The Good Ol’ Days: Homecoming
Homecoming and football go together like lutefisk and lefse. It’s getting harder to have a real Rugby High School “home-coming” these days, because so many people live so far away, making coming home difficult to manage. Pierce County’s summer reunions, whether family or school, have seemingly replaced the annual autumn alumni assembly. One almost envies those schools in larger communities who have homecomings that are well-attended by their graduates, many of whom still live in the area.
RHS needed five homecoming convertibles each year for the parade of princesses and our queen. Dad didn’t usually have any convertibles on hand, but there were always a few fellows who lived in the area who would loan us theirs. I received a 1964 Chevrolet 409 convertible for my 16th birthday and ’64 Chevy convertibles sold briskly after that. Balzer Welk, Dwight Jelsing and my cousin Warren all bought one. The 1964 homecoming featured five 1964 Chevy convertibles.
One homecoming is particularly memorable. I was in a play, directed by Robert Myhre, which had just one performance on Thursday, the night before the big game and dance. It was a melodrama (my favorite, as I had the chance to “chew up the scenery”). About a week before homecoming, the Minnesota Twins won the American League pennant and were going to the World Series against the L.A. Dodgers. Dad had managed to get two tickets for one of the games, but I couldn’t go because of the play and other homecoming activities. GroMoCo parts department manager Christ Heintz and office manager Phil Lysne were able to attend instead.
The student council tallied the student body’s 400+ votes for the homecoming court. Gary Wurgler received the most votes for king. Then we turned to counting ballots for queen. RHS’s first foreign exchange student, Rita Halme from Finland, was elected queen in 1959, prompting a rule that future exchange students of either gender were automatically made prince or princess and were ineligible to be named king or queen. Our exchange student that year was a young woman from Argentina, which meant that there would be four candidates for queen.
The pre-race favorite was a popular Rugby girl. She was one of us dozens of “city kids” who had known each other since the first grade. The “dark horse” candidate was an equally popular girl from rural Pierce County, whose stock had steadily risen after she and her “country kid” peers came to RHS as freshmen.
The vote totals revealed an exact tie between the two young women mentioned above. We decided to have a second vote, a run-off between just those two. The ballots were counted by faculty and we student councilors wouldn’t know the official outcome until later that Thursday night.
My pre-play butterflies were ratcheted up a notch as we awaited the final results. The first three princesses came in, escorted by their princes, and then the runner-up was announced: I can still see her standing under the north entrance to the Armory gym under a red Exit sign. It was…the “city kid”! Which meant that the winner was the very first “country kid” in the history of RHS to wear the coveted crown of homecoming queen in the modern era. There was a collective gasp in the crowd as Princess Runner-up, dignified and smiling as always, was escorted down the center aisle to appreciative applause. When the Queen was announced, the stoic audience erupted into cheers and whistles. The winner seemed to be in shock and must have remained so through at least Act Two of our melodrama.
As captain of the convertibles, I had the honor of driving the homecoming queen at halftime of the Friday game. That night, the Queen’s beau asked if he could drive her. I was quick to agree. We still had a majority of Chevys (4) and a Mr. Voeller let us use his red Pontiac convertible, which we designated as the Royal Carriage.
There was a thin strand of four-foot-high wire affixed to metal posts encircling Johnsen Field. At halftime someone was supposed to lift the wire up so that we could ease the cars under it at a certain point on the southern side. I may not have properly briefed the Queen’s beau that night. There he was, driving his lovely sweetheart on her night-of-all-nights, as proud as he could be. But, in an unfamiliar convertible and on an unfamiliar route. He didn’t see the wire.
I was following right behind in the 409 with the Argentinian princess. It all occurred so quickly, that in order to recall it correctly, I have to mentally go frame-by-frame in a Zapruder-like manner. The Queen’s driver heard the wire graze the hood, just as the surprised wire-holder-upper was starting to raise the almost-invisible strand. The Pontiac’s bright red brake lights blazed as it slammed to a halt. The wire bounced up to the windshield as the car’s inertia pushed it forward. The strand reverberated with a mighty twannngg!, and caught Her Majesty right under the chin, knocking her backward, spread-eagled onto the trunk and sending her sparkling tiara tumbling to the tundra.
We were all wearing heavy coats that chilly October night and, thankfully, the Queen’s helped to shield her from serious injuries and the post-incident shock of suddenly getting karate-punched in the throat. Although it raised a red welt, she was re-crowned and quickly pronounced fit to resume her Pontiac promenade. She bravely smiled and waved as we made our way slowly around the grizzled gridiron. Fortunately, no one in the stands had seen exactly what had happened. Later, at the homecoming dance, the Queen and her beau (who was also a homecoming prince) sat out most of the dances at her royal table. She wore a beautiful gown and he sported a handsome suit. We all did our best to ignore the still-visible reddish welt as we dropped by to offer her our congratulations and sympathetic smiles.
Bill is a Rugby native, graduating from RHS in 1966. His family operated the Gronvold Motor Company until 1968. He is a retired FAA air traffic controller and although he resides in Orlando, Florida, his heart will always be with the Heart of America.
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