In the spring of 1944, during the height of World War II, the supplies of sulfur and potassium chlorate, explosive when combined, vanished from the chemistry lab at Washburn High School.
Nearly 70 years later, over hamburgers and fries at Pittsburgh Blue in Edina, Gordon Lewis and Donald Swanson, both Washburn Class of 1945, reminisced about how they swept the chemistry lab clean of the two chemicals and used them to build explosive devices — not for the war effort, but to strategically place on streetcar tracks.
“We would crouch under the boughs of this big pine tree in anticipation, and when the streetcars rolled over those bombs it sounded like the Fourth of July!” Lewis said.
Fortunately, no one was ever injured. Lewis and Swanson have since, for the most part, mended their mischievous ways.
The two are part of the “Lunch Bunch,” a group of buddies from Washburn ’45 who have been meeting for lunch every month since the 1960s to honor an abiding solidarity. Their personal and professional lives have diverged, they live scattered across the Twin Cities and they’ve lost a few members to illness. But they still get together every month, when a different Lunch Bunch member selects a venue and treats the rest of the group. Over the years the destinations have ranged from Wayzata and Interlachen Country Clubs to Champps and even Hooter’s.
The men agree that, despite their varied interests and personalities, they have always shared a special camaraderie, during high school and throughout the 68 years since graduation. Some, like Swanson and Bob Gold, thrived at the top of the class, while others, like Lewis and Tom Williams, struggled near the bottom. Swanson was editor of the school newspaper and voted Most Likely to Succeed, Gold played football and ran hurdles, while Lewis spent most of his free time sailing on Lake Harriet and flirting with girls. Today, Swanson, Bill Sherman, Herb Schoening and Bob Weil enjoy spending their leisure time golfing, but the rest of the men prefer gardening, skiing or fixing things.
While Lunch Bunch conversation often includes talk of sports, current events, computers or travel, over the years it has mostly reflected the various stages of the men’s lives: Girlfriends, wives, children, divorce, grandchildren, parents’ health and eventually their own infirmities.
“Used to be girls, now it’s ailments,” Gold said.
But these men are not defined by their 86-year-old ailments. This is a modern bunch. They’re Twins and Vikings fans, they shop online, and they all still drive — sporting the likes of BMW, Lexus and Cadillac (although Williams still feels nostalgia for his 1929 Model A). Several of the men are on Facebook, alarming their children and grandchildren when they accidentally type a cute girl’s name into the status box instead of the search box. Lewis, who recently finished radiation treatment for cancer after losing his wife to cancer, still flies his plane for Angel Flight, a group of volunteer pilots that flies patients for free. Almost all recognize Beyoncé and J.Lo, although only two have heard of Justin Bieber. Remember, they were born in 1927. They grew up listening to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, cramming four couples into a sedan with bench seats but no seat belts, and never watching TV.
How did the Washburn Class of 1945 weave this tapestry of friendship? To begin with, their class at Washburn was relatively small (about 160), so each felt a sense of belonging. Also significant, they observed many men just one or two years ahead of them at Washburn head off to war and never return. That sobering realization provided a backdrop that fostered a strong sense of community, friendship and acceptance.
While these men all eventually shared the experience of serving in the military during and immediately following World War II, the class of ’45 was lucky: they turned 18 near the end of the war, so they were never in harm’s way.
After the war, they continued their journey together at the University of Minnesota; some took a little longer than the others to complete their degrees. Schoening continued on to medical school, and Lewis, at the request of the dean, took a year off to “mature.” They developed new interests, met new people and pursued diverse majors of study, but the cement that bonded them during their years at Washburn endured.
None in the group was born into wealth or family connections, and expectations weren’t high. But in time, these Washburn men of ’45 blossomed into an extraordinarily successful group, thriving in careers ranging from manufacturing to medicine. Swanson began as a salesman for General Mills and gradually progressed to Vice Chairman, while Lewis and Sherman flailed for several years before eventually establishing their own successful businesses. Perhaps the influences that molded their solidarity also equipped them with the confidence and tenacity to navigate through life.
Who’s changed the most since high school? That’s open to dispute. However, they do agree that Swanson is the most serious (even though the streetcar bombs were his brainchild), Williams is the funniest and Lewis is the biggest flirt. After nearly 70 years, many things have changed but, for the most part, they have remained the same.
This month the Lunch Bunch will meet at Wayzata Country Club. Swanson’s treat.
Stephanie Lewis Thomas survived raising three boys and now struggles to keep up with her 86-year-old father, Gordon Lewis, a member of the Lunch Bunch. She lives in Eagan with her husband, Tony.