Regardless of the season or the day — whether it was a school night or not — you could find Betty Johnson Wontorek walking across the one-mile stretch of town, past the old Meridian City Hall, to get to the Meridian Dairy Bar. Usually she would run into a friend on the way and catch a ride.
The dine-in diner was the place to be in the late 1950s in Meridian. Its gravel parking lot was full of what would become classic cars, piled in, waiting for young waiters to bring out the food.
In 1960, the town of 2,300 people had a shared sense of identity. Everyone knew everyone, Johnson Wontorek said. Back then Meridian was small, but thick with pride, she said. In the fall, during football season, the old stadium bleachers were packed.
“Everybody was there,” Johnson Wontorek said, reminded of the smell of fall and burning leaves that would accompany the games. “Grandpas and grandmas; everybody in this area.”
The sound from the marching band would carry across Meridian’s downtown and out toward the farmland. Not that Johnson Wontorek or her friend Marcia Fowler Bain were ever out of the stadium during a game. Fowler Bain was a cheerleader and Johnson Wontorek a majorette.
Johnson Wontorek and Fowler Bain were two of the roughly 150 students in the 1960 Meridian High School graduating class — the last group to graduate from the old Meridian High School building. The building is now the home of Cole Valley Christian Schools. Johnson Wontorek and Fowler Bain are part of a group of volunteers from the class planning this year’s Meridian Golden Alumni Brunch, a reunion for students who graduated from Meridian High School in 1969 and before.
As the years go on, Johnson Wontorek and Fowler Bain — who have been attending the reunions for almost a decade — have noticed attendance becoming sparser as graduates of older classes die. They’ve also noticed that fewer of the classes that graduated after them are having reunions.
The women — both in their late 70s — have noticed the sense of pride in their hometown waned after students were moved to the new high school in the fall of 1960. The old Meridian High School, built in 1904, was the center of Johnson Wontorek and Fowler Bain’s high school experience.
“Most of our social things were held in our gym,” said Johnson Wontorek, reminiscing about old basketball games and school dances — specifically one that she helped decorate for by hanging glittery stars from the ceiling.
“(The building) brought us together,” Fowler Bain said.
During their summers, the two women spent almost every day swimming and boating around Lucky Peak. Occasionally they would take a dip in the irrigation ditches out in Kuna. Back then the two would walk everywhere day and night — unless they could get a ride from a friend or potential suitor — and never worried about the dangers of adventuring at night alone.
“We had girlfriends as many as boyfriends that had wheels which we didn’t have,” Johnson Wontorek said. “If we took off walking someplace more than likely someone would find us and give us a ride… Marcia and I were odd balls, we got around.”
Like most high schoolers, the two were ready to “spread our wings” upon graduation, and both of them moved to California, leaving their hometown behind. Decades later both of them found their way back to Meridian, “because we love Meridian,” Johnson Wontorek said.
The Meridian both came back to had changed significantly from what they remember, but the shared experiences they had with their classmates remain. As they grow older, both Johnson Wontorek and Fowler Bain try to encourage all of their friends to get together — not just for the reunion. Even now, the two get together with a group of 10 friends every Sunday at Ed’s 50’s Cafe to catch up and chat.
Johnson Wontorek said there are still pieces of Meridian that feel the same, like parts of downtown Meridian. There was an Arctic Circle in Boise that Fowler Bain and Johnson Wontorek used to visit as teens. Now Johnson Wontorek frequents the Arctic Circle on the southwest corner Linder and Franklin roads. She said the staff have come to anticipate her order of a 1950s, classic burger.
As the two grow older and lose more of their former classmates, the reunions become more important to both of them. Fowler Bain said the reunions reflect on where you came from.
“We take people for granted and we shouldn’t,” Johnson Wontorek said. “We don’t know what is going to happen.”
This year the class of 1960 is hosting the Meridian High School Alumni Brunch for students who graduated from Meridian High School in 1969 and before. The brunch is Saturday, June 1 in the Meridian High School Cafeteria, 1900 W. Pine Ave., Meridian. Coffee hour starts at 10 a.m. and brunch is at 11:30 a.m. Spouses and guests are invited.