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1966: Graduation night

By Staff | Jul 1, 2016

When Ashley Burkhartsmeier asked me to write something to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Class of 1966, I,being a good procrastinator, immediately put the idea aside in favor of more pressing matters, if one can have pressing matters at age 68. That’s how old most of the Class of ’66 are now. Statistically we’ve already lived 75% of our allotted years and had 77% of ’em ahead of us on Graduation Night.

I suppose I began to put this column on the front burner when Ashley Burkhartsmeier became Ashley Berg. Just thinking about that gave me goosebumps down my neck. Then I read that a new bank was opening in Rugby and that Lila Harstad had put KKWZ-FM on the air. The community is growing and there are new people living in the area who have non-Scandinavian or German names and it’s a whole new millennium.

My memories of graduation night on Friday, May 27, 1966 are dimmed by time, so bear with me as I travel back a half-century and try to dredge up what little I can remember: At 6:27 p.m. I drove to the Rugby Armory, arriving at 6:31 due to heavier-than-normal traffic. I joined 80 other seniors and we donned green robes with matching mortar boards that had a gold tassel. The Armory stage had been prepared with a white backdrop on which were large letters that said, “NOT THE SUNSET BUT THE DAWN,” which was our class motto. Earlier in the day, some miscreants had flipped the “W” in “DAWN” to make the word “DAMN”, but it had been corrected by game time.

Don Gaetz had suggested either “He Conquers Who Endures” or “Watchtowers on the Wall of Freedom” as alternative mottos, but our class advisors put the kibosh on them. To paraphrase the late President Gerald Ford: “Our long educational nightmare was over”.

Not that our education itself was a nightmare, far from it. Each one of us could read and write and balance a checkbook. Those of us who went on to college didn’t have to take remedial classes. The 12 years of discipline that we endured served those of us well who served in the military. We knew stuff and could spell good.

There were a few of us who had percolated up through the public schools together all twelve years: Myself, Bill Bednarz, Don Gaetz, Karen Johnson, Daryl Jelsing, Kent Kjelstrom, Francis Kring, Sandra Miller, Tom Lavik, Dale Nelson, Van Nelson, Karen Odden, Richard Olson, Eunice Orth, Judy Rhine, Carol Sattler, Dick Sawaya, Linda Shjerve, Diane Stempson, Judy Thompson, Christie Tilman, Sharon Torgerson, Louise Van Sweringen and Gary Wurgler, to name a few.

We added a number of classmates in the 5th grade in 1958 when the rural schools began consolidating and the so-called “country kids” began being bused in for school. Their numbers swelled as more and more schools closed, but it was in 9th grade that our ranks were bolstered with more great kids from Little Flower and the rural communities. There is something wonderful about learning that people who lived in another part of town or in rural Pierce County and who attended other schools could become some of our best friends. We welcomed them and the kids from Orrin, Balta, Silva, Barton, Hong, Fero and Pleasant Lake.

All 81 of us were ready by 6:56 p.m. as our families and friends sat on folding metal chairs on the Armory’s hallowed linoleum-over-concrete basketball court. Eunice Orth’s father had passed away just weeks before and my father was recovering from a March coronary. He was still weak, but insisted on attending.

At 7:02 p.m. we all marched into the gymnasium and took our seats. I sat on the stage along with fellow honor students Judy Zacher, Peggy Jordan, Tom Teigen, Sheila R. Axtman, Mary Ann Schaan, Greg Carlile, Clinton Carlson (salutatorian) and Connie Fjellanger (valedictorian). Connie and Clint each had to give a short speech to the hundreds assembled and they did well. Normally they were both quiet and somewhat shy and that night their words were well-chosen and well-received.

Our commencement speaker was Mr. H. J. Snortland, an official with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. He wore a dark brown suit. He also wore a pink rose on his lapel, as did we graduates. I don’t recall exactly what he said, but from the notes that my friend Delby Hager took I think he gave what is known as a “boilerplate high school graduation speech”.

After Mr. Snortland’s address, diplomas were dispensed. First -year principal Harland Larson’s unique pronunciation of many of our surnames brought loud chuckles and guffaws from what was becoming a rowdy crowd of cap-and-gowned short-timers.

Our senior year had started in the fall of 1965 with a new principal, a new superintendent of schools, A.C. Hendrickson, and at least half of the faculty was new. It was a year of adjustment for us all and we were still adjusting that night as the final diploma was delivered to Joe Ziegler.

There was special recognition for our foreign exchange student from Argentina, Bibiana Ponce de Leon, who stayed with the Jimmy Moffatt family. She had done really well to blend in with us Norteamericanos and was very popular.

By 8:21 p.m., to paraphrase the late Howard Cosell, “It was over, it was over, it was all over”. Our 12-year fight was over and we flipped our tassels 90 degrees to make it official. The weather was pleasant and we formed a receiving line on the sidewalk in front of the Armory and shook hands with everyone, including my Dad who was running on fumes by that time, but shaking everyone’s hand and beaming from ear-to-ear.

Some of us lit up a cigar and brazenly puffed away in full view of everyone. That was the extent of our shenanigans for the night, as we were too pooped to pop. It was like waking up and still dreaming. I’m thankful to all who taught us, guided us, disciplined us, cheered us, advised us, let us confide in them and gave us a great foundation of learning that I’m still using today (even if it doesn’t show).

Bill Gronvold graduated with the RHS Class of ’66, but just barely.

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