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Going back again

Former staff members of West Elementary took part in a reunion Saturday in Worthington. Here, a portion of the group gathers for a photo. Brian Korthals/Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON — The monotony and chill of a dull winter’s afternoon led to an early summer celebration with past West Elementary staff members.

On Saturday, more than 70 teachers, para-professionals, administrators and custodians who worked in concert at the former elementary school (now used as the Area Learning Center) gathered to reminisce and reconnect.

“It had been tossed around for some time that people really wanted to do this,” said Pam Bruse, a para-professional at West from 1989 until it closed in 2001 with the opening of Prairie Elementary.

“I was bored one day this winter, got on Facebook and made a West Elementary Reunion page just to see what response I would get,” she continued.

“People added others like crazy, and that got the ball rolling.”

Ultimately, Bruse became part of a six-person committee that planned Saturday’s events, which included tours of the school itself (first built in 1954, with additions made in 1965 and 1986), a get-together at Hickory Lodge and a short program.

“It was a very upbeat time, with a lot of laughing and reminiscing,” said Kieth Olson, a West Elementary sixth-grade teacher from 1983 until his retirement, which coincided with the school’s closing in 2001.

“Everyone had a good evening, and we reflected on some fond memories of the time we’d spent working together there.”

Among those assembling for the occasion were retired teachers Florence Hinsch and Evelyn Moss — at 91, perhaps the eldest attendee — and past principal Larry Noble, the school’s chief administrator from 1988 through 1998.

“When I began at West, we had a less than one percent-diverse student population, and in that 10-year span, it grew to be around 45 percent diverse,” Noble cited.

“But the Worthington school district was really proactive about what was happening, and adapted well to the changes,” he continued.

“If anything, we were out ahead of the change a little bit, and that, along with some internal reorganization we implemented, enabled us to better accommodate the changes that came our way.”

During Bruse’s tenure at West, the school had two sections of kindergarten classes, as well as District 518’s fourth- through sixth-grade classes; across town, Central Elementary also housed kindergarteners, plus the district’s first- through third-graders.

“The staff mascot from our West Elementary days — a little boy mannequin named Chucky — came to the reunion,” shared Bruse.

“Chucky would show up in moving vans when staff left, and we have pictures of him going to Sturgis, Wyoming and Omaha, among other places,” she shared.

“Chris Greeley (another planning committee member, along with Deb Harberts, Beth Westra, Phyllis Brink and Sandy Wood) has had him with her at Prairie, and she escorted him to the gathering.”

Greeley, now a technology specialist at Prairie Elementary, was a media center para at West from 1990-2001 under the direction of Maggie Kraemer.

“West was a building with people who really enjoyed working and being together,” said Greeley. “The people were the important thing, and the opportunity to pull everyone together again was an exciting thought.”

Kraemer moved to the St. Cloud area a few years ago, but she teamed with another former Worthington resident and West teacher, Louise Casper, to create a video for Saturday’s gathering that Olson termed “nostalgic.”

Olson and his friend Rich Besel (another veteran sixth-grade teacher from West) did their best to keep things light with a Saturday appearance of their Ole and Sven counterparts.

“If there was ever a team organization that worked well, it was at West,” said Noble, noting there were 40 licensed and 40 non-licensed staff at West during his decade there.

Noble officially retired as a principal after a 1998-2002 stint at a Mahtomedi school, but he’s continued to serve as an interim administrator in various schools and now makes his home with wife Rosemary in Hastings.

“There were some tough times, of course, but also some very good times, and Saturday was a chance to celebrate all of that and say farewell to other things,” Noble offered.

For her part, Bruse has never regretted jumping into education, and said she got a great start at West Elementary.

“I had worked in the Bedford Industries office before I became a para at West. Then I made the move to Prairie in 2001 and I’ve just finished my fourth year at Worthington Middle School with the fifth grade,” Bruse listed.

“I have a lot of respect for teachers and what they do, and a lot of respect for anyone who works in education,” she continued. “The leadership of the teacher is very important, and I’ve really learned a lot from watching teachers.”

Whether at the former West Elementary, at Prairie Elementary or at Worthington Middle School, Bruse likely speaks for many paras and teachers in saying, “The rewards (as an educator) are not in the money; the rewards are in the kids.

“Working in the schools was the best decision I ever made,” Bruse confirmed. “I still love my job every day, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”