Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part story concerning the recent 50-year reunion of the class of 1961 from Kenai High School. Part one, last week, involves the reunion itself and an overview of the class. Part two concerns the story of the oldest graduate in the class. Part three, which will appear next week, will discuss the history of the Kenai school system before Kenai Central High School, and the emergence of Kenai varsity sports. Other stories can be found online at http://www.redoubtreporter.wordpress.com.
By Clark Fair
When he was 17 years old, Harry House unveiled an unusual education plan.
It was December 1956, and although Harry needed to complete only the final semester of his American history class at the Kenai Territorial School, he decided to drop out before springtime and enter military service. At the end of a three-year hitch, he planned to return to Kenai and finish high school — a strategy that would make him easily the oldest graduate in the class of 1961.
Harry and his mother, Alvirah, made all the arrangements with the school superintendent, George J. Fabricius.
“I told him, ‘Doggone it, I’ve got a D average. I’m not going to be happy.’ I was more interested in cars and working on them — hot rods and that kind of stuff. I’d even designed some equipment,” House said.
Originally from Oroville, Calif., Harry’s father, Fred, and mother had brought the family to Kenai in 1948, when Harry was 9 years old. According to an Alaska Sportsman article in September 1951, the couple established a sawmill in the village on what is now known as Walker Lane and used a team of horses to help haul logs in to make lumber to meet a rapidly growing need for housing materials.
About the time Harry began his senior year of high school, Fred and Alvirah moved their family and sawmill operation north to the Miller Loop area in Nikiski, and Harry, a big young man at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, grew increasingly disenchanted with what he believed his schooling was preparing him for. He said that he knew he needed some maturation and life experience if he wanted to succeed.
Fabricius apparently agreed, as House explained in his typical rough-around-the-edges manner.
“He said, ‘Harry, there ain’t a damn thing wrong with your intelligence.’ And I said, ‘I know that, but I want to quit school and go in the Navy and come back and finish.’ He said, ‘I can’t think of a better way for you to learn what you need and how you need it.’ I said, ‘I know I’m going to need an education, but I’m just not settled enough (now) to do it.’ And he said, ‘Well, when you get back, get a hold of me, and I’ll put you back in school.’”
The plan seemed simple enough, House said, but few things are as simple as they
seem. After his Navy experience, House encountered a few hiccups in his plan.
Alvirah gave her consent to allow Harry to enlist in the U.S. Navy in February 1957, four months before his 18th birthday. In short order, he was in boot camp in San Diego. Then, employing his strong mechanical and electrical aptitude, he earned a spot as an electronics specialist aboard the Essex-class aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Philippine Sea, and later aboard the Fletcher-class destroyer, the U.S.S. Stoddard. According to House, he spent much of his time as a troubleshooter who sought to solve the ships’ mechanical and electronic problems.
By the fall of 1960, House had been discharged from the Navy and was back in Kenai, ready to finish high school. However, the man with whom he’d made an unwritten agreement three years earlier was no longer the chief administrator of the Kenai City School District.
After the 1957-58 school year, Fabricius transferred to Seward to become the superintendent there. For one year, Frank Darnell manned the administrative helm in Kenai before being replaced in 1959-60 by ex-Navy man, Frank B. Cordrey.
Cordrey, despite the Navy ties, refused to welcome House back to high school, and House said he refused to call Fabricius in Seward for assistance.
“I could have called him at any time to get verification,” House said. “But I wanted to do it on my own. I’m stubborn.”
The result was a standoff.
“When I got out of the service, me and Mother sat down there in (Cordrey’s) office for three days, arguing back and forth over whether they were going to let me back into school. And they decided, finally, that they weren’t going to because I was 21, I’d been in the Navy, (and) I was going to flirt with the girls.”
The argument continued, neither man willing to budge.
Then came a breakthrough, of sorts.
“On the last of the third day, Cordrey told me, ‘Harry, you’re not going back to school.’ I said, ‘You’re not going to keep me out. Tomorrow morning there will be a letter in the mail to Don Dafoe.’”
House was attempting to play what he believed was his ace in the hole. He was referring to the man he believed was still the Commissioner of Education for all of Alaska, and he hoped that the mere mention of Cordrey’s superior would convince the superintendent to change his mind.
What House did not know, however, was that Dafoe had resigned as commissioner a year earlier, and then completed his doctorate in education at Stanford University before taking a new position with the U.S. Office of Education in Washington, D.C.
Regardless of House’s ignorance, his implied threat still generated the desired result.
“Cordrey said, ‘Now wait a minute!’ And I said, ‘Goddamn it, I’m going back to school. You’re not going to stop me. You can try all you want, but you’re not going to stop me.’ Then I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. To make the cheese binding, I’ll sign you a piece of paper, where if I do not maintain a passing grade, that I will drop out voluntarily and you won’t have to say a word.’
“He said, ‘Under those circumstances, I’ll let you back in school.’ I said, ‘You’re not going to let me back in school. I’m coming.’”
And so he did.
Later in the year, House said, in an acknowledgement of how well House was doing academically in what was now called Kenai High School, Cordrey crumpled up and threw away their written agreement.
“He knew I wasn’t there to play with the girls,” House said.
Harry House graduated with the rest of the class of 1961 on May 18, just over two weeks before his 22nd birthday.
After graduation, House spent most of his adult life either as an auto mechanic or working in auto-parts stores, although he has had numerous other jobs — from cargo handler for Pacific Northern Airlines to school bus driver to a volunteer for the Kenai Fire Department — along the way.
In more recent years, he has been hobbled with health problems, and although he now uses a cane most of the time to help support a weakened right knee, he stubbornly resists assistance, still preferring to do things on his own.
Now at age 72, when he looks back on his plan to complete high school, he asserts that the effort was worth the trouble — and that he’d known it would be from the start.
“I knew I’d made the right decision before I made the decision,” House said.