Almost exactly 75 years ago, Ruth Sells took the podium at mosquito-filled Mandt Park to speak at the Stoughton High School graduation. Sells, the Class of 1941 valedictorian, urged her 109 classmates to do worthwhile work and accomplish something.
On midday Sunday, Sells, now 93, reflected on that speech, which she keeps buried in a drawer.
“It was sort of inspirational,” she said, then added with a knowing smile to its timeless but common theme. “It could have been read today as well as then.”
What surprised them, however, was reaching SHS’ 75th class reunion. It included Sells and six classmates who met at Vennevoll Clubhouse in Stoughton.
The class has gathered annually for more than two decades. Its 50th reunion in 1991 drew 61 graduates. A few more than a dozen are still living now.
Sunday’s reunion marked a victory lap for the participants. They ate Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes, then passed a microphone around the large table. Each 1941 grad had a friend or family member with them.
During interviews or speaking at lunch, each former student reflected on life’s wonders and its tragedies, especially the Depression and World War II, with clarity, emotion and honesty.
Helen Smith, who organized the event with Jennie Eddingsaas, said Stoughton’s Class of 1941 had only one fatality in World War II. He was a fighter pilot who was engaged to a girl from the same class.
When a large cake celebrating the Class of 1941 was unveiled Sunday, many of the participants marveled at their longevity.
“I don’t know how we made it, but we’re still here,” said lifelong Stoughton resident Clarence Osland. “I didn’t think I’d live to (age) 75.”
As a young man, Osland survived more than three years of World War II in Europe. “I didn’t get hurt,” he said. “But I was cold over there.”
At lunch, many grads recounted working in tobacco fields in Stoughton as teens. They each had vivid recollections of the Depression. Martin Johnson of Watertown, the 10th of 11 children born to his family, remembered a frequent meal and said, “I still hate vegetable soup.”
Smith, the daughter of longtime Stoughton pastor Lars Nesvig, recalled how countless people stopped at the church’s parsonage. Other recalled letting people sleep in their family’s barns.
And the former students carried on. Eddingsaas remembered being married by candlelight because there wasn’t any electricity.
Morris Trow of Stoughton spent 41 years as an Oscar Mayer worker and now is in a wheelchair.
Smith graduated at age 16 so, at age 91, she was the youngest grad there.
“Our class was close,” Smith said. “That’s why there have been so many reunions.”
Health problems in the previous two days kept three other people from attending. Hearing among the attendees was relatively poor, but a microphone at the lunch table helped that obstacle.
Sells went to Carroll College in the early ’40s but had to leave to care for her ill mother. She spent decades working in human resources near Milwaukee and is still doing worthwhile work – exactly what she noted in her valedictorian speech – as a current board member for a community college foundation.
Decades come and go, but some personality traits don’t.
“I was bashful in high school,” said Osland, now 92. “I’m still bashful.”