our old school

Recently we went back to our hometown of Luverne for an all-school reunion.  The event had been delayed because of the pandemic, which proved to be good timing since it allowed returning alumni to see the results of a $31 million school renovation and expansion project that was passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2017.

Some areas of the high school (now part of an all-grades campus) remained essentially intact.  I took Sue into the boys locker room and showed her the steps we’d run up to emerge into the gym for basketball games.  (It’s now called the “classic gym” because a newer one was added a number of years ago.)  In my era, a contest with our rivals could cause the gym to be filled to the rafters a couple of hours before a game.  That was less than ten years after Luverne had won the single-class state championship; the teams were still good and the town turned out.

But other old haunts were gone.  The band room — the site of some of my best times in life — had become a jaw-dropping athletic training facility.  And the Little Theater (it’s a mystery why it was called that, since it was the only one in the school) was no longer there either.  It had been replaced by an extraordinary performing arts center.  (Not replaced:  My memories of events and performances in the Little Theater, especially Death of a Salesman, which I’ll write about some day.)

The school was impressive, but it played a small part in the weekend, which started Thursday evening with Hot Dog Night, a Luverne tradition for sixty years.  People walk around downtown and eat free hot dogs supplied by businesses, while enjoying a variety of other activities (including wiener dog races, of course).  The downtown of yore was full of vibrant retail stores that over time were wiped out because of the proximity to shopping options in booming Sioux Falls.  Luverne is not a ghost town — almost all of the buildings have tenants — but it’s not like it was.  The memories still linger though, creating a feeling of nostalgia.

Despite its challenges, those who hadn’t visited town in some time were surprised to find quite a bit of development going on, a number of new initiatives, and the same well-kept homes and parks.  The town has survived and even thrived, when many like it have gone into decline.

There were all kinds of events throughout the four days, plus there were many family reunions and class-specific gatherings.  (Sue had several get-togethers with a large group of friends from her class, who have stayed remarkably close over the years — and we joined others to visit an old-time farmstead being lovingly cared for by a friend.  That took us back to our experiences at the farms of our relatives when we were young.)  All of the activities meant that, even in a small town, there were people that I would have wanted to talk with but never had the chance.

Stories were told and hearty laughs were heard all around and long hugs were in style.  (Yes, I hugged.  A friend who knows that I tend to lead a fairly solitary existence predicted at the start of the festivities that I would collapse in a heap after days of social activity, but I found it invigorating.)

The parade down Main Street Saturday morning was mostly made up of entries from various classes.  It was led by an honor guard; a friend carried the United States flag, just as her mother had done in parades for decades before.  (I thought of the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps closing the Tri-State Band Festival parade on that same street two different times — and my dad, a Marine, striding along behind.)

The final entry was an alumni band, marching and playing the school song.  I had decided that I was too old to participate, but it turned out there were two women in their nineties that did.  That showed me something.

But enough about buildings and events and such — it was being with people that mattered.  Picking and choosing among the stories is hard, but here are three.

I had hoped that I would see a member of the class of 1954.  Since I was born later that same year, we obviously weren’t old school chums, but got to know each other a generation later.  I haven’t seen her that many times over the decades since, but there’s always been a connection between us and I was thrilled when I spotted her and we could be together.

Another time, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see someone I didn’t recognize at first.  He was a couple years older than me but we lived across the street from each other growing up and knew each other well.  I probably hadn’t seen him since the seventies, so we had plenty to talk about, catching up on our lives and families — and remembering the old days.  It was an unexpected encounter, one of those magic moments that can happen at those kinds of gatherings.

I last saw another friend when he moved to Pennsylvania after sixth grade, fifty-five years ago.  We had been in touch the last few years, so I knew he had planned to be in town, but meeting my boyhood pal again was something I had hoped to do for a long time.  It was great to be with him at various times throughout the weekend.

A retired pastor, he was asked to preach at the alumni service at the church of his youth; attending that marked the end of the reunion activities for Sue and me.  If you’ve been reading these musings for a while, you might remember that we visited a large number of churches as a kind of project some time ago, so we’re in the habit of critiquing the worship experiences we have shared.  I told my friend in advance that I was a tough grader.

He was terrific.  Smart, funny, and thoughtful, weaving the biblical message together with the concerns and challenges of daily life.  And he has a wonderful speaking voice.  The total package.

What I didn’t expect was that his theme would hit so close to home for me:  our fears make us smaller and make our world smaller.

That was exactly what I needed to hear, and it served to reinforce the lesson that the people and place of my youth continue to provide a wellspring of inspiration all these many years later.

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