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Graduates of 'old' Bel Air High School reflect on their high school days

Daughter of 'old' Bel Air High graduate says 1930s were a simpler time for high schoolers

Linda Ropelewski sees the 1930s and 40s as a simpler time for her mother's generation to attend high school, compared to the pressures facing high school students today, even though they had to grow up during the Great Depression and World War II.

Ropelewski, who lives in Frederick, attended the 23rd annual reunion for students who attended the "old Bel Air High School" on East Gordon Street with her mother, Bel Air graduate Ruth Bowman Hopkins.

"I think it's terrific," she said of the crowd of about 140 people who gathered for the reunion Saturday at the Level fire hall. "Look at all these people and the wisdom they impart. They went to school, I think, in a better time."

Ropelewski said high school students of the 1930s and 40s did not have the slew of activities and sports today's high schoolers are shuttled to each day, and they did not have to deal with peer pressure or drugs.

"These people, it wasn't even a factor in their lives, and our kids and my grandchildren, it's smacking them in the face all the time," she said of drugs.

Ropelewski said high school students at the time "went to school and came home and did chores and did their homework and helped their families."

"Kids today take for granted that there's going to be a meal on the table, and these people didn't," she continued.

The majority of the alumnae present Saturday attended Bel Air High School when it occupied a brick building next to the former Bel Air Academy building on East Gordon from the late 1920s to 1950. It then became the home of Bel Air Elementary School – that school is housed on East Lee Street today.

The high school moved to a new building on Kenmore Avenue on the south side of town in the early 1950s, and it remained there until the current school building on nearby Heighe Street opened in 2009.

The reunion Saturday was for the Bel Air High Classes of 1933 to 1955.

"It's [open to] anyone who ever attended the old Bel Air High School located on Gordon Street," Helen McCann, of Fallston, said.

McCann, who graduated from Bel Air in 1941, is Ropelewski's aunt, and she is the chair of the five-person committee that puts together the reunion each year.

McCann said the reunions started in 1992 as part of the Bel Air Class of 1942's 50th reunion.

"As long as we can do it, we're going to do it," she said. "The food was good and we had a good time, and I'm just glad that I can be a part of it."

Barbara Lee Heaps Rudolph, a member of the Class of 1951, said her class was the first to go to school for 12 years; prior graduating classes in Harford County went to school for 11 years.

"We didn't mind, really, because we got to be in the new school," Rudolph said.

Several people who graduated in the 1930s and are in their 90s sat around a table with relatives who brought them to the reunion.

Charlie Irwin, of Bel Air, graduated in 1935. The World War II veteran and co-founder of Harford Bank attended with his daughter, Becky Irwin Dorothy.

"It's a little disconcerting when you're the oldest one here," Irwin said.

Dorothy, who graduated from Bel Air in 1969, looked through a vintage yearbook with her father.

"I have goose bumps just looking all the people who have passed away, people who were friends of my dad, friends of my mom," she said. "I'm really glad I came here; this has been a great experience."

Irwin was not the oldest graduate there. Mary Lewis Silling, 98, of Joppa, graduated in 1933. She said she will be 99 years old Oct. 30.

"I see some people I know that I carried around when they were babies," she said of the older graduates.

Her niece, Janet Hardy, of Abingdon, said Silling is "possibly the only surviving member of her class."

Hardy graduated from Bel Air High in 1958. She attended the school with Marjorie Greenfield Bedinger – Class of 1959 – who brought Mildred Greenfield Emmel, a cousin and classmate of her father George Greenfield.

The Greenfield cousins graduated in 1938.

"I'm so proud that I got here today and had someone to bring me," Emmel said.

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