Letter: Grand Forks Central just coming into her own

Iris Westman, who resides at the Northwood Deaconess Health Center, celebrated her 112th birthday on Aug. 28. She is still agile of mind and forever curious. Iris is the oldest living person in North Dakota. Iris taught high school English and ne...

photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Iris Westman, who resides at the Northwood Deaconess Health Center, celebrated her 112th birthday on Aug. 28. She is still agile of mind and forever curious. Iris is the oldest living person in North Dakota. Iris taught high school English and never married.

As a single senior citizen who taught English for 40 years in the Grand Forks Public Schools, here's hoping!

Nationwide, the number of people who are 100 or more is increasing by leaps and bounds. In that context, Grand Forks Central's Grand Lady is just now becoming a centenarian. Central High School was founded in 1882. However, it was not until the school year of 1917-18 that the student body moved into the monumental structure that is Grand Forks Central. In those early years, the Grand Lady was just a child as she found her place in downtown Grand Forks. She vied for attention with the Grand Forks County Courthouse, built five years earlier in 1912.

Over the years the Grand Lady has endured various face lifts. In 1937 during the heart of the Depression, a beautiful art-deco auditorium joined the main building to the west. The facility did not just host Central musicals, orchestras and convocations. National performers also came to town simply because of the dimensions of the stunning auditorium. It was the town's original Alerus Center. Contralto African-American Marian Anderson sang in the auditorium to a sold-out audience. Then, a bust of Norway's stellar composer, Edvard Grieg, took its place in the entrance foyer, making any Scandinavian proud. Grieg, with his dramatic hair, remains as a muse for the music department now housed adjacent to the auditorium.

Other tweaks to the structure have included the 1987 renovation of Central's main structure. The additions blend with the main building so beautifully that it is difficult to detect where the original GFC ends and the renovation begins.


Just before the junior high freshmen became part of GFC's family in 1995, two levels of classrooms rose above the commons. The south bay of windows in those four rooms make atrium boxes flooded with light.

My English classroom features one original wall of the building. It adds distinctive character to the room.

Large images of Charley Dickens and Will Shakespeare punctuated my poster-filled walls with the presence of these two literary characters.

Central's Grand Lady endured major surgery during the 100-year flood of 1997. The entire basement level was flooded with water, and during the next school year, no classes were held in that area. The building operated without the comfort of central air conditioning. I added two box fans to whirl on hot days in Room 302. That year my students and I truly learned the meaning of toleration.

Two years after I retired in 2009, a new gym arose in the north courtyard, and GFC's fine arts department became housed near a new entrance on Fifth Street. Some alumni feel that the music addition, though needed, disturbs the original magnificent sweep of the building's south edifice.

Another grand lady at Central is the lead secretary, Marsha Ketring. She has become a legendary symbol of GFC with her over 50 years in the building's main office. Like the structure itself, Marsha has aged beautifully! Central's teachers, students, and visitors still gravitate to her as they enter the main office. Her ready smile and perky voice remain charming. Marsha's tell-all memoirs would be delicious, but she is too discreet.

On Saturdays when I would worked within the building, I thrilled to the sounds of silence that allowed the Grand Lady to rest. As I meandered throughout the granite floors, I speculated about the concrete walls talking. I thought about the Central teachers who are posthumous inductees in the Grand Forks Teacher Hall of Fame.

I imagined visiting with such teachers as Leo Haesle, Dorothy Travis, Doc Winter, Serge Gambucci, Beulah Bomstead, Ed Bohnhoff, and Leal Edmunds.


Grand Forks Central's former teachers, alumni, and anyone with a connection to GFC will converge today, Sept. 28, at a block party marking the 100th anniversary of the building. The enduring structure has housed history, tradition and thousands of memories since 1917.

I taught in that building for 14 years, just 7 percent of its longevity. Although I enjoyed my years at Valley Junior High, I simply loved Central. The cream years of my teaching flowed there.

I rarely return to visit the Grand Lady now. I'd rather savor my own memories. Still, today I must join the celebration that will see the Grand Lady becoming a centenarian. Well preserved and forever vibrant, she will just be coming into her own.

Luther Frette is a former teacher from Grand Forks.

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