CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. (AP) — Five Northampton County natives who graduated from high school together 70 years ago have remained friends throughout the decades.
The women vacationed together on Chincoteague last month, enjoying shopping, dining out and visiting the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
But mainly they just enjoyed catching up with news of each other’s lives — something they have been doing regularly for most of their lives.
“We all know everything about each other,” said Mary Hamilton Walker Stuart, who lives on Church Neck Road, in an area known as Bridgetown.
The women all graduated from Northampton High School in 1945 and all five were born the same year, although they joke about who is older than who.
“We feel that we were really born in a good year — 1928 was a really good year,” said Barbara Churn Willis of Cheriton.
Willis is the one the others turn to when they can’t think of someone’s name or another detail from their long, shared past.
“Barbara always remembers,” said Harriet Scott Brockenbrough of Mechanicsville.
The five made a pact years ago to meet twice a year — once in spring and again in autumn — for a special time together. It used to be just an overnight; then Stuart a few years back said, “We can’t get it all said in one night; we need to stay two nights.”
So a two-night stay it has been ever since.
Between times, they stay in touch with telephone calls and, for those who use it, email.
They get along remarkably well, and they always have.
“Even in school, we never quarreled,” said Janet Thomas Stone of Bayford.
They typically meet once a year somewhere on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where three live; the second gathering is held somewhere on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, where the remaining two friends reside.
“We’ve known each other all our lives,” said Stone.
“We don’t remember not knowing one another, because our parents knew each other,” chimed in Brockenbrough, who grew up on Chatham Farm, where a popular winery is now.
Stuart lives just across the street from where Brockenbrough was raised.
Rounding out the group is Estelle Nottingham Tankard of Mathews County, a retired teacher who left the Shore when she was not quite 17 to go to college and hasn’t lived there since.
The friends grew up within a radius of 15 miles of one another in rural Northampton County.
Their early bonds of friendship have only grown stronger with the passing years.
Through marriages, child-rearing, careers and, more recently, retirement, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, they remained close — although during part of that time, as adults with young families or careers, they didn’t see each other much.
“We really didn’t keep in touch other than by Christmas cards and so forth while they were children,” said Brockenbrough. “Once the children were gone, retirement age has been great.”
Between them they have 15 children, as well as numerous grandchildren and even great-grandchildren — Willis has eight of the latter.
“Every one of them is wonderful,” she said.
The women recalled their teenage years as being quite different from the lives of high school students nowadays.
“We were in school during the war years, so there was gas rationing; the school did not have a football team,” said Stone.
Nylon stockings and other items were hard to come by because of the war and rationing, Willis recalled.
The war effort was uppermost on everyone’s mind during those World War II years,
Some in the group — Stuart, Stone and Willis — even helped look for enemy planes.
There were lookout towers placed in strategic locations around the county, including Franktown, Machipongo and Birdsnest, for the spotters to man.
“If we saw a plane, we had to call it in,” said Stone.
There were other war-related efforts, too.
“I learned to knit then, because we were knitting the fingerless mitts, so they could use a gun. It was khaki wool,” said Tankard.
In school, they had war bond drives — they would buy 10 cents stamps to fill a book; once filled, you received a war bond.
“We were very patriotic,” said Stone.
Brockenbrough reminded the others about the day they heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died.
“We put together a program for the school assembly that morning when we got to school,” she said.
Still, despite the war, in many ways they were typical teenage girls.
“The big way we got together was slumber parties,” Brockenbrough said.
They also double-dated, played tennis and did other typical teen activities together.
“There was just a lot of social interaction,” said Tankard.
Their class started out freshman year with around 100 students but had dwindled to around 70 by graduation, which in those days came after 11 grades. Some of the boys had left school to enlist in the armed services.
After high school, the five remained friends, although their lives took different paths.
Stuart became an Army wife and had five children; the couple returned to the Eastern Shore in 1975.
Stone married and had a child. She also worked for Allegheny Airlines for a time.
Willis, who also had five children, was assistant innkeeper at the Holiday Inn in Kiptopeke and also worked for Holiday Inn in Washington, D. C. She moved back to the Shore in 1992.
Brockenbrough taught high school chemistry in Henrico County for five years before starting a family. She had four children.
“I’ve had three people move into our retirement home who were my students,” she said.
Tankard taught journalism, humanities and AP English in Roanoke, Richmond and Fairfax County high schools for 35 years before retiring — “and I loved it,” she said, adding she still hears from former students.
This is the third time the group has met on Chincoteague, where on Thursday they reenacted a recently created tradition of eating ice cream — just ice cream — for lunch at the Island Creamery.
They also have met in Gloucester, Williamsburg and Yorktown, among other places.
Twice they visited Brockenbrough at the retirement community where she lives.
One time Stuart’s daughter and son-in-law made and served the group a gourmet dinner during a visit; another time, her brother and sister-in-law invited them over for hors d’oeuvres.
“They were lovely occasions,” said Brockenbrough.
At first when they started getting together for their reunions, they brought memorabilia from their school days.
One of Stuart’s granddaughters in particular likes to listen in as her grandmother and her friends talk about the old days.
“One of her great pleasures has been, when she has had the opportunity, to overhear or be present for any conversation of ours…She thinks that’s fascinating…just getting a little piece of history,” Stuart said.
But nowadays, they have thoroughly discussed all of that and mainly just enjoy each other’s company, as well as the vacation spot.
“We usually take in the shops,” and sometimes they go to a museum, said Stone, adding, “But mostly we talk and eat.”
“We never run out of topics,” said Stuart.
They used to stay up past midnight talking, especially on the first night together. “Now, we’re in bed at 9 or 9:30 p.m.,” said Brockenbrough.
Their long association makes the conversation easy.
“One of us will mention, ‘Do you remember so and so,’ and some do and some don’t, but the rest of us fill in the gaps,” she said.
Unlike some senior citizens, these remarkable representatives of the Greatest Generation don’t dwell on whatever physical ailments they may have.
“We don’t talk about our doctors’ visits,” said Willis.
“There are just too many good things to talk about,” said Brockenbrough, adding, “I always go away with a high.”
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