The gang’s all here

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 27, 2011

NATCHEZ — A few gangs in Natchez and Vidalia are still meeting in public and openly exchanging information more than 50 years after they first met in high school.

But these gangs don’t talk about trouble as much as they talk about time gone by.

One gang of running buddies that has stuck together for 60 years calls themselves the 49ers.

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Up to 20 graduates and spouses from the Natchez High School Class of 1949 have been meeting at Natchez Coffee Company downtown for a leisurely lunch third Tuesday of the month since their 50th high school reunion.

For the first 20 years after high school graduation, there was no reunion. But after the 20-year hiatus, the class organized reunions every five years.

The 49ers met in usual fashion at Natchez Coffee Company on Feb. 15 where they sipped ice tea and chatted over sandwiches.

“The 49ers have always been there for each other,” Mingee said. “We don’t have any reason to stop meeting. We will meet until only one of us shows up.

“Whoever is in town, whoever can come — comes,” Mingee said.

The gang rehashes old times, stays updated on the wellness of other class members and keeps running jokes.

“We fuss about who was going to have the youngest child at the class reunion,” Mingee said, exchanging wisecracks with classmate Jeanie Miller.

“We try to forgive and forget,” class member Louis Gunning said. “But at our age, it gets easier to forget.”

“We are all 80 or almost 80,” Madelene Carter said. “But we are a young 80. Age is all in your mind. If you think young, you stay young.”

The class of 88 students, 44 boys and 44 girls, was the largest of the time to graduate from the newly-established Natchez High. The students represented a cross section of Adams County, coming from Washington, Kinston, Pineridge and Carpenter No. 1 and No. 2 High Schools.

Some members of the gang have known each other since first grade.

The 49ers are proud of the success of their class. Mingee said academically, their class was one of the best in the state.

“We were exceptional, and we still are,” Mingee said. “The class had a lot of talent.”

Doctor, lawyer, judge, professor, minister, producer, psychologist, engineer, pharmacist and musician are only a few of the job titles class members went on to fill.

Jack Davis, a 1949 graduate, became an opera singer and traveled the world. Jimmy James, a minister turned historian, wrote the definitive book on General Douglas MacArthur at the time. Harold Crump went on to be a creator of the popular show “Hee-Haw.”

John Leckie, who is part of the gang by marriage, not alma mater, moved from Canada to Natchez.

“If you are interested in a female from Natchez, make sure you have a job here, because Natchez is where you’re going to live,” Leckie said.

But as time goes on, class members do die.

“We lost about 50 percent of the class,” Beverly Aldridge said.

Mingee said communication and effort are the key to keeping the gang together.

“We have a desire to see and be with each other,” Carter said.

Jeanie Miller-Leckie said outside of school, the gang would hang out at the Teenage Canteen, which is now the federal courthouse in Natchez.

“That was the place to go,” Miller-Leckie said. “No alcohol, we danced, played ping-pong and they even had shows. That was the place to be on Friday and Saturday nights.”

Class members said they had a great school band, and their love for band director Frank Heard revolved around terror.

“He was a good one,” Gunning said. “But he would scare you to death. I was terrified of making a mistake, but he was really a very nice man.”

Gunning still plays the bassoon to this day.

Another, smaller, gang from Vidalia has been running together since the first grade. Corinne Ohlsen Randazzo, Lula Mae Moncrief Caldwell and Ruth Sessions were the only graduates of the Vidalia High School class of 1950.

Randazzo and Caldwell still meet for lunch every Thursday. Sessions lives in Baton Rogue so the gang is complete when they take special trips together. They stay in touch through e-mail and phone calls.

“We were born in original town of Vidalia, and were together since first grade at Vidalia School in 1938,” Caldwell said. “Some started out with us, they faded out and moved. Donald Mullins, who was in our class, drowned before we graduated.”

Caldwell said the gang wore long, white evening gowns for graduation.

“We made sure we had long white dresses,” Randazzo said. “They weren’t made just alike, but they were simple and pretty.”

Randazzo is a retired educator. She worked as a librarian for the Natchez-Adams School District. Caldwell retired from the Concordia Parish School System and is presently works part-time for Concordia Recreation District No. 3. Sessions is a retired engineer.

“They finished college, but I worked in administrative end,” Caldwell said. “I found me a boyfriend and got married.”

Leroy and Lula Caldwell have been married for 59 years.

Caldwell said it’s always fun when the gang gets together.

“We laugh and talk about old times and funny things,” Caldwell said. “We always cut up and carry on.”

Caldwell and her friends agree life seemed simpler when they were growing up together.

“One of our pastimes was going to the mat field,” Caldwell said. “There was a big gravel pile and concrete, and for Saturday entertainment we wanted to go play on the rock pile.”

As adults, the friends have moved on from the mat field to pleasure trips like an Alaskan cruise, and chartered trips around Louisiana and Biloxi.

“And we’ve been swimming at senior center,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said class members still attend an Old Vidalia graduates luncheon once a quarter that dates back to graduating classes from the 1940s.

“We have a lot of others we pal around with,” Caldwell said. “I think it’s remarkable we have all stayed in touch.”

“Vidalia was so small then,” Randazzo said. “There were only 35 students in the high school. That is what small town life was like. Everyone is concerned about each other and our lives are an open book. In big cities, you might not know neighbors. I think we have the best of two worlds; the small town of Vidalia and then we had Natchez which was larger place.”

Randazzo said Natchez was more accessible when the toll was removed from the bridge in 1952.

Before the bridge, there was a ferry that ran back and forth, Randazzo said.

“We would get on the ferry to go to Natchez,” Randazzo said. “Our parents wouldn’t let us go alone. Earl Jakewith would take me dancing. And there was the Baker Graham Theatre — it was a big deal to go to the picture show.”

Randazzo said their lives centered around church and school and playing on the rock pile of course.

“We didn’t have all the things kids had today,” Randazzo said. “We didn’t have computers and TV shows. We had hopscotch. It was a different kind of life.”