Members of the Denham Springs High School class of ’63 reached their 70th birthdays this year, and a group from that class decided to throw a class birthday party to observe that special landmark plateau in their lives.

The former classmates gathered Saturday to reminisce about favorite and memorable teachers, getting in trouble, competing in sports and all things related to those changing times in the early 1960s.

While the special feature of the day was the birthday party — at one point, a participant yelled, “This is a birthday party… not a reunion,” — the day had all the resemblances of a reunion. One of the most commonly heard conversation starters was, “Do you remember…?”

About 40 members of the DSHS class of ’63, along with some spouses and a few friends, gathered Saturday at North Park for a festive party that featured an array of food, a big birthday cake, and the opportunity to renew friendships, to catch up on family news and to spend time reminiscing about their years at a school they obviously cherished.

A watershed year in the history of the United States, 1963 saw the turning point of the civil rights movement, the ongoing grind of the Cold War, a constantly growing involvement in a faraway land, Vietnam, that would ultimately prove to be an especially trying experience for the nation and, in November, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

But for the Denham Springs High School seniors in the spring of that year, the then unknown trials of the future were the last things on the minds of the graduates. This was a time when rock ’n’ roll was skyrocketing, when young people enjoyed riding around town from one drive-in restaurant to another, and when high school experiences seemed especially fulfilling and rewarding.

The DSHS Class of ’63 had 106 members. Of that number, 30 are deceased. Those graduates attended three schools: a two-story brick building on River Road between North and South College streets for first through third; what is now Denham Springs Elementary School for grades four through eight; and the present high school building.

Remembering faculty

The principal in 1963 was Grady Hornsby, a legendary figure who was called by the students, out of his earshot, “The Warden.” His daughter, Sylvia Hornsby Dunn, recalled that her father had a special ruler made to mark the distance between boys and girls when they walked down the school’s hallways.

“If the boys and girls got closer than that measured distance, they earned a lecture from my father,” she recalled. Her mother, Helen, was the home economics teacher.

Richard Hurst remembered well his personal encounter with Hornsby. Hurst said he and two friends decided to let their hair grow long so “we could look like Elvis.” Hornsby called the trio into his office and told them to get a haircut.

“We thought we’d be smart, so we all three had our heads shaved. When we got to school the next day, we were called in again and this time given a three-day suspension. I’ll never forget that,” Hurst said.

Other teachers brought back fond memories. Mary Brent Criswell remembered Charles Keys, a mathematics teacher. “We called him the ‘Silent Stalker’ because he would wear some kind of creepy shoes that were silent when he walked. You wouldn’t know he was around, and all of a sudden, he would tap you on the shoulder and let you know he meant business.”

The graduates of ’63 generally held the faculty in esteem, and some remember special teachers who earned their respect and endearing gratitude. Sammy Dixon Hannamen was a basketball player for DSHS and said teacher and coach Dot Hammack was special. “We went to the state championships our senior year, and I made All State for two years under her guidance.”

Hannamen and her teammates were among the last to play what was then called “girls’ basketball rules.” At the time, it was thought that girls could not withstand the rigors of running full court, so three girls would play on the offense and three on the defense.

Highlights shared

The class featured some talented entertainers, especially a singing trio made up of Portia Perrin, Sammy Dixon and Sylvia Hornsby. The trio sang together for years performing for civic clubs and at school functions. The girls were so good that they were invited to perform on the then enormously popular “Ted Mack Amateur Hour.” The girls travelled to Miami Beach, Florida, for an experience.

Sylvia Hornsby was one of the exceptional students in the class, and in the annual yearbook listing of class favorites, she was singled out for numerous honors, including “most intelligent,” and “most likely to succeed,” and was Miss Denham Springs High School in her senior year. Ricky Wickwire was Mr. DSHS. Hornsby, who later earned her doctorate degree, will be inducted into the DSHA Hall of Fame later this year.

Donna Lynn Felps Brown realized success as a winner in numerous beauty pageants. She won school and Livingston Parish beauty pageants for a number of years.

“If they had a contest for dog catcher, some of us would enter it. We just loved to compete in beauty pageants, and it was a big part of our lives,” she said.

Cheerleading was a big part of her high school experience, Jeanie Benton Harrington recalled. “I was a cheerleader from the ninth through the 12th grade. We worked hard at being good cheerleaders. We didn’t do the crazy stunts they do today, building ‘human monuments,’ but we did do tumbles,” she remembered.

One of the football players she cheered for was Jim Spring, who played center and linebacker on the football team. He was the first DSHS player to sign with a major college, Tulane, where he played for four years. Spring enrolled in the ROTC program and went on to a military career.

“At first, I couldn’t wait to get out of the Army … but wound up staying in for 20 years.” Spring retired as a colonel and saw duty in Southeast Asia. He said of his high school years, “Denham Springs High was a great launching pad for my life. I learned good values here and the value of high academic standards.

Kent Milton, a graduate of LSU, spent time on active duty and then remained in the U.S. Army reserves for many years retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He saw action in Vietnam.

Derral Walker joined the United States Marine Corps and, while in basic training, heard President Kennedy speak to the young Marines in training. He said he was on his way to meet the USS Kersarge in Hawaii when he learned that the president had been assassinated. Beyond the trials of combat, Walker said he had the opportunity to help others while stationed in the Philippines. “With God’s grace, I survived my tours of duty,” he said.

Many of the graduates of that class went on to diverse fields where they realized their dreams. Among them is James Minton, who made a career writing for newspapers, including The Advocate, where he has amassed countless numbers of byline stories.

A number of the graduates found their “soulmates” during their high school years. Mary Sue Cook said she met her husband, Charles Cook, in 1959 while in school and they have been married 50 years.

Storytelling goes on

The stories went on and on.

The bonds that brought the class of ’63 together remain strong, classmates said.

“We have stayed together, and we still meet on a regular basis,” said Jeannie Benton Harrington. “About 75 percent of our class still lives in the Denham Springs area. This says something about how much we appreciate our roots. We still treasure our friendships, and we enjoy keeping the memories alive.”

That statement was very much in evidence at the North Park gathering, where a group of now-70-year-olds enjoyed a day marked by much laughter and good cheer. The consensus was that this close-knit group from a special year and what remains for them a special place will continue to mark more anniversaries and birthdays as they continue to celebrate the bonds that hold them together.