What started as a simple notion to reconnect with old school mates, turned into so much more.

It’s been nearly 54 years since Poynette High School’s December 1967 production of “Twelve Angry Jurors,” but one member of the cast wanted to get the group back together again.

After more than five decades since being on the stage together in the dramatic performance, 14 of the 15 cast members got together for a virtual reunion — Barron Thiessen, Judy (Caldwell) Hughes, Janet (Herwig) Weber, Susie (Parpart) Rein, Linda (Webster) Machan, Jim Palmer, Rhonda (Robinson) Hart, Bobbi Hahn, Kathi (Pache) Kilen, Dick Hafner, Joan (Bly) Verhoef, Earl Schliesman, Bob Tomlinson and Gary Henke. The director, Bill Keys, and four other members associated with the play also attended — Jane Schave (publicity), Karen Leatherberry Koehn (programs), Myron Hillestad (lighting crew) and Bob Garske (set designer). The event, which took place on Sept. 21, 2021, was long overdue.

The idea for the reunion came from Schliesman, who played the guard, as he was one of five juniors in the play — the other 10 actors were seniors. Schliesman had a benign brain tumor removed in 2010 and spent nearly the next decade in “various degrees of brain fog” with poor short-term memory, fatigue, muscle weakness, and other ailments. It made him want to reconnect with old friends.

“I cannot count the number of times I have thought about that (reunion) experience over the years,” Schliesman said.

When he started reaching out to past cast members, he quickly got more help than he expected.

For a lot of the people, it had been decades since last seeing each other, after performing on a makeshift stage in the band room at PHS — an idea from Keys that added to the atmosphere of the tense moments within the play, as actors were mere feet away from the audience.

The only cast member missing from the reunion was Carlos Vilches, whose whereabouts are unknown. Vilches was a foreign-exchange student from Chile for the 1967-68 school year at PHS, and through conducting many online searches, no one was able to find any current information on him.

When Schliesman began the project, he envisioned one or two pages of contact information, a few pages of reflective comments from others, and a plea to stay in contact moving forward. He was going to scan some yearbook photos in as well. But he got help from his old classmates, and before long, there was a finished 43-page booklet dubbed, ‘The 54-Yearbook.’

Linda (Webster) Machan mentioned that she could help as she had experience in desk-top publishing. Bobbi Hahn offered photos, too. Bob Tomlinson and Judy (Caldwell) Hughes each provided some contact information for others. Janet (Herwig) Weber made the suggestion that each person provide an updated photo, and she also had questions prepared in case there was a stall in the conversations.

Schliesman was “extremely grateful” to all those that helped in the project. He also intended for Keys to just sit back and enjoy the event with the cast, but even he was making additions.

“The night of the reunion, Bill was on his game, asking people questions, following up, wanting more information, and, in general, class was in session once again … after fifty-four years,” Schliesman said.

The 1967 play

Poynette’s version is an adaptation of the 1954 teleplay “12 Angry Men.” The story was made popular with a movie of the same name, which was released in 1957 and starred Henry Fonda.

The play is set in New York City, in an overheated jury room, where a jury deliberates the case of an 18-year-old youth in poverty that was accused of stabbing his father to death.

Twelve people of the jury each have their own views and opinions on what the verdict should be. They discuss and argue their points until a unanimous decision is reached. At the time of the original play, there were only male jurors, but newer adaptions put females on the jury, too.

In Poynette’s version, eight jurors were played by women. Also, instead of the traditional stage and theater atmosphere, Poynette presented the play in the high school’s band room, pitting the audience right next to the performers.

Everyone was hand-picked for their roles by Keys, who was also the 11th and 12th grade English teacher at PHS, as well as forensics coach and a football coach.

“He knew us inside and out,” Schliesman said, adding that Keys was very good at type-casting for the performances. Schliesman went on to say that he believes he got the role of the guard due to him being the only one to try out who had a crew cut hairstyle.

One of the jurors, Linda Machan (nee Webster), recalled that she felt she was type-casted for every role she had in high school. She now better understands why that was, especially for her role in “12 Angry Jurors.”

“We took it as serious as teenagers can take anything, I guess, and presenting the play in the semi-round in the band room felt pretty cool and cutting edge,” Machan said.

For high schoolers, it would be a very tough performance.

“We sensed from the beginning of tryouts that this was not to be your garden variety high school play,” Schliesman said. “Any typical adolescent behavior that strayed from our purpose of putting on an outstanding performance would not be tolerated — not by the director, and not by us.

“The play itself was fraught with mature themes that would require adult-like treatment if we were to be true to our task as budding actors,” Schliesman continued. “This was heady, grown up stuff. No one wanted to goof off knowing that we would be dramatizing life and death issues within the U.S. Criminal Justice System.”

As full as the play was with adult themes, the 16-, 17-, and 18-year olds put on wonderful performances. Initially, the Poynette play was to be held Dec. 12-13, 1967, but due to popular demand, a third night was added on Thursday, Dec. 14, 1967.

“I recall a sense of pride when we learned that people liked us well enough that we would be going on to a third night,” Schliesman said. “I also recall a deep sense of relief each night when it was over.”

The reunion

Schliesman said it varied on how long it’s been since the cast has seen one another. As one of the five juniors at the time of the play, he noted that the seniors all went down their own paths after graduation in May 1968. Schliesman added that most encounters were few and far between, outside short conversations at class reunions.

Three of the cast members still lives in Poynette — Hahn, Palmer and Tomlinson — as does Garske. Eight still live in Wisconsin — Hughes (Waunakee), Rein (Wausau), Machan (Coloma), Kilen (DeForest), Schave (Tomah), Koehn (Lodi), and Keys and Henke live in Madison. The other seven from the reunion have moved out of state since — Thiessen (North Carolina), Weber (San Diego), Hart (Florida), Hafner (Dallas), Bly-Verhoef (Utah), Schliesman (Tennessee) and Hillestad (Wyoming).

Also, there have been seven crew members who have passed away since, including one faculty member who helped with make-up. Charles Hilgendorf, who was band director and offered the room for the play, died two weeks before the reunion took place.

But what was it like getting everyone else back in the same place after 54 years?

“That’s like asking, ‘What is it like to feel electricity through a computer screen?’” Schliesman said.

Lois (Bly) Mease, the sister of Joan Bly-Verhoef, acted as Zoom host for the reunion, and admitted Schliesman early so he could greet each participant.

“Had we all been present in the same room, the energy would have been palpable,” Schliesman said. “We were totally engaged for three hours.”

Schliesman said they talked about where each person was living, what drew them there, what each did for a living, and retirement. He added that everybody enjoyed a brief show-and-tell with their pets.

“I think mostly we basked in the reconnection of good friends who had worked hard together and had done well … together,” Schliesman said.

He added that one woman wore the exact same dress for the reunion as she did in the play.

Remember!

Those were the lasting words of the lone cast member missing from the reunion. Carlos Vilches, a native of Chile, was unable to be located.

Schliesman recalled the Spanish-speaking Vilches — who played a European immigrant in the performance — was great at “pronouncing the words and capturing the nature of a character who had come to the country in the 1940s seeking justice because he had suffered much injustice of his own.”

It was noted that Vilches wrote of the experience in at least one PHS yearbook with, “This (the play) was fun wasn’t it? Remember!”

Schliesman noted that a coincidence added to the excitement of the day.

“As if I wasn’t already fired up enough, an hour before curtain time the co-editor of the 54-yearbook sent me a link to a YouTube recording of the Earth, Wind & Fire hit song, ‘September,’” Schliesman said. “And then she pointed out that the first line reads, ‘Do you remember, the 21st night in September?’ That was it, it was that very day (of the reunion) — the 21st of September. And not only that, but it was Carlos’ word, ‘Remember!’ I was on cloud nine for the next three hours.”

Schliesman wants his fellow castmates to always remember Vilches, and each other, hoping the reunion sparks wanting to keep in contact with former classmates. Outside of just getting everyone back together, that was the main reason that Schliesman put together the reunion. He encouraged all to remain in contact with each other, especially as everyone navigates their 70s. After his scare in 2010, Schliesman gained an interest in learning about cognitive decline.

“We are at the age where if we are not careful, we can begin to slip cognitively,” Schliesman said. “Most experts on aging agree that cognitive decline is not curable, but it is 80% preventable. One of the most effective lifestyle efforts we can make to fight off Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive decline is to engage in frequent meaningful human interaction. Fifty-four years ago we did something good together. And now we can do something good for each other … together.”

Read the rest of the story at hngnews.com

What they had to say

Each member of the cast, as well as Bill Keys, shared a few words for the 54-Yearbook publication. Each shared a thought they had back in 1967, and another that looked back on their performances, or the play in general, and any lasting impact it had on them.

Here’s what each person had to say (also listing their roles and where they currently live):

BILL KEYS

Director; Madison, Wisconsin

Looking back: “What I remember most is my giddiness while working with the finest group of student I’d ever worked with, and in my 36-year career, none ever matched you. … By reaching down into your souls, and sharing what you found, you gave many people excitement, thought, and physical joy. You made your community, your families, yourselves, and the audiences richer.”

BARRON THIESSEN

Jury Foreman; Denver, North Carolina

Thoughts from 1967: “The rehearsals were awesome — remembering Bobbi Hahn with the knife re-enactment, I got to know more personality with the group and enjoyed the practice and play.”

Looking back: “I still remember doing the play and how awesome it was to do it in the music room with the audience as part of the play. You go through high school knowing your classmates, but doing the play, I felt I got to know them much closer.”

JUDY (CALDWELL) HUGHES

Juror #2; Waunakee, Wisconsin

Thoughts from 1967: She felt that Keys really typecast the jury, and was worried about remembering her lines.

Looking back: “Being a participant in all of the plays at PHS, along with the vocal performances, contributed to greater stage presence. Each experience helped to form a base on which to build throughout life.”

JANET (HERWIG) WEBER

Juror #3; San Diego, California

Thoughts from 1967: “I was supposed to pull out a knife — I think a switchblade — and pretend to kill Bobbi. I was very scared that I would hurt Bobbi with that sharp knife.”

Looking back: “Mr. Keys encouraged me to be more dramatic in presenting my character. That same year, I did a dramatic reading for my forensics speech and Mr. Keys’ coaching allowed me to be successful. He challenged my perspective on topics.”

SUSIE (PARPART) REIN

Juror #4; Wausau, Wisconsin

Thoughts from 1967: “Initially, I was caught up in the excitement, wanting everything to be as perfect as possible.”

Looking back: “I can say that this play, with these people, was one of two or three experiences that resulted in a confidence I didn’t previously have, therefore, definitely impacting future choices.”

LINDA (WEBSTER) MACHAN

Juror #5; Coloma, Wisconsin

Thoughts from 1967: “This play felt different, and I do remember feeling like it was maybe more important because it was a drama and because of the topics/theme. We took it as seriously as teenagers can take anything, and presenting the play in the semi-round in the band room felt pretty cool and cutting edge.”

Looking back: “I decided to major in English and hoped to teach and direct. Wonder where the inspiration came from? After 35 years in the classroom, and about 45 (and counting) directing, choreographing, writing, and producing plays/musicals for schools and community theater, it is clear that this play, and some other high school experiences, had a profound effect on what I did with my life.”

JIM PALMER

Juror #6, Poynette, Wisconsin

Thoughts from 1967: “Finding out that we would perform the play in the band room was a bit intimidating. The other plays provided a comfort zone of the stage and distance from the audience.”

Looking back: “This play, the members, and Mr. Keys’ ability to get each of us to deliver the performances we enjoyed, made the difference in plays, sports, and in class.”

RHONDA (ROBINSON) HART

Juror #7; Apalachicola, Florida

Thoughts from 1967: “This experience was one of the best in high school. I enjoyed all the plays I did, but this one was special.”

Looking back: “Just a couple of years ago, a high school neighbor landed a role in ’12 Angry Jurors’ and when he told me about it, I was so excited. I saw the wheels turning as he was imagining his old-lady neighbor in the same play he was in. It brought back so many memories watching their performance.”

BOBBI HAHN

Juror #8; Poynette, Wisconsin

Thoughts from 1967: “Mr. Keys knew how to get the most out of every performer, making suggestions that made the play flow. I appreciated his suggestions for every one of us.”

Looking back: “Twelve Angry jurors is part of the tapestry that was high school, and I am thankful for the experience … I understand more what role the heat would have played for older jurors in a jury room without air-conditioning on a hot, sweltering day, increasing frayed tempers and the desire for a quick verdict.”

KATHI (PACHE) KILEN

Juror #9; DeForest, Wisconsin

Thoughts from 1967: “I remember being scared to death of Mr. Keys. And, although I had seen the movie “12 Angry Men” many times, I wondered how it would work with us girls in the mix.”

Looking back: “Looking back, I think I really enjoyed the concept of ‘theater in the round,’ and used the idea years later when I was principal of St. Patrick’s and doing our 7th and 8th grade plays and musicals.”

DICK HAFNER

Juror #10; Dallas, Texas

Thoughts from 1967: “Our makeshift theater-in-the-round was the right setting to connect with the audience. A traditional elevated stage wouldn’t have had the same impact.”

Looking back: “The words that come to mind are gratitude, appreciation and timelessness. I have many fond memories of my times at PHS. The best times were the ones we shared. I came to Poynette from a relatively large high school of 1,500 students, but I can’t imagine that my life would have been any richer than the experience I enjoyed at PHS.”

CARLOS VILCHES

Juror #11; whereabouts unknown, but from Talcahuano, Chile

An excerpt by Vilches in the 1968 yearbook read, “This year, this experience has been a special one to this boy from Chile. I was very lucky to be sent to this nice town that is Poynette, to meet so many nice people, and to study in such a wonderful school. … I’ll remember this year forever!”

JOAN BLY-VERHOEF

Juror #12; St. George, Utah

Thoughts from 1967: “Projecting the accurate emotional tenor of the script took real work. Mr. Keys, you had a manner of getting a bunch of kids to a new sphere of reality.”

Looking back: “At the time, my dad was a cop, my sister’s godfather was a judge, and I had an educator grandmother whose opinion made the sun rise and set. I had an early introduction into the reality of the legal system. None of that made sense back then, but it does now.”

Bly-Verhoef added that she worked many years as a court clerk and “lived day in and out with the reality of eight angry jurors.”

EARL SCHLIESMAN

Guard; Knoxville, Tennessee

Thoughts from 1967: “When I learned that I had made the cast, at first I was disappointed that I only had four lines. After the first read-through, when I realized how outstanding the rest of the cast was, I was relieved that I only had four lines.”

Looking back: “I think often about those long, demanding rehearsals — Mr. Keys’ insistence on precise interpretation and expressions — the apprehension of dress rehearsal, knowing that curtain would soon go up. Whether we were ready or not, the nerve-wracking make-up and hair styling process off stage, and, finally it was show time. … What started to be a school activity turned out to be, for me at least, a defining moment that I will not forget.”

BOB TOMLINSON

Judge; Poynette, Wisconsin

Thoughts from 1967: “I was the voice of the judge giving the jurors instructions, so I had but a brief moment to be heard. As a matter of fact, I was in the audience during the performances. It was an easy part so there was not any pressure to get it right. My part was recorded.”

Tomlinson returned to PHS in 1972 as a student teacher, and wound up staying as a full-time teacher and coach, leading the girls softball program for 41 years before retiring after the canceled 2020 season. Under him, Poynette softball won five state titles in nine appearances, 26 conference titles and 17 regional championships. He also announced every varsity football game for 35 years.

Looking back: “I spent a lot of time in that (band) room throughout those teaching years and thought about that play every time I entered.”

GARY HENKE

Clerk; Madison, Wisconsin

Henke’s lines were pre-recorded and as such, he had very few recollections of the performances. After high school, he became the most decorated cast member, as he served for the U.S. Marines from 1969-73, volunteered at the VA Hospital in Madison, and has been a member of American Legion Post 481 for over 20 years, also spending time as the Post Commander.

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