He stood in the doorway of the girl’s house, his date smiling at his elbow, her father eyeing this boy in the cardigan sweater and blue suede shoes. “Dad,” she said by way of introduction, “this is…”
She paused, leaned close to his ear and whispered: “What’s your real name?”
Later he made a point of reminding his dates that his given name was “Norm.” Getting introduced to parents as “Gimpy” simply did not cut the mustard.
Gimpy left San Dieguito early, dropping out his junior year to work at his father’s filling station. He reconsidered after a year and a half of watching his former classmates honking as they drove by with their arms around girlfriends, and during the summer of 1954 he walked into the office of Mr. Davidson, the superintendent, who was planning for the next school year with Principal Korwin. He explained that he wanted to come back.
They told him that over the years many students had left San Dieguito, but none had ever returned. He would be their first.
Gimpy had many pals at San Dieguito, and when he came back for his senior year he and his brotherhood of friends embraced all aspects of student life. Gimpy ran for student Activities Coordinator, elected after a campaign that included tri-colored cards printed on a friend’s mini printing press inviting students to “String along with Gimpy,” a piece of string stapled to each card.
He helped plan activities, served as the master of ceremonies at assemblies, and honed the leadership skills that he would take with him to college and later into a forty year career at General Dynamics. “The key,” he explained to me one afternoon in my office, “is to get involved. Volunteer. When there’s something to be done, say without hesitation: ‘I can do that!’”
“I left school in Levis and engineer boots with horseshoe metal on the heels, so I’d click on the wooden floors,” he remembered with a grin, “and came back wearing slacks, sweaters, and white bucks.”
Well, truth be told, it looks to me like a checkered shirt and pegged pants show up in a few of his yearbook photos, beneath rebellious sunglasses and a mischievous smile.
In addition to student council, Gimpy and some friends started a nationally recognized student court to help address community concerns about students driving recklessly at lunch. They monitored student drivers, offered warnings, and in some cases held a court of peers to mete out consequences. Working closely with Mr. Davidson and Mr. Korwin, Gimpy and his chums “helped run the school.” That investment in San Dieguito has stayed with him and his classmates, many of whom still meet every year. They see San Dieguito as their own.
“San Dieguito is my school,” he told me emphatically, sure to keep the tense present. “When people visit me, I still drive them to campus and tell them ‘I went there.’”
Being on student court, however, didn’t mean that Gimpy and his friends followed every rule. They still sometimes rushed down to Mel’s on 101 to get cheeseburgers and root beer at lunch, a hurry even in their cars. Some smoked cigarettes, and once, reminding us that misbehavior isn’t a trait only of “kids today,” Gimpy, his friend, and “three gals” played hooky from school and drove to San Diego during the day. They didn’t count on the small town detective work of Mr. Davidson.
When Gimpy and his friend got back to town they drove to the restaurant owned by his friend’s parents. They settled in for sodas and were asked where they’d gone that day. “To school,” they answered. “Then why did Mr. Davidson and Mr. Korwin come by the restaurant asking where you were?” They knew they were in trouble.
The year before two student council members had been suspended for cutting school, and neither Gimpy nor his friend wanted to lose their positions. That evening they hopped in the car and drove to their superintendent’s house. Mr. Davidson greeted them in his driveway, a beer in his hand and a serious look on his face.
They apologized. They explained. They told Mr. Davidson how much they loved San Dieguito and their roles as student leaders. He listened, gave them a week of lunch detention, and let them keep their jobs. “He could tell how much it meant to us,” Gimpy explained. “He really cared about his students, and knew we cared about our school.”
That caring underpinned life at San Dieguito in the mid-1950s of Gimpy’s memory. “Everyone was happy to be here,” he remembered. “So happy to be together.” Students looked out for each other, and teachers cared. “I remember walking through campus and having teachers say ‘Hi, Gimpy!’ when I got back in my senior year. They knew my real name, but it was kinda neat that they were willing to call me by the name the kids did.”
Just how neat this was, and how special a place San Dieguito was, Gimpy understood better than many of his peers. He had the perspective of having taken time away. When his classmates, flush with spring fever, started counting down the days until graduation, it was Gimpy who told them: “Not so fast. I’ve been out there. The parties stop. The dances stop. The classes stop.” Gimpy never took his senior year for granted, and never forgot how precious those moments were.
More than sixty years later he still hasn’t. With joy in his voice he described the parties he and his classmates had in undeveloped areas of Rancho Santa Fe, where ground had been cleared for new housing, large flat swaths tailor made for a ring of cars, their headlights illuminating the impromptu dusty dance floor, music provided by every car radio tuned to the same station. “Don Howard had a radio program that ran from six to ten o’clock,” Gimpy recalled. “He’d play the latest and greatest music that teenagers were listening to, and we’d call in requests. I remember being out at the party, dancing, necking, and horsing around, and hearing him on the radio saying ‘Hi to the gang from San Dieguito!’”
The students in our classrooms now, some of the same classrooms that Gimpy learned in back in 1954, are the grand-kids of Gimpy’s generation. When I asked what advice he’d give them, what he’d tell an incoming freshman, he looked me squarely in the eye and said: “Treat people right, all people, and they’ll treat you right right back.”
True San Dieguito spirit.