Tripping down memory lane: Online site triggers fond recollections of growing up in Worthington
Worthington, Minnesota, is a community of roughly 13,000 people built along the shores of Lake Okabena on the prairie of southwest Minnesota.
But there’s a second Worthington community that exists only in the realm of social networking. It numbers more than 4,500 people — some who continue to actually reside in the city of Worthington, but also others who have moved away — near and far — and continue to consider Worthington their home.
A Facebook site titled “Growing Up in Worthington Minnesota — What Do You Remember …” was launched in mid-February and grew at a rate that astounded its instigators. More than 1,000 people joined its ranks in one night alone.
The Facebook site grew out of some random conversations about Worthington memories, according to Terry Simpson, a 1970 WHS graduate who has lived in Westminster, Calif., since 1972. When fellow Worthingtonian and Facebook friend Mike Patrick posted a photo of the long-gone Gay Drive-In Theater that triggered a lot of comments, Simpson realized there was a need for a forum to post memories and pictures.
Simpson turned to friend Dave Ford, who didn’t grow up in Worthington but is married to Worthington native Judy Gieser. Ford once worked at Swanson’s supermarket in Worthington and has continued on with that career, now living in the Phoenix, Ariz., area. Dave had some experience with memory sites, having created one for Langdon, N.D., where he spent the bulk of his high school years before moving to Fulda.
“I added people I knew from there, and it’s been going for three years,” explained Ford. “It’s been a great place to share and trade pictures and talking to people I haven’t seen in 40-plus years. But I graduated from Fulda, so I also started one for there, but it really didn’t take off. There was a little interest early on, but it was pretty much just the people I invited initially.”
When Ford put up the Worthington page, however, it was an almost instant hit.
“I’ve never seen anything grow like this,” he said. “I’m realistic enough to know that not all those made a conscious decision to join, most were added by other people, and there are a lot of people who don’t post but just listen in, lots of people who just ‘like’ a lot of things. But that’s sharing, and sharing doesn’t have to be active participation. Even though I only lived in Worthington for two or three years, I married Judy from Worthington, so of course I’ve grown up the last 30-some years hearing all those stories about Worthington, and it’s bringing it so much more to life for me.”
“One night we put up 500 people on it in about two hours,” said Simpson, a project engineer for a company that makes doors and frames. “It was just crazy and so cool.”
Talk of the town
So what are people discussing on “Growing Up in Worthington?”
The subject matter varies, of course, depending on the age of the forum participant. But despite the wide range of ages, there are a plethora of shared experiences.
Hot topics of conversation have included:
* Chautauqua Park and the weekly summer band concerts that still continue.
* The “Popcorn Lady,” Janet Peterson, who sold her wares from a special truck that was parked at the band concerts and downtown on Friday nights.
* Locations of businesses that no longer exist
* Notable fires in Worthington’s history, including the Easter Sunday 1971 blaze that destroyed Silverberg’s Department Store.
* King Turkey Day
* Favorite teachers
* Former eating establishments, including Michael’s Steakhouse, Ehlers’ Steakhouse, Fred’s Café, Taco Towne, Karley’s, A&W, the QuikStop, Lang's Bakery
* The toboggan slide
* Neighborhood grocery stores
* “Cruising” downtown or Oxford Street.
* High school sporting events
“It’s been fascinating to see how many memories and experiences have been shared across the years. For example people over several decades shared experiences of dining at Michael’s, originally Mike’s Spaghetti House,” reflected Carole Towne Seaton, a 1963 WHS graduate, retired after working for 24 years at the San Diego Zoo and now living in Tucson, Ariz. “ … Another restaurant, Fred’s Café 66, was my first employer shortly after it opened in 1963 and seems firmly fixed in many people’s memories for decades. I never knew so many people loved Fred’s homemade cinnamon rolls as much as I did.”
LuAnn Hudson, who graduated 10 years after Seaton, had a similar reaction to the posts.
“It was wonderful to relive memories (mine and others) and to see how many people recalled the same things that I did,” said Hudson. “In particular, I was struck by the impact some people made in our lives. Teachers like Bill Potts and Glen Evensen were often mentioned as having had a lasting influence. Probably the most talked-about person was Larry Lang. The amount of discussion surrounding him and Michael’s Restaurant was incredible. So many people either worked there or went there to celebrate a special occasion. I don’t think Larry is on Facebook, but I hope someone will alert him to the many people who have fond thoughts of him.”Making connections
Within just a short time after the Worthington Facebook page was initiated, a number of “reunions” had taken place through its postings.
“I am communicating with people via this site that I have not heard from since the 1970s,” noted Laurie Snyder-Walker, WHS Class of 1971, Waterloo, Iowa. “I swore off Facebook. Had no intentions of ever being on it. Then my mom tells me about stories being posted, great memories, and tells me I must get on it. … It gives me such pride to know that no matter how far we went, we are still a community and need a place to call home.”
For Gordon Yumibe, a 1967 grad, the Facebook site initiated a connection with another former Worthingtonian at his workplace in Washington state.
“You won't believe this, but I was trimming some ferns outside a building I take care of at the University of Washington, a building I have taken care of for many years,” wrote Gordon in a Facebook post. “As I was working a gal came up on the sidewalk and asked me if I was from Worthington! She had seen me working there over the years and had seen my face right here on this Facebook page, ‘Growing Up in Worthington.’ Do you believe that — met me because of this fb site? I think she said her name was Leann and I think she said she had graduated in the ’80s from WHS, too.”
Yumibe’s newfound friend is LeAnn Bicknese LeMaster, a 1983 WHS graduate, who is also employed on the UW campus.
When Class of 1971’s Susan Gruss Leece (Elkhorn, Wis.) shared on the Facebook site that Miss Iris Westman, longtime librarian at Central Elementary School, was living at a nursing home in North Dakota, it prompted Maureen Kanellis Bridenstine to give Westman a call. Bridenstine spent her kindergarten through ninth-grade years in Worthington before her family moved to Iowa City, Iowa. Her dad, Dave Kanellis, taught at the high school and junior college, coaching speech and debate.
“Just today I called and talked to my 108-year-old elementary librarian — Iris Westman,” said Bridenstine in an email. “... She knew the year my family moved to Worthington, and she remembered helping me choose books. Remarkable. She always had books picked out for me, and I loved the Central library.”
The site has also allowed some District 518 alumni to tell their former teachers how much they influenced their lives, or in some cases, tell the former teacher’s offspring of the impact.
“As I looked at the posts, now and then a surname would jump out at me — like Maureen Kanellis Bridenstine’s,” said 1963 graduate Seaton. “Her father, Dave Kanellis, influenced me deeply. First got to know him as my ninth-grade speech teacher. I was nearly paralyzed with fear at the prospect of speaking before my class, but he was patient and encouraging. ... When I asked Maureen how many time people say her father changed their lives, she said she never gets tired of hearing it.”
Larry Barber, who lived in Worthington until the sixth grade and graduated from high school in 1959 in Orlando, Fla., has been especially intrigued by memories of his Central Elementary principal, Miss Fenske, and is still looking for more information or photos of her. A retired forest entomologist living near Asheville, N.C., Barber has shared stories of the imposing administrator with his granddaughter and would like proof to back them up.
“The essence here was that I was a drifting school kid,” he recalled. “She made me study, and I showed myself that I could really learn. It still took more time, but when I found something I was interested in, I then jumped on it.”
A request for birthday greetings for longtime WHS geometry teacher and coach Rich Adel, posted on the site by his son, elicited a flood of memories and well-wishes — 169 messages and 200 likes in a 24-hour period.
Change is inevitable
Of course, the “Growing Up” site has also prompted discussions of the changes that have taken place in Worthington and laments that Worthington “isn’t what it used to be.” But both current and former residents quickly rose to the community’s defense, coming up with a long list of assets that still make Worthington a good place to live and raise a family.
“What fun it’s been to walk down memory lane back to my childhood,” said Joan Camery Benson, class of 1967, now living in Burnsville. “While the city has changed significantly, it’s comforting to know that over 4,000 Worthington ‘kids’ appreciate the value of being raised in our idyllic hometown. Thinking about neighborhood stores, teachers, Turkey Day traditions, and other dormant memories has confirmed for me how positively my childhood affected my life.”
For the most part, the focus of “Growing Up in Worthington” is in the past, reliving memories and staying connected to a hometown.
Former Worthingtonians have chimed in from across the country — and even other parts of the world. Kelly Krick left Worthington in 1972, after seventh grade, but said his “formative years are rooted there.” He browses the Facebook site from Stockholm, Sweden, where he is on a one-year assignment for his work in the telecommunications industry.
“This site has provided me connections to family, friends and classmates,” he said. “I now have more emails to deliver and calls to make to those friends and family. It is important to keep those connections to keep engaged in life. Additionally, it has brought back a flood of memories of my youth. Fishing in Lake Okabena, summer baseball, hockey near West Elementary, Turkey Day parades, running our go-kart down the hill at the Presbyterian church, swimming lessons at the Y, movies at the theater, the popcorn lady down the street on Diagonal Road, playing pinball at the bowling alley … These postings are a trip in the way-back machine.”
As Ford reads through some of the posts about Worthington, he finds himself “grinning from ear to ear.”
“I’m so pleased that folks are getting such enjoyment visiting this page,” he said. “I never would have believed anyone telling me we had 4,281 members two weeks into this journey down memory lane. The fact that so many are sharing their memories is fantastic. I know sometimes it’s hard to open up, and maybe that’s the draw of this page. It is a safe way to relive the collective history of the past few decades of a small southwest Minnesota town.”
For Simpson, the overlying message of the success of “Growing Up in Worthington” is that Worthington was, and still is, a pretty terrific community.
“It’s surprising how much pride we all still have in it,” he said. “No matter how much it changes, it’s still your hometown. You can’t ever get rid of that.”
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.