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Classmates share lifelong connection

Every two months, they come from Baltimore-area neighborhoods, the Eastern Shore and Virginia to sustain two treasures - their youth and enduring friendship.

On this steamy summer day, the rugged platoon shows up once more, some using canes, one with a hearing aid but everybody with an attitude that seems to shout, "Ain't life grand!"

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The surviving members of Kenwood High School's Class of 1941, bonded by hardships from the Great Depression and World War II, gather at Sanders' Corner Restaurant in the Loch Raven watershed.

Their reunion lunches have been going on for nine years; larger, more formal class gatherings have been held every five years, most recently in 2001.

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They've seen a lot, this hardy bunch who received their diplomas 62 years ago.

All remember when, truly, everyone walked to school. Ice was not spit out of a machine in the freezer, it was delivered in a horse-drawn wagon. They watched America march off to war many times and saw 12 U.S. presidents in office.

There was the atomic bomb, integration, assassinations, the fall of communism and far too many inventions to mention - but many agree television and the computer were among the most significant. And, most of these folks will say, they've witnessed a slow decline of the American civilization.

"We just feel that we were the greatest generation because we survived so much, worked hard and made the country and our world better," said Josephine Krotee Fox, 79, a retired school principal.

"But I guess every generation makes that claim," she said.

Kenwood's 1941 group is not the usual collection of former high school classmates standing around the punch bowl, trying to impress with stories of material success, discussing who fits in or commenting on physical appearances.

The Kenwood class members don't go on crash diets, have facelifts or buy a new car before a reunion. Instead, they are more reflective and worry about the nation's young.

Ellen F. Moser, 79, of Timonium, a retired insurance agent, said over a club sandwich that the good times of her teen-age years are revisited with each luncheon.

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"We don't want to lose our youth," she said. "Inside our hearts, it's like a sisterhood. In high school we loved our teachers, there was no cussing, drinking or smoking. At our senior prom, the girls came with the girls, boys with the boys ... we mingled. Can you imagine that?

"Today, I am really concerned with the girls, their navels showing, those things in their tongues," Moser said. "What's going to happen to them?"

What is perhaps most remarkable about this group is their collective sense of humor and reined-in egos.

"At our reunions, we are at the point in our lives where nobody has to lie about their age," said Dorothy Johnson Miller, 79, a retired attorney who lives in Parkville and organizes the lunch gatherings and regular reunions.

Great Reunions in California, part of an industry that manages reunions, has organized more than 4,000 nationally since 1983, but a spokeswoman said none dating to 1941 has been as enduringly consistent.

"Getting leadership for these things is difficult," said Vera Mae Clark Nowland. "Young or old, doesn't matter, people don't want to take the time to work on it ... and I'm here to tell you it can be quite a job."

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Kenwood graduate Vernon E. Pipino, 80, and his wife, Rose, drove to last week's reunion from their home in Perry Hall. They have been married 55 years and have one grown son. Like their contemporaries, they have a sandwich and discuss the state of the world, who serves the best sour beef in town and prices in the supermarket.

Rose Pipino said the bond among those in the room is about survival and resilience.

"As children we lived through the Depression and as soon as the boys graduated from high school, World War II started and off they went. ... It was a time when nobody worried about tomorrow, only each day in front of us."

The man who would become her husband shipped off to Europe and was badly wounded in the battle of Monte Casino in Italy. He spent nearly three years in an Army hospital, which included nine surgeries and long hours of rehabilitation. His left arm is partially paralyzed.

"I could have lost my arm completely if the shrapnel was only an inch or two deeper," said Vernon, who retired from Crown, Cork & Seal Inc. "Life is part luck and part hard work. ... You just have to know which is when. Me and Rose, we enjoy each day."

The group of about 20 Kenwood luncheon regulars were part of a class of 176 students. The school was in Rosedale at Golden Ring and Philadelphia roads until a new facility was built in 1955 on Stemmers Run Road.

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Those in the Class of 1941 were mostly sons and daughters of working-class and farm families. Today, the reunion group includes two attorneys, a former school principal and a successful businesswoman.

"Some feel we are closer now in our lives than we were in high school," said Krotee Fox. She was a teacher and elementary school principal until her retirement in 1978. She is a widow with six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

For Wilbur T. Zink, 79, of Essex, the wisdom of the ages means stepping aside for the young, as difficult as that might seem.

"Listen, we don't have to impress anyone," said Zink, enjoying the luncheon with his wife, Boots. Zink graduated from Kenwood in June 1941, and was in the Army by December after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

For three years, he sweated on the remote jungle airstrips of Burma from which he flew 155 missions in C-47s. He was a "kicker" who pushed out fuel drums and ammunition attached to parachutes. His unit delivered much-needed supplies to allied forces in China, Burma and India. Of the 40 crews in the 1st Air Cargo Resupply Squadron, half didn't come home.

The enduring nature of his generation is reflected in Zink's life - he and his wife have lived in the same house for 53 years; he retired as a letter carrier after 35 years in Dundalk and Essex.

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"I made 84 cents an hour delivering mail when I started. ... You wanna talk about change," said Zink. "I lived to see us walk on the moon."

When the luncheon ends, these old friends don't shake hands or blow air kisses. Instead, their hugs and kisses are real, for once again, they've celebrated their youth.


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