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'Men and women of the finest type'

Chris Wolf, the Tin Man, is a certified public accountant and banker in Grand Forks. Eric Kutz, the Cowardly Lion, has played cello with the New York Philharmonic and other great orchestras and now teaches music at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

A copy of Roosevelt's letter hangs in a hallway of the old school that now is an apartment building. Herald photo by John Stennes.

Chris Wolf, the Tin Man, is a certified public accountant and banker in Grand Forks. Eric Kutz, the Cowardly Lion, has played cello with the New York Philharmonic and other great orchestras and now teaches music at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

We've lost track of Lois Homewood, who was Dorothy in the 1983 production of "The Wizard of Oz" at old Roosevelt School, but odds are she is a woman of the finest type, strong and brave and just.

When the curtain came down on Roosevelt's "Oz," a sentimental celebration of home and family and friends, the 73-year-old brick school was closed. But as a reminder of the preparation for life that began there, each of the 281 departing students received a copy of a letter, sent by the school's namesake to the first students in 1910.

"I earnestly hope that they and their successors will become men and women of the finest type," former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "strong and brave, and just, and also gentle and unselfish; scorning to shirk any duty, or to do any mean act; finding their highest joy in life in doing well work that is worth doing."

They are all at or approaching 40 now, those last Roosevelt School kids, some living and working in Grand Forks, others scattered about the country.


And we wondered: Did they take Teddy's exhortation to heart?

TR would approve

Chris Wolf, Grand Forks market president at Alerus Financial, remembers playing baseball on Roosevelt's parking lot in summer and football on the grassy berm in the fall.

The other day, he showed his old principal, Gary Mitchell, where he learned "why you're not supposed to put your tongue on an iron fence" in winter.

"It was right here," he said, standing at the edge of the grass leading to a sidewalk, remembering the long-gone fence and the painful minutes he stood there, "looking up into that tree" while a teacher went to fetch a pail of warm water to liberate his tongue.

"Some lessons stay with you longer than others," he said, as Mitchell laughed.

"We knew it was a big deal when the school closed," Wolf said. "It was the last year of something that had been part of Grand Forks a long time."

(A note of disclosure: Wolf's best friend at Roosevelt, and Scarecrow to his Tin Man in the school's last play, was Pete Haga, now an assistant to Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown -- and son of the present writer, who in 1983 wrote a column about the closing of Roosevelt.)


"I can remember every teacher I had there," Wolf said. "I have fond memories of all of them. And I remember honestly enjoying going to school."

He may have been the last student to leave.

"At the end of the year, when things were closing down, I stayed with the librarians for a few days and helped them pack up books," he said.

When his father died in 2003, two of his Roosevelt teachers attended the funeral. "That meant a lot to me," he said.

His mother saved his copy of Roosevelt's letter. She has it still.

"I saw it a few years back, and I remember some of those words," he said. "At the time, I thought it was cool we were named after Teddy Roosevelt, and that he had taken the time to write something many years before."

The handwritten letter, dated Dec. 5, 1910, and signed by "your friend, Theodore Roosevelt," hangs in a hallway in the old school, which was converted to apartments.

"What he wanted in that letter ... I think many of us who went through Roosevelt accomplished that," Wolf said. "I think he would be happy, how we turned out."


'We felt safe'

Dacia Stiles was a fourth grader when Roosevelt closed and attended several other schools afterward, "but the emotional memories I have from Roosevelt are stronger than any others," she said. "I think it's because we felt safe and cared for."

Now the mother of two elementary school-age children herself, she teaches exercise classes at the Grand Forks YMCA and has a painting and decorating company.

"It was a great neighborhood around Roosevelt," she said. "Everybody was gentle and kind with each other. Parents were friends. I remember vividly the school janitor, Harlan, a gentle man. People had a profound respect for him.

"It was a neighborhood playground of front-yard playgrounds, and we kids would walk to school together, picking up kids as we went until there'd be 17 of us!"

'Badge of honor'

Jerry Gunderson is a pharmacist in Idaho. He'd like another copy of Roosevelt's letter, he said, because he believes his was lost in 1997.

"I imagine quite a few lost their letters to the flood," he said.


Roosevelt's words, written a century ago as a challenge, could stand today as tribute to people who lived up to them, Gunderson said.

"That sounds like North Dakota," he said after listening to the words. "I think it holds true for me, and it holds true for my parents. It's a badge of honor to say you're from North Dakota, as far as I'm concerned."

Roosevelt himself considered it a great plus to have spent part of his early life in the state. "For a number of years, I lived and worked in North Dakota, and I have, and shall always have, a strong attachment for the state," he wrote in the 1910 letter.

After high school, Gunderson went to college on a wrestling scholarship, but he left when he "blew out a shoulder" and couldn't compete anymore. He moved to Seattle for a time before resuming his studies at the University of Montana. He worked as a pharmacist in Arizona, was married there and moved to Idaho.

"I had a great start at Roosevelt," he said. "I had great teachers there, teachers who cared and who taught me about life as well as school.

"It's sad that a few of them have passed away."

He remembers "Mr. Deseth," a burly teacher and intramurals coach who gave the youngsters lessons in hunting and fishing as well as history, math and science. Don Deseth died at age 53 in 1996.

Music at the top


Eric Kutz can review Theodore Roosevelt's exhortation every time he visits his parents, who live now in Connecticut.

"They have it at their house," he said. "It's a nice keepsake. I have positive memories of that school, and it's nice to have something to hang onto.

"I was pretty upset at the time. It's hard when your school closes."

Kutz was a fifth grader when he played the Cowardly Lion in Roosevelt's final dramatic production in 1983. He attended Lewis and Clark Elementary School the next year and went on to South Junior and Central High School, graduating in 1990.

He attended Oberlin College in Ohio, earned a music degree at Rice University in Houston and continued studying at Juilliard School of Music in New York, where he met his future wife, Miko Kominami, a pianist. In 1996, they formed the Murasaki Duo, and in 2008 they performed together at Carnegie Hall.

Kutz, who teaches 20 cello students at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, spends 10 weeks every summer performing with the Grant Park Orchestra in Chicago.

He started playing the cello at Roosevelt, in the music room on the top floor.

"I teach a lot of future music educators here at Luther," he said. "It's always struck me how incredibly lucky I was to have Steve Gram, a cellist, as my main teacher from fifth grade at Roosevelt until after high school. He's now an orchestra director in Rapid City, S.D., and we've kept in touch.


"I had some really exceptional teachers at Roosevelt."

He remembers Mitchell, too, the last principal at Roosevelt, who also was transferred the next year to Lewis and Clark. "I was really grateful that he was the principal there," Kutz said. "It was nice to see a familiar face."

Mitchell understands.

"The staff from Roosevelt still gets together for coffee the first Friday of every month," he said. "It's still nice to see everyone."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

Chris Wolf
Chris Wolf, a member of the last class to attend Roosevelt School in Grand Forks, with a picture of himself as the Tin Man in the cast of the school's 1983 production of " The Wizard of Qz". In 1910 when the school opened President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to the school expressing his hope that it's students become "..men and women of the finest type" Herald photo by John Stennes.

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