By Clark Fair
“The first exciting event this year was baseball,” wrote Enid McLane, principal and teacher of first and second grade at fledgling Tustumena School in 1959. “The team from Tustumena went to Ninilchik to play against their team. The girls went along to cheer, but despite this fact, Ninilchik won.”
Fortunately for Tustumena’s students and teachers, the school’s first year also brought its share of successes and pleasant surprises:
Starting in the fall, Dick Griffing’s seventh- and eighth-graders produced a newsy report called the “Tustumena Tattler” that was printed regularly in The Cheechako News, which also began that year. Each classroom at the school had its own Halloween and Christmas parties. Verda Bice captured third place in a four-school pingpong tournament, while the Tustumena team finished second overall.
Shirley Reeder, a seventh-grader from Clam Gulch, won a 500-word essay contest sponsored by the American Foreign Legion Auxiliary on the
theme of “My Contribution to America’s Future.” In the spring, eighth-grader Don Madden — whose classmate, Dean Osmar, would win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1984 — set a junior high record for the mile with a time of 5 minutes, 38.3 seconds; his time was faster than any run in the same event in the high school meet the week before.
And in late May, a graduation banquet was held at 4 Royle Parkers restaurant in Soldotna for the school’s 10 students moving on next autumn to classes at Kenai Central High School.
That first year also turned out to be the first of 50 such years, a point celebrated in a student presentation held last month in the school gymnasium. In front of bleachers packed with parents, friends and former students and staff, current Tustumena students showed a video, sang, performed skits, offered bits of history and generally entertained the crowd.
The presentation followed a community picnic that had been forced indoors by inclement weather, but the crowd’s enthusiasm was not dampened. Members of the audience laughed and cheered, and most of them even participated in dancing to “The Twist” when encouraged to do so by the school’s music teacher, Mick Audette.
The celebration, featuring mainly the sixth-grade students of teacher Shonia Werner, was created at the urging of Tustumena Principal Bob Vanderwege, who developed the idea after reading a Kasilof Regional Historical Association article about the previous schools in the area.
“I think the celebration acknowledges what an important part of the community this school is,” Vanderwege said. “It has been a hub for many community activities and continues to serve as a central figure of the community 50 years later.”
The same was true of the Kasilof-area schools that preceded it. Enid McLane began the first school in a building donated by Abe Erickson on the south side of the Kasilof River in 1932. Prior to that, parents educated their children at home, and since no bridge existed at that time, families on the north side were forced to cross the river to send their kids to classes.
The difficulty of crossing, particularly in the winter, meant sacrifices for these north-side families, such as the McLanes themselves, who would travel (via boat, dog sled or horse and wagon, depending upon the season) to the school each Sunday night and live there until the following Friday afternoon.
Consequently, each weekend at home, wrote McLane in “Once Upon the Kenai,” was jam-packed with all the chores that could not be done while living in the schoolhouse: washing, baking, ironing and packing for the week. Enid and her husband, Archie, with their small children, lived this way for several years — until a newer, larger school building was opened on the north side.
“One spring, when the river was full of broken ice chunks and it was time for us to come home, ropes were tied to each of us, and with the use of a plank we hopped from one bobbing chunk of ice to the other, the entire width of the river,” wrote McLane.
In the late 1940s, the Alaska Road Commission erected a bridge across the river, and school attendance became a simpler affair.
At the 50-year celebration, the story of the McLanes crossing the ice floe became part of the presentation, which also included historical skits about driving a dog sled to school, about students hunting a spruce hen at recess, and about the time a kicked ball in the gymnasium knocked free a light that crashed to the floor.
Earlier in the presentation, the students showed “Tustumena 50,” a film by sixth-grader Nathaniel Yannikos, who edited together footage from three interviews conducted by students from Mrs. Werner’s class. Interview segments, grouped by the questions asked, ran while Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy “Peanuts” theme played in the background.
The students had interviewed Jean Jackinsky, who was secretary at the school from 1968 to 1994; Jack Fisler, who was a student in Mrs. McLane’s class (as he put it) back when President Eisenhower was in office; and Carleen Ducker, another former student, whose son is now a member of Werner’s class.
Jackinsky, who worked under seven different principals, recalled being the person in the early days charged with opening the school, and how she especially enjoyed those mornings after it had snowed all night because she liked being the first to make tracks in the virgin snow.
Fisler remembered snowball fights at recess, particularly the time that the students ganged up on a duty person who had been scolding them for their behavior.
Ducker, on the other hand, said she had been a good girl who didn’t get in trouble, so she offered a much milder memory: the evocative fragrance of fresh food being cooked each morning in the cafeteria.
Ducker’s son, Ashton, is one of four students in Mrs. Werner’s class to have at least one parent who also attended Tustumena School. The other three are Tralessa Mahan, Claire McElroy and Myia Wright, whose mother, Lisa Gossett, is also a teacher there.
Three other teachers also once were students at the school: Marina (Fritz) Bossick, Katie (Fritz) Blossom and Julie Fritz.
Back in 1959, the entire school staff consisted of just four people: McLane; Mildred Griffing, who taught third and fourth grades; Wendell Lane, who taught fifth and sixth; and Dick Griffing. Today, seventh- and eighth-graders usually attend middle school, and now kindergarten students occupy one end of the building.
Among the students currently attending Tustumena School are 11-year-old Rachael Todd and 12-year-old Kelsielyn Overway, a pair of sixth-graders who were instrumental in putting together the program for the 50-year celebration.
Overway, who called it “awesome” that they get to attend a 50-year-old school, said, “It’s kind of like historical. We’re in like a historical school.”
Todd added: “It came at the same time as Alaska came, and it makes us think about the time when Alaska became a state, so that makes it easy to remember.”
Both girls said they thought that the school was better now — larger, with more facilities, and modern technology — but they admitted that some parts of the good ol’ days still sounded good. “Kids definitely didn’t have as much boundaries then,” Todd said. “I mean, they let them hunt at recess. That would have been fun.”
“And now we have a fence,” Overway added.
In the last couple of weeks leading up to the presentation, all the students in class spent at least two hours a day working on the program — script, rehearsals, costumes, learning lines, and planning. In the final day or two, they said, they did virtually nothing else except prepare for the presentation.
Meanwhile, a group of parents and community members, with help from local sponsors and community groups, took care of all the planning for the picnic.
In the end, said the girls, they had fun and learned a lot.
“Before, I didn’t even know our school was 50 years old,” Todd said. “I thought it was a reasonably new school. So I didn’t have a clue. I think it’s pretty cool to learn how my school started.”
Overway enjoyed learning about the battle over which side of the river the school would be on, and about the McLanes’ travels back and forth across the water. “It was exciting to me,” she said of the McLanes’ efforts. “I like adventures and stuff, but it would also be, like, dangerous and really scary.”
She said she doubted that she would have been able to do what they had done. “I would chicken out,” she said.
Meanwhile, the industrious students of the sixth grade, and all the other grades, as well, continue to write their own histories — as they build upon the continuing saga of the Tustumena School.