Denfeld News

Oct. 15, 2005
Duluth News Tribune

Denfeld spirit strong at age 100
By Jake Weyer

When Rudy Monson went to Denfeld High School during the 1940s, he was one of two students at the school who had a car.

There were no fast-food restaurants, nobody owned a television and every phone had a cord. But the people living in West Duluth had Denfeld and, for many them, that's all that mattered.

"It was the focal point," said Monson, who graduated in 1947 and still occasionally wears his letterman's sweater at age 76.

Denfeld's homecoming week ended Friday -- with a visit to the school from Monson -- but another significant date passed quietly this year, before the maroon and gold streamers, balloons and posters adorned the school's walls.

On Sept. 11, 2005, the institution turned 100. But because Denfeld moved twice since the first class began in 1905 and few records were kept from those days, the anniversary was disputed. The Denfeld that Duluthians know today opened its doors in 1926. It was previously located at what became West Junior and eventually part of Laura MacArthur Elementary School. Denfeld began at Irving.

Today, pressed between two full parking lots, just blocks away from a variety of in-and-out food joints filled with people on cell phones, Denfeld sits largely unchanged from when Monson attended. And the school's transformed surroundings haven't altered student attitudes much.

"Not only is the student body infused with spirit but the school and the staff are, too," said Joel Tracey, a 17-year-old Denfeld post-secondary student celebrating at the school's homecoming bonfire Wednesday near the old Irving School in West Duluth.

Ed Crawford, Denfeld's principal, said it is not too late for a centennial celebration. Possibilities will be discussed Tuesday at the school's next Parent Teacher Student Association meeting and Denfeld's alumni association will be tapped for ideas.

The recently formed alumni association, a group of graduates from each decade as far back as the 1940s, discovered the original Denfeld's opening date too late to organize a reunion. A show featuring generations of art from Denfeld students was on display last month at the Washington Gallery, but the association has nothing else planned for this year.

"Every place was booked," said Denfeld economics teacher and alumni association member Joe Vukelich of the venues that might be able to accommodate an all-class reunion. "The (Denfeld) roof was being fixed, Grand Avenue was being torn up; it seemed like someone was trying to tell us something."

Vukelich said the alumni association is planning a reunion for 2009, 100 years after the first class graduated. The last Denfeld all-class reunion, organized for 1976, was supposedly the largest high school reunion on record, said Vukelich, who graduated from Denfeld in 1977.

If other alumni are as passionate about the school as Vukelich, the next reunion will not be a small gathering. The school's decor last week was a testament to the pride that still runs rampant through the dark halls of Denfeld.

"We're very fortunate we have that environment," Vukelich said. "You can't make kids feel that way. It has to be something that comes from the heart."

Many Denfeld students did not realize their school was 100 this year. Some of those who did would have liked the centennial to be more widely recognized.

"We really should have done something,' said 16-year-old Karyn Pederson, who calls Denfeld a second home. "You only get one hundredth anniversary.'

Denfeld senior Reba Marana, 17, said she and other students discussed placing a time capsule somewhere in the school to commemorate the 100th year. A time capsule dating back to 1925, when the school was under construction, was found earlier this year.

Many of the students attending Denfeld are part of several generations of family members who went to the school.

Patty Langlee is a Denfeld alum and PTSA member who has a son at the school and two younger children who will eventually go there. Langlee graduated from Denfeld with her husband in 1978 and her parents are also alumni.

When deciding where to live, Langlee and her husband didn't look at any property outside West Duluth.

"I just wanted to be in the Denfeld district," she said.

When administrators threatened to close Denfeld two years ago, Langlee was among many other community members who fought to keep it open.

“I will always fight for it,” she said.

Langlee said the school's curriculum, teachers, scholarship opportunities and traditions are some of the things that maintain her loyalty. Walking through the school Thursday, she said the decorations looked much like the ones she helped put up more than 20 years ago. She said the school's past leadership has been largely responsible for the sense of community created at Denfeld.

Crawford, who became Denfeld's principal this year after leaving an assistant principal position at East High School, said he would carry on the traditions, including the only Duluth homecoming bonfire that hasn't been snuffed out.

“It's truly a school celebration,” Crawford said. “More than that it's a community celebration.”

Even students like Tracey, who only goes to Denfeld one hour a day to participate in jazz band, feel like a part of that community.

"It doesn't matter whether we're here one hour or all day, it's all of ours' school,' Tracey said.

Monson, who led the Denfeld basketball team to its only state victory in 1947, said he continues to be impressed with the generations of students who have walked the halls since he left 58 years ago. He and other Denfeld graduates still meet once a week to talk about their days as Hunters.

"It was the best time of my life as far as I'm concerned,' Monson said. "No question about it."

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