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40 years later, high school yearbook reappears

Diane Gerlich-Rogers hadn't thought much about her high school days. Forty years can dim memories, change priorities. The boy who pledged his undying love in meticulous script that filled an entire page of her yearbook disappeared two years later. The best friend for life got cancer and died shortly after the 10-year class reunion.

Gerlich-Rogers grew up in Griffith, Ind., where her dad ran the National T supermarket. She sang in the glee club and made the honor roll, but once she accepted her diploma, along with the other 220 seniors at Griffith High School, she hardly ever looked back.

And then along came year 40 — and an amazing coincidence.

"I still can't believe it,'' said Gerlich-Rogers, a Realtor with Re/Max New Dimensions in New Port Richey.

Some months back, Bruce Spillman, a long-distance trucker who lives in Spring Hill, visited his brother-in-law, Tommy Welch, in the same area of northwestern Indiana. Welch likes to sift through stuff at rummage sales and had run across an old high school yearbook at a house near the Kankakee River. He started thumbing through the pages of the green hardback, the Reflector, Vol. 30, Griffith High School 1971. Every student who signed addressed his or her note to "Diane,'' and Welch assumed this was his sister's missing yearbook.

He bought it.

Diane Welch had been an active student at Griffith High and had a strong hand in producing the Reflector in her senior year — 1971. Three years after graduation, she had married Bruce Spillman, who grew up in nearby Highland.

After Bruce Spillman got the yearbook from his brother-in-law, he delivered it to his wife. She quickly determined that it belonged to another Diane, whose maiden name was Ertl.

The two Dianes had known each other in high school, although they weren't friends. The Spillmans, who married in 1974 and settled in Spring Hill 10 years ago, went looking for Diane Ertl. In the modern age of Google and Facebook searches, it's no surprise that they quickly found her. What did surprise the Spillmans was that she lived just down the road.

"What are the odds?'' Bruce Spillman asked.

The two Dianes swapped stories about the old hometown. Diane Spillman stayed in Griffith for 27 years before moving to Florida. Her parents still have a home there, but they have moved into full-time nursing care. She works for Hernando County government.

Gerlich-Rogers left Griffith soon after graduation to work for a leasing company 30 miles from home in downtown Chicago. She married the high school sweetheart who had written that they would never part. He went into the Army. Two years later they divorced.

She followed her parents to Florida and took up real estate 22 years ago, building a successful business with husband Pete Gerlich. They divorced in 1998, and five years ago she married another Realtor, Rich Rogers. She kept the hyphenated name, she said, "because in this business you depend a lot on name recognition and reputation.''

Two weeks ago, the Spillmans delivered the yearbook. Scheduling conflicts had delayed the reunion, but now Gerlich-Rogers held the Reflector in her hands. She turned its pages, commented on its musty smell. She couldn't guess how it ended up in a random rummage sale in the Indiana countryside.

"We used to camp there,'' she recalled. "Maybe I took it with me on one of those trips. I just don't remember.''

Some people embrace their high school days and never let go. They make all the reunions, remember the prom king and queen. They keep track of classmate deaths and other milestones. Gerlich-Rogers falls more into the camp that couldn't wait to leave high school behind. Forty years later, she even had trouble recalling the mascot — the Panthers.

Yet after the Spillmans delivered the green hardback, after co-workers remarked on the coincidence that they lived so near, she allowed herself some reflection. She pointed to the handsome boy who became an actor, the hair and clothing styles of the decade. She even thought it might be neat to attend the 40th reunion this summer, though she didn't know when.

"It would be fun to show my husband Chicago,'' she said. "He's never been there.''

40 years later, high school yearbook reappears 03/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 11:01am]

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