Class of 1948 celebrates 65th reunion

By Dick Mason, The Observer August 19, 2013 10:36 am

Dean Muilenburg, left, Vernon Stewart, center, and Vera Jackson, members of the La Grande High School class of 1948, look at old photos Saturday. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
Dean Muilenburg, left, Vernon Stewart, center, and Vera Jackson, members of the La Grande High School class of 1948, look at old photos Saturday. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)

Twenty La Grande High School alumni turned back the calendar Saturday.

The former students turned it back to an era when football was played with leather helmets, La Grande police officers patrolled downtown on foot and a bowling alley on Elm Street struck fear in the hearts of some LHS students.

Plenty of memories were revived when the La Grande Class of 1948 met at the Flying J Travel Plaza for its 65-year reunion. The LHS alums did more than share memories, they also rekindled long-standing friendships.

“We were a close-knit class. It seemed like everyone got along,” said Harriet Girrard of La Grande. 

None of the members of the Class of 1948 was a stranger to their classmates.

“Everybody knows everybody,” said David Hall of La Grande. “There were no secrets.”

It was no secret that working at a bowling alley on Elm Street could be a hair-raising experience in the 1940s. The bowling alley operated before the days of automatic pin setters. This meant all pins were reset by hand. This was a hazardous task because pins often bounced up after being hit by a bowling ball. 

“It was dangerous as heck,” said Hall, who was one of approximately 100 students in the Class of 1948. “You would have to jump on the rail to avoid the pins that were flying at you. You learned to be quick.”

Hall was later a jet fighter pilot for the U.S. Marines. He jokes that the quick reflexes he developed while setting pins helped him as a pilot.

The bowling alley, located where Alpine Archery is today, was one of a number of popular hangouts for students. A student center on Adams Avenue, the Tigers Den, was another and so was the old Zuber Hall on Washington Avenue. It was a roller skating rink and site of weekend dances. Youths danced to the music of local orchestras. Dances for high school students were cut short by a 10 p.m. curfew, one signaled by a siren which could be heard throughout downtown.

Hutchinson said it was frustrating going to dances at Zuber Hall in the early and mid-1940s because they were filled with cadets from Army Air Corps program based at Eastern Oregon University during World War II.

“They had a monopoly on the beautiful girls,” Hall said. “It was hard to compete with air cadets at Saturday dances.”

The dances often followed football games, contests in which players donned only leather helmets for head protection. The lightweight protective headgear, which had no facemasks, influenced how defenders tackled, said Ester Wilfong of Tacoma, Wash., a lineman for LHS’s football teams.

“You didn’t hit hard with your helmet,” Wilfong said.

Wilfong said this is in stark contrast to the players of today who lower their heads and use their heavier high tech helmets as a tackling tool.

Wilfong owns the distinction of being among those who played in the first Oregon Shrine football game in 1948. The game was played in Portland and matched a team made up of Portland area players against one made up of players from the rest of the state. Wilfong said he was proud to have the opportunity to play in the first Oregon football game benefiting the Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland. 

“It was a big honor,” Wilfong said.

Several members of the Class of 1948 attended grade school at some of the one- and two-room school houses in operation in the 1930s and 1940s. Mary Patterson, who now lives in La Grande, was among them. Patterson, along with Joan Lynch was the chief organizer of the reunion, was a student at the old Hilgard School through fourth grade.

She recalled how quiet it was in the old school.

“The only sound you heard was tick tock of the clock and quiet recitation (of students talking to their teacher) around the teacher’s desk,” she said.