They entered Henry B. Plant High School just before America entered World War II. They graduated just five days before D-day.
In between, Henry B. Plant High School's Class of 1944 devoured movie magazines at O'Brien's Drugstore and rode streetcars to Ybor City to eat at the Columbia or Las Novedades. They saw Casablanca, the year's best picture Oscar winner, at the atmospheric Tampa Theatre. They drank Cokes at the Colonnade and jitterbugged in the Sapphire Room, called the "Sure-fire Room" with the right date, at the Floridan Hotel. The downtown Tampa Terrace hotel and the Rose Room in the Henry Hudson Hotel on Davis Islands were popular spots.
"It's 70 years but we're still here," said Duckie Young Smith, one of 30-plus classmates gathered at Canterbury Towers for their 70th reunion Saturday. Many have been friends since their days at Gorrie Elementary, Woodrow Wilson or Henry Mitchell junior high schools.
"We turned out pretty well, with a splendid public school education," observed Jimmy Mills, now of Arlington, Va., who added his baritone to a robust rendition of the alma mater, Neath the Pines of Palma Ceia. "Calvin broke an all- time scholastic record at Georgia Tech."
That would be Calvin Johnson, 88, class president and co-organizer of the Saturday luncheon with Sarah Jane Rubio, 87, who both reside at Canterbury Towers.
Margaret Sparrow Davis and Maude Fowler Pallardy also assisted with planning.
"The war touched everything we did," Johnson said. "Many anticipated and volunteered to get into more glamorous parts of the service."
The boys joined ROTC and the rifle club. The Girls Reserves rolled bandages, saved tin foil and Crisco cans and sold war bonds and stamps.
"I took a Red Cross station wagon full of wounded vets from MacDill Air Force Base to the Don CeSar (a hospital at the time) with the motor corps," Rubio recalled. "Chaperoned, of course, probably a nurse." She remembers saving up coupons to buy new shoes for graduation.
The 1944 Panther yearbook ends with 22 pictures of students who joined the military after Pearl Harbor, and the names of five taken prisoner and one missing in action. A photo on Page 10 shows a sobering honor roll of "sons of Plant" in service. Gold stars indicate those who paid the "supreme sacrifice."
Duckie and classmate Virgil Smith, married 58 years ago, double-dated at Plant, but the captain of the girls basketball team and the football star didn't get serious until after college.
Duckie joked that 70 years ago, "our wheels" referred to cars, not walkers and wheelchairs.
Virgil, 87, was disappointed his teammate Buckie Allen was unable to make it to the reunion from Orlando. They surely would have talked about beating Hillsborough High 7-0 before "the largest crowd ever to witness a football game in Tampa," according to the Panther. Some of the names of other boys on that Big Ten championship team later became familiar as community leaders: Belden, Culbreath, Farrior, Fonte, Gruetzmacher, Mirabella, Stallings.
Another classmate made more recent news: The late Nancy Torbett Ford was inducted into the Hillsborough County Women's Hall of Fame on May 7. A yearbook picture of her with Johnson is labeled Most Intelligent. He graduated No. 1 and she was No. 2.
"She probably got one B," said Johnson, founder and first president of the Gold and Black, still the highest honor one can achieve at Plant.
Noretta Cuesta D'Albora, whose family came to Tampa in the 1890s with the cigar industry, must have been a multitasker.
"I was in everything," said D'Albora, as the yearbook attests: Kiwanettes, Quill and Scroll, Pep O'Plant, May Day Festival, Gold and Black, Thespians, Girls Reserves and chairwoman of the Ration Board. Now married 66 years, she and John D'Albora live in Melbourne, parents of four, grandparents of 11 and great-grandparents of 10.
Over dessert, alums, widows and caregivers turned their attention to guest speaker Robert Weiner, Plant's four-time state champion-winning football coach. His motto, "Pride in the P," venerates the school's academic and athletic legacy.
"You, the matriarchs and patriarchs of South Tampa," are why he created a Hall of Fame and the Link in the Chain program, he said.
Earlier, Rubio shared a theory about the health and longevity of the Class of '44.
"Sugar, flour, butter and red meat were rationed," she said, "Maybe you had a soft drink once a week. Gas was rationed, but there were no cars anyway. We walked or rode bikes everywhere.
"That's probably why we're still around."
Amy Scherzer can be reached at [email protected] or call (813) 226-3332.