Six Texas Pals, Class of '44, Still Share Lunch, Life and Laughter

updated 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It is an especially starry summer night in Texas, 1944, and the warm, moist air is sparkling with fireflies and sweet with gardenias and bluebells. Six teenage girls in flowered cotton dresses are chattering and whispering secrets to each other—two of them swaying in a creaking garden swing, the other four lounging on the wide, wooden veranda. Bing Crosby croons "I'll Be Seeing You" through the static on the old Philco radio; his only competition, the buzzing cicadas. These are exciting times; the war's end seems near at hand, and life itself is lush with possibility.

Other new graduates of Fort Worth's North Side High are preoccupied with moving on—to college or the Army or jobs out East. But on this night, childhood friends Clara Lee Wilcox, Winola Bell, Bonnie Wills, Jean Hall, Polly Hampton and Genella Coats choose instead to make a solemn vow: They will always remain friends with one another. Always. And they will meet once every three months—faithfully—for as long as they live.

Adolescence is a time when promises are fervently made and easily broken. But this pledge will in time prove remarkable. Over 44 years it has not come undone. For nearly a half century, through marriages and births, divorces and deaths, these half-dozen women, now all in their 60s, have stayed true to their word. Since 1944 they have met four times a year, for lunch or dinner. Oh, there have been a few lapses: the terrible electrical storm in 1946, when Jean (Hall) Milburn was in labor with her son (soon to be named Stormy), or the time in 1967 when Genella had a hysterectomy. But in event of emergency, there's a contingency plan. "The person who can't be there phones the home where everyone is meeting," says Clara Lee (Wilcox) Shipp, "and she talks to every one of the girls." There has yet to be a single unexcused absence. "Even if we were on the other side of the world," says Jean, "I believe we'd still be a part of this group."

The ties that bind came into being early on. Winola and Genella trace their friendship back to toddlerhood. "I couldn't say Genella," recalls Winola, "so I called her Baby."

"Yes, I remember," says Genella. "You pulled my hair. And I bit you."

"Much of our staying together is because of Winola's mother," says Bonnie (Wills) Kutch. "We'd always go over to Winola's house, have slumber parties, play our records, whatever. The door was always open." The girls treated each other like family. And even in the feverish throes of adolescence, when romances bloom at the expense of friendships, astounding allowances were made. "If some boy dated one of us and then started dating another one," says Polly (Hampton) Tadlock, "we just figured he liked that one better, and that was that." Genella actually met Sidney Tankersley, whom she would later marry, on one of the group dates chaperoned by Bonnie's older sister, Jeannie, and her husband, Nelson.

But it was Clara Lee, at 17, who was first to wed. Hitched to a reassigned Navy man, she was wrenched out of Fort Worth just six months after the girls made their vow. "I remember getting on that train headed for Seattle," says Clara Lee. "My mama and my daddy were there, and so were all my friends. I was crying so hard I couldn't stop. It was the first time I'd ever been away from home, and I never felt so awful in my entire life." But like the others, Clara Lee always came back. Today, with families long grown and with two of the husbands passed on, the six women live within 50 miles of each other.

It is something much deeper than proximity that has kept the women close, especially in times of grimmest tragedy. In 1973 Winola's teenage daughter was killed in a car crash. "I heard the news on the radio," says Clara Lee, speaking softly. "I knew Winola would need me, and all I could think of was to get to her. No one really knew what to do or say. We just wanted Winola to know that we were there." When Polly's husband died eight years ago, all the women instinctively closed ranks. Says Clara Lee: "All one of us has to do is get on the phone to the other and say 'I need you,' and that person drops everything—no questions asked."

Not that their get-togethers are often sob-sister affairs. Ordinarily they're held at one of their homes, and whoever is hostess makes a fricassee or perhaps ribs or chicken-fried steak. Everyone else is responsible for bringing a side dish; baked beans is a favorite, as is Genella's Italian cream cake. It's also the hostess's option to hold the meeting at a restaurant, and if she does, she picks up the check. With the passing years, there has come only one real change: Husbands are now allowed. "They thought we were having all the fun," says Clara Lee. "Of course we usually go off into a room by ourselves. They can hear us laughing, and they always wonder what we're talking about."

Most of the time it's not world affairs. These days it's usually the grandchildren (21 in all) or familiar names in the obituary column or the sighting of an old school chum who's aging badly. Only one topic is verboten: husbands' careers. Not that there wouldn't be plenty to talk about. Polly's husband, J.D., was a rodeo cowboy and quarter-horse trainer. Bonnie Kutch's husband still works in the stockyard of his Hilton Kutch Cattle Company. Jean Hall's Tom, who's retired from the White Swan Food Supply Co., now works part-time with Texas' Budweiser distributor. (Mind you, he isn't on the liquor side of the business, says Jean.)

The women share a lot of ordinary memories, and many of the favorites go away back. "I remember one of the first times I took Daddy's car out," says Clara Lee. "It was an old '36 Ford, and I took Bonnie along for a ride down Jacksboro Highway. I came to one of those amber caution lights, and I stopped. It just kept blinking and blinking, so I just sat there. Everyone was honking at me, and it nearly scared Bonnie to death." They share the extraordinary too. In 1963 Clara Lee was working at the Miller Funeral Home and Insurance Company when Lee Harvey Oswald's body was brought in from Dallas for embalming after he was shot by Jack Ruby. "We were all just so scared," recalls Clara Lee, "that some kook or something was going to steal the body."

Through it all, there has been a warmth as sweet as that long-ago Texas night when they pledged their lifelong friendship. "The thing that has kept us close is that we never talked about one another," says Jean. "We know each other's characteristics, but we never regarded them as faults. We just accepted one another as we were." And there is every reason to believe that what has been true in the past will hold for the future.

"We'll all be in the same nursing home, in wheelchairs," says Clara Lee, chuckling.

"Actually, we're planning a kind of retirement community just for ourselves and our husbands," confides Jean. "You know, something constructed in a circular manner, opening onto a central area but with each of us having our own living area with a small yard, or something like that."

"After 44 years," says Polly, "we can hardly give up now."

—By Susan Schindehette, with Barbara Wegher in Dallas

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