Class of 1941 celebrates 66 years

Nancy Valencia, center, looks through the Class of 1941

Seven members of Gilroy High School’s Class of 1941 gathered at
the Westside Grill to celebrate the 66th anniversary of their
graduation. The seven octogenarians brought their spouses and
children to catch up with old classmates.
Seven members of Gilroy High School’s Class of 1941 gathered at the Westside Grill to celebrate the 66th anniversary of their graduation. The seven octogenarians brought their spouses and children to catch up with old classmates.

Class of 1941 graduate Pat Valencia organized the event complete with New York strip steaks, five bottles of Dom Perignon, red poinsettias and a tuxedoed pianist who played tunes from the 1940s. Valencia arrived Saturday from Queens, a borough of New York. He spent Monday night in the emergency room after a bout of severe stomach pains.

After months of planning the reunion, Valencia’s younger brother, Steve, had to step in as the surrogate host.

“He’s with us in spirit,” Steve Valencia said of the unfortunate turn of events.

Despite the absence of their original host and classmate, the Class of ’41 was in high spirits, exchanging stories of their lives over the years. Dressed smartly, they braved Tuesday’s dreary weather to attend the reunion.

Tom Cimino was born and raised in Gilroy and has lived all over California since he graduated. The year he finished at GHS, he proposed to his girlfriend, Clara Filice. “I didn’t want anyone else to get her,” Cimino said. “She was the best thing that ever happened to me.” The two met at a barn dance in Gilroy.

After getting engaged, he left to fight in World War II after completing basic training at Camp Roberts on the Central Coast. He served as an Army staff sergeant until he was 21 and spent three years in the South Pacific.

“I got back home early October of 1946 and married Clara Dec. 1,” Cimino said of his late wife. His wedding band remains on his left ring finger.

These days, Cimino lives alone in Eagle Ridge. “I’m rattling around in that big house,” he laughed. His neighborhood is near Las Animas Elementary, which is situated on Cimino Street.

“We’ve been around here forever,” Cimino said of his family. “And by golly, they named a street after us!”

Cimino was joined by classmate Roy Dale who wore a blue sweater embroidered with a festive holiday scene. He remembered moving to Gilroy from San Rafael in the seventh grade when the town’s population was only 3,500. Dale spent 44 years as an undertaker, doing facial reconstruction and “restorative art,” as he put it. Prior to settling down in his career, Dale wrestled with the Olympic Club in San Francisco for six years. He delivered the town newspaper when he was in high school.

Dale arrived with long-time friend and graduate of the class of 1943, Elvira “Squeak” Pacciorini. “There’s not too many of us left,” she observed as she looked around the small gathering of schoolmates. The two remembered swimming in Adams Creek and having weenie roasts with their friends in the spring when they were in high school.

“Gilroy was little back then,” Pacciorini said.

Dale sat next to Mary Caliri-Mercer who was accompanied by her three daughters. A Morgan Hill resident, the tiny woman ripped tickets at the Strand Theater after graduating. She also worked in the Gilroy canneries and a sardine factory in Monterey. She has eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Viola Patterson-Fellows of Santa Cruz wore a flower in her hair and brought her husband and daughter. She devoted her time after high school to raising a family. Warren Sturla went on to become a dentist in Saratoga. Helene Renz-Firenze has been married to her husband, George, for 65 years and has 12 great-grandchildren. And Bob Chappell, who drilled wells for a living, says he’s “just going to parties these days,” now that he’s enjoying retirement.

Jayme Oliveira, the general manager of the Westside Grill, graduated from GHS in 1997 and worked closely with Pat Valencia to organize the reunion. Owners Robert Ramirez and John Holder also tended to the group, preparing the menu and refilling wine glasses.

“They’re a great group,” Oliveira said. “It’s too bad Pat couldn’t make it.”

The group will reconvene over the summer, Steve Valencia said. That time, he hopes his brother will make his own party.

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