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Duluth's high schools continue yearbook tradition into the digital age

Yearbooks are on display at the 1890s Classroom Museum for every year Central High School was open, beginning with the 1894-95 school year and ending with the year the school closed, 2010-11. The Chronicle Yearbook was published for 117 years. (Kathleen Murphy / Duluth.com)1 / 6
A copy of Central's first yearbook in 1894, and its last, in 2011. The 2011 yearbook features the Denfeld logo on the opposite side to honor both schools, which shared a building that year. (Kathleen Murphy / Duluth.com)2 / 6
Signatures from past seniors cover every room of the bell tower at Old Historic Central High School. The tradition stopped in 2011 when Central closed for good. (Kathleen Murphy / Duluth.com)3 / 6
Uniforms and other memorabilia from Duluth Central are on display in the 1890s Classroom Museum in Historic Central High School at 215 N. First Ave. E. in downtown Duluth.(Kathleen Murphy / Duluth.com)4 / 6
Signatures from over a century of graduates grace the bell tower in Historic Old Central High School.(Kathleen Murphy / Duluth.com)5 / 6
Yearbooks from Duluth East High School in 1989 and 1982 feature cover artwork by students. (Kathleen Murphy / Duluth.com)6 / 6

Graduation season lies right around the corner, which means area seniors will soon bid a final goodbye to their high school, friends and teachers. It's a big day, looked forward to by some, dreaded by others. Many students commemorate those last few days with the time-honored tradition of signing yearbooks.

Our society is turning more digital every day, with paper publications decreasing and social media doing more to chronicle our memories. Will the yearbook fall to this trend?

"Truthfully, I don't think yearbooks will exist in the same form," said Adair Ballavance, adviser to the Denfeld High School Oracle for 20 years. "Yearbooks will stick around, but they'll be different." She points out that Denfeld's yearbook has grown smaller over the years, with fewer pages "extras" to help keep the cost down. "I think today's students are more in the present, and yearbooks will change to reflect that."

Tom Gavitt, Central Class of 1979, holds the yearbook from his graduating year during a visit to the 1890s Classroom Museum.The general appearance of Denfeld's collection remains fairly consistent. Bookshelves in the yearbook room are lined with copies of every yearbook ever published at Denfeld High School, including some from the high school buildings that proceeded Denfeld's opening in 1926. The earliest yearbooks are significantly smaller than today's version, most with soft covers. If yearbooks do continue on with the trend of "smaller and simpler," they wouldn't be without precedent.

Tom Gavitt, a 1979 graduate of the now-closed Duluth Central High School, isn't too worried about the possibility of change. "Yearbooks are all relevant to their time. They've always been changing." Gavitt belongs to a group of Central alumni that meet monthly in the 1890s Classroom Museum found in Historic Central High School (perhaps the grandest Duluth relic of them all).

The museum is open only once a month, but is worth the wait time. It holds not only several relics from Central's long history, but also a full collection of Central yearbooks, from the first edition in 1893-94 to its final year in 2010-11. The Class of 2011 yearbook features a Central Zenith cover on one side and Denfeld Oracle cover on the flip side, a cover Ballavance admires. "We had to figure out a way to honor both schools and their traditions through this yearbook."

That was the year students from both schools attended Central-on-the-hill for the year while Denfeld was in the midst of renovations. Inside the yearbook (the copy now in the museum's possession had once belonged to a sophomore student), handwritten messages focus on getting to know new friends — friends who would not have met had that combined year not occurred. The entire yearbook, really, is devoted to the "year the schools came together."

"They all have a theme like that," Gavitt said as he pulled yearbooks and leafed through them. "The books from World War II years center around the soldiers going to war. They hold some really deep stuff." A 1987 yearbook cover that would only have been acceptable in 1987 boasts bright, bold geometric shapes, bringing to mind Zubaz pants and tall bangs. Several signatures inside read "Seniors rule!" A later trip to view Denfeld's collection reveals their 1987 yearbook was just as bright.

Duluth East High School moved locations in 2011, of course, but its yearbook history is still strong. The yearbook staff at East has almost a full collection of Birch Log yearbooks beginning in 1940, including some from its early beginnings as a junior high school. Several of the more unique yearbooks from East featured covers that were hand-drawn by students, a trend that seemed to be popular from 1960-1995.

Yearbook distribution is still a popular tradition at East. "Seniors get their yearbooks first at a senior picnic," said Kirstin Peterson, the Birch Log adviser for the past eight years. The rest of the students get out of school an hour early on yearbook distribution day, but most stick around the school and sign yearbooks.

Adair Ballavance, the Denfeld Oracle yearbook advisor for 20 years, holds three of her favorite editions on March 11.End-of-year traditions aren't limited to the humble yearbook, of course. Students have a way of creating their own memories. "As far as I know, graduating Central kids have been climbing the bell tower and writing their names on its walls since day one," said Gavitt. During the years "New Central" was in operation (1972-2011), the graduating class took a tour of "Old Central," where students added their names next to the names of graduates from over a century ago.

The graduating senior tours stopped in 2011, when Central ceased to exist as a high school. The Central alumni group still opens the museum and bell tower for class reunions. "I don't think people will ever get tired of climbing that bell tower and searching for their signature," Gavitt said.

Both Denfeld and Central have full sets of yearbooks, as well as collections of random books from other area schools. There was a question at both locations as to what became of the yearbooks from Morgan Park High School, which was Duluth's only other major public high school. It closed in 1982, its students transferring to Denfeld. Marshall School, a private high school with a long history in Duluth, also has a strong yearbook tradition, as does Harbor City International School, a charter high school located downtown.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance journalist who lives and writes in Duluth.

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