Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part story concerning the recent 50-year reunion of the class of 1961 from Kenai High School. Part one involves the reunion itself and an overview of the class. Part two, next week, concerns the story of the oldest graduate in the class. Part three will discuss the history of the Kenai school system before Kenai Central High School, and the emergence of Kenai varsity sports.
On the spine of the 2011 Kenai Central High School yearbook — and nowhere else in or on the publication — is the word “Kaknu,” a variant of a Dena’ina name “Kahtnu” for the Kenai River. It is also the lone remnant of the name given to the first-ever high school yearbook in Kenai 50 years ago.
In 1961, “Kaknu” linked the language of a once-dominant culture to an educational tradition of the present time. Simultaneously, it united two eras via a symbol of the central Kenai Peninsula’s lifeblood — the river itself — and implied with that symbolism the flow or passage of time.
How fitting it was, then, that on July 8 and 9 the woman who came up with the name for the first yearbook jetted across country from her home in western New York to join other members of the Kenai High School Class of 1961 for a 50-year reunion.
At a Friday dinner at Paradisos Restaurant in Kenai and a Saturday picnic on the old Cotton Moore homestead in Sterling, class members, now mostly in their late 60s, united to celebrate old times and catch up on more recent ones.
Among the graduates was Kathy “Dolly” (Wilson) Lecceardone, who had submitted
the name Kaknu for the yearbook after brainstorming with her former grade-school teacher, Jettie Petersen.
Wilson, who was born in 1943 in a house on Mission Avenue in Kenai, and whose family continues its long history in the area, was well aware of the important ties between the fishing village that Kenai had been before statehood and the river that lured the salmon home each summer.
She was also aware that the area was beginning a period of rapid growth — tied mainly to homesteading opportunities, the military presence at Wildwood Station, and the discovery of oil at Swanson River — and the Kenai School was bursting at the seams because of it.
She said she remembered leaving behind the old Kenai Territorial School, where
she was once allowed to toll the large bell on the roof, for the new one in the early 1950s. She remembered all of the students placing their chairs upon their heads one day at the old school and then marching down the street to the new one, a building which currently houses the Kenai Boys and Girls Club and Aurora Borealis Charter School.
Quickly that new school also filled with students, and in 1957 — when the members of the class of ’61 were freshmen — an addition was constructed on the end nearest the Methodist Church. That addition, with its new gymnasium, lent the building an L-shape, housed the high school classes, and became known as Kenai High School.
It was the precursor to the current Kenai Central High School, which was
constructed east of Kenai along the Spur Highway, and which opened its doors in the fall of 1964.
The first Kaknu pictured 35 members of the graduating senior class. Of those 35, five — Don Lewis, Gary and Grant Wilson, Stanley Brower and William “Bill” Robinson — have died. Of the 30 remaining, 21 (70 percent) still live in Alaska — mostly on the Kenai Peninsula.
Of the 30 graduates still living, 20 attended the reunion festivities, many of them with spouses or significant others. The dinner drew about 70 individuals, while the picnic drew about 80. Also in attendance were a smattering of former teachers, a bus driver, a school board member, and other students who also attended either Kenai High School or the Kenai Territorial School through the spring of 1964.
Not everyone who had been a part of the KHS class of ’61, however, was able to graduate with the 35 students pictured in the yearbook. Carroll (Madden) Knutson, for instance, got married during her senior year and left school. She did finish her schooling but missed the graduation ceremony. And Nancy Savage and Virginia Murto were sent to high school in Homer for their senior year, apparently because the school boundaries south of Kenai were changed as enrollments climbed.
The reunion effort was spearheaded by class president Patricia (McCollum)
Falkenberg, without whom, according to several attendees, the get-together never would have taken place. Falkenberg put together a six-person committee more than a year in advance of the event, and the number of volunteers grew as the reunion dates drew nearer.
Besides the event planning done by committee members, they also gathered information about their classmates. One of the many lists they kept showed how many students’ families were tied into businesses in the local economy.
The parents of Doug Jones owned Kenai Commercial. Eric Thompson’s folks owned the Kenai Korners lumberyard. Mike Seaman’s parents owned Seaman’s Furniture. Martha (Lancashire) Merry’s parents owned Larry’s Club.
Other businesses tied to students included: Bing’s Landing, Dianne (Moran)
Cooper; “Ribs by Cotton,” Myla (Moore) McFarland; Gibbs’ Apparel, Jimmy Gibbs; Reger’s Garage, Doug Reger; and Northern Oil Operations, Falkenberg.
Students from the class of ’61 included homestead kids, fishing-family kids, military kids, oilfield kids and Alaska Road Commission kids, among others. They came to school from as far south as Anchor Point and as far north as Nikiski. They were a reflection of the times.
Just getting to school each day back then could be a time-consuming trial for some students. McFarland was a Sterling girl back in the late 1950s and early ’60s, and she lived on the Cotton Moore homestead down two miles of bad road from the graveled Sterling Highway. The road crossed two swamps, but in the early days the road itself was uncrossable except when frozen. Consequently, McFarland had to walk to the highway, at times balancing precariously upon poles that had been laid in the marsh for safe foot travel.
“If you fell off, you were ruined for the day,” she said.
At the highway, she and her buddy, Cooper, would catch a regularly scheduled ride
into town to the Sky Bowl, where a school bus driven by Dan France would pick them up and drive them into Kenai. During their junior and senior years, the bus route expanded to include Sterling, but the journey was just as long.
McFarland said that she occasionally rowed a boat down the lazy waters of the Moose River to the bridge to catch a ride, and on cold winter days she was even known to skate down the meandering ribbon of river ice to the main road.
“It was a long day by the time you got 26 miles into Kenai,” Cooper said. “And then you’d get back, and heaven forbid if you wanted to do something in the evening.”
“My dad, all he had (in those days) was a ’49 Jeep,” McFarland said. “And so if I was coming home late, I can remember coming down the Sterling Highway looking for — you know how Jeep headlights are close together — I remember looking to make sure if he was coming after me.”
In the class of ’61, the class officers besides Falkenberg were Jimmy Gibbs, vice president; Karin (Mainwaring) Newcomb, secretary; and Barbara (O’Rourke) Minich, treasurer. The class valedictorian was Merry, and the salutatorian was Newcomb.
Class colors were blue and white, the class flower was the lupine and the class motto was “First in Work, First in Fun, Senior Class of ’61.” And the class song was “Memories Are Made of This,” a tune written in 1955 by Terry Gilkyson, Richard Dehr and Frank Miller, and popularized by Dean Martin, whose version spent six weeks as No. 1 on the Billboard Top 40 charts in 1956.
At the reunion dinner, one of the featured speakers was former KHS (and KCHS)
chemistry teacher, Shirley (Denison) Henley, who entertained the crowd with some funny stories and a few playful jabs at administrators of the time.
Henley had transferred from Tustumena Elementary School, where she was helping to run a small pilot high school program, to KHS during the 1959-60 school year after being asked to teach some typing classes.
“The only course I ever dropped in high school was typing,” she said. “I just am totally uncoordinated.”
At the dinner, she apologized to the students who had taken her first-ever chemistry offering.
“I told them about the asbestos plates that were used under the Bunsen burners,” she said. “Now I see these advertisements for mesothelioma, and I think, ‘Oh my God, what have I done!’”
Fortunately for everyone concerned, the members of the class of ’61 seem to have done just fine. Many of them married within a year or two of graduation. Myla and Lee McFarland, for instance, recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, and several others aren’t far behind in celebrating their own.
The graduates have also produced plenty of offspring, have traveled far and wide, have created businesses and had careers, have made a substantive difference in their communities, and have shared the bond of once belonging to a small collective called the class of ’61.
Many of them were friends in high school and have remained so, regardless of distances and the long passage of time.
Kenai schooling through the years
- The Russian Church School in Kenai was operational at least before 1902, probably dating back to the days before Alaska was purchased from Russia.
- 1907 — First U.S. government school is built in Kenai. By 1909, the enrollment was 58.
- 1917 — Congress grants Territory of Alaska the right to control its own schools.
- 1921 — The Russian school is closed. The building is used for parish functions for about another 30 years and is torn down in the late 1950s.
- 1926 — Kenai Territorial School is built to replace the old U.S. government school. It opens with 62 students.
- 1930 — First U.S. government school building burns down. Fortunately, it wasn’t being used as a school by that time.
- 1941-42 — First official high-school student.
- 1943-44 — Enid McLane becomes principal of Kenai Territorial School.
- 1948-49 — Peggy Arness joins the staff. The school building is getting run down.
- 1950 — The new Kenai Territorial School is built. (This is the current Kenai Boys and Girls Club building.) At some point, this school becomes known as just “the Kenai School.”
- 1951-52 — Kenai School opens for business in the fall with 86 students.
- 1954-55 — Kenai School enrollment climbs to 285.
- 1957— An addition is constructed, including a gym. The addition is called Kenai High School.
- 1958-59— Kenai High School opens. Kenai School total enrollment reaches 415.
- 1959-60 — Kenai School enrollment is at 543.
- 1964 — Kenai Central High School is completed and opens in the fall.