Class of ‘43: Classmates gather for 75th IMHS reunion
IRON MOUNTAIN — Class reunions are usually a “mixed bag” for former high school peers. Some are excited to see their old friends again, while others would rather leave the past behind.
Even for those who enjoy such gatherings, the reunion scene tends to fade after the 50th go-around.
But the Iron Mountain High School Class of 1943 — thought to be the largest in the school’s history — has managed to make it back every year since their 50th to share stories and laughs.
Six of these spry nonagenarians came together Wednesday to celebrate the 75th anniversary of their high school graduation.
“This, however, will be our last reunion,” said Edith (Occhietti) Weiss, who has never missed a class get-together.
“She has perfect attendance,” classmate Robert Vondale noted.
Weiss, along with Phyllis (Rahoi) Ewig, organized these special occasions. Ewig only missed one get-together, when it conflicted with a vacation.
“Those two are the instigators,” Gerald Piatti said with a laugh. “If it wasn’t for those two, we probably wouldn’t have had these great celebrations.”
Joining Weiss, Vondale, Ewig and Piatti were MaryAnn (Jelsch) Harding and Ruth (Browning) Noyce.
A few other classmates still live locally but were unable to make this year’s reunion: Ida (Grazidi) Manko, Betty (Crocker) Wahlstrom, Roland Gazza and Jean (Barliament) Miller. While memories differ on an exact number, the Class of 1943 originally was thought to have from 170 to almost 190 members, they said.
Those who remain 75 years later shared several stories from their school days and recognized those no longer with them.
All agreed life is very different in this day and age for children.
“We had to walk to school in the morning, back home for lunch, then back to school and back home again,” Vondale said. “There was no busing and no food program.”
They did have an hour and a half for lunch, Harding added, so they could make the long treks in the winter time. Those living on Iron Mountain’s North Side needed that extra time, they said.
Ewig remembers walking across the wooden bridge over the pit.
“After the pit collapsed, we had to go around to the 25 Location for about two and a half years,” Weiss said.
Although Vondale didn’t have the distance to walk like the “Northsiders,” he did say there were some memorable trips, including when he was in third grade and the janitor broke the news there was no school because the boiler was broken and it was 42 below.
“That was nothing new,” Piatti said. “We didn’t have a radio. And during a big snowstorm, I walked all the way to school from the North Side, and when I got there, the door was locked and had to walk all the way back home.”
Weiss recalls her trips home for lunch was one of her favorites. She and her sister would deliver the seasoned porkettas her mother, Philomena Occhietti, would do for her brother’s tavern.
“We are the ones that started the porketta at Bimbo’s,” Weiss said. “I still season my own to this day.”
A slightly embarrassing but funny memory Harding shared was the time she was playing timpani at a band concert. “I was playing and when the audiences began clapping, my drums had collapsed — I just stood there, smiling ear to ear.”
Vondale recalled how all the kids would place their tongues on the metal railings at the Ludington School during the winter months, then laugh when they would get stuck.
They remembered the architectural details of each of the old Iron Mountain schools. “They were built like a castle — very beautiful,” Noyce said.
Teachers also were viewed differently back then, they said. Many of them would attend their reunions. “We had some great teachers,” Vondale said.
And they all insisted that bullying wasn’t the problem it is today.
Although they had to face wartime, losing three class members and a teacher during World War II, their lives overall were much simpler, they said.
Vondale, who also served in the military, said it brings up very emotional memories.
“I am so thankful that myself and brothers came home without a scratch,” Piatti said.
All six led fulfilling lives after graduation. Three shared a common career in education.
Vondale taught school for years in East Lansing, where he had Tom Izzo’s wife, Lupe, as a student.
Harding followed in the footsteps of her father, John Jelsch, who was superintendent of Iron Mountain schools at the time. She taught both locally and across the country, including at an air base in Japan.
Noyce was a University of Kansas professor for many years. “Her kids call her ‘doc,'” Weiss said with a laugh.
After returning home from serving in the Marines Corps, Piatti went to school for television, using the knowledge he learned as a radar guy for military airplanes. He said he was very fortunate to be able to retire at 52, although he remained active working part-time after that.
Weiss moved to Milwaukee after graduation and worked in a war factory making .50-caliber bullets. Although she had several other jobs after that, that one was the most memorable, she said.
Ewig began working before she graduated. “I got approval to start at Michigan Bell while I was going to school,” she said. “But many people probably remember me from the 20 years of working at SuperValu in Iron Mountain.”
This group may be in the early 90s now, but that’s not slowing them down. The key to their longevity, they all agreed, is to “keep moving.”
While saddened that this will be the final reunion, they thought it was time.
“Bob’s son bets we are here to mark our 80th,” Weiss said, laughing. “I told him, ‘Well, if we are, then you can plan it.'”
Terri Castelaz can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 39, or firstname.lastname@example.org.