It has been a hard couple of weeks in the New Bethlehem area. We lost Ben Kundick Sr. and Gene Rutkowski in a short time. Even if you never interacted with them very much while in high school, they were always simply “there.”

Their kids were in most of the same classes I was in. They participated in several sports. And on the sidelines in one capacity or another stood their dads.

Gene Yount’s elective art class was the great mixing bowl, a Petri dish used to incubate budding artists. Nerds like me rubbed elbows with the football players, wrestlers and golfers from the Kundick and Rutkowski families.

Gene Rutkowski was the boys’ gym teacher, so I never had him as an instructor. Ben Kundick taught me senior math in 12th grade after I wisely decided that I couldn’t face senior analysis with Mike Kopnitski. Once I got to college, I tackled statistics and quantitative business analysis and did rather well in them.

I developed math anxiety sometime in eighth grade, an odd change after loving numbers straight through seventh grade. In a way, Ben Kundick restored some of my self-confidence. He opened my eyes to the world of numbers as useful tools instead of things that could get you yelled at if you came up with the wrong answer.

As I have written in the past, I was more than happy to graduate and do a metaphorical burnout when I took off for college. The mental image of clouds of tire smoke billowing behind me in the rearview mirror still makes me smile.

I think I was gone for something like 38 years in total. Engaged with the world in front of me, memories of my hometown and alma mater faded to pastels. I guess that’s better than fading to gray.

And when you are gone and lose touch with people, vivid memories from high school somehow turn into myths and legends that you tell yourself in odd moments. People lose their realness and become characters in a story.

Returning to my old hometown was quite a treat for the first few months. I started running into all those storybook characters in real life and they remembered me.

That still hits me hard sometimes, that thing of being remembered. I just assumed that I had become a washed-out ghost during the past 38 years.

I remember running into Ben on the street a couple months after I got back and introducing myself.

“I know exactly who you are!” he said.

I was kind of nonplussed by that. I’d meant it as a social pleasantry, but it suddenly twisted around and sounded as if I was bragging or something. I mean, I’m not exactly one of those Hollywood types who struts into a restaurant when they need some attention.

Gene Rutkowski on the other hand, was not somebody I really knew when I was a teenager. I knew what he looked like and I would say “Hello” in the hallways.

It was only after I started at The L-V in 2012 that I ended up having a grown-up conversation with the man. There had been a suspicious barn fire at the Rutkowski farm along Route 66 outside New Bethlehem and I went out to interview him.

We took one look at one another and cracked up laughing. It was the kind of laugh that people emit when they meet a fellow member of a secret society.

Gene was a retired U.S. Marine. I had dipped my toes into military history as a journalist. In that split second of recognition, we knew what we need to know about the other person.

That was some years ago, and I still grin to myself about it.

We all know how our lives intersect in a small town, but it often happens without our knowing. We are all connected in some way.

Former high school classmates have their own connections forged on the playing field and beside the art-room sink. It is always something of a bonk on the head to realize that your parents had somewhat parallel connections among themselves.

Ben and his late wife, Pat, were in the same graduating class with my parents. Gene’s wife, Hoody, has always been a big fan of my mom’s and dad’s, probably because they liked to make sure that the Head Start kids had enough supplies when she was involved with the program.

I’m turning 65 in about a week and I sometimes wonder how that happened.

Long-ago heroes and giants have become a little shrunken and stooped. I’m glad I corner them when I can and take their pictures. I got a good one of Ben a week before he passed, but I never did catch Gene again.

So, there’s this novel coronavirus thing in the news that the rest of the media doesn’t want to talk about. Or maybe it does and is being told to pipe down by those misty powers that be. It probably won’t affect us as harshly as it is the Chinese, but things might get a little interesting in a few months.

You never know what the day may bring. Take those photos of old people, have a second piece of cake and go dancing if you’re in the mood. If you’re fresh out of luck, I could be the one standing behind the camera and you will be famous like Ben and Gene.

[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]

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