Velva class keeps ties strong for 70 years

VELVA Members of Velva’s Class of 1944 may not be able to get together physically to celebrate their 70th anniversary, but the occasion isn’t being forgotten.

Lowell Helstedt of Lakeland, Minn., had the idea that he and his class members, now well into their 80s, could commemorate the date of their commencement through a letter reunion.

“The idea was that every June 1, we should send a letter of anniversary congratulations to each other,” he said.

Commencement for the 26 graduates occurred on June 1, 1944, a somber time since it was during World War II and nearly all the male graduates were destined for the military.

Don Wunderlich, a class member living in Voltaire, said he missed the graduation ceremony because he was in Minneapolis being sworn into the Navy. Other classmates who had reached their 18th birthday left for the service earlier.

Helstedt said the Navy rejected him because he was deaf in one ear, but most classmates ended up serving their country.

Other known surviving members of the class are Lois Effertz of Minot, Loretta Effertz and Joyce Scott of Velva, Eva Mae Larsen of Culbertson, Mont., Jack Cowles of Mesa, Ariz., Elton Good of Mankato, Minn., and Genevieve Lee of Bemidji, Minn.

Having maintained their friendships for many years, the class saw that connection slipping away in recent years as opportunities to get together declined as they’ve aged.

When Larsen learned of Helstedt’s plan for a letter celebration to bring them together again, she proposed not just a single letter on June 1 but also a continuing round robin letter that will enable classmates to stay in touch. That letter has been started and is in the process of making its rounds. Each recipient adds to the letter and sends it to the next person on the mailing list. Once the letter enters its second round, recipients take out their first writings and add new ones.

The biggest concern of the nine remaining graduates is that they may not be the only survivors. It is believed that three other members from the class are living in the Minot area but their contact information is unknown. Wunderlich said the missing members are being sought so they can be included in the letters.

The maiden names of the missing are Evangeline Bechtold, Vivian Hanson and Helen Yesenko.

Regular reunions once helped the class keep tabs on each other. The 45th reunion was held at the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas. The last reunion 10 years ago in Velva drew a dozen or more class members, Larsen said.

Memories fade in time, but class members still recall some events from their senior year at Velva High School.

Helstedt admits he wasn’t very studious, preferring to spend time with his girlfriend or play sports. He stood out as an athlete and only later proved he could handle the academics when he enrolled at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota and eventually in seminary, becoming a minister with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Larsen’s memories of her senior year include attending an out-of-town boys basketball game. It was unusual for her to attend an out-of-town game and this particular game took her only as far as Minot. She doesn’t remember the game but surmises it probably was against archrival St. Leo’s.

The senior trip took the class to nearby Strawberry Lake, where they went boating and rollerskating.

Larsen remembers that the class must have been somewhat rebellious because they chose to wear white graduation gowns. The tradition at Velva had been navy blue gowns.

Lester Hartnett was their graduation speaker. Minot State University’s Hartnett Hall was named for Lester and his wife, Eva, both longtime instructors who helped build the fine arts department. Larsen said Hartnett gave a good speech, but what she remembers most is the sneezing that he did because of an allergy to the red rose, the class flower, pinned to his lapel.

“At that time there was a lot of war talk. It was pretty unsettled times,” Larsen said. “I was always planning to be a nurse and I thought about joining the Nurse Cadet Corps, but I was too young. You needed to be 18. I was only 17.”

Instead of nursing, she went on to get a teaching degree from MSU, which she said was largely a women’s college at the time due to the number of men who left for the service.

Cowles, who lived in Minot until about two years ago, was a trumpet player in the school band who tried to get into the Navy but was rejected due to poor eyesight. He later served in the Army in Korea in the 1950s.

Cowles said his class held mini-reunions in the summer when members living or visiting in Minot got together for monthly lunches. Those events also went by the wayside in recent years.

With the 70th anniversary coming up, Helstedt said, he felt the need for class members to re-connect and believes the letter project will do that for them.

“We hadn’t been in contact for a while,” Helstedt said. “I just thought it’s time to do it.”