by Betty Reinertsen (aka Liz Price), August, 2007
Before the video, which is really my piece of the entertainment tonight, I would
like to spend a few moments reminiscing about the community of Okemos, Okemos
Schools, and the class of '57. If it's true that we are the products of (1) our genetic
makeup and (2) our life experiences then the environment in which those two converge is
critical to our development. in other words we are in part who we are because of the
days we spent as students in Okemos School. The truth of that statement rests on the
story I am about to tell you. '
The year is 1788 ... the place Perry, Michigan, 20 miles east of here. A baby boy
is born into the Chippewa tribe ... his name, Johnny Okemos. His youthful years are spent
living in villages situated along the Grand and Red Cedar Rivers. Even as a youth he
claimed this area as Okemos City. Here he learned to hunt and fish with the other braves
of his tribe. He is strong and agile ... but small, standing only five feet four inches. His
totem is the bear and like the bear he knew when to stand and fight and when to walk
away. This ability stood him in good stead as a warrior. He fought as a scout for the
British in the War of 1812. In the battle of Lower Sanduski he distinguished himself as a
leader but was gravely injured and left for dead on the battlefield. He miraculously
recovered and to his braves this recovery was a sign that the Great Spirit favored him. It
is not known if he tired of war or if he gained insight into the politics of war, but in the
spring of 1814 he presented himself to the commanding officer of Fort Wayne in Detroit
and declared, "Now I make peace and fight no more".
How he became a chief is disputed to this day. Among the Native Americans in
Michigan chieftainship was neither elective nor hereditary but rested upon ability and
influence and continued only as long as that influence was maintained. Some historians
believe the romantic version, that his band of brothers bestowed the title upon him for his
leadership ability and his close ties to the Great Spirit. Still, others believe the more
pragmatic version that he was granted the title by the United States government for his
participation in the political process. In any case, the title spoke to his bravery and
In 1833, the first white settler cleared land and built a home on the Red Cedar
near the place where the camel back bridge now spans the river. As more settlers moved
into the area, the community needed a school. In 1844, a cabin that was also used as a
cooper- shop (barrel maker) was the site of the first school sessions. The cabin was
located two miles east of the village (across from where the Crest Drive-in Theater would
be built). There were five students and one teacher. The teacher's name was Miss
Samantha Worden and for her efforts she received $1.00 a week plus room and board.
At this time in history, the area was known as Hamilton and was home to the
Chippewa. They used the land to grow and cache their com, and the site of the old
Baptist church was their sacred burial ground.
Old land records show that in 1846, for $15.00 Mr. Freeman Bray purchased "for
school purposes" a small hill in the village (where today the fire station is located). The
first schoolhouse was built on that site shortly there after. The building was a frame
structure about 18 by 22 feet, made of oak and tamarack and sided with whitewood. On
April 14, 1849, conununity leaders allocated a sum not to exceed $5.00 for the purchase
of books, a bookcase, and library table.
Most of the Chippewa were moved west, but Chief Okemos continued to hunt and
fish the area and lived peacefully among the settlers until his death. He had four wives
and many children. Sadly, most of them died of consumption in the epidemic of the
1830' s. Chief Okemos is described as the greatest and most influential warrior to make
his home in Michigan and highly praised for his courage, his natural ability to command,
and his strategy in battle. He died in 1858, having served his people and community with
honor. In 1859, by legislative order the village of Hamilton was renamed Okemos. If not
for that change, we would be having our 50th reunion from Hamilton High.
The village school building was added onto from time to time until 1873, when
what we know as "the little white school house" a two-story frame structure, complete
with belfry and fire escape was built south and west of the original school building. The
total cost was $3,400 complete with furniture! Okemos Consolidated School System was
established in 1923, as one of the first rural agricultural school districts in Michigan. In
that year on the east end of Mt. Hope Road, a three-story building constructed of brick
and mortar, and dedicated to the memory of Chief Okemos opened its doors to 166 upper
class students. Thus, our high school was born.
The only addition to the school prior to World War II was the shop and band
building finished in 1937. In September of 1944, the class of '57 began its journey in the
little white schoolhouse and for the next thirteen years as classmates we would grow and
The growth of Okemos remained fairly stable until after the Second World War, when
the GI's came home and the baby boom generation gave birth to suburban development
and we welcomed Indian Hills Subdivision. The population growth of the area required
adding space for elementary students and a one-story three-room unit was built behind
the high school ready for occupancy in the fall of 1948. Under the watchful eyes of Mrs.
Adrich and Mrs. Volker, the class of '57 was the first to occupy this space.
That spring we spent weeks preparing for what to us seemed like a musical
extravaganza complete with costumes and stage sets but to our parents and friends must
have looked more like a country ho-down. Under the direction of Mrs. Davis, we sang
our hearts out and who among us could ever forget "Oh my Darling Clementine". It was
during these years that we became intertwined in the lives of each other. We not only
spent our school days together, we shared birthdays, brownies and cub scouts and we
spent Sundays in church pews side by side.
As fifth graders we moved into the high school building proper and as sixth
graders we moved into the new elementary wing with Mr. Wakeman and Mrs. Clark. For
seventh and eighth grades, we were back in the high school, and in 1955, began our high
school years in earnest. We studied together, made music together. and, together at
sporting events, defended our school pride. In high school, we had a lot of firsts: our first
cigarette, first beer, first date, first kiss, first true love and, probably, our first broken
While we were in the ninth grade, there was another name change and we would
graduate from Okemos Public not Okemos Consolidated Schools. During our junior year,
we presented our brand of off-Broadway theater with the play "But Fair Tomorrow".
The theme of the senior prom was "Now is the Hour".
In Hollywood, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" was the best picture of the year
and on the radio Elvis was "down at the end of Lonely Street at Heartbreak Hotel".
James Dean was the coolest "rebel without a cause" and Leave it to Beaver premiered on
CBS depicting the ideal American family. Our high school years were the wonder
years ... after all it was the 50's.
Then came graduation and the completion of thirteen years of education. We
thanked our parents, teachers and school administrators and we were launched into the
world with the motto:
"In ourselves the future lies".
We were told by our valedictorian and salutatorian that we had been provided a
"foundation" on which to grow. We were to fulfill our dreams and strive to build a "good
life" based on that foundation. Our role for the future was to have a "positive impact on
community and country" and to pass on to our children and grandchildren the same rights
and privileges, which had been so graciously bestowed upon us.
It was 1944 when Mrs. McKinley greeted nineteen eager students. Through the
years, classmates were added and subtracted until the class of '57 numbered seventy. For
thirteen years we touched each other's lives and experienced events that would lay the
groundwork for how we were to see the world.
On the day our high school was dedicated, a plaque was unveiled on the
northwest comer of the building that reads:
Erected to the memory
of the Chippewas
whose tribe once occupied the grounds upon
which this school stands
*brave in battle *wise in council *hollorable in peace
These character traits, bravery, wisdom, honor, were literally the foundation of our
At graduation, our parents sat in folding chairs and watched while we proudly
climbed cement block steps and walked across a hay wagon to receive our high school
diplomas. With that diploma the mantle of leadership was passed to us. We were
Chieftains! We were not the first. We were not the last. But we are proud to be the
class of '57.
Now let's take a few moments to stroll down memory lane listening to old music
and looking at old photographs.