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SD high school grads reunite 75 years later

Nathan Steinbach and his Yankton High School classmates couldn’t study World War II in history class.

The war hadn’t started yet.

The Yankton High School Class of 1939 was surviving the Depression, and World War II loomed on the horizon to change their lives forever.

Five members recently attended their 75th class reunion at Walnut Village. The classmates included Steinbach, Cliff “Shorty” Hicks, Marian (Thompson) Koletzsky and Inez (Larson) Harris of Yankton, and Bill Cutts of Mankato, Minnesota.

The five attending the reunion could name others who were alive but unable to attend.

“We had a reunion for our 60th anniversary, and we said, if we can do 60, let’s do 75,” Steinbach said jokingly. “We didn’t know if any of us would be here for our 75th.”

The class contained 129 graduates, and there’s no way of fully knowing how many are still alive, Steinbach said.

“We have just the maiden names of the girls,” he said. “Those who got married (and changed their last names), we don’t really have a way of finding them.”

The classmates showed amusement looking around Walnut Village, which served as Yankton High School when they attended school. They sat with memorabilia and a special 75th reunion cake on one side of the giant greeting room, while the library filled the other side of the room.

“This used to be the study hall, and over there was the stage,” Hicks said, pointing to different areas of the spacious room.

The Yankton High School building was constructed extremely strong, Steinbach said.

“All the walls were concrete,” he said, noting the labs were converted into the current apartments.

While the current Walnut Village once contained grades 9-12, the Central School for grades 5-8 was located at the current Yankton Community Library and the lower grades were housed at the Garfield building.

Those in attendance at the reunion recalled a number of pleasant — and not so pleasant — memories.

Cutts lived in Mission Hill at the time but came to Yankton for high school. He made his athletic mark at the school, particularly in football.

“I was the only freshman boy to start on the football team, and then I was the only freshman at the time to start on the Iowa State football team,” he said.

The local connection continued at Iowa State, Steinbach said.

“My uncle, Art Schanche, was the campus doctor and treated Bill (Cutts) for his back when he was on the Iowa State football team,” he said.

The Bucks football schedule looked similar to today’s version, with the exception of one or two foes. The opponents included Mitchell, Huron, Watertown, Brookings, Aberdeen, Pierre, Vermillion and Sioux City East.

Cutts cringed at the memories of taking on Sioux City East.

“We hung with them a couple of years. But one year, they beat the pants off us. That’s when they won the national championship,” he said. “They scored something like 66 points against us that game. We tried to make a goal-line stand, but they had two of the biggest guards you ever seen just wipe me out.”

Hicks played second base on Yankton’s first American Legion baseball team in 1939, and he played baseball in the military where he won batting championships. He later played and umpired amateur baseball. He was inducted into the South Dakota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame and the South Dakota State Umpires Hall of Fame.

School publications played an important part of the class’s time in high school, with the 1939 edition of the Arickara yearbook on display at the reunion.

Harris served as editor of the school newspaper, the Woksape, and was co-editor with the late Yankton author Bob Karolevitz on the 1939 Arickara yearbook.

The classmates recalled with fun some of their courses and teachers. Their memories included a Latin teacher.

“She would write something Latin on the board,” Steinbach said. “If you could tell her what it was in English, you raised your hand. If you were right, you got a box of candy. If you were wrong, she told you to sit down.”

Steinbach also recalled twin classmates who lived across from Lawrence Welk when the famous bandleader was at the radio station WNAX in Yankton. The twins later mischievously admitted they let the air out of Welk’s tires when his car was parked along the neighboring street.

Graduation arrived, and the harsh reality of World War II soon hit.

Steinbach attended the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, pursuing a career as a metallurgical engineer.

“Pearl Harbor was hit Dec. 7, 1941, and Dec. 7 was close to Christmas vacation back home,” he said. “I had registered (for the military) when I was 18, so when I was home for Christmas, I contacted the draft board. They said, ‘We can’t take everybody that first month, so go back to school.’ They needed engineers so bad, they told me to finish my education. They said, ‘You don’t need to carry a gun to help fight the war.'”

Steinbach received an industrial deferment, but he eventually enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Okinawa in the Pacific Theater.

“There were kamikazes by the hundreds,” he said, referring to the Japanese dive bombers who undertook suicide missions.

Hicks left for the Philippines Nov. 29, 1941, just missing Pearl Harbor. He eventually docked at Brisbane, Australia, and served in the Pacific Theater. After his military discharge, Hicks taught math, including algebra and geometry.

Cutts farmed for a number of years. He has lived in Mankato since 1960 and worked for a soybean processing company until he retired. His wife of 67 years died in 2009, and he has kept her cremated remains. Cutts plans to be cremated when he dies and have the couple’s ashes brought back to the Yankton area for burial.

Koletzsky taught at rural schools in Yankton and Bon Homme counties after graduation. Her husband of 68 years died in 2009.

Harris held a number of jobs. She served as administrative secretary when the Yankton campus of the School of Medicine was established. She also worked for the maternal and child health center at St. Mary’s Hospital in Pierre, and also as office manager for five years at the Yankton College admissions office.

A member of Christ Episcopal Church in Yankton, she remained extensively active in foreign missions and other work for the Episcopal Church.

The five members attending the reunion remain in touch, sharing news of their daily lives and having a little fun in the process.

“She flirts with me on email,” Cutts said, nodding and winking at one of the women.

Koletzsky spoke of making the most of each day and enjoying the friendships of her classmates.

“We have to live what we have left,” she said. “Whoever expected us to be here this long?”

Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, http://www.yankton.net/

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