On the surface, Ron Reeve and Erin McKenna have very little in common.
She’s a 28-year-old graduate student spending five weeks in Rome, where she’s teaching Latin as a staff development fellow for the Paideia Institute.
Fifty years her elder, he’s a retired business development executive at IBM, who is now doing charity work in North Carolina.
What these two do have in common, however, are their humble, working-class roots on the North Fork — and their ability to have always excelled in the classroom.
When the time came for each to receive their high school diplomas, they became members of an honorable club. Mr. Reeve and Ms. McKenna are valedictorians, having graduated at the top of their class at neighboring schools exactly five decades apart.
That title — rooted in Latin but believed to have first been used to describe a top graduate a little over 250 years ago on the campus of Harvard University — is one of great prestige.
To those who have earned it, though, it has different meanings. For some, like Ms. McKenna, a 2005 graduate of Riverhead High School, the word stands as a goal set at a young age and reached nearly a decade later. For Mr. Reeve, Mattituck High School Class of 1955, it’s an accomplishment he recalls with great humility, deflecting the credit to the teachers and classmates who challenged him to get there. But Lois Polatnick, who graduated at the head of her Southold High School class in 1970, hardly identifies with the achievement anymore.
“About 10 years out of high school nobody talks about it,” said Dr. Polatnick, a neuro-ophthalmologist in Chicago. “My interest was always to do well, and being named valedictorian was kind of a consequence.”
In Dr. Polatnick’s family, with a Plum Island biochemist dad and a mom who worked as a counselor at various county facilities, academics were emphasized. She also credits the traveling her family did, including cross-country and European trips, as showing her there was more to the world than the small Southold community where she grew up in the 1950s and ’60s.
She recalled going on a class trip to New York City, where some of her classmates had never been.
It was a different time when she graduated atop a class of just 110 students.
She initially went to college to become a marine biologist, a useful career path for a smart kid from Long Island whose father worked in a similar field, but instead attended medical school after earning earned her undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
In 1970, she recalled, you didn’t just move back home after college; you made your own way. Even Mr. Reeve, who had designs on taking over his family’s Sound Avenue farm when he headed off to study agricultural engineering at Cornell University, ultimately followed a different path.
His father, Dwight, sold the family farm in 1960, soon after his son earned his college degree. Today, their family property is the Harbes Family Farm.
“That was the decision the family made,” Ron Reeve said of the sale. “The farm was fourth- or fifth-generation Reeve. But it was different economically at that time. We grew mostly potatoes, cauliflower and cucumbers.
“I wish we had the foresight to go the direction of agritainment, but we didn’t,” he said.
Instead, he spent the next 31 years in marketing and finance at IBM, then eight years as a financial systems consultant at American Management Systems before his retirement.
While both Mr. Reeve and Dr. Polatnick suggested that attending a smaller high school might have made it easier for them to earn the valedictory distinction, Carolyn (Zehner) Woodberry, valedictorian of Greenport High School’s Class of 1985, said it made her work even harder.
“If I went to a larger school, I don’t think number one would have been something I thought about,” she said. “Going to a small school made me want to stand out even more.”
Ms. Woodberry earned a degree in economics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was named Collegiate Academic All-American. She then worked at J.P. Morgan & Co. as a corporate finance associate before heading to Harvard Business School. She continued in finance and is now raising three children in Darien, Conn.
While some valedictorians have seen their careers proceed in many different directions, others appear to have had their whole lives charted out from the beginning, even if they still faced their share of bumps in the road along the way.
Kurt Thorn, who finished top of the class at Shoreham-Wading River in 1992, had the rare distinction of being a national Westinghouse Science Talent Search winner at just 16 years old. The son of a Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist, he was Long Island’s first winner of the contest in 45 years. The win earned him $40,000 in scholarship aid and an appearance on the “Today” show. He went on to study chemistry at Princeton University and today, after a stint at Harvard, he works in molecular biology as an associate professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
Mr. Thorn’s love of school and science grew from an internship at BNL and conversations on the drives home to Wading River with his dad, Craig.
“Definitely having that family influence was a big part of [my success],” he said. “But I also had great teachers at Shoreham who helped nurture my love of science. The internship and Westinghouse came from my teachers.”
Today, Mr. Thorn’s job is two-fold. He works in a core microscope facility, where the school partners with Nikon, training people and keeping the instruments running properly. He also does clinical diagnostic research, working toward advances in tools that detect food allergies in children.
“We’re in a position to make a real difference,” he said.
One theme common among the valedictorians interviewed for this story is that they have committed much of their lives to helping others.
Mr. Reeve, now retired and splitting his time between Southold and Charlotte, N.C., does advocacy work for individuals with disabilities. He serves as chairman of the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities, working for the governor on employment solutions and general quality of life improvements for those with impairments.
Ms. Woodberry volunteers as treasurer for an nonprofit that helps children from low-income areas strengthen their academic skills through an educational summer camp.
For more than 30 years, Dr. Polatnick has worked treating diseases of the nervous system that affect vision. She is also a clinical instructor in the ophthalmology department at the University of Loyola Health System.
“I get to see a variety of patients and solve their problems,” she said. “There’s an interesting puzzle aspect of it.”
Another theme with several of these valedictorians is that they have remained engaged in academic endeavors.
Ms. McKenna, a Calverton native who earned an undergraduate degree in classics from Harvard University in 2009, remains in school, pursuing a doctorate from Fordham University. When she’s not studying the ancient languages, literature and history that go along with a classics concentration, she’s also teaching them at the university.
An eternal go-getter, she has parlayed her love of history and theater — she has worked behind the scenes off-Broadway and performs in community theater — into a second job working for Big Onion Walking Tours in New York City.
For her, all the hard work is not just about a love of learning, but also sharing everything she has absorbed.
“Even from a young age, I’ve always wanted to learn,” she said. “I’ve always loved school and wanted to do well.”
Being valedictorian was actually a goal Ms. McKenna set for herself in elementary school, when she first learned the word. It was something she realized she might one day achieve when she earned straight A’s at Pulaski Street School in the fifth-grade class of former Riverhead teacher Jerry Brown, whom she described as “generally inspiring.”
Of course, Riverhead’s Latin program also helped to set her on her current career path.
“[Just about] every valedictorian at Riverhead over the last however many years was a Latinist,” she said.
That includes her sister, Tara, the school’s valedictorian in 2007, which brings us to another common thread. Mr. Reeve’s aunt Irma was valedictorian at Riverhead High School in 1912. Dr. Polatnick’s sister, Judy, finished at the top of Southold’s class in 1971 and Ms. Woodberry’s older brother, Greg Zehner, was Greenport’s valedictorian in 1982.
Genetics and family support might have played a larger role than anything else for each of these students.
“My parents always wanted nothing but the best for me and my sister,” Ms. McKenna said. “Not just in school, but in everything we did. And they made sacrifices for us.”
One thing all these valedictorians agree on is this: While the title helped pave their way to success, particularly through college admissions, it’s something they rarely, if ever, discuss today.
Dr. Polatnick said the topic came up at her 40th high school reunion in 2010 and only one time since.
She was at a dinner party a few years back when another guest was joking around trying to impress upon her how much she had accomplished.
“I was a National Merit Scholar,” the woman said.
“Oh, I was too,” Dr. Polatnick replied.
“Well I was a valedictorian,” the woman countered.
Somewhat reluctantly, Dr. Polatnick revealed that she had also earned that distinction at her small school on the North Fork back in 1970.
“It’s just not something I would ever bring up in conversation,” she said. “It does not come up.”