After 56 years, they still go by nicknames coined in their crew-cut youth: Bulldog Dixon, Pancho Horwitz and Bugg Berryhill, whose yearbook photo bears the caption “likes jazz.”
They still remember the wrath of Principal Joe Holiday – “I never saw him smile” – and English teacher Phyllis Peacock, who burned grammar into the likes of Anne Tyler and Armistead Maupin.
These chums from Broughton High School, class of ’59, still lament the night they lost to Wilson High by a yard, still mythologize the night they sneaked Billy Lynn’s red Crosley into the gym and still celebrate how they spent money from their class fundraiser on beer. They can tell you that John “Pedro” Wardlaw weighed 135 pounds as a star halfback.
And so four times a year, they assemble at Finch’s restaurant or the back room at Player’s Retreat to wax fondly of their youth in the Eisenhower era, when everybody liked high school – at least theirs.
“We figured out maybe we’d like some people to come to our funerals,” confessed Frank Smith, who goes by “Vege.”
As a quarterly reunion club, they represent a connection to teenage companionship grown increasingly rare. Ours is an era that sees far fewer people staying near their hometowns, and fewer still socializing among those they knew in the 11th grade. Other than Lorraine Robinson, whom I also knew from college, I haven’t seen an alumnus of Lackey High School since 1994.
But these Broughton classmates fly back to Raleigh from parts as distant as Texas or Florida just to gab over a barbecue sandwich, calling themselves the 1959 Committee of the Back Bench.
“The back bench is where the minority party sits in Parliament,” said Bill “Bugg” Berryhill, who goes by the title of chief scribe and annotator emeritus for perpetual life everlasting. “We named ourselves the back bench because we’ve been out so long. We get together just often enough that we don’t get tired of each other.”
As kids, many followed each other through all 12 grades. Bill “Simpy” Simpson and Craig “Fuzzy” Springer grew up next door to each other on Vanderbilt Avenue, separated by a driveway. Last Thursday, they shared a booth at the PR and noted how everybody who played youth football for the West Raleigh Wildcats still sat together, while the Hayes Barton Bears’ roster occupied its own table. Former Raleigh Mayor Smedes York, a loyal Back Bencher, ran the gridiron as a Hayes Barton Bear.
“He was damned good, too,” recalled Al Lassiter, aka “Red Nuts.”
The friends make a fine distinction between those alumni who have notched 74 years and those who linger youthfully at 73. After much discussion at the PR, it was decided that the Back Bench’s babe in the woods remains Raleigh attorney Thomas “T.C.” Worth, born in December. (No word on who holds this position among the “Little Darlings,” the Back Benchers’ sister group.)
They can boast four attorneys, a U.S. marshal, two dentists, a Meredith College professor and the drummer for The Embers among their ranks. As best they know, only 87 have died out of 407 graduates. Many have scattered, but it’s hard to imagine any class with a stronger core.
“We love each other,” Bugg Berryhill said. “We fell in love back in high school and never stopped.”
The gap between their era and this one is so wide that they can’t help but feel kinship just for having experienced it. They grew up when Raleigh had no Beltline and a traffic circle stood in the middle of Five Points. The State Fair had a burlesque show. Haircuts cost a quarter, and – this is a big one – most everybody who lived in Raleigh came from Raleigh originally.
The city had only two high schools, Broughton for whites and Ligon for blacks. The kids at Broughton in ’59 hardly saw black students, unaware of the civil rights turmoil that would boil over in the next decade. As teens, they knew little of integration, immigration, drugs, the draft or the pill. Every family had one car. Good manners were considered crucial.
As I left, Frank Smith told me there are two types of people: those who liked high school and those who didn’t. I’m sad to report that I fall into the latter group. College rescued me from a morbid case of teen angst.
But I’ll bet if I’d gone to school with the Back Bench, maybe joined the Monogram Club and helped push the Crosley through the Broughton High shop doors, I wouldn’t have moped so much. I’d have gone to more pep rallies. I’d have more memories to enjoy.