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COLUMN ONE

Class of '76 Got Chatty

Before their 30-year reunion, the author and scores of Claremont High classmates went online to really get to know one another.

July 08, 2006|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

Martin Hewitt dreamed of making it big in Hollywood, and it happened much quicker than he expected. He had envisioned a Shakespearean career, but suddenly he was starring opposite Brooke Shields in Franco Zeffirelli's "Endless Love," a steamy 1981 tale of forbidden teen romance.

Hewitt got into acting after high school, studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, at the time in Pasadena. His only previous experience was an eighth-grade role in "The King and I." But he answered an open casting call and beat out 5,000 men for his first screen part.

Another aspiring actor also made his debut in the movie: Tom Cruise, whose Hollywood trajectory gathered a bit more upward momentum than Hewitt's.

"I started at the top. My first professional acting role was in a starring role in a Universal Studios film," he said. "I didn't even get the chance to get my feet wet. So after that film, it was sort of a downward path."

The movies got smaller, with titles such as "Carnal Crimes" and "Night Rhythms." He eventually left show business. The father of two now owns a home inspection service in San Luis Obispo.

"Now, I do theater locally, which is fun and I love it," he said. "And I'm making better money now with my business than I was acting. Being an actor is a full-time job looking for work."

If Hewitt became our most famous alumnus, Rick Cunningham was our most infamous. For a guy no one has seen or heard from in more than 25 years, Cunningham is a hot topic among the class of 1976.

In 1980, Cunningham allegedly pulled off what at the time was the biggest insider heist in the history of Brink's, the security and armored car company. Cunningham was one of five guards at the Brink's gold vault in Los Angeles. One day in July 1980, he didn't show up for work, and a hurried inventory found $1.55 million in South African gold Krugerrand coins missing.

The FBI determined that Cunningham had probably removed the coins a few at a time. He apparently made a clean getaway. Police found his car abandoned at Ontario International Airport that August.

They've been looking for him ever since.

I didn't know Cunningham in high school. He was no stranger to the wrong side of the law, according to classmates. Stories abound of his pocketing the contents of the cash register at the Taco Bell where he worked; claiming to have been robbed; getting hold of a master key to campus by being football team manager and stealing math and history tests along with money from the coffee fund; erasing his late fees from logbooks; and swiping football jerseys from the gym.

Cunningham's story has been the subject of much speculation among us.

"I am so fascinated by that story to this day," said Tawnni Lockhart, a classmate who remembers standing lookout while Cunningham swiped a math test. She was not in Cunningham's math class and didn't benefit from the pre-knowledge, she was quick to add. By now, she mused, "he could have had plastic surgery, show up at our reunion, and no one would be the wiser."

Tom St. Clair is another classmate who's had a brush with history. After being introduced to airplanes by a Claremont High math teacher, he became a supervisor at the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Control System Command Center, the office that grounded all civilian and commercial planes after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

St. Clair was painting furniture in the sunroom of his suburban Maryland home that morning, when his wife called him to watch the awful news on TV. He headed into work and manned the phones with FAA offices all over the country.

His work schedule will prevent St. Clair from attending today's reunion the way he did the 10th and 20th. He's disappointed. At a typical reunion, he said, "you don't even talk to everybody. You kind of walk up and say, 'Who the heck are you?' "

After reading some of the nearly 10,000 e-mails that were exchanged within three months, St. Clair became "excited and impressed about what people are doing with their lives. It's fun to reconnect, especially with the people I didn't know. I regret our cliques kept us from knowing each other in high school."

Carrie Gronewald, formerly Banwell, shared St. Clair's fascination with planes and broke barriers even in high school. A straight-A student, she was the first female president of our Science Club and the first woman to join the men's varsity swim team.

She went on to the Air Force Academy as part of the first class of women to attend the previously all-male military academies. She put up with the sometimes-ferocious hazing that causes many cadets to break down and drop out.

After earning degrees in biology and electrical engineering, Gronewald spent her Air Force career as a missile project officer and manager on avionics, weapons and NASA space station projects. Currently she's a software project manager for a wireless communications company.

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