SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. – It is another moment now for my classmates and me, Spring Valley High School 1961, a season so very far removed from senior year autumn 50 years ago when “fall madness” brought the football team to its new playing field and General Organization President Fred Yatto Jr. stood at half-time with Gerd Bitten Andersen, our Danish exchange student.
In a few weeks’ time, the rush of giddy feeling from knowing that in just months we would graduate and move to adulthood and its freedom would be tempered with loss and sadness, too.
On Nov. 19, 1960, Fred, 17, passed away after very difficult, even impossible, heart surgery. A routine school sports physical the previous spring had detected an unusual sound in his heart. Further investigation revealed a hole. This meant open-heart surgery, then in its infancy and far, far riskier than today.
Fred knew his operation was coming up in early November 1960, but he tried to make light of it, hoping not to worry his classmates. Most of us were too immature and inexperienced to know the very grave danger he faced. Fred understood that and continued to be everyone’s friend. His ability to get along with people proclaimed great promise.
On Nov. 12, he presided over a pre-game ceremony on the new field off Route 59 in which Bitten was officially recognized. And about two weeks before his surgery, he went to a party in nearby Pomona with some friends, this writer included. The small amount of alcohol he had there, in his condition, caused him to pass out. We carried him onto a bed in a spare room at Joan Prescott’s Pomona Road home so he could recover. It was a prescient moment.
Just a few weeks later, some of us would again carry Fred Yatto, this time to his final resting place on this Earth, the West New Hempstead Cemetery, only two miles from the Prescott house. Fred died Nov. 19, after the open-heart operation revealed a hole the size of a half-dollar, and in those days it could not be successfully repaired.
When our classmate passed away, so ended the innocence of school life for the Class of ’61. We have had other classmates leave us too soon in later years, 15 by my count from a class of 201, but Fred was the first, and the sobering it cast will never be forgotten.
Good times eventually returned to SVHS, but the black fact that death comes to us all, including the young, was forever imprinted on our psyche. It changed us, some for life. The journeys each of us have taken since Nov. 19, 1960, have been set by it.
While I know that, in an earthly view, Fred was denied the right, the joys, even the sorrows of life beyond high school, the journey into middle and old age, and into the season that is now, it must be said that the spirit of Fred Yatto Jr. has lived a life.
The spirit continues to live in Fred’s friends and former classmates, who, once in a while, reflect on the young man who was and the man who should have been.
I recall his eagerness, his humor, his sense of responsibility, his deep love for living. What were to be his hopes, his aspirations, his ups and downs, have been experienced in some way or another by the Class of ’61. Some of us have thought … what would Fred have said about this or that, or what would he have done in such and such a moment?
The realization that 50 years later, a 17-year-old fellow has not been forgotten is proof that a life did not finish on this earth on Nov. 19, 1960.