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Remembering the last new high school

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In the fall of 2010, the Beatles are on iTunes and the TV drama "Mad Men" keeps receiving critical acclaim.

2010 looks back on the 1960s in Wadena as well, with the demolition of the tornado-damaged high school last week marking the end of an era.

It also looks forward to the future -- as the old high school itself was new in 1965.

John Conzemius of Wadena is a retired teacher, coach and assistant principal who worked in the Wadena school system from fall 1951 until his retirement in June 1986. He taught American history, summer drivers' training, and physical education for boys back when genders were separated.

"I was head football coach for 31 years, track coach for 18, and then I helped in basketball for about 14 years," he said.

The need for the late high school building on Colfax Avenue was the result not of natural disaster, but of increasing enrollment during the postwar period.

Conzemius said that before the high school was built, additions were added in the late 1940s where 3rd Street used to be a through street.

Not long afterward, Conzemius, who had grown up on a Breckenridge farm, took the job.

"I moved here, and there was a vacancy teaching and coaching, and I applied, and I was hired by Ted Tofte," he said.

Enrollment kept increasing, eventually outgrowing an addition in 1955. The high school students had most of their classes in a three-story building which kept being used as a junior high school until it was torn down in the early 1990s.

"We'd have the band practicing in the pit, phy ed class in the gym, and hot lunch program on the east end for the grade school," he said.

An April 18, 1963 Pioneer Journal headline read, "Superintendent T. Tofte reports developments on school problem," referring to a need for even more space.

"Back in those days, we had a lot of rural students, a lot of small dairy farms," Conzemius said.

The Dec. 26, 1963 Pioneer Journal reported that Wadena citizens voted to build a new school.

"That was done by bond issue," Conzemius said.

Wadenans anticipated the new building, and the Feb. 27, 1964 Pioneer Journal noted that St. Ann's Catholic Church was considering construction of a Newman student center to be built for the high school.

The class of 1965, the last high school class to graduate in the old building, elected Wadena High School's first African-American homecoming queen, Martha Fuller.

About a week later, according to the Oct. 15, 1964 Pioneer Journal, Adolfson and Pederson of Minneapolis was awarded the general contractor bid. They anticipated being ready by Oct. 1965.

The Aug. 26, 1965 Pioneer Journal reported that 14 new teachers were hired for the new school year.

A Sept. 23, 1965 Pioneer Journal headline read, "Public school enrollment sets a new record with 1,502 students."

"They were anxious to get into the new building. We were very cramped," Conzemius said.

Conzemius said that before the students moved into the new building, history and English classes were packed into the auditorium - a fact which was also noted in fall 1965 issues of the Pioneer Journal.

The students otherwise continued with normal life, with a homecoming parade and the class of 1966 queen, Mary Seidl. A Tapley's Ben Franklin ad in the Sept. 9, 1965 Pioneer Journal said that bell bottom pants were "the new look."

The Pioneer Journal reported that on Oct. 6, the student council presented a bouquet of roses to express appreciation for the new facilities.

Conzemius remembered that the students themselves participated in the heavy lifting for the transition.

"Other than the fact that the kids moved us over, the library was moved by just a human chain that passed books from one to the other, and the librarian was over there in the new library putting the books in their proper shelves," Conzemius said.

It wasn't the end of the story.

"That building was added onto twice after 1965," Conzemius said.

Conzemius has noted many changes since he started. In the early 1950s, the school system offered three activities for boys: football, basketball and track and field.

Tennis was added in 1955, wrestling was added around 1958, golf was added about 1959 and baseball started about 1963, he said.

"We were in districts and regions at one time. We were in District 24. We were in Region 6," he said. With no classes, large schools and small schools competed with each other.

Girls' activities started later, and in 1975-1976, Conzemius noted, the Minnesota State High School League established seasons and tournaments for them.

Conzemius remembers the highest level of enrollment in the late 1970s.

"We reached our peak at about 185," he said, noting the largest graduating class. "We were that way for a few years, and then of course it gradually started going down."

He attributed the declining enrollment to the loss of family farms.

"It's economic changes that have changed the school system so much in rural Minnesota," he said.

Conzemius continued being active after finishing work.

"When I first retired, I worked nine years as a district and a region executive secretary. And what they did was establish tournament and activity schedules for schools after they complete their season play," he said.

He and his wife would play golf, do cross-country skiing and go south in the winter.

He also has family activities, grandkids, great-grandkids, church activities and the senior citizens' center.

He has continued to keep up with sports, including the 2010 volleyball team.

"I watched them during the season. They were an excellent example of what we try to teach in activities, is team play," he said.

With a new school scheduled to have groundbreaking in spring 2011, Conzemius expressed admiration for the faculty, staff, administrators and students for making the change in the face of obstacles.

A 1965 quote by Ted Tofte in the Pioneer Journal expressed a sentiment similar to what 2010 Wadena rebuilders hope for: "I believe I can honestly say that we have built a building suitable for tomorrow as well as today, a building that will lend itself to adjustment to meet changing conditions in the years to come."

While Conzemius didn't attend the morning demolition ceremony, he drove by the old school building later that day.

"It kind of puts a pit in your stomach. You're sick to see it go down. But it was just necessary. But I think a lot of good can come of it too now. That new building can be updated," Conzemius said.