Going old school: Falmouth Class of '63 reunion brings back memories
FALMOUTH — In 1963, Falmouth High School students knew when it was time to put out their cigarettes.
They knew because “the butt bell” rang.
It was before all the cancer-causing effects of the nasty habit were known, so students would light up in an open breezeway during a break or after lunch. The students were mostly boys. Mostly the boys who laid strips of rubber when they peeled out of the parking lot. Mostly the boys who skipped classes every fall to go hunting.
And, yes, teachers smoked, too. Seconds after the butt bell rang, the door to the tiny teachers’ room across from the office would swing open, spewing billowing clouds of smoke into the hallway.
Yes, you could smoke, but you couldn’t chew gum. Boys had to tuck their shirts in and girls had to make sure their skirts came down to their knees.
No jeans, either. But they were called dungarees.
Memories of high school in the 1960s have been flying back and forth on the Internet for the last year as members of the Falmouth High School Class of '63 plan their 50th reunion on July 12 and 13. Classmates are spread from Maine to Florida to California. About 45 of the 76 in the class are expected to attend.
How much have things changed in 50 years? Greg Palmer, who just finished his third year as principal of the school, and much-beloved former FHS teacher Don Dorsey, 85, who lives with his wife, Lorna, in Freeport, recently talked about the differences between yesterday and today.
Smoking, Palmer said, is not allowed anywhere on the campus. Nor are students allowed to have lighters or cigarettes, even in their vehicles.
Dorsey, a former biology teacher, is remembered in emails as one of the best, most easy going of the 24 teachers at the school. Although not a smoker, his weakness for doughnuts was well known.
He readily admitted his first year was no picnic. He had spent a few years in the banking business before he decided to try teaching.
“When I first started teaching, the kids were kind of wild. The first and second year, I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, what have I done,'” he said. "Then after a while, I just decided they would quiet down if I just let them be. By the third year I just loved it.”
Debbie Small Russel remembered a stunt her biology class pulled after Dorsey announced the yearbook photographer was on his way to photograph the class. In a recent e-mail she wrote, “When the photographer snapped the photo, little did Mr. Dorsey know, but the class had the ocular lenses out of the microscopes and had them in their eyes like a monocle. He was so tolerant of us.”
It wasn't the only prank that victimized Dorsey.
“I remember one morning I parked my car, went inside the building, and a cascade of cardboard cartons filled with junk came tumbling down on my head. I just laughed. I don’t take anything too seriously," he said. “One time they packed the exhaust pipe on my car with mud. It cost me $30 to get it fixed. They really didn’t do anything vicious."
Leaving tire tracks in the parking lot is apparently a thing of the past, Palmer said, although kids still manage to pull a few pranks. The senior prank this year was wrapping cellophane around cars (he didn’t say how many) in the parking lot just outside his office.
“I went out and talked to them, to see what they were doing,” he said with a smile. “I don’t think you could have found a box of cellophane in the whole greater Portland area.”
The school has kept its nautical theme for more than 50 years. The newspaper, called The Skipper in the '60s, is now The Mast; the yearbook is still The Crest.
Dorsey said he remembers an article a student wrote in The Skipper about the morning break bell. It said, “When the bell rings, look out for Mr. Dorsey, he’s coming for his donuts.” His room was the furthest from the teachers’ room – the last one on the left in the classroom wing – so he had to hustle.
Of course, there was another food option, just across the hall in the home economics room, as former student Linda York Balzer recounted in one of the dozens of reunion emails that have been making the rounds.
Balzer wrote, “(Dorsey) would be lecturing and smell the food cooking across the hall and say ‘Study on your own for a minute,’ and he would go get some goodies. This was a daily event. He was really sweet, and I don’t remember he ever said a cross word.”
That’s another change, of course. The home ec room is long gone – a casualty, Palmer said, of no state funding for this and what were called industrial arts courses like woodworking and auto mechanics.
“We still use the equipment that would have been in a traditional shop class,” Palmer said, “but they’re pre-engineering courses using computer science.”
School suspensions are still an option for dealing with discipline problems, but unlike years ago, most of the suspensions now are “in school.”
It is arguably a more sensible and productive strategy than just barring them from the building, Palmer said: “These students will spend part of their day working with a monitor to complete the work they need to do.”
While many juniors and seniors drive their own cars to school, bus drivers are still an important part of the scene at Falmouth.
“One of our drivers, Dennis King, whose been here quite awhile, takes the seniors who have ridden with him out to dinner at the end of the year,” Palmer said.
Maynard Aaskov was one of Falmouth’s most memorable bus drivers in the '60s, known both for his good nature and his no-nonsense approach to handling disciplinary problems. After one warning to a misbehaving student, Maynard would simply stop his bus, shut it off, walk back to the offending student, pick him up by the back of his shirt, escort him to the front, put him off the bus, sit back down in his seat, start his bus, and continue on his way.
“We couldn’t get away with that anymore,” Palmer said, not surprisingly.
In addition to more students, more teachers, and more courses, the sports program has grown dramatically since the '60s, boosting the school up to Class B, and in some sports, to Class A. In addition to '60s sports like basketball, track, cross country, swimming, baseball, softball and soccer, the school now has football, lacrosse, Nordic skiing, ice hockey and ultimate Frisbee.
Palmer said the school routinely excels in theater and debate. And, according to this year’s student handbook, a multitude of other activities are offered such as astronomy, Big Buddies, ocean studies, Kids Helping Kids, environmental action, garden club, gay/straight alliance, and robotics.
Cheerleading – a girls-only activity in the '60s – has now fallen by the wayside altogether. Asked why, Palmer replied, “I guess there’s just not enough students left over,” referring to the dozens of sports teams, clubs and co-curricular activities the school offers.
The biggest physical change is, of course the “new” high school, which sits on the same 75 acres of land the town originally bought to build a “new” high school in 1956. While there were 24 teachers and about 300 students in 1963, Palmer said there are now 55 teachers (plus ed techs) and 735 students. The Class of '63 had 76 graduates; the Class of 2013 had 180 graduates. The Class of '63 had hoped to tour their old building, now the middle school, but it is undergoing a major renovation this summer.
After teaching for 11 years in Falmouth, Dorsey went on to teach at the University of Southern Maine for 30 years. Although hundreds of students have passed through his classrooms, he still remembers many from the Class of 1963, including Harvey Wheeler, who he described as “smart, but he was a devil.”
Apparently unaware of Wheeler’s devilish side, school officials hired Wheeler to take over Dorsey’s position when he left for USM.
Asked if he remembered Bill Bean, Dorsey answered, “Oh yes, he was very smart.”
Bean graduated from Rutgers, worked on influenza virus molecular biology and genetics at St. Jude’s Hospital for 20 years, then went on to work at the National Institutes for Health.
In a recent email Bean wrote, “I was delighted to learn that Mr. Dorsey is still with us. I certainly hope he can come to the reunion. He is undoubtedly the most important teacher I ever had.”
Paula Clough Gibbs graduated from Falmouth High School in 1963. She began her journalism career as a stringer for the Hartford Courant in 1972 and semi-retired as editor of the Wiscasset Newspaper in 2009. She now writes part time for the Sun Journal in Lewiston, covering the Lisbon Town Council.