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All-school reunion celebrates Park Rapids history

Irene Eischens Williams, 89, from the Park Rapids High School Class of 1944 looks at a display during the reunion ice cream social held Friday at the historical museum in Park Rapids. (Jean Ruzicka/Enterprise)

Friday’s ice cream social, appropriately staged before the historical museum, was a merry old trip down memory lane - literally and figuratively.  Many of the alums arriving to sample the scrumptious fare boarded the bus departing for a tour of their old stomping grounds, alumna Sally Shearer their guide.  

“Growing up in Park Rapids in the ’50s was the best thing ever,” Nancy Helten Pierson, Class of ’55, said. “Everyone should have had our experience.”  The four Helten sisters – Linda Liecht, a Class of ’62 alum, and twins Judy Noah and Joann DeSantis - have returned for every all-school reunion.  Leicht is a Minnesotan; her siblings arrive from California.  The Helten family farm was adjacent to the fairgrounds, so the sisters enjoyed the best of all worlds. “We had horses. We could walk to school and go to the games,” Leicht said. Many of their rural contemporaries were homebound, come weekends.  “And this was a resort town. So much fun in the summer,” Pierson said.  “Every teenager had a job in the summer,” Leicht said. “We had a beach in the middle of town. Nancy was a lifeguard. Every day we had something to do.”  “The 1950s was such a carefree time,” Pierson said.  Both lauded  Main street’s “unbelievable flowers” greeting their arrival.  “The town is looking better than any time I can remember,” Leicht said. They were appreciative of the downtown merchants displaying their structure’s commercial history.          

The all-school reunion was a serendipitous surprise for Irene Eischens Williams, a 1944 graduate who turns 89 this week. She arrived from Colorado with son Daniel Williams, unaware the town was celebrating its education heritage.  Williams grew up in Two Inlets, her grandfather Max Eischens and father John village pioneers. Max Eischens established the first sawmill, bringing two carpenters and a financial worker from Germany to man operations.  Eischen Williams’ father owned almost all the lakeshore on the western side of Two Inlets Lake, Daniel Williams said, the original home still standing.   Like most rural kids of the era, she grew up with an outdoor toilet, a hand pump in the sink and no electricity. A single wood stove provided heat.  It had been a quarter-century since Eischens Williams had set foot in her native territory, migrating west shortly after graduating high school. She worked for a brief stint at Wimpy’s before moving to Missouri, where her sister lived. 

Eventually she and husband Dale, whom she met in Carthage, Mo., settled in Pueblo, Colo., “on the edge of the desert.  “It was too cold,” she said of her departure from Park Rapids. And she’d grown weary of the 25-mile school bus ride, after walking a mile and a half to catch the bus.  She recalls reading the Enterprise, “an honest magazine. If they made a mistake, they apologized.”  She would obtain her driver’s license at 65, hopping behind the wheel of the car her son purchased for her to head back to Park Rapids, a solo 1,600-mile journey.  At 70, she earned an associate degree in accounting. “I always wanted to go to college,” the affable octogenarian said. “My grandkids had diplomas. I was determined to get one. And college was fun.”  Five of her Park Rapids High School classmates remain, David Konshok among them. “Fifty-two graduated,” she said, “106 started.”  Now, coming home, she reveres the land she left behind.  “Minnesota air is so nice and clean. It stunned me, seeing all those trees.”  And the temperature edging toward 90 degrees was not a deterrent.  “It’s 107 at home. This isn’t hot.”

n  Helen Town Anderson, Class of 1948, arrived from Des Moines, Iowa for the event, her younger brother, David, Class of ’59, her host.  “I remember the night you were born,” she said, grinning.  “She spoiled me,” David said. Three of the 11 Town children are living.  Anderson holds fond memories of working at Schmider’s ice cream parlor during her high school years.  “I helped Otto make ice cream,” she said, along with making toppings, flavors for malts and waiting on customers.  Her dad, Harry, was chief of police. His predecessor and brother, Frank, had been shot and killed in the line of duty. Harry assumed the position in 1943.  But the memories remain pleasant for the former cheerleader, who preferred rough housing with boys in the neighborhood, as opposed to her female contemporaries.  “The girls just wanted to play with dolls.”

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