56 in Webster Groves

"Webster Groves: It is the best of America."— Charles Kuralt, 40 years ago

Webster Groves Revisited

It was 1966, a paradoxical time in America. Lyndon Johnson had unleashed 385,000 troops on Vietnam, and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood rode atop the best-seller list. The Sound of Music won the Academy Award for best movie and couples slow-danced to "The Shadow of Your Smile." At the same time, the civil-rights movement was at full boil in the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles.

On a late winter night that year, CBS News held up a mirror to the prideful face of Webster Groves, Missouri — "six square miles of the American dream," as the network proclaimed — and very few people liked what they saw. Inexplicably, the passage of time has done little to diminish the anger and embarrassment.

"People felt they'd been had. They felt a sense of betrayal," says Kathy Corley, a professor of film and video at Webster University. "And a lot of people haven't yet gotten over it."

What a raw nerve it touched, this hourlong documentary titled Sixteen in Webster Groves. Even today you'd be hard-pressed to find a single adult resident of that St. Louis suburb who hasn't seen it or heard about the rancor it caused.

"They came in with preconceived notions about us," recalls David Dunkman, who back in '66 was a sixteen-year-old varsity pitcher for the Webster High School Statesmen.

In conjunction with a 36-page survey prepared by sociologists at the University of Chicago, CBS identified Webster Groves as the quintessential upper-middle-class slice of mid-America in which to delve into what sixteen-year-old high-school juniors really thought about their community, their school and their future. A nine-member crew shot twenty-eight hours of footage in order to unearth, as narrator Charles Kuralt — folksy even then, though slightly less bald — put it, "youthful rebellion and dissatisfaction."

What they found instead — or what they chose to show after three months nestled amid the shaggy trees and century-old homes — was a Babbitt-like conformity, rigid and overbearing parents, an insular and soulless class and a callous indifference to the minuscule number of "negroes" in the community.

"Everyone thought it was going to be a great chamber of commerce piece, and then when it came out, it was a slam on the whole city. It was like Stepford Wives, and people felt very slighted," recalls Dan Dillon, now a producer at KMOV-TV (Channel 4) and author of a St. Louis-centric compendium of homegrown personages entitled So, Where'd You Go to High School?

But on the evening of February 25, 1966, residents were trembling with excitement. Viewing parties were planned throughout the "Queen of the Suburbs." Neighbors sought out fellow residents with color TVs. Members of the upper-crust Monday Club could hardly wait till the clock struck nine. "I even moved up the time of the basketball game so no one would miss it," remembers former coach Richard Schuchardt. Needless to say, no one in Webster would be tuning into The Fugitive or The Flying Nun that night.

"They are sixteen years old," Kuralt intoned. "They live in Webster Groves, Missouri. They are children of abundance, of privilege, of the good life in America.

"But is something missing in their lives — something that has nothing to do with good schools, nice houses and two cars in the garage? Is something missing?"

With the ominous foreshadowing complete, the testimonials began. Nearly half the students said they wouldn't mind spending the rest of their lives in Webster. Almost all of them said their biggest worry was getting good grades. The University of Chicago survey revealed that 78 percent of the class had bank accounts; 84 percent were expected to go to college; 96 percent spurned the idea of premarital sex; only 1 in 50 had ever had a drink; and 99 percent knew who Dick Van Dyke was, compared to 20 percent who'd heard of Ho Chi Minh.

Exclaimed a pert blonde: "Good silverware makes you feel good."

A clean-cut boy said his main goal in life was "a good-paying job, money and a nice two-story house."

A mother observed, "Everyone here is so happy in our community, and they don't want anything outside of it."

A pipe-smoking dad said he didn't want his child taking part in any civil-rights demonstrations, adding, "They can't even change their diapers at sixteen."

A pretty home-economics student vowed she wouldn't marry until she turned twenty. "And the husband I marry better be able to support me, because I've already picked out the house I want to live in."

A white football player said negroes are "all right" but he'd never double-date with them.

A fresh-faced youth marveled over his first-ever visit to downtown St. Louis, six miles to the east: "I came across people from the slums, and there were mentally retarded people — people from all walks of life."

Observed Kuralt at one point: "Theirs is not a world of rebellion and adventure."

The documentary, which is shown in sociology classes nationwide to this day, also detailed the tensions between "socies" (the most popular kids), the "normies" (most of the rest of Webster's students) and the intellectuals (known as the "weirdos"). Each group kept to itself.

With gross overstatement, Kuralt concluded, "To be sixteen in Webster Groves is to be insulated against all the cold winds of life — war, death and poverty."

At the end of the hour, the townsfolk erupted. Their self-image of a special place with strong, small-town values — an image as well-cultivated as their lawns and gardens — had been punctured. As Dan Dillon recounts in his book, Charlotte Peters, "the first lady of St. Louis daytime TV," raked CBS over the coals the next day, going so far as to call the film "a Communist tool" to give our enemies an unfavorable view of America.

"They made us a look like a community of spoiled brats," a resident complained.

"How superficial. This is not who we really are," said another. "We are not a bunch of smug social climbers." And on it went.

The reaction to the documentary was so virulent that CBS aired a follow-up seven weeks later, titled Webster Groves Revisited, which simply reprised the searing material and allowed residents to vent. Near the end of the sequel, Kuralt cracked, "One sociologist suggested we ought to call it Forty in Webster Groves."

A massive banner is draped inside the main corridor of the 100-year-old edifice that is Webster High. In the school color, dark orange, it reads, "Through These Halls Walk Some of the Finest Students in the Nation." Nearby an entire wall is devoted to the "Hall of Fame," where pictures are inscribed along with biographical information of high-achieving students who went on to fame and/or fortune. The class of 1967 — the one featured on CBS — is represented by Connie Bickley. She earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at MIT, where she now teaches.

Upstairs in Room 321 Philip Wojak's physics students are hunched over their desks taking a college-prep exam. The spry 69-year-old, Webster High's longest-tenured instructor, pulls a couple of chairs into the hallway and offers up his recollections of the documentary.

"I've seen it time and time again," says Wojak, who arrived at Webster High the year after the infamous program aired. "And it's not a good portrayal of the community." Then why is the film still shown in Webster High social studies classes and roundly heckled at class reunions? "You've got to remember, this is St. Louis, and they're still talking about the World's Fair."

Paul Brackens, who began a long career as an assistant principal at Webster the year Wojak arrived, is another veteran viewer of the doc. "A lot of people felt liked it picked on them falsely — that they were pushing their kids too hard and that if you weren't in the 'socies' group, well, you weren't going to get to be in the plays or be in the glee club."

Minnie Phillips began teaching English at Webster in 1968. "That film was the first thing I heard about when I got here. I saw it and I thought, 'Is this the kind of community that I want to be a part of?'" Shaking her head, Phillips adds, "Webster takes its traditions very seriously — its homes, its schools and its families. And it was a misrepresentation. We're not the Cleavers, but Webster came off as The Truman Show, and there's more depth here than that."

Phillips says she showed the documentary to her students a month ago. "The kids are shocked. It seems so remote to them. It's a history they can't relate to."

Jack Hoeman was a member of the class of 600-plus juniors who went under CBS' microscope. "I think it pointed out a lot of things people didn't want to admit — that there was this snobbery and parents really pressuring their kids to do well," says Hoeman.

Webster University film professor Corley grew up in south St. Louis. Corley, now 53, recalls watching the documentary and feeling conflicted. "It was such a paradox: I thought it was a dead-on depiction, yet a complete fabrication," says Corley, who each year makes it a point to show Sixteen in Webster Groves to her documentary production class.

An independent filmmaker herself, Corley is contemplating making her own documentary on Webster Groves. She even has a working title: There's Something About Webster Groves. "The place is such an icon, such a symbol of Middle America, and I want to further explore the myths and realities," she explains.

In December 2002 a special Sixteen in Webster Groves/Webster Groves Revisited double feature screened at Webster University. All 250 seats at the Winifred Moore Auditorium were full for the entire three-day event, which also featured a panel discussion among members of the Class of '67.

"Some people talked about how the film changed their lives and how it created some difficulties in their lives," recalls Mike Steinberg, film program director at Webster. "It's funny how shocking that documentary was and how people still talk about it."

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