Even with no remaining members of his own class left to celebrate with, Virgil Melohn, a 1938 graduate of Nevada High School, returned to the community this past weekend to observe his 80th Class Reunion at the Nevada High School Alumni Reunion Banquet.
With his youngest son, Jim, who lives outside New Orleans, offering to drive him from his home in Jackson, Miss., back to central Iowa, Virgil was glad to be back, he said on Saturday afternoon.
Over the years, Virgil has come back to Nevada pretty much every five years to celebrate at the annual school reunion held near the end of June. It’s a way of paying homage to a hometown that he credits for contributing very positively to his 98 (and in just six weeks 99) years of living on this earth. “Nevada gave me a tremendous desire to further my education, and a tremendous desire to improve my standard of living, and I did both,” he said. “I give Nevada and Nevada High School all the credit for my success in life.”
And what a life he’s had so far…and it all started right here in Nevada, where Virgil’s family lived in 19 different houses during his youth. “We grew up during the depression years,” he said. So his parents, when they bought a house, would work hard to clean it up, make decorative improvements, and then sell it for a little more than what they had paid for it. “They made some supplemental income that way,” he said.
The family wasn’t rich by any means. Virgil remembers how his dad, his brother, his brother’s wife and eventually him, all worked at the Nevada Poultry Company for a dollar a day. “On Saturday (also a day they worked), they would hand you six one-dollar bills,” he recalled.
Virgil, after graduating from high school, got a full music scholarship to attend Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, where he played the tuba. He stayed for a year. But even with the cost of classes paid, he had to borrow money for other necessities he needed, and he didn’t have the money for all of that. “So, I had a dead year in 1940,” he said. He returned to Nevada. Spent a lot of time getting basically a book a day from the old Silliman Library to read, and also started working at the Poultry Company to make money.
In February of 1941, he joined the National Guard out of Des Moines. “We were federalized in October of 1941,” he said of the Guard. “On Pearl Harbor Day, I was at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.” And from there, he said, “I spent the next 56 months in the service, stationed in Mississippi.”
Being in the service was probably one of the best things he chose to do in his life. “There are two things the service did for me. Number one, it gave me my college education; I earned a BS and an MS from Mississippi State University, and number two, it gave me my wife.” Emotions take over for a minute and he tries to compose himself. Virgil lost his wife seven years ago this month. His son steps in and says his parents met on a blind date. Virgil comes back to the conversation now. He said he remembers when he was waiting and Grace Evelyn Callahan of Meridian, Miss., stepped out of the car she arrived in. “I said, ‘I hope she’s my date.’”
He knew right after that first date that he was going to marry her, and he did. “We were married 67 years, four months and 20 days,” he said. He and all three of his children —Lynne, Wayne and Jimmy — called her “Amazing Grace.” The family also gave Virgil and Grace seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
And here’s something else that’s pretty amazing — the housekeeper that Grace hired 43 years ago still works for Virgil. And the housekeeper is 92 years old. She takes care of Virgil’s meals, does laundry and cleans the house, which Jimmy said has allowed his dad to have a good life and stay in his own home.
Virgil, after being discharged from the military, became a school administrator for a couple different districts, one of which was the high school in Kosciusko, Miss., the town where Oprah Winfrey was born. Each time Virgil took a new job, he raised his income. The job that offered him the best income was a sales position with LG Balfour, a company that sold school things, like class rings, invitations, diplomas and yearbooks. He retired from there after 26 years.
He slides his own class ring across the table in front of him and remembers buying that when he was a junior in high school in Nevada. The principal was Mr. Engelbrecht — a big, German guy. “He came in and said to us juniors (there were 38 in the class), ‘You can buy any class ring you want to, but you’re not going to pay over $4.95 for one.” He said the salesman wasn’t too happy, and later in life, he knew exactly since he was in that career. But Virgil said he gets a kick out of the story because he paid exactly $4.95 for his ring — the best he could get.
Besides Engelbrecht, Virgil remembers other teachers who had an influence on him while he was attending Nevada Schools. There was Bess Haas when he was in first through third grade at North School. “I think I was her pet; that’s exactly what I remember about her.” He remembers attending fourth through sixth grade on the second floor of Central, where Miss Hump taught math. “I’ve always loved mathematics,” he said and credits her. In junior high, there was Ms. McMacklewain (he admits he hasn’t a clue how to spell it anymore). She was the English teacher. “We conjugated all kinds of sentences. She was excellent.” And Carrie Edwards was the principal and a teacher. He liked her too.
One of his favorite memories of high school, which he attended in the old three-story building, torn down some years back to make room for the new elementary addition, was being the junior class president, and along with others in his class, planning a memorable junior/senior prom for 1937. “Prom had always been held in the high school gym. We moved it to the country club,” he said, with the permission of country club member Fred Bowers. “I hired a 13-piece band for $35 for one night. They were students from Iowa State.” And it was a great prom, he said.
The best way Virgil can describe his high school experience is to use his mother’s words, “That was my ‘second home.’” Many days, he’d get up for band practice at 8 a.m., classes would start at 9, and he’d have basketball and music rehearsals into the evening. The music things were his favorite. He was in every music group you could be in.
When he sees Nevada these days, Virgil said it amazes him with how it’s doubled in size from when he was a kid. But just being back in the town causes his memory — he has a sharp one — to remember a lot of things.
“I remember how Bob Prescott and I would walk the Lincoln Highway for two miles out of town and back, picking up beer and pop bottles in the ditches. We would take those to Nate Levine, who had a grocery store on main street (at the north end, where the implement dealer used to be, he said). He’d give us 10 cents each for doing that, and we would use that money to go to the Saturday matinee and watch a western movie. But it was a serial (movie), so you never really got the end. You had to keep going back.”
When asked what he has enjoyed during his retired years, he and his son both chuckle a bit. Virgil, back in 1980, started buying rental properties or fixer-uppers to sell. “I didn’t buy any junk; everything was good quality.” And through the ups and downs of the housing market, he had perfect timing with his sales and was able to turn a good profit on many of his investment properties. Today, he still owns 14 houses.
When his wife was alive, they visited and traveled through five continents, 40 countries and also went on 23 cruises, Virgil said. They also spent time on their beautiful houseboat, named “Amazing Grace.” And they danced. They grew up during the big band era and Virgil said, “Every Saturday night, we danced somewhere.”
When he returned to Nevada for his 75th class reunion, he attended the affair with Phyllis McBride Foster — a girl he had once dated in high school. They had a wonderful time, but sadly, he said, Phyllis passed away a couple years ago.
It’s Virgil that now carries the torch for the Nevada High School Class of 1938. And he does so proudly. “I’m very blessed.”