They call themselves the Godwin Guys, an average of 20 Godwin Heights High School graduates from the 1950s to 1970s who meet monthly for lively chatter and good-natured ribbing.
Amid the laughter is an unshakable respect for the public school teachers who taught them and the important role public education plays today in shaping students’ future.
It’s been 40-plus years since the Godwin Guys earned their high school diplomas, but many still remember the teachers who taught them the lessons and skills that remain with them to this day.
“We had dedicated teachers which I hold in very high regard,” said Jeff Ritsema, class of 1966. “Education starts with teacher dedication. We respected our teachers as professionals. Many of the graduates here will say they chose a given vocation because they had this teacher or that teacher.”
That includes Ritsema, who credits a high school science teacher he remembers, Norm Dice, for opening him to the wonders of the physical and biological world through observation and experiment. Ritsema subsequently chose optometry as a career.
Ritsema does not have children or grandchildren living in the Godwin district, but he wouldn’t hesitate supporting a mileage or bond issue. “Godwin should be getting more to pay more for top flight school teachers,” Ritsema said. “It’s an inequitable system in that regard.
Like many high school graduates, Paul Titchenell lost track of his classmates over time. Then Jerry Homrich asked on FaceBook a few years ago if any 1964 Godwin graduates were interested in getting together for a mini class reunion. He had no idea that his social media post would mushroom into something more.
Soon, interest in those mini-reunions snowballed beyond the class of 1964 and eventually included classmates from the 50s and 70s.
Since then, the laughter and tall tales flows freely when the Godwin Guys get together every third Friday at the Denny’s restaurant in Wyoming. Most live outside of the Godwin district, coming from as far as Kalamazoo, Grand Haven and White Cloud.
The goal of the monthly breakfast-get-togethers is to keep it as informal as possible.
“We have no agenda,” said Homrich. “We used to use name tags but we got away from that. We talk and create and recreate new friendships. People have fond memories of their friends in high school.”
“I had lost contact with most of my classmates and now we’re inseparable,” said Titchenell, class of 1966. “It’s a lot of fun telling lies and stories about each other.”
The Vietnam War made attending high school in the 1960’s unsettling, said Titchenell, because of the uncertainty of surviving the war if they were to serve. Titchenell eventually enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served on board the command ship, USS Eldorado. “You’re not sure you’re going to live through it,” added Ritsema. “In those times, teachers settled our spirits, in my view.”
Jerry Swanger, class of 1969, said machine and wood shop were two of his favorite classes because he could craft his own creations with wood and tinker under the hood of a car. Without a moment’s hesitation he recites the names of his machine shop instructor, Clarence Foster, and his wood shop teacher, Phil Elliot.
Titchenell, sitting across from Swanger, chimes in: “Our teachers had unique skills.”
Dale Zalaoras, class of 1969, keeps a collection of yearbooks in a suitcase that dates back to 1939. He’s not sure how many he owns. He enjoys tracking how many generations of families graduated from Godwin Heights, the construction of new school buildings, and changes in girls’ sports.
“There was a time in girls’ basketball where they were only allowed to dribble three times per player and then they had to pass it,” Zalaoras said. Zalaoras still lives in the Godwin district and cheers for as many basketball games as possible.
“My loyalties are with educating our youth,” said Zalaoras. “I’m interested in volunteering as a tutor, helping immigrant students with English. I’ve been around the kids at basketball and football games and they really aren’t that different than we were,” said Zalaoras.