Caledonia — Eugene “Gene” Raab graduated from Caledonia High School in 1948 with only 45 students in his class.
Back then, Raab said his classmates came from as far south as 108th street, as far east as M-50 and as far north as 28th street.
“Caledonia was small enough, you knew everybody and I could tell you who lived in every house in town,” Raab said during an interview he gave after spending the morning out in his garden. “It’s no longer a farm town; it’s suburbia now.”
At 91 years old, Raab still loves caring for his garden and mowing his lawn and telling stories, especially about playing football.
Honorary Team Captain
During his time in Caledonia, Raab was a three-year varsity football player and quarterback of the league champion Scotties. He was also named to The Grand Rapids Press all-conference Barkenell league team. Out of 21 games played over three years, Raab said the Scotties only lost two and won three straight championships.
Raab met Superintendent Dedrick Martin at an annual Caledonia alumni reunion in August and Martin invited him to attend one of their football games. He took his invitation one step further, with help from Caledonia High School football coach Derek Pennington, and asked Raab to be the honorary captain at the Homecoming football game against Grand Haven.
“I feel flattered. I think gee, they’re fussing over me. I thought I’d just be another guy after I graduated,” Raab said.
Before the start of the game on Sept. 24, Raab met with Pennington and Martin and ran out onto the field with the Fighting Scots.
Raab described the “energy in the stands to be just as great as the energy on the field.” He also told Pennington if Caledonia got behind, he was ready to be put into the game.
When telling stories of his football days more than 75 years ago, Raab was disappointed to learn Caledonia no longer played what had been their biggest rival, Middleville High School, now Thornapple Kellogg.
“The Middleville game made our season,” Raab said. “If we beat Middleville, we had a good season. If we lost to Middleville, to heck with the other games, we had a bad season.”
Outside of athletics, Raab served on the student council, participated in the junior and senior plays and held a part-time job assisting the janitor before and after school.
To current students, he advises, “Don’t fool around and take it seriously. Set yourself some goals to achieve that are meaningful.”
To Fly, Fight and Win
Raab and one of his close friends had a dream of going to college, but didn’t know how they would make it “with modest resources.”
“We were going to live at home and go to junior college – what GRCC is now – but I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to Michigan State with the help of the superintendent,” Raab said. “That was my ticket.”
At Michigan State University he was an ROTC student, inspired by his older brothers’ service in World War II. He eventually joined the military and served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean conflict as an aviation mechanic. He both flew and repaired planes.
During the Cold War, Raab was stationed in Northern Maine, flying planes and working as a mechanic to keep the planes running “even through harsh winters.”
“I went back and got my master’s degree at Michigan State and then was assigned to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs as a liaison officer, recruiting young people to serve in the military,” Raab said. “At the end of my career, I retired as a colonel.”
During his time at the Academy, Raab said it was his honor to swear in his son, David, as a 2nd lieutenant.
‘Just Keep Going’
Reflecting on his 75 years since playing football at Caledonia High School, Raab had some thoughts on aging.
“When you’re young, you can’t get older fast enough, get your driver’s license and stay out later. You look forward to getting older. But when you’re older, you say, ‘To heck with it, age is just a number,’” Raab said with a laugh. “You just keep going and make the best of it.”