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Notre Dame High School Class of 1958.
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The Notre Dame High School Class of 1958 gathers for a 60-year reunion.

It's remarkable how the years melt away when members of the Notre Dame High School Class of 1958 gather for a reunion.

Can it really have been 60 years since their Eisenhower-era graduation?

It seems like only yesterday, they say.

In 1958, Elvis was still singing "Love Me Tender" on the radio, and six of the seven top-rated shows on network television were Westerns. "Gunsmoke" anyone?

For the Notre Dame High School crowd, from down on East Eighth Street, proms were held at the Fairyland Club. The Talley-Ho drive-in restaurant on Brainerd Road, which specialized in barbecue, was the preferred cruising spot. And 50 cents worth of gas would usually get you where you needed to go.

The kids of the 1950s are in their 70s now. But put them in a room together and they drift into memories of a more innocent time when smoking outside the corner drug store was the main vice and a young girl thought a kiss could lead to pregnancy — oh, my.

Now, they gather sporadically, once every five or 10 years. At the 60th reunion of the Class of '58 last weekend there was a palpable sense their group's longevity has crested. About a third of the 44 classmates have passed away.

Over the weekend, they attended a private dinner at a Hamilton Place restaurant, an all-class bash at Notre Dame's Vermont Avenue campus — where the school moved in 1965 — and a special Mass on Sunday.

"We have been through births, deaths, marriages, divorces," says Kathleen Stone Conner, one of the 14 class members represented here this weekend. "We have shared life together. We have remained close."

"There's just such a bond during your high school years," says Pauline Lange Ling, who traveled all the way from La Mirada, California, to attend the reunion.

Part of that cohesion is due to a strong sense of parochial-school community that was prevalent among mid-century Catholics here.

"We were in a very significant minority in Chattanooga," explains George "Chum" Davenport, of the class of '58. "We were considered 'less than.' There were people burning crosses in Catholics' front yards."

But while some of the classmates remember isolated cases of Catholic persecution, others remember the time as golden.

Several of the classmates huddled at a home in Harrison earlier this week to reminisce about their years at one of Chattanooga's oldest high schools. Notre Dame High School would become one of the first schools to racially integrate in the 1960s, but in the late '50s most of students were from white, working-class families living in Brainerd and East Ridge.

In the mid-1950s the school had coalesced under the leadership of priest-principal the Rev. James Driscoll. He shared leadership duties with a host of nuns, whose memories live on among all the former students.

Betty Kiefer Westbrooks remembers how the nuns would inspect each girl's formal wear before school dances. If they detected cleavage, they would drape the offenders in wrapping paper, she remembers. On the other hand, if a student didn't have a date, the nuns would quietly arrange a student escort, she recalls.

Linda Leydorf Hoff, of Washington's Crossing, Pennsylvania, remembers she would raise the nuns' ire by intentionally tapping her foot on the bottom of a metal chair. She remembers tormenting one of them until she yelled, "Stop it!"

Davenport recalls practicing football at the Chattanooga National Cemetery and being forced for forfeit baseball games his senior year after a Notre Dame player was deemed ineligible.

"There was no joy in Mudville that day, that's for sure," he recalls.

Some of the classmates' most visceral memories are about food: The piping hot rolls that were prepared daily at Notre Dame, the savory meatloaf, and the impossible-to-replicate hamburger roll that was a combination of ground beef and pie crust.

"I tried to make it in my 20s and 30s, but I could never get it to taste the same," says Ling.

Every school day at Notre Dame began with mass, and the girls had to cover their heads with beanies during the service, Conner remembers.

Despite their easy rapport, it becomes harder and harder for the out-of-town classmates to travel to reunions, members of the group report.

Says Hoff, of California, "I didn't want to come. I don't like to fly, but one of my sons kept pushing me and pushing me. By d —— , here I am. I wonder how many times we will be together in the future."

In the words "Unchained Melody," one of the popular songs of the 1950s, it will be a "long, lonely time" between reunions.

But a 70-year gathering of the Notre Dame Class of 1958 seems a certainty. In fact, you can book it.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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