on the moon, the institution of the first draft lottery since World War II, the mass murders led by cult leader Charles Manson, and, locally, the race riots that garnered national attention.
But when classmates of the Kokomo High School class of 1969 were asked what they remembered most about the year they graduated, they described their bustling social lives sans technology, a thriving downtown Kokomo with plenty of spots for teenagers, and a year that many referred to simply as “a different time.”
“It was like the old book of one of the British authors: ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.’ We were teenagers. We had no cares or anything, but we also went through political unrest … the Vietnam War, which tore the nation apart,” said Michael Bunn, who graduated with the class of 1969.
The class was the last large KHS graduating class with around 820 students, a fact in which many of the students took pride. The following year, the classes were separated with the addition of Haworth High School.
With a class so large, it made for exciting school events.
Bunn pointed to the Friday and Saturday night basketball games as examples of serious school spirit. “Anyone and everyone,” he said, showed up to the games, and they weren’t passive audience members. The class boasted a hugely-successful all-female cheer block that filled the south end of Memorial Gym, and attendees needed tickets to ensure they’d get a seat.
“We could fill up the entire lower section and right behind it with the cheer block, and we’re all dressed alike in our reversible shirts, red on one side, blue on the other,” said Jane (Young) Richardson, a former cheer block participant. “The cheerleaders would tell us which color we would need that day, and cheer block was just a good time.”
The girls didn’t wing it, either. They had cheer block practices where they’d learn hand motions and chants that were personalized to the visiting team, and they’d create and bring props that played on the opposing team’s name. Some props they’d pin to their shirts; other’s they’d incorporate into their hand motions.
For one game against the La Porte Slicers, the girls brought small knives, something that wouldn’t be acceptable today.
“In this day and age we couldn’t do that,” said Richardson, laughing.
The night wasn’t over after the games. Almost always, after-game dances were held at the YMCA or the Teen Canteen, also known as Koky’s Korner, which was located upstairs on the corner of Washington and Buckeye streets downtown. It had a free jukebox, bumper pool, pool tables, and ping-pong tables. The teens could pay a quarter to get in or buy a month’s pass for a couple of dollars.
For classmate Mike Milligan, he not only attended after-game dances, but he also performed at them in the band known as Velvet Infinity.
“The Teen Canteen was very popular. They had after-game dances, and we played about every school in the county for after-game dances and some proms,” Milligan said, adding that the band was quite popular locally at the time.
That year, Velvet Infinity placed first in a Howard County talent show and advanced to the state-level competition, though the band fell short from being named the best in the state.
Milligan, who played guitar, said the band was “blessed” to have received positive press in the local newspaper several times.
“We had a lot of support,” he said.
It wasn’t just the weekends that were fun. The class of 1969 had an open, one-hour lunch break, allowing the more than 800 students to flood the local eateries — and they were plentiful.
For those who stayed downtown, one of the most popular joints was Fenn’s Drugstore, which sold fountain drinks, grilled cheese sandwiches, grilled ham salad sandwiches, ice cream, and other quick lunch items. Class President Bob Hingst said most students were armed with $1 to spend on their lunch, which would be enough for a drink and sandwich at the drugstore.
Closer to the school also was Uptown Café, which Hingst called more of a guy’s place due to its hearty portions of mashed potatoes, bread, and meat. Other options included Lum’s, Scotty’s, Frisch’s, and Burger Chef, which later turned into Hardee’s.
“Everybody just fanned out through downtown and messed around, ate lunch. You got a whole hour, so it was kind of fun,” Hingst said.
Bunn also enjoyed frequenting the eateries after-hours, especially Scotty’s, because his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, worked there.
“You always had a friend who worked at one of the eateries who’d slip you a hamburger on the side,” Bunn said.
Putting in the miles
Making rounds to several restaurants was how many students spent their time, and Frozen Custard on Park Avenue was on most people’s routes. According to classmate Pam (Shusslebotham) Durfey, it was the place “to see and be seen.”
“You would sometimes go through the Seashore, definitely go through the Frozen Custard, and then you would drive up to Frisch’s Big Boy, which was at the corner of Markland and Apperson Way,” Durfey said. “It was just back and forth. It sounds crazy probably, but that’s what we did, cruising.”
Miles also were put in by some of the girls who would get together and cruise by their boyfriends’ houses to see if they could see any of them.
Richardson said she had one girlfriend who had a boyfriend who lived on one end of town and another whose boyfriend lived on the other end.
“We put in a lot of miles going by the boys’ houses,” Richardson said.
If they’d see the boyfriends outside, they’d stop and chat.
“If it wasn’t a date night or something, the girls would be out running around, and that would be what we would do,” she said.
As for drugs and alcohol, the classmate said they really weren’t popular, as far as she knew.
One bold night she and approximately five other classmates split one can of beer among the six of them, and Richardson remembered it being a big deal.
“I will say we were pretty naïve maybe. It was a different time, and we always figured we didn’t need the alcohol or that kind of stuff. We had a lot of fun, but we just weren’t into that. It was an innocent time. It really was,” Richardson said.
Closing the chapter
When it came time for the students to close their chapter at KHS, it was bittersweet for many.
Richardson remembered not wanting to move on.
“School was fun. I enjoyed it. I was active at school, made good grades. I had a bunch of friends, and I didn’t want to leave,” she said.
Options for what students would do beyond high school were, like the activities while in school, plentiful. While some opted to go to college, which Hingst said typically consisted only of in-state schools, others could get good-paying jobs right out of high school.
Norris Jones was one of those classmates. Upon graduation, he was dating a girl who lived on East North Street next to a plant manager at then-Chrysler. Exactly one week to the date Jones walked across the stage, the man approached him while he was at his girlfriend’s house and asked him if he had career plans yet.
Jones told him that he didn’t but that he really needed a job. It was that easy. Jones started at Chrysler at 6 a.m. the next morning.
“That was the greatest thing that could have happened to me at that time because Chrysler at that time was the only place you could go and make a lot of money,” Jones said.
For Milligan, he chose to go to radio broadcasting school in Indianapolis and later became a radio deejay at WWKI for a short period of time before going on to be a mechanic for Volkswagen. He later ended up at Chrysler where he made his career.
Milligan said getting a good job today isn’t as simple as it once was.
“It’s a different world. I’m very fortunate, and I tell people mine is one of the last generations that had opportunities laid right at their feet, opportunities for work,” Milligan said.
And for this class, despite the draft lottery that was instituted in December 1969 after the students had graduated, few were required to serve in the Vietnam War.
“We were the first class that really didn’t have to go to the Vietnam War. We had a few but not many, so we felt pretty lucky about that,” Hingst said.