Introduction to the Class of 1939
Anthony “Tony” Valdivia maintains a list of the “active” members of his graduating class from University High School in West Los Angeles —at least those that he’s been able to stay in touch with. He’s been doing this for 73 years as one of the principal coordinators of the reunions of the Class of 1939. Tony and the rest of the surviving Warriors are, or will soon be, 91 years old this year. Tony sends out his list every couple of years and I stumbled on the one he had recently sent my mother. Unbeknownst to Tony, his diligence spawned a rather unusual reunion between a couple of members of the Class of ’39 —and their offspring.
Class of 1939
By Casey Gauntt
I went to visit my mother, Barbara, late Monday afternoon at Belmont Village seniors community in Encinitas, California. She’d been in the assisted living wing almost two weeks, and things finally seemed to be calming down since her first fall right before New Year’s. We talked about events of the day. I ordered some more of the oxygen tanks that she’s been tethered to 24-7 since early February. She was sitting up on the sofa of her smartly furnished one bedroom apartment; a much welcome pose compared to the weeks she spent flat on her back during two separate stints at a skilled nursing facility in nearby Del Mar.
She reached over and picked up an envelope on the small table next to the sofa and as she handed it to me explained “I received this in the mail today from Tony Valdivia. He and I were classmates at University High in West Los Angeles.” Inside the envelope was a two page, handwritten list of names and addresses, a personal note from Tony and a copy of a clipping and photo from the Los Angeles Times reviewing the production of Spring Dance, a play performed in 1939 by some of the Uni High students and starring Tony and my Mom, then Barbara Case.
“Tony has been one of the key organizers of our high school reunions. Every few years or so Tony sends out a list of those of us from the Class of 1939 that are still around—at least those that he’s been able to keep track of. I think our graduating class was around 475 kids.”
There were 39 names on the list, including Anthony (Tony) Valdivia—all 90 plus years old now. Thirty-nine 39ers.
I quickly scanned the list and one of the names jumped off the page: John Gilchrist. Number 21.
“Mom—John Gilchrist? It says here he lives in Carlsbad.”
“I vaguely remember him.”
“Well, I know a John Gilchrist who lives in San Diego,” I said. “He was the President of The Hahn Company—a huge shopping center developer. Ernie Hahn’s company. They built University Town Center and Horton Plaza in San Diego and over a hundred more across the country. John’s a few years older than me. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re related.”
I asked my Mom if I could take Tony’s letter and make a copy. She said “Of course.”
I brought the letter back to her the next day. She was having trouble breathing—more than usual. She complained “I can only take a few steps before I start panting.” After a brief visit she dispatched me back home “I’ll be alright. Go take care of what you’ve got to do.”
On Saturday, Hilary and I attended the wedding of the middle daughter of one of my good friends and clients. The ceremony was on the beach in front of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club.
It poured rain the weekend before. It would rain on Sunday. This late Saturday afternoon was perfect—crystal blue sky, the sun warming us well beyond the 59 degree temperature, scores of pelicans flying in formation back and forth over the smooth waters of La Jolla Cove sporadically breaking off to dive bomb onto some unsuspecting fish, skin divers emerging from the depths dragging their speared catch along the sand, and miles and miles of uninterrupted coastline running up to the low hills of San Clemente clearly visible fifty miles away. I frequently had to pull my attention back to the ceremony. The father of the bride is a courageous cancer survivor. In October he underwent 14 hours of surgery to remove malignant tumors from the left side of his head. The cancer destroyed the nerves and the left side of his face is paralyzed. The chemo and radiation treatments killed most of his hair follicles. If you ran into him on the street, and didn’t know him and love him as all of us gathered there do, you would gasp and quickly look away. He proudly walked his daughter down the isle of sand and in that moment all we could see was the sheer joy, glow and absolute love that radiated from and around them.
The reception was at the stately La Jolla Country Club perched on the side of a hill in the center of an emerald green golf course with 180 degree drop-dead views of the Pacific Ocean. In the packed foyer where cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were being served, I glanced over at the far side of the room and smiled.
I excused myself from the trio I’d been visiting with and walked over to say hello to John Gilchrist. After a brief greeting, I asked him “Is your father also named John?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Does he live in Carlsbad?”
“Yes. He’s at the La Costa Glen retirement community.”
And then the big one, “Did he go to University High in Los Angeles?”
“Yes he did,” John, ever the more curious, confirmed.
“Well, what do you know?” I exclaimed, “Your Dad and my Mom were classmates and members of the Class of 1939.”
He was as surprised as I was that we had this in common. I went on to tell John about the letter my Mom had received earlier that week from Tony Valdivia and the list of remaining classmates and that she was living in Belmont Village only a few miles away from La Costa Glen. John told me about how his Dad didn’t go to college right after high school and instead pursued his passion of baseball and signed on as an assistant manager for a minor league team back on the east coast. On December 7, 1941, he and the team were getting on a bus headed for the next day’s game when they got the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Within a month the team disbanded and had enlisted in the armed forces. He recounted a couple of other anecdotes from his father’s early days and said “I need to write these down.” I promised to send John a copy of Tony’s letter and the list of 39ers so he could share them with his father.
I neglected to get John’s email address so on Monday morning I Googled him to find his contact information. In the process I discovered that John is the current Vice Chair of the San Diego Hospice and Institute For Palliative Care. I smiled again.
Three days earlier, I got a frantic call from one of the nurses at Belmont Village. My mother’s blood oxygen level was 85 and “Anything below 91 is considered dangerous. We’ve called the paramedics and they are taking her to the emergency room at Scripps Hospital Encinitas.”
This was the sixth trip for my Mom to the ER in the last 11 weeks. She was moved to Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla several hours later —her third stay— and after “a very rough night” as explained by the nurse on duty, my mother’s breathing was stabilized. Before she was discharged late Friday, the doctors let us know that “her congestive heart failure, COPD and other lung disease are worsening and terminal. At this point we recommend comfort and quality of life measures be taken for her.”
That Saturday, the morning of the wedding, we enrolled my mother into hospice care. There were over thirty hospice care companies on the list given to us by Scripps Green Hospital. We chose San Diego Hospice and The Institute For Palliative Care.
One more Warrior passed away peacefully on June 11, 2012- a little over a month shy of her 91st birthday. This story is dedicated to the loving memory of Barbara Case Gauntt, a Warrior in life and in spirit. A beautiful lioness: San Diego Union-Tribune Obituary . My family is also deeply grateful for the professional, competent and compassionate care my mother received from the San Diego Hospice and Institute of Palliative Care. They are incredible! I truly don’t know what we would have done without them. Damien, Sherry, Carol, Paul, Anita, Tim–thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.