A view from alumni having graduated 50 years ago
by Margie Brown Whitnah
San Francisco’s Lowell High has a unique tradition of inviting alumni from “milestone” reunion year classes to be recognized by the current graduating class at commencement. . A “milestone” alumni class is one that would be celebrating its 10, 20, 25, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 75 or 80-year class reunion. Participating alumni enter the graduation processional following the current graduates. According to Terence Abad, Executive Director of the Lowell Alumni Association (LAA), San Francisco’s Lowell High is the only high school inviting alumni to do so. That tradition was first established ten years ago. The number of Lowell alumni coming back to don black caps and gowns so that they may join in the graduation procession has varied. This year had a good representation of alumni, but a couple times none.
In April, a special announcement of the upcoming Lowell High 2016 Graduation was sent to those milestone class alumni for which the LAA had contact information. Our own graduation for the Class of Spring 1966 of over 600 students was held mid-June 1966 at Nob Hill’s Masonic Auditorium. A similar number of students graduated from Lowell High this year. Our own class had entered Lowell in 1963 as sophomores at a time when San Francisco had 3-year public high schools. Eventually, the freshmen were added to become 4-year high schools. Around 1975, the “Fall” and “Spring” class division was discontinued.
Sadly, I barely remember anything about our own Masonic Auditorium graduation. Having a few snapshots, I’ve remembered that my cap and gown were white. Also, I remember that there was a huge, colorful mosaic window in the lobby, only decades later learning about that artistry by the late Emile Norman.
This year, the Lowell High Commencement was held on May 24 at 5:00 p.m. in the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Formerly known simply as the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, it was renamed in 1992 in tribute to the rock concert promoter, Bill Graham. His name had become very familiar with our own classmates of the Sixties and beyond. Interestingly, I’ve read that during our 1964-1966 years at Lowell, the Civic Auditorium was home to the Golden State Warriors basketball team. Who would have imagined that 50 years later, on the day of the Lowell 2016 graduation, that some of the members in our alumni contingent would have a wireless hand-held device to watch the Warriors in the playoffs.
Before 4:00 pm, the Civic Center Plaza was a vibrant sea of purple-gowned groups of Galileo High graduates, many holding flower bouquets or wearing colorful leis. Galileo’s graduation ceremonies had commenced at 1:00 p.m. and Lincoln High’s at 9 a.m. Soon Lowell graduates, wearing cardinal red caps and gowns, began arriving at the plaza. While taking in the grand setting beside City Hall, many selfies were taken to capture the moment. Slowly, Lowell students migrated on into one of the auditorium’s large staging halls to line up for the commencement ceremonies. Their parents and other guests found seats in the upper levels of the enormous auditorium.
Also arriving were the 30 or more Lowell alumni from the milestone classes who had responded to the LAA’s invitation. We arrived in our street clothes, but were told that we would be loaned a black cap and gown to wear for the ceremonies. While waiting, we had nearly an hour to chat with other alumni in our corner of the hall. The rest of the hall was filled to the brim with fresh-faced students, each lined up in their cardinal red cap and gown, getting ready for the procession that would start at 5 p.m.
There were six classmates from our Class of Spring 1966: Bert Bergstrom, Irene Dea Gee, Joyce Garabedian August, Carole Neal, Ed Tang and myself, Margie Brown Whitnah. We’d heard that an alumna from the Class of 1936 was to attend, probably about 98-years old, but her transportation plans fell through. Maybe she’ll be attending an 80-Year Class Reunion this year! We were excited to meet an alumna who would proudly carry her own “Class of 1941” sign, leading all of our alumni class contingents in the processional.
And, another special alumnus who participated was someone very familiar to me. It was John Trasviňa, a graduate from the Class of 1976. John is one of several of my cousins who attended Lowell. This year, John was elected President of the Lowell Alumni Association after many years of serving on the LAA Board of Directors and more recently, as LAA Vice President. I was glad that he could make time from his busy professional life, currently Dean of USF’s Law School, to attend Lowell’s graduation ceremonies. The Fall 2015 LAA Newsletter had a nice article about John, another Lowell alumni who has accomplished so much and continues to make a difference in so many ways. It also gave us a chance for a mini family reunion.
Approaching the 5 p.m. start time for the procession we heard that our black alumni cap and gown delivery was stuck in traffic. The suspense was broken when our attire arrived in the nick of time. We fumbled into our gowns and fussed with the caps, tassels to the left as alumni. Eventually, we looked like dignified alumni, complete with classy “Lowell High” medallions around our neck. As Pomp and Circumstance echoed into the hall, the young graduates filed out into the auditorium.
The alumni contingents followed, each carrying a sign designating their year. The Class of 1941 alumna, 93 years young, honorably led the way, and a 28-year old from the Class of 2006 proudly followed in the footsteps of the alumni who came before her. This was my first time participating in this unique tradition. I expected the alumni would follow along after the students to honor them in their grand accomplishments. The playing of Pomp and Circumstance for most of us prompts a surge of emotion when we hear it and probably more so when we are marching gowned in a processional. But the experience really went to another level for me when I realized the graduates, already in their designated rows, were turning toward the alumni and applauding us! What had we done? We merely had come to applaud them for successfully fulfilling the challenging rigors of a Lowell High School education. And, I know so well that the expectations and stresses for high school students have grown tremendously in the half century since we attended Lowell.
Yet, surprisingly, the students’ bright eyes, smiles and applause were directed toward us. It was really very moving. I couldn’t resist the temptation to grab my camera from the folds of my black gown and capture these memories. The students’ faces were so full of life or maybe just awestruck that old alumni cared to come celebrate these students’ graduation.
After we’d entered the auditorium, our alumni contingents passed by the color guard, walked down a center aisle to the stage, turned left across the front, and left again facing more applauding students. We continued down that aisle to our seats in a special section. All the while, the students had remained standing and clapping as we smiled back at their beautiful faces. All around on the upper levels were families, guests and perhaps alumni who, undoubtedly, were all full of pride for their graduates.
The Lowell commencement program seemed much more spirited and personal than my vague recollection of our own graduation or even our own children’s high school graduations in the 1990s. Principal Andrew Ishibashi had a warm welcome speech showing his care for the students which was also so evident during his conferring of diplomas. Besides handshakes, there were lots of hugs, stylized walks across the stage and even a cartwheel by one student. Adding to the personal touch, in most cases the diplomas were presented by the registry teachers whom each student had seen daily through their Lowell years.
Student officers spoke eloquently, lacing their speeches with some inside humor at times, especially appreciated by their peers. An especially powerful and dramatic speech was given by Thomas White, Salutatorian, one of many students these days who can manage to achieve GPA’s in the 4.6 range. The special guest speaker was Ms. Mendoza-McDonnell, a Board of Education Commission. Classmate Carole Neal, S’66, reflected in an emailed to me the following:
“It was interesting the way (Ms. Mendoza-McDonnel) included in her presentation the timeline in keeping with the progressive ages of the graduates (from birth to present), noting key events that took place at certain points along the way, such as their age when Facebook came on the scene and other technology-related advances.”
The Lowell Choir sang Photograph beautifully. The Lowell Symphony Orchestra awed the audience playing The Star Wars Epic.
After all diplomas were conferred, graduates tassels were flipped from the right to the left side, now matching the alumni. With great enthusiasm and cheers, many caps were tossed high in the air. The Lowell Hymn was sung by students and alumni who remembered the words, or at least, could follow along in the program. The stirring beat of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever signaled the recessional. Graduates filed out with the alumni rows departing last.
As members of the participating contingents, we were so thankful to LAA Executive Director Terence Abad and the Lowell Alumni Association for inviting us to return to be part of this unique experience. Not only were we grateful to join in the graduation processional, but also for the great dinner gathering that he organized for us afterwards at a nearby restaurant. Ten years from now, perhaps even more Class of Spring 1966 classmates will join in to celebrate the Lowell High Class of 2026 graduates and also to attend our 60-Year Class Reunion. For now, we look forward to a great turnout for out 50-Year Class Reunion, Saturday, October 1, 6-11 p.m., at the historic Elks Club by San Francisco’s Union Square.