A Trip Back in Time for BHS Prom
June 6, 2021
Maybe it’s because this is my first prom, or perhaps because prom is the climax of seemingly every teen romantic comedy I’ve seen in my 18 years, that I find the concept so alluring. Prom has been built up to be this magical culmination of the high school experience. PCBs and Covid have robbed us of typical experiences and traditions, which compelled me to do a deeper dive into those of previous generations. I know our prom is not ‘typical’, and everyone keeps saying this year is unprecedented. But what is precedented? I had no idea.
This story started as my attempt to answer that question.
I quickly discovered the story was bigger. When asking about prom, no one I spoke to could divorce it from the rest of their high school story. I was captivated. I got to hear snippets of their teenage life — from hitchhiking to school every day to jitterbugging to swing music. I heard stories of young love that led to marriage, fleeting romance, and the intertwined stories from three generations of BHS graduates in the same family. And I loved watching them unearth the memento, whether it was a photo of the perfect prom dress, a 70-year-old letterman jacket, or a cheeky love note on the back of a photo.
Here are their stories:
Elsie Epstein Paul, Class of 1950
Elsie Epstein Paul is 89 and has spent her whole life in Burlington. Her history goes “way back.” Her grandparents married in Burlington, her mother graduated from BHS, as did she, her daughters, and grandchildren. I called Elsie on the phone for our interview and later visited her at her home to flip through her old yearbook with her and her daughter Diana.
Elsie went to BHS in what is now the Edmunds Middle School building on Main Street. She was a self-described high-achiever who was “sort of into everything.” That included the cheer squad, the band, and the Register and OREAD board.
“I don’t know how it is nowadays but girls could only be a cheerleader or a majorette in the band,” Elsie said. “There was a basketball team but I was not good enough to be on the basketball team. So cheerleading became my thing, and you had to try out. It was very tough. And I made it, which was very important to me. I guess I wanted to excel. I guess that’s the way it is.”
Elsie and her friends would go to all the basketball, baseball, and football games and whatever else was going on because “it was just what you did.” In her yearbook she is listed as a member of the pep club, the graduation decorating committee, and ironically, the prom decorating committee.
Elsie did not attend her senior prom. She told me back in 1950 if you weren’t going “steady” with someone, you just didn’t go to prom. People got married much younger in her day, often right out of high school.
“I think dating was much more important in those days,” she said. “Either you were dating or you weren’t. I never felt less popular shall we say, or whatever. I just didn’t have a boyfriend.”
The concept of going to prom without a date didn’t exist back then, and Elsie couldn’t care less about missing it. The Senior banquet was much more important.
Elsie’s middle and youngest children graduated in 1979 and 1994 respectively. She witnessed a shift in social norms within that 15-year gap. When Diana went, having a date was expected, whereas in 1994 Laurie went with a group of girls who “went and had a wonderful time and didn’t think anything of it.”
During our conversation, Elsie always brought it back to her positive experience and connection to BHS. Her class still holds reunions, and last year would have been their 70th.
“If you had good friends in high school, and you don’t see them for — well say, with our reunion if you don’t even see them from year to year, it’s like it never stopped,” Elsie said. “When you get together again, it is still there. … You know, I wonder if people will feel that attachment to Burlington High today as we did.”
Mary, Class of 1954
Mary graduated from BHS in 1954 and, like Elsie, remembers high school fondly.
Mary is not her real name, rather, it is one she has always thought was beautiful and prefers to be referenced by in this story.
I visited Mary at her home for our interview. She seemed both paranoid and thrilled to have a visitor. On a walking tour of her home, Mary delighted in showing me photos of her children on the fridge, the bouquet her daughter gave her for Mothers’ Day, and an old postcard where her blurry silhouette can be seen in the background. These things clearly hold meaning for her, and I could tell she loved sharing them. At the same time, she repeatedly told me, “I’m a very private person you know” and seemed anxious when I asked if I could record the interview and take notes.
Mary was a cheerleader and majorette in the band and describes herself as shy but outgoing when among her friends back in high school. She grew up on Lyman Avenue and all of her best friends were South Enders.
Walt (whose real name Mary preferred I omit) lived just two streets up from Mary. He was a senior to Mary’s sophomore and a “sports guy” — playing basketball, football, and baseball. Initially, Mary knew Walt as her best friend’s boyfriend and from cheering on the sidelines at all of his games.
Mary was drawn to his outgoing “pleasant” personality. Over time, Mary’s friend stopped being interested in Walt, and Walt developed feelings for Mary. He asked her out, she said yes, and after a while, the two began going steady. She went to all his games and the movies every Sunday at the Flynn and the since-burned-down Strong Theatre.
“We were young, we just went to the movies and stuff like that, nothing like kissing,” Mary said. “Not a lot of kissing and all that stuff. Only when I started to go, you know, when you’re going steady with somebody.”
When I asked her about prom, she excitedly stood up to find her old photo album. After stopping a few times along the way to admire her photos of her old house and her broomstick skirt, she landed on her prom photo. In the photo, Mary is dressed in an elegant floor-length white dress matching Walt’s white tux and corsage. Then, she read me a cheeky note inscribed on the back, which she asked me not to include, but made us both laugh.
Mary loved prom. It was the first night she ever wore a gown. She didn’t typically wear makeup, but that night she wore lipstick, curled her eyelashes, and painted her nails — still a very natural look, she was sure to point out. Prom was held in the UVM ballroom and was a “beautiful event” where she and Walt jitterbugged to swing music. When Mary told me this, she burst out singing “Oh I’ll be down to get you in a taxi honey don’t be late!” before erupting in laughter and saying “Oh heavens!” completely surprised by herself.
By the time prom rolled around, Mary knew her days with Walt were numbered. Mary emphasized that she and Walt were not rule-breakers: they didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and of course, “there was not a lot of kissing and all that stuff.” Still, Walt’s Protestant family disapproved of Mary’s Catholic upbringing.
Walt headed to Michigan State after graduation, a decision that in Mary’s eyes was an attempt by his family to break them up. Before he left, Mary gave him a photo of herself with a message on the back, dated July 6, 1952 reading, “This is what I wore our last nite together I won’t forget the other times we’ve had together.”
His parent’s attempt failed. Walt was so “crazy in love,” he only stayed in Michigan for a year before coming back to be with Mary. He went to her senior prom, and shortly thereafter, the two got married at St. Anthony’s Church.
In the 67 years that have passed since her senior prom, Mary has married, made a home for her and her family, had two “wonderful, wonderful” children, divorced from Walt, made a home for herself, seen Walt pass away, and her children grow up.
Mary has never left the South End and loves it now just as much as she did then. She now lives alone in a home filled with trinkets and surfaces delightfully cluttered with old letters, photographs, and artifacts. Her bicycle is one of her most beloved possessions, and on sunny days enjoys riding around the South End and taking trips to the beach.
When I asked Mary my final question, if she had the chance to go to prom again would she, she immediately responded “Oh yes! You mean some people would say no?” as if it was the dumbest question anyone could ever ask. Then she laughed again before telling me more about her wonderful, wonderful children.
Bob Bradish, Class of 1960
Bob graduated from BHS in 1960 and Zoomed with me from his home in Virginia for our interview. I could tell he was excited to talk with me, partially because he came prepared with a bulleted list of talking points.
Bob grew up in Williston back when CVU did not exist. Instead, he’d hitchhike to BHS every day. He’d stand thumb-in-road with a stack of books under his arm hoping someone would pick him up and give him a ride.
Bob described himself as shy and quiet in high school. He suspects being a kid from a town of then under 1,500 was why. Hitchhiking from Williston every day limited him from participating in many after-school activities, and alienated him from much of the local social scene.
Bob immersed himself in the marching band. He played in Burlington parades, sports games, and even made the trip in 1958 and 1959 to play at halftime of New York Giants football games. Marching band was also how Bob met his prom date, Marilyn.
The two “just sort of hit it off together” and dated for a year or so. By the time of Bob’s senior prom, he had secured a driver’s license and could drive, rather than hitchhike, to prom.
“You know, it wasn’t all that often you got to take the car and be off on your own like that,” he said. “So that’s one way I think that times have changed quite a lot.”
Following graduation, Bob served in the Vermont National Guard and later went to UVM. He and Marilyn wrote letters back and forth for a while, before going their separate ways.
“I think [senior prom is] when it really hits you that this is the end of an era in your life,” Bob said. “And it’s both exciting and a little frightening, in a way. It was a real transition period.”
Diana Kernoff, Class of 1979
Diana graduated from BHS in 1979, 29 years after her mother Elsie did. Diana went to ninth grade at Edmunds during the time they were in the last stages of transitioning to the new Institute Road campus (complete with a smoking section).
Diana described herself in high school as a “goody-two-shoes” whose social life revolved around music.
“Back that day, people that were into band were really into it,” she said. “And that was our focus. And it was like our social group. And we were together a lot before band, during band, after band, you know, with the concerts. We spent a lot of time together.”
Like Bob, Diana met her prom date in band. Jeff played the drums, was always joking around, and overall just a “happy, happy, happy guy.” The two got along and were always kidding around in various rehearsals and music festivals. Neither of them were in relationships when prom rolled around, so they went together platonically.
As Diana recalls, in 1979 prom was still an event pretty much exclusively reserved for people with dates.
Prom fell on the same night as the All State Music Festival, so she and Jeff only made it for the last hour or so. She didn’t seem to mind. She enjoyed getting dressed up, taking photos, and getting chauffeured by Jeff’s brother. But overall, the night does not stand out in her memory. Not the way it does for her daughter, Jennie.
Elzy Wick, Class of 1991
Many of us know Elzy as Alex, Daniel, or Sam’s mom. Like me, you probably have seen her cheering at countless charity fun runs, volunteering at school events, and on her daily Instagram videos jumping into the freezing-cold February lake. Elzy is a joy, and you will have a hard time finding someone who tells you otherwise.
Elzy was happy to talk over Zoom about her high school experience, but I could tell she was a little uncomfortable talking about herself specifically.
Elzy graduated from BHS in 1991, and her husband Jeff graduated from BHS in 1987. But that is not this story. They did not even know each other in high school.
Elzy’s friendships were the most important thing to her as a teenager and describes always being surrounded by a pack of friends. She had a tight group of girlfriends within a larger co-ed friend group. They zipped from one sports event to another, going skiing, playing tennis, you name it. They were also active in the evenings, though Elzy “hate[s] to share that, really.” There was a lively party scene at BHS and she and her friends helped make it so.
When prom came around, all of her girlfriends gathered at her house beforehand to get ready before meeting with the larger group. They did the typical prom festivities before piling into the van they had rented and headed for the ballroom at the Hilton. Everyone in the group coupled up. Elzy went with her “friendly, platonic, fun” friend and wore a black off-the-shoulder knee-length cocktail dress that she thought was just so chic.
“Oh, [prom] was so fun,” she said. “It was just a fun night, you know? And I loved dressing up. I loved thinking about it — what I was going to wear, who I was going with. There was excitement just about the whole thing.”
Elzy describes senior year as a special time where she was constantly surrounded by her friends. She doesn’t think she realized back then just how much everyone would scatter after graduation and how hard it would be to then come back as a group. “It just didn’t happen.”
“I’m glad I have the memory of my big group of high school friends,” she said. “I think it was so wonderful at the time and what we all wanted and needed. But I think it was right for the time and then as I went through life, I figured out just different ways of having friendships.”
In reflection, prom exists as something bigger than just the fun night she saw it as back in the day. It represents a celebration of the four years a class has spent together before stepping out into the next phase of life.
“Relationships have built by the end of your senior year,” she said. “… There’s a special high school bond that you’ll never find in another era of your life. And [prom is] just a way of celebrating that.”
Tammie Ledoux-Moody, Class of 1993
Tammie Ledoux-Moody is a BHS English teacher of 21 years who I have gotten to know through the drama club. She carries herself with bubbly enthusiasm, always excited to regale us with stories, and give high-pitched full-body laughs in our dress rehearsals to make up for an empty audience. Ms. Ledoux has a big presence, not just because she stands at an impressive 5’9,” but because her energy fills every room she enters.
Tammie graduated from BHS in 1993. She describes herself back in high school as being very shy. She would never be the one to raise her hand in class discussions, much preferring to “keep her mouth shut.” But all this changed when she stepped on the stage. Tammie proudly told me BHS drama is where she found her voice, and her prom date.
The two of them became close by doing tech crew together. According to Tammie, he, like most of the guys in tech, was “your stereotypical Dungeons and Dragons Star Wars, Star Trek geek” which is why she was your stereotypical typical Dungeons and Dragons Star Wars Star Trek geek.
“The only way to get a guy to pay attention to you in the drama club back in the 90’s was if you were playing Dungeons and Dragons,” she said with a laugh. “So I became the Dungeon Master and when they wouldn’t ask me out on dates, I killed their characters!”
When they weren’t backstage, the two of them often shared it as the comedic leads. In the BHS 1992 production of “Anything Goes,” Tammie played Mrs. Harcourt to his Mr. Whitney.
“There was like a scene where he had to kiss me on the hand at the end and then sparks!” Tammie said. “So I was like, ‘Okay!’ And he was too shy to ask me to the prom so I ended up asking him to the prom, actually. … I just said, ‘Hi, it’s February and there’s going to be a prom in a few months and I like to plan ahead. So how about we go together?’ and he said, ‘Ok’ and that was that.”
On the night of prom, Tammie “dressed to the nines.” She wore a long navy-blue sleeveless dress with white lace across the shoulders and a big navy blue bow “right over the rear.” She paired it with blue flats (not heels because she was taller than him) that had matching little white bows and styled her hair in a crown French braid with the rest in cascading curls filled with baby’s breath.
“I felt really really pretty,” Tammie said. “I mean it was one of those goofy Princess moments. … I still have the dress, hanging up next to my wedding dress. It was a big deal.”
The date wasn’t a romantic one. Still, much to Tammie’s dismay, when the music slowed and “Unchained Melody” began echoing from the speakers, her date wouldn’t budge. He was too embarrassed to dance. So Tammie, lonely and defeated, sat off to the side alone.
Then, in comes Spanish teacher by day, and leader of tech crew by later-in-the-day: Señor Miller. He approached her sitting off to the side, bowed, and said, “Well, I know I’m just an old codger but may I have the pleasure?” She said yes.
When Tammie told me about Señor Miller her face lit up, and she couldn’t help but get lost in stories and anecdotes about him — times when he taught the tech crew how to eat a rotisserie chicken by the fistful to make up for lack of utensils or how, like a real “gentleman’s gentleman,” he wore a three-piece-suit to school every single day.
Without wanting to get into it, Tammie told me she didn’t have a great home life or relationship with her father back in high school. The theater was a safe space where she felt truly at home. Having a figure like Señor in her life meant the world.
“He was stable, kind, gentle — the epitome of everything I wanted in a father, in a partner: shows up, writes poetry, is intelligent, listens, has a sense of humor, can laugh, can say some really dark and twisted things, but at the same time be gentle and know when to do that and when not to do that,” she said.
Señor has remained an important person in her life and has continued to be a father figure to her. So much so, when her father passed away she asked him if he would be her dad.
“I was an obnoxious teenager. I was introverted, I was very awkward, I got picked on a lot, I cried very easily, I was not comfortable in my own skin,” Tammie said. “And when you can find an adult that likes you, not just because of who you are but in spite of who you are — I think that’s pretty special.”
Jennie Patnaude, Class of 2007
Jennie is Diana’s daughter and Elsie’s granddaughter. You may also know her as the Edmunds Middle School soccer and softball coach, or from when she used to work at BHS. Jennie is an energetic storyteller with infectious enthusiasm. Before she answered each question she would exclaim “Oh dear God” and laugh in amusement. Unlike her mother and grandmother, Jennie does not describe herself as shy.
Jennie embodied school spirit, enthusiastically participating in all the high school activities, most of which she helped organize. When she was not practicing soccer or planning homecoming, she could be found working at “Something Sweet,” the mirror-lined candy store in the University Mall.
In the fall of 2006, Brad, a shy quiet kid from CVU, and his cousin were walking aimlessly through the mall before popping into the store so Brad’s cousin could talk to the “cute girl” behind the counter (Jennie’s coworker). Jennie describes the moment she and Brad first saw each other as “literally love at first sight.” The two hit it off immediately. After he left, Brad called the store to see when Jennie worked next, came to see her again, and two days later, showed up at her soccer game. A few weeks later, Jennie told her mother, “I’m going to marry him.”
They dated throughout senior year. For someone who absolutely loved school dances and had her eye set on marriage by 18, prom was something of a dream.
When the night came, she wore a bubblegum-pink satin halter dress and Brad wore a tie to match. They participated in all the typical pre-prom festivities: Jennie got ready with one of her friends before Brad came over with the bigger group to take photos. Brad borrowed his mother’s sports car so they could roll up to the fancy restaurant in style before heading to the prom.
“I think the build up of everything that is so important, like, that you have a dress that no one else has, or your hair is perfect, or your nails are perfect, even if you have a date or not — in the moment it matters but looking back on it, it really doesn’t,” she said. “I think all that matters is that if you want to go, you should go.”
Now, Jennie and Brad have been together for 14 and a half years and just celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary. They have a beautiful two-and-a-half-year-old daughter named Molly with Jennie’s same blue eyes and high energy. When she looks back, she recognizes how transformational her senior year was.
“Senior year is a big one and probably it’s because of him,” Jennie said. “I think because we met, literally like the first week into school, we got to experience our entire senior year together. So that’s really what I think about when I think of high school because, you know, he is my life. Now obviously, we have Molly too, but he is my life. And so that’s kind of what I always think about that one year. And I think I feel like that year had the best impact on my life.”
✦ ✦ ✦
Tonight, I will be going to prom with a group of my friends, my “date” being my best friend (and brilliant staff writer) Anessa. I will play cornhole under the stars, eat Skinny Pancake from a truck, and stand in line to drench my civics teacher in a dunk tank. Yes, this is not your typical prom. But it will accurately represent our high school experience: masked, displaced, and one-of-a-kind. Elsie, Mary, Bob, Diana, Elzy, Tammie, and Jennie’s endearing stories make it clear prom is not a magical night, but rather a timestamp and way to mark the end of high school.
I wonder what I might tell the overly-excited high school reporter on my doorstep 70 years from now. Will she take notes in utter disbelief as I regale her with stories of social distancing and escalator rides to class? I don’t know. But I do know this is the time we seniors move into the next phase of our life, and more than anything, a time to celebrate — dunk tank and all.