It's Bill Wakefield's turn to turn 70.
The college professor isn't exactly thrilled about the milestone.
One minute he's wearing his red hair in a buzz cut, banging a drum in the North High band. The next? His hair has turned white. He has grandchildren. He's been teaching longer than his students have been alive, longer than some of their parents have been alive.
Plus his old high school class from 1961 is shrinking. Some 75 out of the 430 at last count have died, including a woman living in Arizona who had already sent her money in for the coming class party on May 11. A car accident, of all things.
Bill marked his birthday on Monday with a trip to the dentist.
And the birthday lunch.
Nothing fancy. No cake and candles. Just a group of guys who went to North High together — nine of them, give or take. Some of them go back together as far as kindergarten at Miller Park Elementary.
They gather on or near their birthdays every year. They've been doing this for 30 years — that adds up to 270 birthday lunches.
This might not seem like much. Just some friends sitting around a table sharing a meal and some laughs.
But you can't put a value on shared experiences, on lifelong friends who can make you laugh until you cry. On people who knew you before you quite knew yourself, who root you to a certain place and time.
For Bill, that meant the streets of north Omaha in the 1940s and 1950s, where he pedaled bikes, rode on streetcars and later sat in Dan McGlynn's father's mustard-yellow '57 Chevy. Back then, Dan and the others called him “Willie.”
“Willie” entered Dan's circle, a group of guys from Miller Park who knew whom NOT to share a bottle of Coke with because that kid would spit a loogey into the longneck.
Dan's friends had wild tales: Scaling the Miller Park pool fence after midnight for a clandestine dip. Mixing up a batch of homebrew after a trip to Hinky-Dinky, the grocery store, for sugar, malt and yeast. Then crashing in front of the first living room TV sets, which they all watched no matter what. Even when there was just one channel and all that was on sometimes was a test pattern.
These friends connect Bill to that brick building on 36th and Ames named for the part of town they knew every inch of — North.
It's where his class entered in 1957 as children. And left in 1961 as adults.
After North, their paths split. Some, like Willie — who started going by “Bill” after high school — went to the old Omaha University. Some went to war. Some pursued girls or dreams or jobs or all three.
They kept in touch at first as much as they could back then, through mail, the occasional long-distance phone call and get-togethers. But families, jobs and life pushed most of them apart.
Bill stayed close to Dan, a tall, friendly kid he met the first day of band practice at North as they set up their drums. Dan went to Omaha University for a while and then followed his love of music to Los Angeles, where he played drums for a number of bands, including Frankie Avalon's. Dan would later return to Omaha and sell office furniture.
As the big 4-0 crept up in 1983, they decided to get the gang together.
“My God,” Dan had said. “We're all getting old!”
There were just five of them at first: Dan, Bill, Tom Ellenberger, Roger Gammel and Dave Schmid.
It was fun. It was easy. No one had to commit.
Dan thought it would play out for a year. Then, as January 1984 rolled around, someone asked when they were meeting to celebrate Dave Schmid's birthday, which comes first on the calendar. Thus it went.
And in 1993, when Dave turned 50, they were still going, this time at the old Austin's steakhouse on 114th and Dodge. To mark the special birthday, a trumpeter buddy of Bill's entered playing taps.
Over the years, other North High friends, like Bud Fuglei, were folded in.
Their birthday lunches, held at various restaurants, became as regular as the holidays, one of the few constants as lives changed. Two of their marriages broke up. Children all grew up and moved out. Grandchildren came. Jobs changed. Some retired.
Table talk has never gotten political or overly personal. But it has grown more serious: Did you see that name in the obits? What's your PSA score?
Through it all have been the same friends, delivering the same knee-slapping reminiscences and one-liners.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
This comfort of enduring friendship was a reason that Bud, who had built a fortune in the tech business in Denver, decided to move back. He ran into Bill and Dan at a Husker game 15 years ago and said, “Don't I know you, señor?”
They picked right up, and Bud, by then an empty-nester, moved back to Omaha.
Bud turned 69 earlier this month. Then, on Monday, it was Bill's turn.
There to fete him at the Loose Moose near 120th and Fort were Sam Corbino, who as a young man helped discover a sunken Civil War-era steamboat called the Bertrand; Tom Ellenberger, a retired executive head-hunter living in Fort Calhoun; Dave Schmid, a retired concrete draftsman; Roger Gammel, who retired from Inacom; and Dan McGlynn, his fellow drummer and the organizer of these lunches.
Spread before them were scrapbooks and Bill's senior yearbook. They took turns squinting into a magnifying glass to make out the tiny faces in the photos.
The pictures brought back memories, like the homemade hooch whose recipe Roger could still rattle off.
Tom remembered the time red ants got into a batch. “We drank it, anyway!”
Sam recalled what happened if you bottled it too soon — as he did in his folks' basement “shower-slash-bomb shelter.”
“You have to wait until it stops fermenting,” Sam explained as guys teared up with laughter. “There was glass all over the basement!”
Afterward the birthday lunch ended, Bill went to the dentist and learned he has to have two teeth pulled. Then he went to his office at UNO.
Then he thought about Nora Shoemaker Morgan, Class of '61, who recently died in that car crash, and about Dennis Waterman, another classmate, who died in February.
And about these friends, this span of time, that Monday lunch.
“It is important to try to keep that going — even more,” he said.
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