BHSAA Speech, 27 June 2009 (Hopkins)

Telling Our Story . . .

Boonville High Schools Alumni Association Anniversary Banquet Speech
Knights of Columbus Hall — Saturday, 27 June 2009
John D. Hopkins

Good evening, and thank you for inviting me to speak this evening. It would be a privilege to speak here anytime, but it is an honor especially to have been chosen to speak this year, on the 45th anniversary of both the founding of the Alumni Association and the graduation of our class of 1964.

I would like to begin by recognizing my classmates who are here this evening, and their many contributions to our Association, to our schools, and to Boonville over the years — to the preservation of the Katy Bridge and Thespian Hall, to the work of the Friends of Historic Boonville, to the town's legal, educational and business and civic services, to the restoration of many of our historic buildings, to the generous donations they have made to our scholarship fund, and for so many other things — not least of which is that they are simply good people who support each another, and our schools and our town. One can be proud to be a member of our class. Could I ask you and your spouses to please stand so we could give you a well-earned round of applause?

I would like to introduce several family members who are here tonight. First, for those of you who have not yet met her, my wife Maritta; my sister, Sara Jane; my sister-in-law, Patricia Miller Hopkins; my cousins Norma Jean Hopkins Swartz and Betty Ann Grathwohl Maddex; and my nephew Ilmari Hopkins (the son of my younger brother Robert), from Finland, and Aline Rocha, from Brazil. Ilmari and Aline are touring North America this summer with the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, and will be performing on the cello and piano tomorrow morning between 10:30-12:00 during and immediately after the worship service at the United Church of Christ, on the corner of Spring and 7th. You are all warmly welcome to this very special event.

I would also like to thank you, the audience, for your contribution to my presentation. Never before have I received so many suggestions, from so many people, in so many different forms, about the presentation I should give. Or to be more specific, about how long it should be.

Early on, a pattern began to emerge. One of the first messages, for example, came from a rather worried-sounding officer of the Association, after I had sent in my "brief" resume, saying: "Most of the past presentations have been pretty short. Attention spans can get exhausted after 20 minutes."

There were also messages sent to family members: "I hear your brother will be the speaker this year. If you happen to talk to him, you might say that for me, 20 minutes is enough; after that I start looking at my watch . . . and giving signals."

I could understand this, of course. I am a teacher; many of you are teachers. We teachers are keen on detail. From the audience perspective, however, all too often the devil is in those details.

But it was the last two messages I received that really got my attention. First, on my Facebook page one day there suddenly appeared a quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 6, verse 11, the "God's Word" translation: "The more words there are, the more pointless they become. What advantage do mortals gain from this?" It seemed not to have come from any person or group, just somehow out of nowhere. The next day, it was gone.

Finally, in a service at the end of the university term, before I left Finland, the chaplain, looking straight at me, delivered a reading from the Apocrypha, the book of Sirach, chapter 32, verse 8, from the King James Version: "Let thy speech be short, comprehending much in few words; be as one that knoweth, yet holdeth his tongue."

It was then I finally realized, "You guys are good!"

It's nice to have an audience that knows what it wants. On the other hand, there were no suggestions as to the content, only the length. But this was familiar to someone born in 1946, also the year that Dr. Benjamin Spock's classic Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care was first published. "Establish the basic parameters," said Dr. Spock, "but allow great flexibility in between!"

Spock also noted that we are products of the environment in which we were raised, with our formative experiences largely from our early years. These experiences create identities which will last throughout our lives. I would like to speak this evening about identities: our identity as products of our school and our community, our larger identity as the Alumni Association, and the story of our collective identity.

Identity is something we think about more, the older we get. How did we get to be the way we are? Will we be remembered, after we are gone?

Recently, I have become more interested in identity. Two summers ago, I returned to Boonville for several weeks. I had not been here that long for many years. The result was similar to how another native Missourian who had moved abroad once put it: "the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time." 1

On my first day in town, I started to walk down Main Street, from the Courthouse toward Thespian Hall. During that walk, four different people stopped when they saw me approaching and began conversations. To be honest, I did not remember some of them. But they knew me.

Or more precisely, they knew me within the context of my family. Each of them asked about my older brothers and sister, and recounted many of their achievements, in school, in the community, in church — at quite some length; they recalled our family grocery store, and the activities in which my parents had been involved; two of them even recalled my grandparents, and aunts and uncles who had grown up in Boonville decades ago, but who had long since moved away.

No one asked much about me, though I realized later this was not the point. My identity was clear to them from that of my family. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sister had established models which I had then followed. I was first known as a reflection of them, as each of us is first identified in terms of those we follow.

The stories these four people told could have been told about any of us; just as each of us could tell them about each other. To know and to tell such stories is to be part of them, to be able to participate in, and reaffirm, the shared history of our personal, school and community experience.

Much of our identity has been shaped by our school experience, through the various activities in which we were involved, and the different relationships we formed. Through these we began to assume the roles and identities by which we would later be known.

Our collective experience in the Boonville schools is the one shared experience which all of us have. What we did became models for those who came after us; as Spock might have put it, each generation defines parameters for the generations to follow.

We are here tonight, as members of the Alumni Association, to remember, and celebrate together, this shared experience.

One could go from table to table in this room, and identify our Valedictorians, Merit Scholars, Honor Society members, class and student body officers, student council members, yearbook and newspaper staff, Boys and Girls State representatives, homecoming kings and queens, band and choir members, athletes, cheerleaders, junior and senior play casts, members of all the school clubs, special teachers and administrators, our Association scholarship recipients — on and on.

Each of us had a unique school experience. Collectively, we form a history, and an identity, for our school and for our community. Yet, where is the record of our history? Where is our story? If one wants to learn from and about our experience, where can one go?

The fact is that this story does not exist, except in our individual memories. Yet it is important, and should be told. Could our Association help to record this story of our school and our community, and the place we all hold in that history? As we move toward our 50th anniversary, might this be a project on which we could begin?

The alternative is that our stories will be lost, fading into what has been called "the twilight . . . between living memory and written history,"2 between what can still be remembered, but has not been recorded, before it is lost forever.

Let me give two examples of what I have in mind.

The first is relatively trivial, yet illustrative. It began five years ago, after our 40th class reunion. I had thought of studying our class history, and had found my Central School class photos, kindergarten through 6th grade, for the teachers I'd had. On some, the names of my classmates had been recorded. However, there were several blanks, faces I no longer recognized. Also, only having my own class photos was not enough; I should also have the photos in which my other classmates had been.

At first, I thought the information would be easy to obtain. Certainly there would be school records of what pupils were in which teacher's classes in each grade. Certainly there would be newspaper stories on the classes, complete with photos. Yet this was not the case. There were no class photos in the newspapers. Nor do our schools keep such records; they would only exist in the files of each individual teacher, or in what each of us might still have available from all those years back.

But then help emerged. Five years ago, we had created a class website and an e-mail list. I put my photos on the website, with the names I knew, and asked my classmates for help. And help came, in detail, and quickly. There is power in the ability to communicate together — inclusively, interactively, even if separated over fairly wide distance.

Since then, my classmates have provided almost all of the remaining class photos from our years in Central School, and for each, most of the names. Each knew something the others did not; working together, solutions emerged.

But some of the faces are no longer remembered. Their eyes still stare out from the photos, but their names and their stories have apparently vanished — into that "twilight between living memory and written history."

The Young Woman (1926)

C.E. Chrane (1917)

Walnut Grove (2009)

My other example goes back to the year 1930.

It is, in part, the story of a young woman who had taught in our schools. From accounts of the time, she was very good. But in the fall of 1930 she planned to marry, and the policy then was that she could not remain a teacher if she married. The Superintendent of Schools, Professor Curtis E. Chrane, wanted very much to keep her. Not only was she one of his best teachers, apparently one of his favorites [she had been an honor student during Chrane's first years as Superintendent, and later had taught both of Chrane's daughters], but enrollment was increasing, and all teachers were needed.

Chrane was a progressive and principled educator. He was also a man of influence. Dynamic and charismatic, he was described in the local newspapers as "the most popular man in Boonville." He had been Superintendent for 17 years. He was on the County Board of Education. He was Chair of the State Teachers Association. He was Director of the Chamber of Commerce. And he was unhappy — at having to lose one of his best teachers just because she wanted to marry. It should be noted here that it was each local School Board which decided such policies, although the policy against married women teaching was general practice throughout the state.

In the entries of the woman's diary for 1930, there is an intriguing sequence of events. On January 9th, she told Chrane she would like to teach again the following year, as he had hoped, but she also planned to marry. Nearly three months then passed. On April 4th she reported there had been a meeting of all the school's teachers, who had voted against the restriction of married women from teaching. The next day she submitted her application. Two weeks later the School Board approved her application, but only if she remained unmarried.

On May 14th Chrane said he would ask the Board for an exemption to allow her to teach even if she did marry, and suggested that if that did not work, there might be other options, perhaps a legal challenge to the Board. On May 16th he told her the Board had refused. Chrane then asked if she could postpone her wedding, so she could begin to teach the following year, and he could challenge the Board's decision then.

However, wedding plans continued, and on September the 9th, as the new school year was beginning, Chrane was murdered by an escapee from the training school. With his death, plans for a challenge apparently ended.

And so also ended, apparently, any other record of what had happened. Teacher Association records no longer exist; School Board minutes do not record such detail; firsthand memories have long been extinguished. It was not until 14 years later, near the end of World War II, when the need for teachers was desperate, that married women were allowed to teach throughout the State.

Yet even this, in many schools, was only temporary. In Boonville, the School Board minutes for March 6, 1946, note that "while the rule against the employment of married teachers had been relaxed to allow women who married while in service to teach without a contract, the war is over, and the Board now insists on strict enforcement of the original rule." It was not until the spring of 1948, under intense civic and political pressure, that the School Board was forced to relent, and the ban on married women teaching in Boonville schools finally ended.

But returning to 1930, what was the context of the events in the diary? What were the circumstances of that teacher's meeting on April 4th? What had Chrane's plan been? Had he not been murdered, would the Boonville schools have been pioneers for the rights of married women to teach in Missouri? Would history have changed?

We will never know. Details of that story, like those of so many others, have passed through the twilight of memory into darkness.

How could we begin recording our stories, instead of losing them to time? I would like to propose two means by which this could be done. Both would also serve larger ends.

First, I feel the Alumni Association should establish its own electronic identity, an Association website and an e-mail list. In the 21st century, organizations such as ours simply cannot exist, except in a strictly local sense, without a functional electronic presence. Through the website and e-mail list we could gain vastly improved communication, and a much broader outreach.

The Association's administrative work could be more efficient. The annual letter, the mailing of which is by far the largest expenditure, could still be kept, in a modified form; some things are more effective on paper, and some of us may not be able to access the internet.

But with an e-mail list, supplementary information — reminders and updates to the written letter — could be sent at no additional cost. With the website, information would be continuously available to anyone, anywhere, at any time, rather than by only one page, once a year, to those we are able to reach. Individual classes would have a means through which to organize their events. Administrative work could be shared electronically even with those outside of town.

Surely this would result in more activity and involvement throughout the Association, and more membership and scholarship income, just as starters. Balanced against the almost negligible cost of providing the structure, the potential benefits are compelling.

The collection and recording of our stories could also begin through this structure. Our broader membership, graduates of Boonville High School wherever they might be, could share experiences with each other throughout the year, at any time, rather than only when meeting in person. In their digital form, these could be shared via the web, available to all to read, compare and expand. Each story would stimulate another — again, there is power in the ability to communicate together.

To do this would not be complicated or expensive or unduly time-consuming. Websites and e-mail lists are simple to create, and even simpler to administer. Through them we would be able to collect, record, compare, verify and publish the memories we all have, while we still have them — digitally at first, with more permanent forms to follow. We would become part of an enduring history, rather than vanishing into it.

Second, and last, I propose that we publish a directory of all living graduates of Boonville High School, with contact information for each, and a brief history of the school and of our Association — of what has been accomplished through the years: all our class and student body officers, honor society members, award-winning musicians, star athletes, championship-winning teams, teachers, administrators, and so on.

This need not involve the work you might imagine; there are companies, should we wish to use them, that would take our mailing list, contact our graduates, collect from us the extra features we wished to include, and publish the book, in return for a percentage of the sales, with the Association getting the remainder. Such companies would not exist if the sales of such books were not significant to those who are listed in them. This could profit the Association both through new membership, and new income from the sales. It is an idea I feel is worth considering.

There would be detail on all these things, but my 20 minutes has ended, and I am mindful of Ecclesiastes that more words now may not be an advantage.

We have a story to tell; we would have the means to tell it. And we have an audience that knows what it wants.

Where could we go from here?


  1. St. Louis native T.S. Eliot, in the fourth poem of his Four Quartets.
  2. Adapted from the historian C. Vann Woodward's book The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Woodward wrote: The twilight zone that lies between living memory and written history is one of the favorite breeding places of mythology.

The young teacher (at far left, with her assistant) with one of her first classes, at the old Central School.
(See also 1914-15 'Old' Central School Class Photo)

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