The Johnstown High School class of 1949, or rather its yearbook, the Spectator, was the stuff of story and fantasy for me, thanks to my mother, a master weaver of tales.
When I was a child, Mom sat with me, opened the yearbook, turned the pages and recounted bygone tales of her larger-than-life classmates. My imagination was further stirred by images of Johnstown, which was situated amidst endless rolling hills and lush green valleys.
To me, the Spectator, with its embossed cover, was a fairy-tale book populated with all kinds of mythic characters such as, for one, my mom: Betty Ott, an honor roll journalist with aspirations to write. As a young child, it took a while for me to believe that my mother and this high school kid were the same person! Then….f
…there was the beautiful Concetta Filia, a witty poet whose award-winning writings graced the Spectator’s pages. And also…
…there was Helene Morrow who was Mom’s good friend, and one of the few Jewish kids in the class. And finally….
…there was Bobby Boyer, the kid who, according to my mom, “was so smart that the teachers dreaded his questions since they seldom could answer them.”
He was nice, according to Mom and “very small. He spoke softly and slowly, and, was more interested in math than dating.” She added, “I liked him a lot. He was probably the smartest person I ever knew.”
Whether Concetta Filia fulfilled her dream of being a novelist, I’ll never know. She died in 1975. Helene Morrow eventually worked for the Israel Philharmonic and lived in both New York and Israel. Helene, too, died recently.
My mother attended nursing school in Johnstown, worked in a hospital in Baltimore, married a local celebrity (that would be my dad) and settled in Cleveland.
And Bobby Boyer seemed destined for greatness. In high school, he wanted to be a physicist. He eventually earned a PhD and was as a professor of mathematics. He was about to take a position at the University of Liverpool, where he lived with his English-born wife and two children.
On August 1, 1966, Bobby was walking across the campus at the University of Texas in Austin where he was visiting friends. The following day, he was scheduled to return to Liverpool where his two children and his wife, who was expecting their third child, would be waiting for him.
At the same time, 25-year-old Charles Whitman had gone up to the observation deck of the UT tower with enough guns and ammo to hold the campus under siege for nearly two hours.
Ultimately, Whitman killed 15 and wounded 31 (according to Wikipedia).
Robert “Bobby” Boyer was one of Whitman’s first victims. He was 33 years old.
I don’t remember the newspaper headlines, but my mother’s reaction has stayed with me. Mass shootings were unheard of in 1966. (Note: The University of Texas -Austin was the site of one of the first mass school shootings. It was the worst, in terms of numbers killed, until the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.)
My mother and the rest of the country, I suspect, could not comprehend this level of violence. My Mom grew up loving school, which provided a refuge from her difficult home life. School was where she could learn, make lifelong friends, and try her own hand at writing. She said her years at Johnstown High were “About the best years of my life.” And now, the idea of school as refuge had vanished for her.
With tears flowing down her face, my Mom said, “Why Bobby? He was so sweet, he was so brilliant, he could have done anything. I just don’t understand who could do this to him.”
I was equally affected by my mother’s reaction, unable to comprehend that one of her classmates was murdered. For a long time afterward, I would look around my own junior high classroom and wonder how I’d feel if one of these kids was similarly murdered. But, according to the newspapers and various commentators of the time, I wouldn’t have to worry. This was just a fluke and the work of a madman. This would never happen again. (And just four years later, the Kent State University shootings took place Kent was just 30 miles from our home in Cleveland. Another story for another time).
A few weeks ago, my 87-year-old mom asked me to apply the research skills that I’ve honed in my genealogical work to discover what happened to Bobby Boyer’s wife and children.
“I still think of him,” she said, “And I wonder often about this family. How did they fare out?”
So far, my research hasn’t taken me very far. I learned that Bobby’s wife was Lyndsey Robinson Boyer and learned the names of his son (Matthew) and daughter (Laura) but was unable to locate the name of their third child. I assume they remained in England but, right now, this is as much as I know.
What does this have to do with Genealogy?
Just about everything.
How can we understand our ancestors, near or far, without attempting to comprehend where they lived and the events and people that shaped– and sometimes shattered– their lives?
The University of Texas- Austin shooting probably affected everyone in the JHS class of 1949, to say the least. Native Johnstowners are used to devastating floods (1889, 1936 and 1977 to name 3 of the big ones) but a mass shooting? It made no sense then, or now.
Had Bobby Boyer survived, he may have been appalled at the lessons NOT learned since 1966. But, given his intellect and proclivity for predictive analysis, he may not have been surprised. But, we’ll never know.
An aside: As far as I know, I’m unrelated to my mother’s three classmates. (I say “as far as I know” for a reason: when I got my DNA results and matches from Ancestry.com, I learned that one of my matches was the son of one of my Mom’s classmates, who, ironically, was one of the typists for the Spectator. (This family is related to me via my father’s side and not related to my mother.) This is not the first time a synchronous event has occurred in my ancestral journey and won’t be the last.)
Bobby Boyer, we–my mother and I–remember you and hope that your widow, your children and grandchildren found meaning in your life, comfort from remembering you and strength to continue.