Memories never fade for graduates of St. Leo’s

The years melted away when students of the former St. Leo’s High School closed now for 55 years gathered for their “final” reunion in Minot this weekend at the Holiday Inn.

Alumni chuckle about calling the reunion final since that’s been said about the past two reunions. But reunion organizer Nita Kontos Roberts, Bismarck, said it might be for real this time.

The high school was replaced in 1958 by Bishop Ryan High School after a 29-year run so the youngest graduates are in their mid-70s, and the number of people still able to attend has been declining. In 1979 when the reunions started, many of the 900 graduates attended. This weekend, just over 160 came.

The senior member of this year’s event was 1935 graduate Marguerite Schafer Frank, 96, who attended with her daughter, Mary Frank, from the class of 1958.

The reunion in 2007 was supposed to be the last, but Kontos Roberts said she received so many emails last year, requesting one more event, that she decided to give it one more go.

Since it appears the school building, owned by St. Leo’s Catholic Church, will be demolished, there is a sense of finality from that aspect, she said.

Todd Hawkinson of Las Vegas was glad to have another reunion, having missed all but the 2007 event because organizers weren’t able to locate her address.

Renewing contact with schoolmates has been special because of the lifelong religious influence that St. Leo’s has had on her life, she said.

“It’s something I will never forget, but I will cherish in some way,” Hawkinson said.

Other graduates also hold fond memories of the priests and of the nuns who were their teachers.

“It was a great school,” said Jim Purdy, a retired attorney in Bismarck and member of the class of 1949. What he took away, he said, was a “very sound, good, basic high school education.”

“The best thing I got out of that school was the values. We were honest. We had integrity. We had respect for people,” said Pete Erenfeld, Whitefish, Mont., a graduate in 1956.

“Not that we weren’t penitent. You can still feel the lump on my head,” he joked, recalling times when the nuns had to correct his mischievousness.

Paul Purdy, a retired Minot dentist who graduated from St. Leo’s in 1952, remembers the good basketball teams during the years that featured Dale Brown, who graduated a year behind him. Brown became basketball coach at Louisiana State University.

Purdy noted, though, that St. Leo’s lost when they played Fargo Shanley, whose star was Roger Maris. Maris went on to play baseball with the New York Yankees, setting a home run record in 1961.

However, Purdy said, St. Leo’s beat Minot High three times in one year considered quite a feat at the time.

St. Leo’s was a smaller school than Minot High, but when it came to school spirit, even the bigger school couldn’t drown out the cheers of St. Leo’s, Erenfeld said.

Graduates remember the rivalry with Minot High, located across the street, spilling over to snowball fights after school. The air missiles came to a quick halt on both sides at the first glimpse of Montsignor John W. Hogan, who presided over St. Leo’s during the high school’s duration.

“But it was a good relationship,” Kontos Roberts said of affection between St. Leo’s and Minot High. Students from both schools would hang out at the nearby YMCA, which is where St. Leo’s student Ken Flammang met Minot High student Dorothy Nelson, whom he later married. The Flammangs traveled from Atlanta, Ga., to reminisce about those days with others at the reunion.

A 1958 graduate, Agnes Kraljic Gaber of Chicago was a refugee from Slovenia in south-central Europe who came to Minot after spending time in a camp in Austria. Despite speaking no English, Gaber, then 10, was welcomed into the St. Leo’s fold. She recalls that she and her siblings enjoyed learning in an English environment, even outside of school.

“We would usually get the encyclopedias and open them up and read them,” she said.

Gaber became a nurse and has traveled around the world to attend and speak at medical conferences, focusing on the Middle East and Africa in recent years. She continues to promote nursing education in other countries, with more trips planned nationally and internationally.

Dave Scully, Los Angeles, of the class of 1955 entered the Peace Corps at age 60, traveling to Latvia as a business adviser after years of working, sometimes internationally, in computer and business fields. He started a 15-minute radio show that was a hit in Latvia because it gave the Russian speakers an exposure to the English language. Scully would interview U.S. ambassadors and other English speakers.

“I used to get fan mail, and people would call in. But I think I did some good because young people especially wanted to hear a native English speaker,” Scully said.

Joe Gavett of Tacoma, Wash., who attended St. Leo’s but graduated from Bishop Ryan, took up writing later in life. He has written historical fiction novels and books on North Dakota history. Some books, like his 2006 publication, “Minot, the Magic City,” drew on his childhood memories. Some of his best memories are of St. Leo’s.

Besides gaining a fondness for nuns, his time at St. Leo’s taught him some fundamental principles. He described the lessons of St. Leo’s as: “Treat everyone the best you can, accept people for what they are and do the best with what you have.”