Some of them have known each other since kindergarten. World War II was profoundly influential in their young lives. The day they graduated from St. Petersburg High School — June 6, 1944 — 160,000 Allied soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy in France to fight Adolf Hitler's Nazi troops. It was a pivotal moment in the nation's history — and in theirs.
"Oh, it was immensely important," Bill Hough said of growing to young adulthood during that era. Most of the men went off to military service of some kind. Hough, a longtime businessman, community leader and philanthropist, chaired the 65th reunion committee.
About 60 classmates met over several days at the Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown St. Petersburg, toured the Museum of Fine Arts, took tours of the city and then gathered at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club for dinner, dancing and singing the SPHS alma mater.
Hough introduced class president Dr. Joe Burns as "our most successful politician," Burns having held the office since 1944. Miriam Gilbart Willams was there, and C.O. Ritch, Marty Rudy Wallace, Aimee Hummel Shingler, Dr. John Lindstrom, Janice Guenther Miller, Barbara Peters Sexton, Virginia Smith McGuirk, Gene Bauerlein and Jim Cole.
The committee also included Jack Carey, Bill Davenport, Fred Deuel, Anne Fielding Ford, Jean Hill Franklin, Dottie Todd Harden, Eddie Maloof, Virginia Ford Parker, Frank Reiser, Jim Smith and Morgan Smith.
Many in the class wore green, the St. Pete High color, and along with the memories there were souvenir T-shirts and class booklets.
SPHS principal Al Bennett, also an alum, talked about some of the school traditions still in play: Classes still are held in the historic building constructed in 1926; football games are played on Stewart field; proms take place in the Coliseum. "It's important that we keep the traditions of St. Pete High," he said.
One of the hallmarks of the class of 1944, several alums said, is that numerous members have had children and grandchildren attending the school.
The most prominent differences in 65 years, Bennett said, are that the student body now numbers around 2,300, students use up-to-the-minute electronic devices, and many wear shorts to school — unacceptable classroom attire in the 1940s.
He has designed flowers for royalty, presidents, governors and other celebrities. For the "Friends and Flowers" luncheon to benefit Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg, Ian Prosser joined several hundred other guests inside the huge tent at the TradeWinds Island Grand in St. Pete Beach, demonstrating floral techniques to an appreciative crowd.
Prosser, who leads Tampa's Botanica International Design Studio, encouraged participants to stretch their imaginations. "Gone are the days of low centerpieces and two candlesticks," he said. "And we're getting away from the Martha Stewart roundy-moundy wads."
Plums and silvers will be among the color trends in the fall, Prosser said, talking as he created several large arrangements. He urged participants to be creative. "You can make something wonderful with a bag of vegetables," he said.
Those attending included Keturah Mills, head of school; Barbara Peck and Simone Bennett of the development staff; LaDai Haywood, an Academy Prep graduate who attends the University of Central Florida; board members Carol Holland and Michele Vogel; and Carol Fisher.
Event chairs were Anje Bogott, Darlene Grayson and Wendy LaTorre, and a beaming Joane Miller won a $5,000 shopping spree at Tampa's International Plaza.
Supporters of First Night St. Petersburg met at the Lobby Bar for hors d'oeuvres and to meet Jennifer Sterling, the organization's new executive director. She is successor to Pat Mason, who will remain as program director after having led the group for 16 years.
City Council member Leslie Curran remembered past events, when cold weather, torrential rains and whipping winds posed immense challenges to the New Year's Eve festival, but she called St. Petersburg's First Night celebration the best in the nation. Under Mason's direction, it has received several awards.