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High School Reunions

Helen D. Gunderson
Gilbert, Iowa
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Rolfe High School Class of 1963 and RHS Web Site Editor

This essay was originally written in 2000 as an introductory chapter for the book Rolfe High School Alumni Perspectives that Helen edited and published.

 
I went to my first RHS all-class reunion in 1955 when I was 10. My mother (Marion Gunderson) was in her home state of Utah with my older sister Clara. My father (Deane Gunderson, class of 1935) was in charge at home and also on the reunion committee. Subsequently, he took my brother Charles and me to the event where former Superintendent M.D. Anderson was the honored guest. Superintendent Anderson had been at Rolfe in the 1930s and 1940s and was a favorite of many students. To sit at one end of the long head table in the new gym and observe people was awesome. I was a prepubescent kid seeing old-timers having fun and reminiscing.

Who would have guessed that those adults of my dad's generation had been involved in antics when they were young? But I heard M.D. tell tales about his former students and their adolescent behavior. And who among us when we were in elementary school would have guessed that we would become old-timers? Dad was a mere 37 in 1955, and now, at 55, I am much older than he was then.

I've been to many class and all-class reunions since 1955; some were meaningful and some not. One interesting element was the tradition of talks given by representatives of each decade. Some speakers were great; others were not. However, there were a few speakers everyone seemed to enjoy such as LeRoy Nelson (class of 1927). He's the old-time horseman who helped Dad find two horses (a bay and a black-and-white spotted one) for $50 apiece for our family for Christmas in 1954. I asked LeRoy if he would write an essay. The sad news is that he's slowed down and having trouble with his eyes. The good news is that he is as gracious and fun as ever and that his daughter Mary Le agreed to work with him to put his thoughts on paper.

I called Marie Budolfson (class of 1928), a retired Iowa State professor, to ask if she would write an essay. Marie chortled some thing to the effect, "my goodness girl, I'm too far gone for that." Within months, she died.

Not only Dad, but my grandmother and great aunts and uncles went to Rolfe High School. So for me, part of the beauty of going to the all-class events has been seeing people who knew my ancestors or were older, esteemed members of the community when I was a child. Part of the beauty has been seeing people who were larger-than-life high school students when I was in grade school, including my favorite baby-sitter, Joy Wilcox, or minister's son, John Prehn. I am sure there have been many other interesting convergences of people at Rolfe's all-class reunions. Essentially, the events are gatherings of the clan, something communities need.

The Rolfe alumni web site is a new way for the clan to connect, building on the tradition of our all-class reunions by utilizing cyber technology. From the first planning phases, we wanted people to submit essays that would reflect many perspectives. Later, we decided it would also be good to publish a book. It will be interesting to see what connections emerge as the book is distributed among RHS graduates and friends.

By the way, Dad was involved with Rolfe's Y2K reunion committee, not actually serving on it, but chasing down addresses of alumni. He made it his mission. And he was one of the hosts this summer for the afternoon gathering of alumni from the 1920s to 1940s.

The committee met on Saturday mornings at the Country Side Cafe in Rolfe. I would be up from Gilbert, half asleep after the two hour drive and eating scrambled eggs and toast. As we sat around the table and talked, Dad would amble in to get a cup of coffee and read the Ft. Dodge Messenger, especially the obituary and sports sections. Each time he arrived at the cafe, he seemed surprised to see us all there and would simply say "hello" and take his own table. However, each time someone from the committee would ask him if he would help with the reunion, and his answer was always, "sure I will." His willingness to help is part of the RHS spirit.

I recall that John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed in a plane crash in July 1999 on the weekend of our second alumni committee meeting. It was a shock to learn that another member of the Camelot family was gone, reminding us of the passage of time. His father, John F. Kennedy Sr., was shot in the fall of 1963 on my first day home for quarter break from Iowa State. He was a vigorous, young president. He didn't wear hats, even in winter weather. He went on 50-mile walks and encouraged the nation to be physically fit. Father and son are gone, and so is JFK's wife Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (later Jacqueline Onassis), whose tastes in fashion and strength of character inspired many women. Gone also is much of our idealism of the 1950s and 1960s. We have lost people to death who were closer to us than the celebrated Kennedy clan. We have also been separated from friends due to disagreement, disinterest, or simply the passage of time. And we have lost years from our lives and are confronted with aging.

Following our meeting, I stopped to visit my parents at their farm. That's when I heard the news that JFK Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, were missing and that prospects for their survival were not good. It's also when I noticed Dad's rough hand-writing on the back of a white Rolfe State Bank counter check sitting in a pile of notes on the kitchen table. He had scrawled the simple statistics that only three men from his class of 1935 were still alive and that he was the only one not in a nursing home. I could tell Dad had been thinking about the reunion and what it meant even though he wasn't officially on the committee.

The Y2K Reunion
I thoroughly enjoyed the 2000 all-class reunion and Greater Rolfe Days events held the same July weekend. More than 500 people pre-registered, but no one on the committee seems to know how many people actually showed up. However, plenty of people were in town for the event, and my sense is that most people had a good time.

The day was one of the most humid of the summer; the thermometer registered 91 degrees, and the heat index was calculated to be 102 degrees. The folks from the 1930s and 40s were lucky to be in air-conditioning at the golf course. The younger grads from the 1970s and 80s were lucky to have a cool breeze coming off the Sunset Ridge pond. Those of us from the 1950s and 1960s got a taste of what Hell must be like at the Lutheran Church because it did not have air-conditioning. But the conditions didn't keep us from having a good time talking, watching the Mortensen films, eating and doing whatever else alumni do at reunions.

The earliest class represented was the class of 1925 with Everett Smith, age 91, from Reading, Pennsylvania. He was escorted by his niece, Marilyn Reagan Hinners (class of 1946), from Dakota City and his nephew, James Smith, from Oregon. The three spent time visiting the cemetery, driving around Rolfe, and remembering old times. Everett was disappointed, saying that although people were friendly, the reunion wasn't "well-handled" and he couldn't find anyone he knew to talk with except his escorts. He probably won't attend another reunion but may visit the area again. His brothers and sisters and parents are all buried in the Rolfe cemetery. Everett's first wife, Ann Rietz Smith from Rowan, Iowa, is also deceased; however, he recently married a 91-year-old woman, Gladys Kelly Smith, he met in his retirement community.

As a teenager, Everett worked at Bobby Hunter's creamery, where farmers would bring sour cream on Saturday nights in 10-gallon cans. Everett would take a sample, put acid in it, and run the mixture through a centrifugal force device, then take a reading of the butterfat content. The higher the percent, the more Bobby paid the farmer.

When I asked Everett how he chose a career in business administration, he said perspectives can be limited in a small town and that as a young person, he thought an engineer was the person who ran a locomotive. He didn't want to do that but was interested in business, and Miss Marcum, the principal, told him he ought to go into the field because he was good at mathematics and English. After majoring in business at the State University of Iowa, he worked for Western Electric, then AT&T and Lucent, which evolved from Western Electric.

When I asked about his childhood, Everett said his family would be considered poor by today's standards, but that the era was a pleas ant one. They had no indoor toilets nor electricity and used kerosene lamps. His mother washed clothes manually and hung the laundry outdoors to dry on Mondays. The meals were cooked on a stove fueled mainly by corncobs. Everett didn't mind that he had neither a bicycle nor roller skates. Instead, he and his friends went barefoot a lot, walked the railroad tracks, and swam in the creek, where they found a bend that had water deep enough in which to dog paddle. They also played horseshoes at a pit in his driveway and another on the corner of Main and Elm streets. There was also baseball in the empty lot near his home on Elm and golf at a small nine-hole course he built in his back yard. He crafted his only golf club out of a broomstick.

The oldest alum at the reunion was Ruth May (Dickey) Wood (class of 1926), who was married to Bloy Wood who died in 1992. Ruth was escorted by daughter Barb Wood Visner (class of 1960), Barb's husband, Norman, and their daughter, Linda. In the afternoon, Ruth (age 94) and Linda (age 35) went to the gathering at the golf course while Barb and Norman were at the Lutheran Church. Then in the evening, they all went to the program at the gym. Barb said her mom liked talking to the people she knew and really enjoyed the nostalgic songs the chorus sang. Ruth lives in Humboldt, Barb and Norman in Hudson, Wisconsin, and Linda in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Greater Rolfe Days parade in the morning was super, having a good-sized crowd and plenty of entries. I felt a touch of nostalgia when the middle school band marched down Main Street. The musicians were only in the seventh and eighth grades, but looked and sounded as good as any RHS band that I recall. It's great to know the tradition of a marching band continues in Rolfe, even though the town has not had a Homecoming parade since the late 1980s when the school merged with Pocahontas. In many ways, the Greater Rolfe Days parade on an all-class reunion weekend provided an atmosphere similar to the Homecoming parades. Thanks go to Roland Jensen, the director, and middle school musicians.

And talking about music, the community chorus directed by area farmer John Nielson, performed superbly Saturday evening to cap off the reunion. Actually, there was more activity after people left the gym and its sweltering heat. Who knows how many private gatherings were held? I know that my sister Clara's class of 1960 pulled up their covered wagons (well that's not exactly what they did, but something like that) at the home of Ken and Barb Bennett. Barb is the sister of Clara's classmate Judy Wagner. Fourteen of the 21 graduates of the class of 1961 were in town and had access to Julie Bielefeldt's dad's apartment. Pete was living at a hospice home in Humboldt, and Julie was waiting to close out his apartment until after she hosted her classmates. I was pleasantly surprised that eight of the 36 graduates from my class of 1963 were at the reunion. During the weekend, I saw other classmates at the parade, the social hour that night at the golf course, and at the Lion's Club pancake feed at the fire station on Sunday morning. It was a full weekend with lots of opportunity to talk with people. I heard there was even a rowdy gathering at Garland Smith's broiler cafe and bar, complete with a Karaoke machine and plenty of singing.

It was neat to meet people at the reunion whom I had met only in cyberspace prior to the weekend. Some of those were Fran Chambers Measom (1946, from Jackson, Wyoming), Betty Sinek Sandvig (1948, from Iowa City), and Bill McIntire (1936, from Denver, Colorado). All had written essays. There were also other people at the reunion who had contributed to the writing project. I wish I had more time to talk with them. There should have been a chance to introduce and applaud the essay writers during the reunion, but heck, nobody paid any attention to the emcee at the evening program anyway. People sat quietly for the medley sung by the chorus, but otherwise, they weren't content to sit quietly in the heat of the gym and be unable to talk to friends.

Postlude to a Reunion
I was in Rolfe Sunday afternoon after showing some people my prairie restoration project and was there again on Monday to load up my exhibit materials from the school. There definitely was a change in the ambience around Rolfe. It is amazing the buzz of activity that an all-class reunion brings to town and how fast that buzz can dissipate when people head home.

The reunion was real and unreal. It allowed a bit of fantasy or perhaps time travel such as in science fiction. Once the reunion was over and the Greater Rolfe Days events concluded, the Rolfe residents would go about their regular lives. The rest of us who came and participated in a wonderful weekend in what we call our "home town" have returned to places all over the map, many far removed from Rolfe.

How does one define a reunion? Perhaps one doesn't. It might be said that you had to be there to experience it and that the definition of the event is in the eye of the beholder.

It is interesting that although there was a beehive of activity on Main Street, it probably was not as great as the Saturday night activity in the years when I was young or even before (say the 1920s to 1950s). In those days, people went to town early just to get a good parking place where they could sit and watch or talk to people. The reunion brought to town some of that old-fashioned kind of socializing - the gathering and lingering of people up town. But the truth of the matter is that when the reunion ends, the party ends. Ordinary life sets in again, and Main Street is pretty much deserted on Saturday nights except for a few people gathered at the Pronto convenience store to buy gas, cigarettes, or lottery tickets.

Spirit of the Clan
Recently I was talking with Mary Ann Brinkman Clinton (class of 1965) who lives in Edina, Minnesota. We agreed that reunions make for a bittersweet time. There is the joy and excitement of seeing people with whom we went to school but also the knowledge of how brief of time we are together at a reunion and how little we visit in depth. There is also the recognition of how much the town has changed and the acknowledgment of losses in our lives.

Mary Ann's father, Bill Brinkman (class of 1934), who had been the Chevrolet dealer in town, was in the Rolfe Care Center for several years following a stroke before dying this summer. Her mother, Dorothy, had also suffered a stroke and is in the Care Center. Mary Ann says that coming back to Rolfe has not been the same since her parents became ill. Up to that time, Bill and Dorothy still lived in the home where Mary Ann grew up on Garfield Street (otherwise known as Main Street), which is the same street as Highway 15 running through town. She says when she used to come into town on that highway, her folks were always at the kitchen window, looking out and awaiting her arrival. Now the house is uninhabited, but the family still owns it. Mary Ann explained that for holidays in recent years, she would pack four coolers of food, her husband, three children and their golden retriever named Rosie in their Chevrolet Suburban and drive to Rolfe. Her only sibling, John (class of 1970), who lives in St. Louis, would bring his share of the food, his wife, three children, and their black Labrador named Lucy in his Chevy van. That way, the family, including Bill and Dorothy on leave from the Care Center, could be together at their Rolfe home. The tradition was turkey for Thanksgiving, prime rib for Christmas, and ham for Easter. There were also all the "fixings" and a wide selection of pies for each meal. Mary Ann also talked about how her perspective of Rolfe has changed even more since losing her dad. I replied that Rolfe would not be the same for me when my parents move off the farm where they have lived since 1945 or when they die.

Mary Ann and I also talked about how good the people of Rolfe have been to our parents. There is a clan spirit. Admittedly, not everyone knows each other well, even if Rolfe is a small town, but there is a sense of support for our elders that would not be as available if they had moved to a larger city when they were in their 70s or 80s. It is impossible to name all the people and their gracious deeds; however, the list includes: the farm tenant who bakes coconut creme pie for my mom's birthday; the other tenant who takes Dad fishing at the quarry near Gilmore City; the hairdresser who came to the farm to work on Mother's hair when she was recovering from surgery and the people who delivered meals to my parents during that time; the couple who keep a protective eye on the vacant Brinkman home; the staff members from the bank who go to the homes of housebound people to help organize their personal bookkeeping; the people who call on the residents at the Rolfe Care Center as well as the staff who work there; the people during the past few decades who have organized hospice programs in the area; and finally, the women who serve the lunches (ham or Maidrite sandwiches, Jello salad, cake and coffee) in the church dining rooms after funeral services.

These and other caregivers are quiet, unassuming, and view each act simply as something that needs to be done. Some of these unsung heroes are relatively new to the Rolfe area, while others have been around for many generations. Some are alumni of Rolfe High School; some are not. In either case, they are part of the clan that lives in Rolfe and makes it a community long after others have come home for a school reunion and then departed again.

Many Rolfe graduates realize that Rolfe is not the best place for us to live; however, we know we are connected to each other and the spirit of the Rolfe clan through our connection to Rolfe High School. Although we would not chose to live in Rolfe again, we appreciate the people who in quiet ways, far from the limelight, make Rolfe a better place to live. Those people are the ones who keep the home fires burning. If it were not for them, our Rolfe High School all-class reunions would not be as meaningful as they have been.

May we who live afar from Rolfe keep in touch with the clan via visits, correspondence, phone calls, attendance at reunions, and the Internet. May we also find a true sense of community in the places we now inhabit. Change is part of life, and a person cannot truly go home again. None of the places where we live are like Rolfe of yesteryear. The town itself has changed, and we have changed, and many of the places where we have chosen to live, such as cities, have always been very different than the Rolfe experience. Reunions are one way of connecting. I am thankful to the committees and workers who made the Rolfe High School all-class reunions a place of contact. The next reunion will be in 2005. I hope there is another migration of people to Rolfe and a buzz of activity on Main Street and at the reunion events.

I also look forward to seeing what the future holds for this book and the web site. It is my sincere hope that many people participate and that the web site has a long and meaningful life. That is also my wish for you that you have long and meaningful lives.

We know that none of us lives forever and that the issue of health in the new millennium is a complex one. Mary Ann and I talked about an alumnus who is our age and having chemotherapy for cancer that began this summer and spread fast this fall. The news of his illness is a reminder that we are vulnerable to sickness, aging, other challenging transitions, and the ultimate of life's passages death and that life is fragile and that we all need support.

It's not easy to know how to deal with illness in this era of sophisticated medical technology nor is it easy to know how to care for the elderly, especially when they live at a distance from us. Although Rolfe is not perfect nor ever has been, the town has some good elements of community well-being that need to be infused into the situations where we find ourselves today. We are the carriers of the small-town spirit. The challenge is to blend the wisdom from that one part of the world with what we have learned in our years of maturation following high school and from people who come from clans vastly different than those of us reared in rural Iowa.

In this era, there is a great sense of alienation in our society a topic that seldom surfaces at school reunions. Instead, there is a coziness when we are gathered with classmates and other members of our clan. For instance, this summer, I found myself feeling quite kindly toward people I met at the reunion even though some were not my favorite people in school. But after the coziness of the reunion weekend, the clan that gathered disperses again.

Life is a journey a migration with joys and challenges. In facing those challenges, may we be part of the reciprocal process of building community and accepting care. Our participation in giving and receiving is one key to feeling at home in the world. And when we feel at home, we get a glimpse of the interconnectedness of life.

The Internet and World Wide Web are novel and have unimaginable potential for connecting people, but their value pales compared to the web of humanity and creation as a whole. Admittedly, it is neat to have cyber technology and the avenues of communication it provides, but we still need to work on traditional ways of relating to fellow travelers. The Internet enables us to connect globally, but school reunions allow us to meet locally, face-to-face with handshakes and hugs, and with clusters of people sharing stories and chuckling at memories. And besides, there is the chance to see which classmates look older or younger than ourselves. Even if the day or the weekend in Rolfe flies by too fast, here's to the next gathering of the RHS clan in 2005.

 

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