ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The hemlines are shorter, the graduating class is smaller but the excitement is the same.
Three hundred nine students graduated from West Mesa High School on Friday afternoon, ushering in the 50th anniversary of the school’s first graduating class.
An hour before the ceremony, the seats in Tingley Coliseum began to fill.
The cheers of seniors dressed in their white caps and gowns filled the arena: “Seniors! Seniors!” they chanted.
In a special section near the stage, sat the original Mustangs, the class of 1968.
Fifty years ago, 497 students graduated, recalled 68-year-old Patty Tingley.
To celebrate the golden anniversary, the class of 1968 walked in with the 2018 grads.
“The uncertainty will hit them when they get the diploma,” said Karen Gallegos Padilla, 67. “I know I felt excited but also unsure.”
Thirty-eight of the original Mustangs were in attendance Friday, proudly donning sashes that read “WMHS 1968.”
“We’re a family,” said Gallegos Padilla.
Gallegos Padilla has a long history with the school, having worked at West Mesa for 38 years as well. She is also a co-organizer of bringing the class of 1968 to the grad ceremony Friday.
“It feels surreal. It feels like that was us just yesterday,” she said.
The former homecoming “lady” said the friendships she created in high school are what she remembers most.
A group of the alumni, including organizers Tingley and Gallegos Padilla, has continued to meet on a regular basis and get dinner, a 30-year tradition.
And tradition is why the class of 1968 felt it was important to be there Friday afternoon.
“We paved the way for them,” Gallegos Padilla said.
Tingley noted that original group wrote the class song, picked the Mustang mascot and school colors and designed the class ring.
“I can’t believe it’s been 50 years,” she said.
Tingley, West Mesa’s first head varsity cheerleader, said graduation hasn’t really changed as the emotions and excitement transcend the 50 years. But one thing she’s noticed change is the fashion, joking that clothing is a bit less conservative than it once was.
Having generations of Mustangs in the same room is something Gallegos Padilla thinks is unique to Albuquerque, saying it’s a traditional city, affording it opportunities to celebrate a long history of residents and students in the same place.
Mary Thais Lopez, 67, is also part of the class of 1968, currently living in a house behind her alma mater.
With generations of West Mesa grads, Thais Lopez’s family have all been Mustangs, some also graduating in a milestone year.
Her daughter, Kathy Montgomery, turned her tassel in the 25th anniversary ceremony in 1992, and her granddaughter, Maya Montgomery, is walking in this year’s 50th anniversary.
Three of her kids and four grandkids have gone to West Mesa.
The class of 2018 recognized this year was unique.
Alec Reichard, 18, said he thinks people will remember the golden grads, saying people take note of the landmark moments most.
“It’s awesome. It feels special,” he said about the class of 1968 coming to the ceremony.
Montserrat Silva, 18, echoed that feeling, saying it’s nice to have the original grads in the same room with the class of 2018.
“They know what we went through. They accomplished the same thing as we did.”
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