Teacher, Class of 64 Come Back to Fairfax
In the foreword to her book, “One Moment,” Joan Williamson Higgs writes, “The moments that define us are almost never predictable or expected. We go through life thinking we are immune to its inevitable tragedies and its heartbreaking surprises.”
But in her personal life and during her time teaching English and theater at Fairfax High, she learned no one is immune and life-changing events can happen in an instant. She explores some of them in her book and, on Saturday, Oct. 5, she’ll be at the Hyatt Fair Lakes for the 50-year reunion of the Class of 1963.
At 3 p.m., plus the next day at 10 a.m., Higgs will sign her book in the Fairfax Room and chat with her former students. And together, they’ll share fond memories of their class’s senior year.
SHE TAUGHT AT FAIRFAX—then located in the building now housing Paul VI High—from 1962-66. And traditionally, the junior class performed a comedy each fall and the senior class did a spring drama. But when Higgs discovered many of her actors were also talented singers, she decided 1963’s seniors should put on the school’s first-ever musical.
That spring, they did “Bye, Bye Birdie,” and it was a huge success. “Those kids came together with very little money to put on a stellar show,” said Higgs. “We didn’t have theater boosters then; but for every play, everyone who donated $5 got their name in the playbill.”
When the curtains went up for the show’s opening number, she said, “The audience stood and applauded before the first song even began, because the set was so fantastic. I’d never seen that happen before.”
In March 1964, Higgs’s thespians performed the compelling courtroom drama, “Inherit the Wind.” But it wasn’t easy—three weeks into rehearsal, their lead actor was killed.
His name was Bob Thompson and he was playing the part of Clarence Darrow. “The first time I heard [him] read, I was blown away by his powerful, yet understated, interpretation of the character,” said Higgs. “He was a natural. I was so impressed with him because he was perfect for that role.”
But a head-on collision on Route 29 took the lives of Thompson and his girlfriend, Randi Wesley, Fairfax High’s homecoming queen. He was driving 35 mph in a station wagon, she was in the passenger seat and some friends were in the back seat.
According to Higgs, a speeding car going 90 mph hit them head-on. The driver and his two passengers were all in the front, bench-type seat. “There were beer cans all over the back seat and the police were chasing this car before the crash,” she said.
“I always wondered what would have happened if the police had been able to stop them,” continued Higgs. “But they weren’t, and five kids died—all three in that car, plus Bob and Randi. Their back-seat passengers were in the hospital for months; it was terrible.”
She was just 26 then and as stunned and shocked as her students. But somehow, she found the strength to lead them. “It was a somber, heartbreaking time for everyone,” she said. “But I had to set an example of being strong, staying focused and keeping it together.”
FOR AWHILE, rehearsals were cancelled and the fate of the school play was unknown. But eventually, the actors decided the best way to honor Thompson’s memory was to perform the show in which he’d been cast, and Higgs said they did a great job.
Afterward, she became close with Thompson’s family and, said Higgs, “His father told me how excited Bob was to have that role, and that made me feel good.”
“This tragedy and this production were moments in time that forever changed the lives of hundreds of people,” she wrote in her book. “It is a testament to the Class of 1964 that they overcame and persevered. I have no doubt that, to this day, when asked about their high school experience, this moment is one that defines it.”
Higgs later married, moved to Pennsylvania and became a mother and grandmother, still teaching English and theater until retiring in 2000. After her granddaughter died in 2007, she decided to write a book about loss and how to recover from it.
Besides, she added, “I always wanted to write a book about teaching because I loved it so much, plus the relationship I had with my students. And I feel blessed that I had those years at Fairfax.”
Now, she’s eagerly looking forward to reuniting with her students from 1963. “Back then, we thought Fairfax High was the most special place on the planet,” said Higgs. “It’ll be fun to go back and relive some of our memories.”