A promise made in 1943, kept at New Year's 2000

Reunion: Four friends from Eastern High keep a lunch date by the Washington Monument.

January 02, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The date was way, way off, agreed these four girls of Eastern High School, Class of 1943. Who among them could even imagine Jan. 1, 2000? Who could promise anything about where or even whether you might be standing on a day distant as a star?

The graduating class yearbook, however, demanded that something be said to answer a simple question: ambition?

Among 400 graduating from the all-girls' school that year there were those who would be nurses, singers, travelers and secretaries. One hoped to be the wife of a millionaire, another hoped to raise horses. Four hoped simply to be in a certain place at a certain time, to meet each other at Baltimore's Washington Monument nearly 57 years later, on Jan. 1, 2000.

"Basically, we were not ambitious," says Dotty Gray Zerzavy, who made the pact and lived to see it through, along with Pat Bacon Gressitt, Dottie Berlet Warfield and Katherine Bunch Ginder.

Along with Eastern High classmate Peggy Daneker Fisher, who came along as a witness to the reunion, the four stood in a chill fog at the appointed hour of the appointed day yesterday, a day when the world was waking up to something that might have been new and strange or quite familiar.

Mount Vernon Square had changed little since their days at Eastern High School on 33rd Street. They picked the monument, says Pat Bacon Gressitt, because "we figured it would be the only place still standing."

Gressitt, of Atlantic Highlands, N.J.,would be the comedian of the group, described in the 1943 yearbook as "chic, witty, unpredictable." She would not have predicted living up to her part of this old bargain.

"I didn't expect to be here," says Gressitt, 74. "I partied a lot."

Who knows exactly how the notion arose? It may or may not have been in the school cafeteria one afternoon late in 1942. The world was at war and the mysterious future lay ahead. There were yearbook forms to fill out. Ambition, it asked: What would be their ambition?

Dottie Berlet Warfield says her teen-age self could not imagine the plan without imagining herself a woman in her early 70s.

She pictured herself "very, very old, infirm even," says Warfield, who turns 72 this month. "Dressed in old clothes, a black dress maybe and a little pink flower. In those days, when you were 70, you were really, really old."

How nice to discover the reality "much better than I anticipated. I mean, we're doing fine," says Warfield.

"We still know who we are," says Gressitt.

Warfield, who drove in from New Freedom, Pa., is wearing black, but it's stylish black -- black slacks and blouse with a blazer in electric blue with a black windowpane print. She wears her 10-carat gold-and-onyx graduating class ring on a gold chain around her neck. Zerzavy wears hers on her left hand next to her wedding ring.

Three kept in touch

At various times after graduation all four worked for a time and then married and raised families. Gressitt continued working as a social worker and still volunteers at a local high school. Among the four are 10 children and 19 grandchildren.

Three of the women kept in touch over the years as they moved and went about their lives. For years, though, nobody knew what had become of Zerzavy, or "Dotty Gray," as Warfield still calls her. She didn't attend class reunions and nobody could find an address. Small wonder.

Her late husband was a doctor with a master's degree in public health working in the Foreign Service. The couple lived in Thailand, Liberia, Ghana and Taiwan. They traveled a lot in Europe to visit family.

"I'm the world's worst letter writer," Zerzavy says. "A lot of these places where we were, you pick up the phone, it doesn't work."

She did make it to the 55th Eastern High School reunion in April 1998, where the four women talked about the plan. Over the years classmates would ask them: Are you really going to do this?

"I think they thought we were nuts," says Gressitt.

At the reunion they agreed to meet at the monument at noon, and then go to lunch. That spring, they could count themselves among the three-quarters of the members of the Class of 1943 still living to plan anything at all.

All hands arrive early Jan. 1, 2000 -- Grinder driving in with her husband, Bill, from their home in Easton. Warfield drives in from Pennsylvania with her husband, John, and on the way picks up Gressitt, who was staying with friends in Sparks, and Zerzavy, who was staying with a classmate in Baltimore. Fisher drives in from Columbia.

A white stretch limousine pulls up at Mount Vernon Square a bit before 1 p.m. Warfield's son-in-law, Thomas Maslak, who happens to work part-time for City Lites Limousine, Inc., steps out in his black tuxedo, opening the bottle of Freixenet brut champagne one of the women brought along for the occasion. Glasses are poured and passed around as the limousine heads down to the Hyatt for lunch.

"Are we toasting, everybody?" Gressitt asks.

"What's it going to be?" asks Fisher.

Ah, another blank space begging for apt words. No one had prepared a speech. To the future? To ambition? What to say about a moment born in the high school yearbook, the one embossed with a winged hourglass and the motto: "Today Decides Tomorrow"?

Katherine Bunch Ginder holds her glass aloft and simply praises one small promise fulfilled:

"It's great to all be together on Jan. 1, 2000."

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