By Carolyn Bahm

Daily Journal

BOONEVILLE Who said high school friendships don’t last? Time and state lines have not divided one merry band of buddies. They have met every few years for two decades.

Six boys, including Merril Cartwright of Booneville, were elected in 1949 to national posts with the Future Farmers of America for the 1950 term. They never forgot each other.

Their reunions began in the mid-1970s, and now they still gather at least every other year. This week, Merril and Laura Cartwright hosted at their Booneville home.

It’s a time for talking, eating, helping with the dishes, stepping over suitcases and staying up late to talk some more. They recall how their parents supported them in their earlier FFA days, and at each gathering they write thank-you letters to the surviving mothers. They also tour the area: This week’s agenda includes visits to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a Rotary luncheon, the Indian reservation in Philadelphia and the Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee.

Mrs. Cartwright said, “You’d think we were all 16, the way we laugh together.”

The years have left a trail of Christmas cards, wedding invitations, baby announcements and letters among the couples, and they keep up-to-date the rest of the time with phone calls.

Mrs. Cartwright continued, “You can’t call one without calling the other, so we just go right down the list to be fair and call everybody.” She laughed. “Our phone bills are fierce.”

Her husband said, “We’re like unto brothers and sisters now, and we’ve all got the same girls with us.” He grinned at his wife. “Can’t get rid of them.”

George Lewis of Quincy, Ill., said the country boys clicked as good friends almost immediately. When they married, their wives’ rapport just cemented the group. They all have shared values: None of them drink or use tobacco, and they share a commitment to marriage, moral values and deep, longlasting friendship.

Glenn Lackey of Stewart, Ohio, said, “Friendship is a real blessing. You know, you have to cultivate some friendships, but this one has just grown and blossomed.”

He is the group’s storyteller with a rollicking yarn about dogs chasing cats through a suddenly revived church. Donald Bakehouse of Owatonna, Minn., is the dry wit who acts out an Al Jolson role for his friends. Cartwright and Lackey are the “tour guides” for visitors, peppering the conversation with jokes about the friends.

Rogers Fike of Mountain Lake Park, Md., is a minister. Lackey pointed to him, saying, “And he’s the one who saves our souls.”

Fike shook his head and said solemnly, “I’m way behind in praying for this group.”

Lackey smiled and continued around the room. He nodded at Lewis, who is an attorney. “And when we’re in trouble, George bails us out.”

Their roles with the FFA

Cartwright served as the Southern regional vice president as they traveled across the U.S., visiting sponsors of the FFA. He recalled, “We also were privileged to go into the seat of government. We had lunch with the president and vice president. We just saw things you could just dream about.”

Lackey, who served as the central regional vice president, toured Europe for the FFA. “I gave 400 speeches in two years, lost my voice and got a wife.”

Bakehouse was the national FFA’s student secretary. He tapped a yellowed newspaper clipping in Cartwright’s scrapbook, showing the newly elected boys. He said, “As you can see, none of us has changed a bit.”

They got more serious when they talked about what the FFA has meant to them. Fike, who was the North Atlantic regional vice president, said the club helps children’s undeveloped qualities to emerge. “I don’t think I’d have ever been in the ministry if not for the FFA.”

Lewis, who served as national FFA president, considers the organization as a pivotal force in his life. “It was unheard of in our area that a farm boy could even go to college, but one of my influences going on to college was the FFA organization and experience.”

Cartwright went on to serve as a vocational/agricultural teacher and was an FFA advisor himself, carrying delegates to the national convention annually for 22 years. All of the group have helped judge various FFA contests, projects and project books, and they’ve done public speeches and helped with banquets.

They approve the updates in the FFA since their days, including the fact that the once boys-only organization is now open to all youths. The FFA also has expanded out of its rural role: Cartwright said the emphasis today includes the business aspect of agriculture.

Lewis pointed out that last year’s national president came from a vocational school in inner-city Chicago. “It’s an example of how the FFA has been taken to the inner city and succeeded. It’s the same theory of learning by doing.”

Continuing the fun

With the help of a computer-savvy friend in Fort Worth, Texas, the friends recently tracked down their 88-year-old FFA advisor, now living in Florida. They called this week to congratulate him on his recently celebrated 65th wedding anniversary. Now they’re hoping to visit him and his wife in February.

Next on the agenda is the group’s 50th anniversary. They’re still debating whether to mark it in 1999 or 2000. They’re also not planning to stop with that landmark celebration.

Mrs. Lewis said, “Oh no we’ll go in wheelchairs if we have to.”

Another friend chimed in. “We’ll race.”

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