Richard Small '62
Today I was on http://www.wilsonalumni.com/In_Memory/In_Memory.html on the Wilson Alumni website and happened upon the entry for Mary Ellen Anderson ’62. I didn’t realize this was about Mary Von Allmen until I read the notice. I have a story to tell about her and how she impacted my life. My mother (Jessie) brother (David) and I moved to Portland just before Christmas 1957. Mom found a small house in Multnomah, so I finished eighth grade there.

At 4:45 pm five days a week on KPTV Channel 12 there was a live dance program called High Time hosted by Gene Brendler. It was Portland’s version of American Bandstand. Several of the kids in my class were regulars on the program. Having come from the rural McKenzie River (50 miles east of Eugene), I had never danced and in fact never been on a date. The thought of talking to a girl terrified me. Mary Von Allmen was in my class and if I recall correctly, she was one of the people who appeared on the show. In any event, every night after school I went home and turned on our little black and white television and watched my classmates dance.

Fast forward to my sophomore year at Wilson. Up to that point I had not adjusted to the big city and as a result was introverted and seldom had the courage to look anybody in the eyes. One night during basketball season there was a sock hop dance in the cafeteria and I went down to sit on the sidelines and watch the other students dance. As I came in the door, I looked into a room on the right and there was Mary at a record player hooked up to the sound system. She had just started play the next song (to this day I still remember it was “Call Me Mr. Blue”).

“Hi Mary,” I said and she looked up and said, “Oh hi Dick (I was Dick in those years). Come in and dance with me.” I gulped and blurted out, “I can’t dance!” I was mortified I had said it. What would she think? Mary said, “Nonsense, you don’t have to do anything but stand in front of me and sway. Come on, let’s give it a try.”

I could hardly breathe and knew I was trapped as I managed to croak, “All right.” I walked in and she took my left hand in her right and put her left hand on my shoulder. I took a step and can you believe it… “I COULD DANCE!” I had been watching High Time and knew how to do it, I just didn’t have the courage to take the first step. I was elated that I was able to take the lead. When she complimented me about my dancing, out of relief I shared with her how inadequate and fearful I had been since moving to Portland and how I had always wanted to be able to dance. She said, “I’ll bet there are others at the dance who feel the same way. I’ll play several slow songs in a row and lets both ask some of the wall flowers to dance with us. It’ll be fun.”

For several songs we danced with four or five people each and in every case as soon as they started dancing, they relaxed and enjoyed themselves. We found it was a common theme that they also had been afraid of taking the first step. I think every student we danced with enjoyed themselves. Before each song was over we asked them to find somebody else and ask them to dance. I think every one of them did that. She ducked into the room at the end of each song to change the record, but we had a ball. Finally, I had a fast dance with Mary (I told her I wanted to see if I could do it… It wasn’t pretty but I got through it!)

As I danced with other people and found I was really enjoying myself for the first time in Portland, I decided I didn’t want to be intimidated any more. The change may have not been significant enough for others to notice, but that night Mary changed my life. Throughout the remaining years at Wilson I don’t think I ever talked to her again about that evening but for twenty minutes or so she made me face my fears and I became a better person because of it.

Two or three decades later my wife (Dee) and I attended a Class of ’62 reunion at the Progress Golf Course restaurant. Mary was there and I asked her to join us at our table for a moment. I asked if she remembered making me dance with her in the school cafeteria. She had no recollection of the event, so I told her the story. She was pleased I told her but before then had no idea about the impact she had on me.

By 1982 I owned a label company called IdentiGraphics and got interested in giving back to the community. One of the things I did was to start giving a speech called “Lighter to Lift” to high schools in the area. It was about ten good habits I thought employers would like students to have when they reached the job market. The sixth habit was “Face Your Fears” and I told the story of Mary Von Allmen and how she had changed my life by making me take the first step. Over a fifteen-year period I must have told that story to several thousand high school students.

My memory is a bit dim, but I think that night in the cafeteria might have been the only time Mary and I spoke about anything personal until the class reunion, but in the spirit of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I have always thought the world was a better place because Mary lived in it.

If you would like to share stories and/or photographs, please send them to Linda Doyle: Lsdoyle@earthlink.net.