By Cheryl Franklin
It was 1960: the beginning of a new decade, John F. Kennedy was running for president and six Noel, Missouri, girls who had been friends through elementary and junior high were now graduating from Noel High School together.
All of them were born in 1942, and Jean Rae (Allpress) Hook, Beverly (Davis) Robinson, Marilyn (Hansen) Ruestman, Jeannie (Kerry) Phipps, Martha (Pogue) Gregory and Karen (Whitten) Buchanan spent the late 1940s and all of the 1950s hanging out together before, during and after school back when Noel was the vacation capital of the Ozarks.
All of their families owned small businesses in and around Noel. The girls spent their summers swimming and floating on inner tubes in Elk River, dancing at Shadow Lake, and drinking sodas and shakes at the local soda shop.
“We actually lived ‘Happy Days,’” said Ruestman, referring to the popular TV series.
“We all had the same interests,” said Buchanan. “We all got along real well, and I never knew of a time that a harsh word was said; we were a group of sisters.”
Recently, four of the girls met at Ruestman’s Grand Lake, Oklahoma, home for a weekend reunion.
“It was Jeannie’s idea to get together,” Ruestman said. But, sadly, she couldn’t make it from South Carolina due to a family emergency, she said.
“During a period when women had very little choice outside the home, all these women have held executive-type positions in the business world,” Ruestman said. “Ranging from small business ownership, entrepreneurship, teaching, executive assistant, elected official and vice president of a bank.”
Ruestman, after owning her own business, worked alongside politicians and eventually served as a Missouri state representative and then as a Newton County presiding commissioner.
“All of us were in each other’s weddings,” she said. After that, the girls never failed to keep in touch through the years, but mostly through birthday and Christmas cards.
Now, 62 years after high school graduation, as the ladies sat around a table covered with school yearbooks, old photographs and newspaper clippings, laughter filled the air as they reminisced about friends and schoolmates they haven’t seen in years. The faded images captured a lifetime ago seemed to spur on stories all of them seemed to remember vividly.
“We just picked up where we left off,” said Robinson, who now lives in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. “When we got together, it was like we never parted. Something about old friends, they really know you, they are the basis of who you become.”
It wasn’t all talk about high school, however. All of girls married and raised children; four of them married their high school sweethearts.
“We enjoyed catching up on each others’ lives and families,” Buchanan said. “We all decided that none of us have changed a bit.”
All of the girls were members of the nine-piece choral group that won first in the state. Buchanan, who lives in Joplin, continued her love of singing by joining a community choir in her adult years.
“One of my most memorable moments was getting to sing in Carnegie Hall,” Buchanan said.
“Through the 70-plus years, we have added a few age spots, made a few mistakes but helped create wonderful families and memories,” Ruestman said after the reunion.
The friends are already planning more get togethers, and they are going to do it soon.
All of the ladies will be turning 80 years old within the next year.
“At our age, you don’t bring home bananas and not eat them that day,” Robinson said.