It took time, but kindergarten class of 1938 plans reunion

Picking up the telephone and scanning the names -- at least a few of which she hadn't thought about in 60 or 70 years -- Sonja Ulvi had no idea what to expect.

Picking up the telephone and scanning the names -- at least a few of which she hadn't thought about in 60 or 70 years -- Sonja Ulvi had no idea what to expect.

She was planning a class reunion this month. The class of 1938. The kindergarten class of 1938, from Stowe Elementary in Gary-New Duluth.

But with each call, any worries she might have had about whether her friends from 5 years old would remember her at 75 -- and whether they'd want to get together again -- quickly evaporated.

"When I talked to them, it was like we were never separated," said Ulvi, who lives about a mile from where she grew up. "That feeling of friendship was still so strong."

A lot of the reason for that has to do with the place Ulvi and her classmates called home as children. In the 1930s in Gary-New Duluth, everyone's father, it seemed, worked at the steel plant or the cement plant; everyone attended the same two churches; grocery stores offered credit, backed with handshakes, to families struggling to make ends meet; all the children went to Stowe; and all the grownups were from the "old country," whether it was Yugoslavia, Italy, Slovenia or elsewhere.


This was long before video games or even television.

"We only had each other in them days. We did everything together, played kick the can, ring around the rosy, or just marbles or jacks. That was our entertainment," said Ulvi, one of four kids whose father worked at Universal Atlas Cement. "You looked forward to going to school every day because you got to play together. You walked to school, and you were a little kid, and you could hardly wait to get there.

"Where we lived was all we knew," she said. "You could trust the world then. Today it's different."

Ulvi and lifelong friend Betty (Cekalla) Danielson had been talking about reuniting with their kindergarten classmates for 10 or 20 years. Serious planning started June 1, shortly after doctors found the arteries and veins in Danielson's brain tangled and performed surgery. Realizing life can be short -- and not just for Danielson, who lives in Bemidji, Minn., the wife of a minister, and whose father was a crane operator for U.S. Steel -- Ulvi started making calls.

The reunion, she decided, would be Thursday, June 26, starting at 11 a.m. and ending when everyone was talked out. The place will be St. George Serbian Orthodox Church, 1216 104th Ave. W. There'll be wine, beer, hors d'oeuvres, pigs in a blanket, fried chicken, turkey, cheesy potatoes, rolls, cake and more. At everyone's seat will be a gift bag with juice-filled wax bottles, candy cigarettes, licorice pipes and other candies and treats from the 1930s. Ulvi was able to find them on the Internet.

"I wanted to do it very, very nice. It's going to be so beautiful," she said. "I wanted it to be special -- very, very special."

The most special part? "Nearly everybody is coming," said John Stojevich, a 1938 Stowe kindergartener who also still lives in Gary-New Duluth. He helped Ulvi make calls of invitations.

Eight of the 35 students were found to be deceased. Five couldn't be located. But only two said with certainty they wouldn't be there.


The rest -- 20 kindergarteners-turned-75-year-olds from Texas, Florida, South Dakota, Eden Prairie, Minn., Owatonna, Minn., and elsewhere -- all agreed to attend. Counting spouses and guests, Ulvi is planning for a party of about 47, including, possibly, the class' former gym teacher, Jean Severance of Duluth, and its former milk lady, Lillian Rendulich of Duluth, who recalled for Ulvi that milk was 2 cents a carton in 1938. Both women are in their late 80s or 90s.

"Everyone said, 'I'd love it,' " Ulvi reported. Some also said: "I'm on my third pace maker." "I've lost several toes." "I take a bus because I don't drive anymore." ... "But I wouldn't miss it."

"People said to me, 'Is so-and-so coming? I used to like her in the first grade.' That was 69 years ago! It's hard to explain," Ulvi said. "These kids were so special."

Their bond extended through ninth grade at Stowe. Many of them went together to Morgan Park High School. After that, they scattered. Ulvi wound up in Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Army six years. She gave it up and returned to Duluth because a boy from Gary-New Duluth kept writing and then bumped into her at a friend's wedding. She fell for him and they have been married for 51 years.

Stojevich worked for U.S. Steel, just like his father, a construction foreman. He never forgot the people in his childhood, though. "We've always been close because we were all poor," he said with a laugh. "We all took care of each other. That's just the way it was back then."

And maybe the way it can be again, even for just one afternoon.

"It was such a happy time and a carefree time, and I think all of us would love to be able to go back in time and have fun together like we used to," Ulvi said. "Just to be able to sit down together again and talk; that's what the day's going to be: a lot of food and beverages and a lot of talking."

Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune's deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached at 723-5316 or .

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