All-Class School Reunion
RHS class of 1963
July 10, 2013
(latest revision, July 28, 2013)
|In addition to Rolfe memories, Helen writes about
teaching at Ordean Junior High in Duluth from 1967 to
1971. Many of her students went to East High School, and
its class of 1973 celebrated a 40-year reunion on July 19 and 20,
Click here to go to the beginning
of Helen's Duluth
celebrating its sesquicentennial this coming weekend. There is also the high
school’s all-class reunion on Saturday. And as a graduate of the class of
1963, this should be the closest thing my classmates and I will have to a
50th anniversary reunion.
My class has not had many reunions. We did meet after five years at the golf
course. The club house was more loosely managed at that time and had
unlocked coolers of beer. But our organizers were told that no one should
get into the beer. Well, boys will be boys. Our organizers were livid. We
may have had one other reunion for just our class, then were invited to at
least one reunion with the class of 1962. But otherwise, we simply have not
been a connecting class like others that come to mind–1928, 1955, and 1960.
This year, the older half of the classes will gather at the Community Center
on Main Street, while the younger half will be at the golf course.
The class of 1963 had originally been assigned to be with the older half,
but as more reservations were made, and the Community Center would have been
too crowded, the class of 1963 has been routed to the golf course. Instead
of my gathering with some favorite friends from older classes and my sister
Clara (1960) and brother Charles (1962), I will be with younger folks,
including sisters Martha (1966), Peggy (1969), and Louise (1973). I hope
those younger folks know how to keep the volume of music low enough so us
old timers can hear each other well enough to have good conversations.
I have mixed feelings but will go. Even though I have grown beyond
the town and rural culture of that county, they are part of who I am. I hope
there are some serendipitous moments but am afraid there will also be
elements of regression. We six Gunderson siblings have not been in the same
town since Dad died in Ames on July 1, 2010, in Ames and his memorial
service was in Rolfe on July 31. There are no plans for a family gathering
this coming weekend. But, of course, there is no way to avoid one another.
Reunions could be wonderful events–if people who attended were to talk even
a little in depth–to learn anew about who we are by sharing perspectives
with people who knew us in our developmental years. That could happen both
personally as well as culturally.
Consider the history of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas,
following the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954
that declared segregated schools were unconstitutional. When Central High
implemented its plan of integration in 1957, police and federal troops were
needed to escort Black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, to their
classes. If we had been there, would we have stood by these students, or
would we have been part of the white mob trying to prevent their inclusion
in the school? If we were alumni of Central High, would we talk about that
history at a reunion and admit the not-so-pleasant memories of our own roles
or attitudes in that era?
Consider the history of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066
in 1942 that enabled the government to exclude people of Japanese ancestry
from the Pacific coast and put some 110,000 people in “War Relocation
Camps.” The Supreme Court ruled in 1944 that the exclusion orders were
constitutional. If we were alumni of west coast schools and gathered for a
reunion, would we talk about those days in a way that could offer some
On this web site, I have written pieces that addressed gender issues and the
limited opportunities for girls in the Rolfe schools and community in my
developmental years. There were many issues, including–but certainly not
limited–to the fact that there were no sports opportunities for girls until
1959, and girls were either discouraged or prohibited from taking industrial
education or agricultural classes. The rumors in the 1950's had it that some
Iowa girl had been killed during a basketball game and strenuous sports
activity could be detrimental to a girl in later years–something about
inhibiting her ability as a grown woman to have children.
Rolfe probably would not have begun a girls basketball program in 1959 if
the school board had not been in discussions with the Des Moines Township
school to consolidate the two districts. DMT had a successful girls
basketball program. Even so, the newly-established Rolfe team, called the
Rammettes, won only a handful of games in its first four years, competing
with teams with successful traditions of girls basketball.
Conditions began to change slowly, evolving into what might be considered
epic successes. In 1968, the Rolfe girls won the state track meet, and in
1971, the Rammette basketball team won a berth in the state tournament.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX of the Education Amendments
(amending the Higher Education Act of 1965). Title IX is a federal law that
prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded
education program or activity. It was a tipping point that prompted many
school districts and colleges to change their ways and led to the kind of
opportunities that have become so prevalent women.
Consider decisions of the Supreme Court this past month (June 2013)
declaring the federal Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional and
setting the stage for same sex marriages in California to proceed. I wonder
if a person dare write a piece for this web site or ask questions at our
reunion about such issues as sexual orientation. Just how many people in our
midst during our school days thought of themselves as gay, lesbian, or
transgendered? How many people who have gone through the Rolfe schools have
evolved over the decades into considering themselves to be in those
categories? Will there be same sex couples at the reunion, and how well will
other alumni receive them? How comfortable will people be to talk about
their daughter who has married another woman or their son who is
transitioning to become a woman?
In my memories of Rolfe students or alumni, I recall only one couple that
appeared to be gay, and that was when those alumni were in their adult years. I have
reviewed home movies that Superintendent Ralph Mortensen shot in the 1950's
of Rolfe events. At the proms, boys did dance together in one scene of the
Bunny Hop, and two girls danced together to the side of the camera’s view in
a three-second scene. Otherwise, the dancing was traditional–boy and girl
Would there ever be a discussion about domestic violence at a Rolfe reunion?
Certainly, it had to exist in Rolfe since the town was in no microcosm
isolated from culture at large. When I lived in California, a friend asked
me about the book A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley about dysfunctional
rural life and a large, land-owing family in the Mason City area. "Helen,
was it (life) as bad as the book portrays." I said, no, that in some ways
the book exaggerated in order to bring home a point. I never knew a
patriarch and his daughters to have an outburst in public such as at
a ham and Jello, church dinner. I added that underneath the surface,
there was a lot of male dominance. I do not know specific examples of
domestic violence when I was growing up. But again, Rolfe was not isolated
from culture at large. I do know that men had much more influence than
women, and that my family was certainly a patriarchy.
I wonder about environmental issues. I recall a junior high science teacher,
Mr. Brockman, introducing the concept of erosion. I doubt we even knew the
term "environmentalism" then. Maybe no one used it. He also taught
vocational agriculture and may have been ahead of his times and sensitive to
environmental issues in ways that some people did not want to hear.
I wonder about the influence of the vocational agriculture programs. In
recent decades, I have seen some of the "factual films" of the 1940's and
50's produced by the government and industry about the value of commercial
fertilizers and agricultural chemicals. I gather that many vocational
agriculture instructors showed these films. Films such as Ethyl Corporation
promoting the use of commercial fertilizers or General Electric promoting
running water, and therefore, electricity on the farm.
I don't recall knowing about Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring until
I was in college. But even then, I did not understand it. When much older,
though, I read a book titled Beyond Silent Spring, written at least
10 years after Carson's work was published. I understood that book. Although
I was appalled about the misuse of the chemical DDT for agricultural and
other purposes, I was even more upset with how Carson was pooh-poohed. Even
by university officials. It is not a new phenomenon that the corporate world
has undue influence on universities, but things seem to have gone way too
far when one considers the influence that Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred
International, Farm Bureau, and other such giants currently wield.
I wonder if alumni gathering for a reunion would talk about the unwise–and
wise–influences of their ag teachers. Maybe I will speak with someone at the
reunion who remembers more about Mr. Brockman. Hopefully, he was not run out
of town or unduly pressured to change his message. And hopefully, he and
other vocational agriculture teachers were progressive and a good model to
Now that I think of it, I recall
Mr. Gray who taught agriculture in Rolfe in the early 1950s. He once
contacted me in my role as editor of this web site, and we had some
wonderful correspondence. I cannot recall the details, but it sounds
like as a teacher he was sensitive to environmental issues, and in
retirement, he volunteered long stints, living at and monitoring
national parks. Then there was Mr. Head, who came to Rolfe to teach
biology and coach girls basketball when I was a junior. Eventually, his
masters study focused on native flora and fauna. And many years later,
in the mid-1980s, Mr. Leibold taught agriculture, then began a career
with Iowa State University Extension. I met him in the 1990's when I
attended one of his workshops on farm management. I presumed he would
chide me and say that I should not take on the role of managing my own
land. But just the opposite. He encouraged me to manage my land and
mentored me for several years.
I seldom read the Pocahontas Record Democrat, but recently it published
a news release about my receiving an award from Practical Farmers of
Iowa, and a friend sent me a copy. The award is the first time the
organization has honored a non-operator land owner for his or her
advocacy of sustainable agriculture. In the same edition of the
newspaper, there was a front page article about officials from Pro
Cooperative (a network of farmer coops in Rolfe and surrounding towns)
visiting cattle-feeding lots in Mexico. The men went there to explore how
they could directly market corn from area farmers to the Mexican cattle
industry–places with many more thousand head of cattle per feed lot than
in America. Do these people who represent our farmers realize that even
the large cattle-feeding lots here in the United States are bad on the
environment, in general, and have a negative impact on the effectiveness
of antibiotics? I suspect the huge cattle lots in Mexico are even worse.
Cattle should not have a diet high in corn that necessitates high levels
of antibiotics. The misuse means there are fewer effective antibiotics
for legitimate human use. Why not, instead, have the cooperative take
the lead in finding alternative crops so that instead of most farmers
growing just two crops–corn and soybeans–there is more diversity?
There is much that could be discussed at a reunion that could give new
insights to what it was like to be part of our heritage, how we were
affected, and how we have already grown–or how we might yet grow. But I
suspect most people who go to a reunion are simply looking for a fun
party, reconnecting, hearing about careers and grandchildren, and seeing
how each other has aged. So it is perhaps naive to think those gathered
would discuss the kinds of issues I have presented. And besides, there
will be a lot of alumni at the reunion with many quick
conversations. However, I have occasionally gotten into a position of
waiting with another alum and engaged in a great conversation. And yet,
even with that rare kind of connection, soon there are other people in
the vicinity carrying conversation in a new direction. Some of the talk
is the retelling of old stories about how mischievous people had been as
students. Some is the recycled adulation of teachers–even ones that I
thought were not that great. Some is the disdain for teachers. Some
is about the trials and tribulations about people with health
problems. Occasionally, some is about understanding one another better.
For instance, I recall finding out why a classmate, Joe, had never gone
out for athletics. He grew up on a farm that was several miles from town
and was needed at home for chores. And perhaps it was at the last
reunion that I learned more about Richard whose mom had been a single
parent and beautician with her parlor directly across the street from
the school. It turns out that probably my most substantial and
meaningful reunion conversation was with him. He had seemed like a space
cadet in elementary school. I can recall the time he had not brought his
homework, using the excuse that his mother had locked
it in her safe. But in our reunion conversation, he seemed like one of
the more evolved alumni.
At our reunions, will we talk about what it was like for those with
disabilities? Karen had polio and stayed at home, but there was a
that linked the classroom and her home on a farm two miles from town so she could participate. Later,
she came to the Rolfe school in a wheelchair, and I recall her needing
to be carried up and down the flights of stairs. There was at least one
mentally challenged student. Linda was a sister and cousin to some of my
friends that I met when the Des Moines Township and Rolfe
schools joined together. So it was not as though we had all grown up
alongside each other, recognizing how to be as understanding and
supportive of special needs students as we could have been.
There are the issues related to that consolidation of schools. The
merger of the Rolfe and DMT schools seemed quite easy for me. But then,
I was not part of the smaller school that essentially was subsumed by
the larger school. On a few occasions, some people who had been students
at the township school have talked about–or at least alluded to–the
hardships they faced at that time. Eventually there was a similar
transition with Rolfe being the smaller district.
In 1990, the school held its last senior commencement services, and
Rolfe became part of the Pocahontas Area Community School District. The
town was then the home for the PAC Middle School and some elementary
school classes. However, by 2004, there would be no more classes at
Rolfe. The elementary students had already been bused to Pocahontas, and
damage to the section of the brick school building built in 1917 forced
the middle school to relocate to Pocahontas as well. That older part of
the building was razed in 2006.
What was it like for students who moved on their own into the Rolfe
district? How well did we, who had attended the Rolfe schools since
Kindergarten or elementary school, welcome the newcomers into our midst?
There were the twins, Dennis and Diane Callon, who joined my class in
seventh grade, after attending a one-room, country school west of Rolfe. There was Ken Carlson who
joined us in high school, moving to Rolfe with little advance notice
from his parents after what sounded like a
scary time in a New York City suburb. There was Diana Trimble who joined us
our senior year, moving to the Rolfe district from the little town of Plover that no
longer had a high school but sent its students to Havelock for classes.
Diana seemed to adjust well, becoming either
salutatorian or valedictorian and being elected as the homecoming queen.
I know that throughout my adult years, no matter how much I think I have
grown, going to a family gathering or school reunion has seemed like a
time of regression with people partially falling into old patterns,
scripts, and perceptions of each other. I certainly would like people to
understand how I have grown and appreciate some of the challenges that I
have had to overcome. But I am not sure that I am all that good at
viewing people fresh and giving them the benefit of the doubt. I recall
one student, a boy a couple years younger than I was, who was athletic
but also appeared to be egotistical and a jerk. I have heard he has had
a successful career as a school superintendent. Can I realize that who
we are in our youth does not limit who we become as adults?
There are times I wish I could give former teachers the benefit of the
doubt–to see the good in them rather than simply thinking ill of them. I
will not repeat some of the words I have used to describe a few of those
teachers. Many are long gone, and their perspectives
gone to the grave. I have written an essay about the truly unfair way in
which a sixth-grade physical education class was handled. The story goes
like this. Instead of Miss Corsair taking the entire class to the gym
for physical education as usual, the head high school basketball coach,
Mr. Nielsen, would come to the sixth grade room and take the boys to the
locker room, where they changed into white T-shirts, shorts, and
Converse shoes, then had a full lesson and workout in basketball. Oh,
and should I say, that Rolfe did not yet have sports opportunities for
girls? Miss Corsair would keep the girls in the classroom until there
were only 15 minutes left in the hour. She then led us to a side area of
the gym where we stood single file in our dresses and one-by-one shot
free throws. She said each basket counted for two points. I reminded her
that a free throw counted as one point. As I told her, while the girls
stood in line along the wall, to wait for the boys to finish dressing
and come from the locker room to join us to go back to the classroom, I
said something to the effect, "This is the worst PE program I have ever
seen." How did I know to say that? I really had never seen another "PE
Interestingly, in talking to my sister Clara, who is three years older
than me, she looks back on that era and has no rankles about gender
issues. She has had enough life experience in general and as a school
curriculum director that she realizes many of those past cultural biases
and practices were wrong, but she was not disturbed about them at the
time. Much of my angst went either into being obstreperous or
burying my true self and feelings.
A friend who teaches rhetoric at Iowa State University organized the
program presented at my church this morning. The service was similar to
a readers theater, presenting the words of leaders in the American
Revolution, the abolition movement, women's suffrage, and the African
American and Gay civil rights movements. I was impressed that these
leaders had a sense of right and wrong in an era when their views were
probably rebuffed by the majority of Americans. I wondered how they knew
what they knew, could be so articulate, and found the courage to speak
up in an era when their words may have risked their lives. I wondered
how some of them could have kept their equanimity and speak more about
love and non-violence than about hate.
I have done my share of speaking up about issues. At times, I have erred
on the side of ignorance or insensitivity. I have also gone along with
the popular current of thought than I perhaps should have.
Of course, it is difficult to go against
the current of society. And that is true of mundane fads as well as our
biases. Consider the era around the 1940's and 1950's when there was a
movement toward store bought, canned fruit and packaged, white, Colonial
bread. Students who brought their own lunch buckets to school with
homemade brown bread or canned goods were looked down on. But now, for
many people, eating locally-produced and homegrown food is in vogue.
Then there was the movement from butter to Oleo margarine. When Oleo first became available, the dairy industry
lobbied so that the new stuff could be sold only as an unappealing, white glob
in a plastic bag that came with a little
capsule of yellow food coloring that a homemaker would have to knead
into the white glob to make it look like real butter. In the 1980's, there was talk about margarine being
more healthy than butter with its animal fat and cholesterol. But nowadays,
those in the know say that we need to use butter and NOT margarine.
When my father and mother Deane and Marion Gunderson, sister
Clara, brother Charles, and I moved from Waterloo back to the Rolfe area
in 1945, there were at least 60 acres of uncultivated, prairie land in
the section where we lived. Interestingly, a photo and journal entry in
environmentalist Ada Hayden's archives shows that she knew about that
land in the late 1930s and even talked to my grandfather, John
Gunderson, about preserving the prairie. Grandpa was not interested.
Around 1946, my father (Rolfe High School class of 1935) tilled most
of the prairie, and his stories about that process are interesting. For
instance, when he drove the Farmall tractor to pull the moldboard plow
to cut the first furrow, he looked behind him–after he had gone a
ways–and saw that the heavy, rich sod with its tall vegetation had
flopped back into the furrow as if it had been untouched. Also, the
first year, he had an excellent crop with few weeds in that field.
However, the next season–after again tilling the ground and planting a
crop–he had a horrific number of weeds that grew from seeds that had
been buried when he plowed the first time. Of course, whether or not a
plant is considered a weed depends on the eye of the beholder. The
plants that he called weeds would most likely have been
native prairie plants.
Dad left two acres of the prairie untilled, and we referred to it as
"virgin land." Mother, especially, valued it. I did photography there.
But sometime in the 1980s, when the plot was getting weedy, Mother's and
Dad's tenant farmers, Dan and Roger, tilled the virgin land. I am not
sure Mother knew in advance of the decision. She was angry. It would have been so
easy, by the standards of today's environmental practices to have mowed
the prairie, spot-sprayed the thistles, and otherwise managed the space
to restore it to true prairieland. BTW, true prairieland is in vogue now
as compared the attitudes when farmers tilled up most of Iowa's prairie.
Indeed, people are realizing that prairie is as important as rain
forests in their bio-diversity.
So how is it with national values? In
1944, the Supreme Court upheld the president's executive order that
enabled the government to send Japanese people to internment camps. I
would think most people these days would see the error in that decision.
And there are other cultural shifts.
Watching the recent PBS video about the women's movement, I was in awe
that some of the leaders were so articulate, outspoken, and courageous
long before others, even myself, were concerned about the issues. I
particularly recall hearing Rita Mae Brown talk about the "woman
identified woman manifesto" and my asking a friend how it was that other
women could be so ahead of their times and saying how I had felt
disconnected from that movement. My friend glibly said something to the
effect that many of those women had grown up on the East Coast where
there was much more fomentation and organization related to women's
Of course, the Midwest can claim its share of leaders, including Carie
Chapman Catt, one of the leading suffragettes. And there is a book
The Prophetic Sisterhood about Unitarian women ministers of the
frontier from 1880-1930. The their network originated in Humboldt when
two women moved there–Mary Safford to be a minister and her partner from
childhood, Eleanor Gordon, to be the school superintendent. Their ideas
were as advanced–and accepted by their congregations–as the thoughts of
any East Coast leaders of the women's movement, then or later.
I have often wondered if Rolfe's Miss Edna Marcum, who was teacher and
principal from 1913 to 1966, or even my great grandmother, Dena
Gunderson, who was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union
which was aligned with the suffrage movement,
ever attended any of the programs offered by the women in the Prophetic
Sisterhood. Then I read in later chapters of the The Prophetic
Sisterhood that the
Presbyterian and other mainline congregations (Miss Marcum and Dena were
both Presbyterians) looked askance at the Unitarian teachings.
I must come back to that sixth grade physical education episode. I
wonder, in full fairness to Miss Corsair and Mr. Nielsen, if they knew
better than to discriminate against the girls but were caught up in the
biases of an era in which it would have been hard to do things
differently. Threatening, for instance to Miss Corsair's career, if she
had challenged the privileged treatment of the boys and limitations for
the girls. I have to admit, even though she was not my favorite teacher,
that she was probably a strong woman to be single and support herself as
a teacher. Yes, I wonder if she realized that episode was not fair but
that there was too much to risk in challenging it. I saw Mr. Nielsen at
the last all-school reunion. I wonder if he is still alive and might be
coming again. Turns out he had a lifelong career as an educator,
including being administer of a community college. What are his thoughts
in looking back at that era? How much has he evolved since then?
I do recall having Mr. Nielsen as my high school biology teacher. One
day, he got completely off topic and gave a little lecture. I don’t know
what was bugging him, but he told the girls who were into dating to take
care. He suggested that if they did decide to give into their boyfriends
and engage in sex, that the girls should have high standards–to demand
going to a nice motel or some other place and not simply have cheap sex
in the back of the car.
Teaching in Duluth
latest update July 22, 2013
to beginning of essay about reunions
I did some Internet surfing and found
out that a week after Rolfe's all-school reunion, the 1973 class
of East High School in Duluth, Minnesota, is having its 40th reunion.
Many from that class had been seventh graders when I began teaching
girls physical education at Ordean Junior High in 1967. I will not be
going to their reunion. But in some ways, I yearn to connect. To admit
how young and insensitive I may have been at the time–for instance when
Nancy's brother died or Carol had a leg amputated due to
cancer. Or even the ways in which I attempted to adopt some of the military-like disciplinary
style that Mr. Montague, the boys physical education teacher, used when
he called his students to attention for roll call. However, I must admit
that taking roll call in an efficient manner was tough. A physical
education class is not like a regular class room with assigned seats where
the teacher can easily record who is absent. And yes, I would
acknowledge that having separate boys and girls classes was becoming archaic. And
yes, I would admit that I was uncomfortable with the "package" of sex
education classes that the school required that the physical education
teachers offer. The school had no health courses. No part of the science
or social studies programs
dedicated to the topic. The package was offered when the students were
in eighth grade. On one day, the girls would gather in the
gym with the school nurse, a school counselor, and me (all women) to see
the film, "Girl to Woman." Then the that day and the next, we would
divide into three groups to discuss the film. Of course, the
boys met with three men and saw the film "Boy to Man."
I was nervous about my participation in
that class, partially because I was young, naive, with little to no sex
experience and had little to no training for leading such a class. But I
was concerned about the format. Even then, I was, can I say "appalled,"
that sex education was taught in such an isolated context. The whole
emphasis was on anatomy and physiology–on what people do with their
genitals and on reproduction.
No mention of the importance of
relationships and good communication. No mention of the need to put the
anatomical and physiological in the context of one's values. No mention
of how a young person could channel her feelings. No mention of the effect
of hormones on thoughts and behaviors. No discussion of the nature of
crushes and how to deal with them. No admonition to set boundaries
and neither exploit another person nor be exploited. No acknowledgement
of the pleasure of intimate relationships. I want to stand up
and shout that even then, I did not approve of the curriculum. But I
I think of the petition I wrote in seventh grade in the Rolfe schools. A
petition for us to be able to have girls basketball. I think of how we
eventually did have girls basketball, beginning when I was in 9th grade,
but with a team that lost most of its games. I recall how the Duluth
schools had few sports programs for girls when I began teaching there.
Perhaps the only offering was the annual, city-wide golf meet. I
did everything in my power to organize an extensive intramural program
for girls and inter-school competition, calling other
physical education teachers to organize basketball games, swim meets, or
a city-wide track meet held at the University of Minnesota-Duluth track.
Some of my most fun memories are from
of late afternoon events. There was the afternoon when some older girls
were playing the championship game of their volleyball tournament on one end of the gym, and
for a reason that I cannot remember, there were several seventh grade
girls on the other end of the gym. We decided to have a pickup
basketball game, but with unbalanced teams. I was on the team
short-handed either in terms of talent or numbers versus a full-fledged team. It was
an experience of pure play. I smile to think of the eagerness and
playfulness of those girls. I think of how I, at five-foot-nine-inches,
towered above them. I could hold the ball high over head with the
opponent players trying to grab it from me, then tossing the ball,
sometimes with a behind-the-back pass, to an open player on my team who
made the basket. Sometimes, I would simply stand and watch the girls
from both teams scramble after the ball. This was not a practice session
geared to achievement. This was basketball as a game–as spontaneous
play. Instruction in skills would come another day in class or when we
formed a team to compete against Woodland Junior High School.
It is also fun to recall the leadership
of many of the girls. Although I had worked had to establish a model for
our intramural tournaments, from an early age, there were girls such as
Myra and Jann who could take charge–setting up the equipment, getting
out whistles and scorecards, assigning teams to their courts, and write
a PA announcement to be left in the office to be read the next morning.. I delighted in their leadership abilities,
especially at such a
young age, and often wonder how their lives have evolved.
On another occasion, I organized an
afterschool, co-ed, square dance party in the ground floor social hall.
My predecessor, Miss Dressen, who had gone on to teach at East High but
mentored me, and Mr. Montague, the boys physical
education teacher at Ordean, had developed a co-ed dance program for the
ninth graders while Georgie was still at Ordean. So when I came to the
school, Mr. Montague and I continued that tradition. We offered two
weeks of square dance and two weeks of social dance. Looking for
something to add to the afterschool program, and having heard of a dance caller
who lived in the Lakeside area, I invited the man to call for the square
dance. The party was great fun. What was the most fun was that the
brought a groovy recording of "I love green onions" and taught us all the Patty
Cake Polka–a great mixer that I had never known of before. The students
loved the Patty Cake Polka. I knew the experience was a great
success when the students, on their own initiative, arranged to dance
the Patty Cake Polka with the green onion song at their ninth-grade
equivalent of a prom.
If I were able to write to some of my Ordean students or talk with them at a
reunion, I would hope they would appreciate being in touch with me. But
of course, some of them probably hold me in much disdain as I hold some
of my Rolfe teachers. I would hope they would realize my years in Duluth
(1967 to 1971) were developmental ones and forgive me and realize that I
am far different than I was then. BTW, I left Duluth to get a master's
degree in instructional media technology at the University of
Being in Duluth was certainly a different experience than being in Iowa.
I was a newcomer to a large school district, harsher winters,
steeper hills, hockey fervor, people of Finnish descent, and an economy that ebbed and flowed in
its vitality over the decades with timber and fur industries, then mining.
having a large, brown, Chevrolet station wagon with stick shift transmission. What a challenge on
icy days to drive up or down the steep streets.
And the coldest New Years eve nights that I have ever experienced were in Duluth.
Then there were the days when the
students and I would begin a physical education class on the Ordean
outdoor play fields that were only a few blocks away from Lake Superior.
The weather could be sunny and warm, but the wind would shift, bringing
colder weather from the lake and dropping the temperature 20 degrees in
a matter of minutes. The only thing to do was end our activity and have
the students run for the building to change clothes to go to their next
I loved much about the Duluth–living in a
basement studio apartment in a ranch style house
right on Lake Superior. It belonged to John and Pauline Swain. John a
retired physical educator and cross country coach from Central High
School. Pauline had grown up in Thompson, Iowa, some 40 miles from my hometown.
Lester Park, a public golf course, with its wild berries and animals and beautiful views of ore boats on the
lake; easy access to ski hills; and
being part of Lakeside Presbyterian Church with a progressive minister
named Roger Kunkel. I recall going to a new member meeting. The only
people there were Roger, the associate minister John Lindquist, and an elder. Roger
said that since I was already a Presbyterian, and there were no other potential new
members, we could all go home, and I could join the
congregation on Sunday–unless I had questions. I decided to ask
questions about the virgin birth and eternal
life that I had never before expressed. To this day, I often speak about
how much I appreciated Roger's calm and insightful answers.
I appreciated the eagerness and energy of the seventh grade girls. Yet,
I also recall how some of them were clueless in the first weeks of
classes when learning how to work the combinations for the locks
to their locker room baskets. Some of the girls and their parents would
complain about items being stolen. Most of the time, the girls had been
negligent by not locking their shoes,
uniforms, or other gear in their baskets.
I was not good at
keeping tight control of the small room where students would check out
swim suits and towels. And often, after a whirlwind day of several
classes using the locker room, I felt like a parent, cleaning up the
towels and other items strewn around the wildly-messy room.
The girls had only a 55-minute class
period to change clothes, report to class, participate in activity
for fewer than 30 minutes, and get back to the crowded locker room to
change clothes and be on time to their next class. And there was both a
gym and pool.
I shake my head at what a challenge it was for the girls
when they had to participate in a swimming class. Those were the days of
long, straight hair. It was a challenge to dry that hair with the few
hair dryers in the locker room, and many times, the girls moved to their
next classes with wet hair that did not look at all like they wanted.
Besides that, I was never good at watching the clock, and there were no
automated bells to let us know when it was time to wrap up a swimming or
other activity. I shake my head at the memories. Yes, many of the
girls loved to swim. But what a challenge to be a quick change artist.
No wonder some girls grow into womanhood with bad memories of physical
education. I did not like the constraints of those classes
Interestingly, Mr. Montague and the
administration showed no concern about the school not providing swim
suits for the boys and that the boys were required to swim in the nude for their swimming
I would often suggest to Mr. Montague
that we offer additional co-ed classes. As it was with teaching swimming
classes consisting of girls only, it was common for me to have 27 or
more students ranging in skills from non-swimmers to those who were on
the Northland Country Club team. I had no assistant but was responsible
for being towel and locker room supervisor, lifeguard, disciplinarian, and instructor. My logic was that
if we had co-ed courses, we could offer more variety. Mr. Montague
finally agreed to my teaching a junior lifesaving class for ninth
graders in the pool while he taught bowling for the ninth graders in the
gym. But it took him a long time to come to that conclusion. His
argument against going co-ed was that, because the school did not
provide swim suits for the boys, they would have to bring their own, and
then there would be a big hassle knowing what to do with all the wet
suits between classes.
It turns out that the ninth grade girls
insisted on some changes. The swim suits that the school provided were
one-piece, solid black, tank suits. The girls
did not want to wear that style in front of boys. So we allowed the
girls to bring more fashionable suits from home.
Another of my favorite memories is of a
student named John. He seemed to be a thoughtful young man but not keen
on school. However, I discovered that he was quite a swimmer and knew a
lot about snorkeling and SCUBA diving–areas that I knew little about. I
arranged for him to teach those lessons. The other students paid close
attention, and John was a patient and excellent teacher. He blossomed in
a way that he had not in other areas of school life. I was proud of him.
I was also proud that I had found a way for Ordean students to get their
Red Cross junior lifesaving certificates.
The junior high years were big in terms of
transitions for the girls. Many who were athletic and involved in sports
shifted their focus in about eighth, ninth, or tenth grades. Some opted
to be cheerleaders rather than participate in sports. Some simply quit
sports because there was still some stigma that being athletic meant
that a girl was not as feminine as she should be.
There was also chauvinism. Even though the Duluth
system was much more progressive than other schools I had known, and
even though there was much to be admired about the school and other teachers,
some of the men at Ordean Junior High some attitudes. The teachers'
lounges were segregated with the women’s on the third floor and the
men’s on the first floor. My office and the cafeteria were also on the
first floor. Women teachers could go through the food line, then eat in
the men’s lounge, but could be there only briefly. Soon, some of the men would point to
the clock and verbally nudge the women out of the room.
Although I now have a much greater
respect for labor unions than I did then, my memories are
negative about how some men commandeered that room. Many of them were union
leaders, and I believe they used their lounge–dare I call it a man
cave–to commiserate and plot. The men also had their swimming parties
(in the buff in the school pool) and softball games (with beer at each base) to which the women were not
invited. Admittedly, I knew of no other women faculty members who would
have appreciated a pool party or softball game.
The school district
hosted a golf tournament that was presumably for men only.
However, Carol Marshal was an extraordinarily gifted golfer. She was
perhaps 13 years older than me, had taught physical education, then
became a guidance counselor at Washington Junior High that fed Central
High School. I believe that after she retired from the school system, she
became a teaching pro with the LPGA. The men at either Washington or
Central, knew of Carol's talent and allowed her to be part of their
team. When I told Mr. Montague that Carol was going to be in the
tournament and I would like to be in the tournament, he said, "Helen,
you don't want to be like Carol, do you?" I am still not quite clear
what he was insinuating–probably something to the effect that women
should not come across as being aggressive nor ask for equal
In hindsight, Jim Montague's response regarding the golf
tournament is even more puzzling now than it was at the time as I piece
together the memories. Indeed, there were ways in which he was ahead of
the times. He and I were good friends and colleagues. We had coffee
together each morning. We
golfed together on many occasions. He even let me golf with him at
Northland Country Club across the street from Ordean. BTW, Northland had
rules restricting women from being on the course during certain hours on
weekends, while men had open access to the course.
Jim and I experimented
with offering co-ed dance, lifesaving, and bowling classes to the ninth
grade students at Ordean. He
was the swim coach for both boys and girls at Northland He
advocated to allow, Lisa, a standout diver on his team at Northland and
a student at Ordean, to enter the school
district's city-wide, boys swim meet. I was happy about his decision and
proud of Lisa. I also knew it was not an easy position for her. I sensed
that she felt stressed with all the hype and expectations of her. Lisa
the diving competition, and her picture with a caption was published in
Sports Illustrated in a section at the back about people in the news. At least a few
boys were angry. They said they were miffed, not because she won, but
because she got so much attention while, if a boy had won, he would not have
received any attention in the prestigious magazine for winning a junior
high meet. I could understand their rationale. And yet, I wondered if,
indeed, they were uncomfortable with a girl being better than the boys
but could not admit those feelings. I could also understand that kind of
Fortunately, as I look back on those
days, I realize there were a lot of men at Ordean who did not have
chauvinistic attitudes. I wonder what has become of some of them such as
It is interesting how the passing of time changes relationships.
Although those seventh-grade girls were 10 years younger than I was,
that is not a significant difference in age now. I have many friends who are in their late 50s as would be those girls.
What would it be like to connect as adults with our various
life experiences and the ways in which we have evolved since the late sixties?
What careers have some of my students carved out? What leadership roles
have they had? What achievements would they list? What have been the challenges in their lives? What can we
learn from each other?
One of my mistakes as a teacher was to see the students through a lens,
looking at them only as junior high students, not understanding the
longer perspective. Not understanding how life is a process, and people
are not defined by who they are as youth.
Eventually, I may need to write more about those Duluth years. But for
now, I guess the point is how much we are all connected as part of the
human race. It is fun to reminisce, meaningful to recall issues from the
past, and important to be gracious and allow that we are neither bronze
marble statues fixed into a certain personality or set of beliefs.
There have been leaders, even in our own histories. I think of Stu Webb,
popular hometown boy from the Rolfe class of 1949, whose parents, Jane
and Morris Webb, had the
Main Street drug store that had been in the Webb family since his
grandfather, Charlie Webb, founded it in 1889. Stu took over the pharmacy after
Morris died in 1958. But that
career did not fit Stu, and he began a journey. First to law school at
the University of Iowa, then 25 years of traditional and family law
practice in Minneapolis, where he also struggled with challenges in his
personal life. Then in the 1980s, he founded the collaborative law
movement. Part of Stu’s journey was to return to Rolfe to deliver the
commencement address in about 1966. He spoke about race, telling
graduates that although they may never have had much contact with
Blacks, they needed to prepare themselves for a future in which they
would be connected with Blacks. Stu did not return to his Alma Mater
with cute jokes or cliché advice. He spoke about issues that some
people, especially the adults, may not have wanted to hear.
I think of the junior high students in Duluth who protested the Vietnam
War. I regret I had my head in the sand and was not more aware of war issues or civil rights issues.
I also regret that I did not yet get it that the issues I was facing in sports were related
to women's issues and the women's movement as a whole.
May our reunions not simply be ones of shallow banter. On the other
hand, perhaps they are not times for deep rumination. But they could be
times for looking at small ways in which people were leaders in ways
that were not always popular. Times for seeing excellent character in
the people of our history–of our culture.
Although not totally relevant, I think of these words from a letter that
modern dance leader Martha Graham wrote to one of her students Agnes
DeMille who became a successful choreographer for such plays as
is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that
is translated through you into action, and because there is
only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And
if you block it, it will never exist through any other
medium and will be lost. The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is; not how
valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly,
to keep the channel open.
Graham to Agnes deMille
And here is another of my favorite
are all longing to go home to someplace we have never been,
a place half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only
catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere
there are people to whom we can speak with passion without
having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of
hands will open to receive us. Eyes will light up as we
enter. Voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into
our own power. Community means strength that joins our
strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold
us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends.
Someplace where we can be free.
Starhawk's Dreaming the Dark
Perhaps the key to a reunion is to go,
letting go of any notion of being in control. Allowing for serendipity.
Being centered. Being willing to listen. Being willing to grow some
more. Acknowledging that life is one long journey, and that we are still
in our developmental years.
And hopefully, there will be great conversations and not people simply
pushing their Smart Phones in front of other peoples’ faces. Things have