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Students at Paul Bunyan Elementary School celebrate the 75th birthday of the Paul Bunyan statue in Bemidji Friday by singing songs, telling tall tales and getting dressed up in folklore apparel. Paul Bunyan also made a special appearance at the school. Anne Williams | Bemidji Pioneer

Students throw party for Paul Bunyan

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Students at Paul Bunyan Elementary School received a visit from a legendary character they've heard about all year long.

Paul Bunyan, played by former Bemidji State University basketball coach Karl Salscheider, was thrown a birthday party Friday afternoon by pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students and their teachers.

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This was the first time in nearly a decade the larger-than-life woodsman made an appearance at the school. From the early 1980s until nine years ago, Paul Bunyan visited the school every January in honor of his birthday.

Now, as Bemidji celebrates the 75th birthday of Bemidji's Paul Bunyan statue, Paul Bunyan returned and the school celebrated its namesake once again.

As for Paul Bunyan's noble sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox, Paul did not have to look far. Dozens of students came to the birthday event wearing blue hats with white horns attached to them. Other students dressed for the occasion by wearing plaid.

Students listened as Paul Bunyan told tales of water skiing on tree logs and making lakes with his huge feet. Some student gasped in awe when Paul showed off his oversized wallet, belt and Lake Superior agate ring.

Salscheider, who says he is 6 feet, 8 inches tall and wears size 15 boots, said playing Paul Bunyan is a special occasion for him.

"I'm a regular person for 364 days of the year," he said. "On this day children look up at me and I'm idolized. It's just a lot of fun,"

He said he remembers being asked by school district staff to play the part in the early 1990s.

"I was a tall guy and they said I'd make a good Paul Bunyan," he said.

Paul Bunyan Elementary teacher Teresa Kuleta helped coordinate this year's Paul Bunyan birthday party. She was a teacher at the school in the 1980s when the tradition of bringing Paul Bunyan to school first began.

Kuleta said this year's event looked a little different than what past traditions were like, but what hasn't changed is students' familiarity with the legend, she said.

"For our kids in this community, Paul Bunyan is big," she said. "He's on street signs. Some students' parents work for companies named after him and many students like the outdoors like Paul."

Kuleta said throughout the week, teachers tried to integrate Paul Bunyan themes into everyday curricula, such as math and language arts. One class, she said, made 75 candles, which Kuleta said can be a high number to count for young students.

"Teachers helped to make the special lessons more academically challenging, but something that is fun and enjoyable," she said.

Each of the seven classes of students at the school made a book titled "Tall Tales of Paul Bunyan Elementary," which their teachers read to Paul while he was at the school.

In return, Paul treated each classroom with a giant cookie the students all shared.

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