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GENERATIONS: Sue Bruns: Former Lumberjacks enjoy camaraderie 65 years after graduating

Bemidji High School graduates from the 1950s get together at Giovanni's Pizza. (Gary Rozman | Special to the Pioneer)

When I arrive at Giovanni’s, six members of the monthly get-together of Bemidji High School’s graduating class of 1954 have already arrived and are checking out the menu.

I don’t know any of them, but I introduce myself and tell them I’ve come to crash their party.  They’re a very agreeable bunch and invite me in. Within minutes, I have my laptop propped on top of a table, and the size of the gathering doubles with the arrival of more guests.

Not everyone here graduated in 1954. Some married graduates, some graduated in 1955, and Bev Knutson, in 1957. The 1955 graduates gather here monthly, too, and 1957 graduates meet monthly at Raphael’s.

Many have lived in the area most of their lives. A few moved here as children, born in Iowa or North Dakota. Their life experiences are varied: logger, farmer, cook. They chatter away about their families, their hobbies, activities, volunteer work, and jobs -- not everyone is fully retired.

Wendell Knutson works for Olson-Schwartz after many years of working for Culligan. His wife Bev still cooks at Buena Vista.

Some, like Janet Larson, enjoy travel. “She lived in a motorhome for several years and spent winters in Texas,” a classmate tells me. Alvin and Beverly Burnham are looking forward to a trip to North Carolina to visit their grandson. Bev Knutson says she doesn’t like to fly.

I’m here to listen and learn but occasionally join in on the conversation. Bruce Olson and I discover we are practically neighbors. “When are they going to fix our road?” he asks, and we lament about the Beltrami County Line Road needing more than patching. I learn that Joan Bakke is another neighbor I’ve never met, although I’ve seen the “Bakke” name by a mailbox down the road. I discover that Beverly sings with the First City Singers and Pat (Rearick) Moen still loves to dance.

The energy of the group is contagious as is their positive nature. When the food arrives, I sip my Coke and just try to record whatever bits of conversations I can get -- about people, health issues, medications, weight gain, the daily news, technology.

“Where’s Skeeter? I thought he was coming.”

“He had an appointment, but he’ll probably be here.”

“Say, did anyone see that story on CBS News…?”

“You know you’re getting old when your kids are on Social Security!”

“I remember our first ‘remote’ control. It was connected by a cord to the TV.”

“Yeah, and the TV probably only got two channels.”

“And they were both snowy!” (There is laughter here, as everyone can relate to this.)

“My wife thinks I can’t hear,” someone says.

That spurs several comments: “Well, you can’t!” or “It’s selective!” or “After raising five kids, I only hear what I want to hear!”

Pat Moen has brought along pictures from all of the class reunions. The 10-year reunion pic is passed around the table. When it gets to Bruce, he tries to find himself. “Oh, there I am!” he says. “I had dark hair then … and a lot of it!”

“Were you friends with all these people back in high school?” I ask him.

“All the girls!” he says. “I was the smartest one in the dumb class -- or was it the dumbest one in the smart class?”

Conversation moves to grade school. Many of the people around the table attended one-room school houses. Schummer School is mentioned (it is at Camp Thunderbird now), and Edgewood school in Becida, which has been converted into a house. Wendell attended Austin school near Puposky. “My eighth-grade teacher had a seventh-grade education!” he recalls. Alumni of the Carr Lake School and Lincoln Elementary in Nymore chime in.

Bus transportation only extended so far, so for some students, starting high school in Bemidji meant moving to town to stay with relatives. Wendell remembers the transition to high school: “We didn’t know what a home room was, or a cafeteria, or a locker, or how to use a combination lock.”

Paging through the 1954 Lumberjack yearbook spurs comments and memories.

“Remember Mr. Witt?” (Ray Witt was principal of the high school at that time.)  

“Remember Mr. Matuseski? He was so tall he took out the front seat of his Studebaker and sat in the back seat to drive!”

Bruce comments about how good the teachers all looked back in 1954 -- teachers who were, no doubt, “old” when the class of 1954 were teenagers but who are much younger now in the black and white photos of the yearbook.  

Before everyone leaves, Wendell tells a joke about Ole, Sven, and Lars going to heaven and another about a guy riding a bucking bronco. He uses Leigh Waughtal’s name to make it more relevant. The punchline has Leigh rescued from the ride when somebody from Walmart comes out to unplug the machine.

Pat gathers up the yearbooks, reunion pictures, and the list of classmates who have died.

(There are 91 names on the list.)

The Class of 1954 won’t hold a 65th reunion this year, but will celebrate at the All-School Reunion in 2020. Until then, these old friends from high school will continue to gather for lunch once a month or whatever works into their schedules.

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