WC class of ’69 seeks missing student
Published 11:30 am Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Warren Central’s class of 1969 is looking for one of its most beloved and certainly its most elusive member.
Fred Wilson, who is believed to be about 62 years old, was elected class favorite his junior year at Warren Central before mysteriously disappearing the summer before his senior year.
Wilson was a bright student, though he was frequently absent and refused to raise his hand in class, leading to his nickname, “Shy Fred.”
“I think we possibly would have graduated him, but he went traveling and sort of faded away,” said Gordon Cotton, Wilson’s former homeroom teacher and the man who snapped one of only two known photos of the shy student.
When Wilson disappeared, it never made headlines, but members of the class of ’69 have kept his spirit alive.
When they speak of his antics, the tone is always light-hearted rather than sad.
“We still remember Fred. Good old Fred. He was faithful,” said Jenny Gatlin, a classmate of Wilson’s.
They ramped up a search for Wilson recently when they began planning for their 45-year reunion, which will occur sometime in the fall.
“He may surprise us with a visit. I hope he does,” Cotton said.
Classmates aren’t sure where Wilson might have gone. Though they recall a number of postcards he sent from spots across the country.
“He moved away that summer,” said John McHan, a classmate of Wilson’s who was at a planning meeting for the reunion recently.
The truth is no one knows what happened to Wilson because he was perhaps the greatest harmless hoax ever conceived by teenage minds.
The Fred Wilson fabrication began in the 1967-68 school year when a student signed the fake name on the roll to confuse a new teacher.
“This was just a fun prank,” said Marlene Brooks, who like those mentioned previously in the story was in on the joke. “It really took off from there.”
Taking off is an understatement.
Each day at roll call, a different student would pretend to be Wilson, McHan said. But when the teacher would call on him for an answer, no one would raise their hand.
“Now don’t be so shy, Fred,” was the usual response from the teacher.
For all purposes, Fred was a member of the class. Books in the library were checked out in his name. Students began doing the fake Wilson’s homework and turning it in each day even if no one answered his name at roll call.
“Gordon Cotton must have been the culprit,” Brooks said of the homework conspiracy.
In a way, he was.
Cotton, who was a history teacher and yearbook advisor, was let in on the prank and extended the scope of the joke beyond the single class thanks to his key to the school office.
“We went in one night and enrolled him in classes. He was in my homeroom,” Cotton said.
The caper reached its climax when Wilson’s name was put on the ballot for class favorite.
“He won by a landslide,” Cotton said.
“We just didn’t like any of the junior boys,” Becky Chennault, said jokingly, as for the reason Wilson won so easily.
For the yearbook’s Class Favorite section, Cotton posed a student facing away from the camera and with the photo the caption read “Shy Fred Wilson.”
“If Fred won the election fair and square, he deserved his picture in there,” Books said.
Fred decided to move away after school administrators discovered the ruse. Then Warren Central Principal O.W. Mendrop was furious, Cotton said. But Superintendent Sharp W. Banks took it in stride.
“He told Mr. Mendrop ‘Those kids had a lot of fun and didn’t hurt anybody,’” Cotton said of the superintendent’s reaction.
With today’s tight security measures at schools, it would be difficult to pull such a prank today. Members of the class of ’69 doubt many students would be interested anyway because of all the technological distractions today’s students have.
“We didn’t have all the cellphones and computers then,” said Rodgers Coffing, a 1969 Warren Central graduate. “We barely had phones. Some of us had party lines.”
Although Fred Wilson turned out to be a phony, the reunion is real and set for sometime this fall. Class members who want to attend the reunion, or reminisce about the follies of Fred Wilson are encouraged to send an email to email@example.com.