Some Friendships Last A Lifetime
Four Wasilla Schoolmates Reunite After 50 Years
By Roger Lincoln with Frieda Hulke, Susanna Katkus, and Judith Bergman
There’s nothing like a gathering of old friends to bring back long-forgotten memories. On August 15, 2015, the Wasilla High School class of 1965 celebrated its 50th reunion. Our class was the largest in Wasilla up to that time, with twenty-three graduates. Four of us attended all twelve years of grade school together beginning in 1953, and we remain friends to this day.
It was poignant remembering old Wasilla and observing how much it had changed. While remembering our past we marveled at how our parents persevered to build their lives here when others couldn’t. We now realize, we were dirt poor and living in a poverty pocket back then, but as kids we felt our lives were mostly good.
In the 1950s Wasilla was a hardscrabble town at the end of a gravel road leading through Palmer from Anchorage. Everyone got by as best they could while trying to acquire some land, build or find a house to live in, and support a family. World War II hadn’t been over very long when most settlers arrived in the area. The oil boom of the 70s was more than twenty years in the future, and the current Wasilla scene of urban sprawl, paved roads, and traffic lights was unimagined.
We all came from diverse backgrounds and none of our parents came from families with money. All of our fathers, and two mothers, served in World War II, and that history-making event seemed to draw them close. Somehow their dissimilar backgrounds all came together when we found ourselves in the same place at the same time and made us four lifelong friends. Here are our stories.
Frieda Hulke. My father was from New Ulm, Minnesota. My mother was born in Kanakanak, Alaska. Dad came to Alaska during the war and met my mother while fishing on Cottonwood Creek outside Wasilla, near Mom’s family home on Knik Road. They married in 1946 and moved back to Minnesota where my brother and I were born. Mom deemed the Minnesota winters too cold for me to walk to the bus stop, about a mile down a gravel farm road, so we relocated to Wasilla in 1953 in time for me to start first grade.
For many years Mom, like many women, worked as a stay-at-home mom. When we got older, she took a job at the local laundromat, after which she was employed a number of years at Teeland’s Country Store. Dad worked construction in Anchorage and around the state, which at that time was primarily summer work. With unemployment checks covering the winter months, it was a good thing we always had a big garden, and picked and canned wild berries. Mom and Dad were good hunters and all of us liked to fish. It was critical for someone in the family to get a moose each year. I’m still particular about the freshness of salmon, but have not maintained my appreciation for moose meat.
Fresh fruit was a special treat. Dad sometimes brought home oranges and apples when he had been working “away” jobs around the state. Bananas were rare, probably because they didn’t travel in his suitcase as well. One special holiday food included asparagus – canned asparagus. I never had fresh asparagus until I was an adult. I will confess to being a fresh asparagus convert. Mom bought flour in 50 or 100 lb. cloth sacks, which later served as dish towels or straining cloths when cooking berries for jelly and such.
Our house, a basement home at first, was heated with a wood stove crafted from a 55 gallon drum. Dad created a hot water system made by running pipes inside the top of the stove and back into the top of the hot water heater that sat immediately behind the stove. This was a good way to help keep the hot water from cooling down once it entered the tank. Dad’s ingenious system allowed us to have sufficient hot water for showers and washing. There was a “backup” plug in the heater that could go directly into a pot of water, which often came into good use when Butch and I took so long doing the dishes that the dish water got cold. Dad was handy with a chainsaw and axe, so we always had a good supply of wood.
Fast forward to adulthood. I’ve had a wonderfully rewarding career in nonprofit management, which I began by working with the Susitna Girl Scout Council in Anchorage as a field executive. In that job I “returned to my roots” by directing Camp Togowoods (a resident camp located near Knik) for four years. I drove through Wasilla on every trip to and from camp.
After leaving Alaska, I worked for Girl Scout Councils in Edwardsville, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri. I have been in the St. Louis region for the past 33 years, but still consider Wasilla my home.
Way back when I was starting school in Wasilla, I could not have imagined having all the opportunities I’ve had in my life. It was sweet to spend a few days there to attend the 50th reunion of our high school graduation. Our class president, Shirley (Neal) Nunley, is still holding down the fort after all these years and did a great job of coordinating, but the sweetest part for me was that the four of us, who went through all twelve years of school together, were able to enjoy eachother’s company for the first time since graduation.
Susanna Katkus. My father was from Lithuania and managed to escape to New York City, where he had relatives, when the Soviet Union took over just before WWII. My mother was from England. She worked in the Women’s Land Army during the war caring for “Lady David’s” estate, Frier Park, which later became the late George Harrison’s estate.
They met when my father was recovering in England from an injury he’d received while invading Germany with the US Army. My mother arrived in America on an ocean liner as a war bride.
Father flew to Alaska in 1948, and found a job as a “gandy dancer” with the Alaska Railroad. He had been a tailor in Brooklyn and wanted to get as far away from New York as possible and still be in America. At that time Houston, Alaska, was as far as you could drive from Anchorage in that direction.
After securing employment he went back to New York City, picked up our family, and drove the recently opened Alcan Highway in an old GMC truck. He backpacked to Willow and built a cabin there, but in 1953 we moved to Wasilla so I could attend school. My parents later bought a 160 acre homestead in Pittman in 1955.
Our first house was a shack built with railroad ties. It was the minimum size needed to qualify for a homestead. My parents built a house next to it the following year. Old rags, moss and oakum were used to plug leaks in the walls. They also built a barn for the cows, chickens and rabbits.
Birthdays were always made special. We got a cake every year, chose what we wanted for dinner, and didn’t have to do our normal chores. Paper was so scarce we’d cut the labels from canned milk and used the back side of them for coloring.
Christmas was also a special time. There were bags of candy given, but closely rationed in order to make them last. Oranges were a rare treat during the holiday season. We took them apart section by section and ate them cell by cell. We looked forward to eating holiday lunches at school.
Like many others we had two kinds of water. Running water and walking water. Both required someone to carry them.
Dad worked for the Alaska Railroad so he knew the train crews. In the summer my mother would put us on the train bound north to Honolulu Creek. We’d spend the day playing on the train. At Honolulu Creek we’d change trains and go back south. We were three girls, ages ten, eight and six. Can you imagine putting your children unsupervised on the train today?
A special excuse to go to town was to check the mail at the post office in Wasilla. You could talk to the other people who came in from other remote areas and visit for a while.
I worked for a number of years in retail clothing sales. I sold men’s clothing for Stallone’s and women’s clothing for Dimension’s and Rosita’s. After that I went into business for myself operating Late Bloomers, a ceramic and flower shop on Spenard Road. I eventually sold my flower shop and went into the bed and breakfast business so I could take care of my mother. Now I’m retired.
It was good to see my Wasilla classmates. The four of us still work and play well together.
Judith Bergman. The Alaskan Gold Rush brought all four of my grandparents to Alaska in the early 1900s. Dad was born in Manley (Hot Springs), near Fairbanks, and Mother in Anchorage. My mother and father met during their school years after their parents migrated to Wasilla.
After WWII, our family’s first few years were spent at Independence Gold Mine where Dad worked as a miner. When the price of gold fell, we returned to Wasilla where I found playmates who are friends still today.
We homesteaded for a few years outside of town on the Big Lake Road, now known as the Parks Highway. The road was gravel then and only went as far as Houston. Like most homesteaders, we made do with a one room log cabin until my folks bought a small one-bedroom trailer, cut a hole in the cabin to fit the back door of the trailer, and we were set.
Several houses around Wasilla were also our homes. Mom was a stay-at-home mother while Dad worked in Palmer as an apprentice butcher, later at the Wasilla Bar, and finally at Teeland’s General Store for several years. During this time he was also the leader of the Explorer Scouts, and I believe this work with the boys was his favorite. He also did a little meat-cutting on the side with Roger’s father [see Making Ends ‘Meat’ in Sept/Oct 2015 issue].
Wasilla was small enough then for spending lots of play time in the woods and of course in town, especially after we all got bicycles. Also, being town kids, we usually met the train every day we could. In the winter, we spent many hours after school and weekends on the lakes skating. Mom and Dad would often join us.
Starting school was a big treat. I loved reading and can remember reading to Mrs. Borden in second grade, and in third grade, Mrs. Slumberger read the entire Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Our class wrote to Laura and Helen Keller and received letters from both writers. The Weekly Reader was another favorite as we learned about people and happenings from Outside (the lower 48 states).
In the summer of 1958, my father passed away. Mom chose to take teacher training, so the next two years she spent the summers in Fairbanks at the only university in the state at that time. I was shipped off to Wamic, Oregon, where I spent a part of the summer with my grandparents. Wow, was it hot there, in the 100s!
After high school, I spent a couple of college years in Marysville, California, then worked in Portland, Oregon, as a telephone operator for a year where I nearly froze. I quickly moved back to Alaska for a job with the long distance phone company operated by the Air Force.
I was itching to travel and planned a trip to explore Europe, purchased a Eurail Pass and departed for Frankfurt in April of 1972. I arrived in Germany to 30 degree weather, so I quickly hopped on a train going south. Arriving in Barcelona was magical. Everything was drastically different: buildings, cars, trains, people, shops, money. I also visited Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and back to Germany before my Eurail pass was about to expire. By then I’d caught a rotten case of homesickness.
Back home I worked jobs in Wasilla, Anchorage, Fairbanks, then went farther north to Prudhoe Bay and worked for ARCO for six years as a mail clerk. My job was abolished when the oil started slowing down, so I decided it was a good time to try somewhere warmer. I ended up in Auburn, California, for the next 18 years, becoming a masseuse, finishing a degree in social work, then completing a teaching certificate, with the goal of substitute teaching back in Wasilla, which I did in 2008. I’ve had the best time driving motor coaches in Alaska for the last 18 summers, which leaves time in the winters for warm-up trips to California, of course!
I was looking forward to our 50th reunion, but Roger’s excitement about the four of us finally being home at the same time made our time together, as well as with everyone who attended, extra special.
Roger Lincoln. My father was from northern Washington state and my mother from Minnesota. They met after WWII in Portland, Oregon, where my father was on recruiting duty for the Marines. My mother was in the Navy and worked in a message center. Dad would bring in messages to be sent and their romance blossomed from there.
Mom was discharged in 1946 and Dad in 1949. They decided to move to Alaska, where Dad had always wanted to go. In the spring of 1950, they drove the gravel Alcan highway to Palmer, with a three-year-old child, me, and settled in Wasilla where they planned to homestead.
We lived in the McHenry cabin, on what is now Fairview Loop, for a year or so. It has been restored, relocated, and is now a historic site. Later we moved to Carl Fritzler’s old homestead for a time before moving onto our own homestead in 1954 [see story in August 2015 issue]. Snowshoe Elementary School is on this property now.
All the houses we lived in were surrounded by deep woods. We had no close neighbors so I spent countless hours playing alone. I loved the woods and still do. Some of my time was spent along the banks of Cottonwood Creek catching fish.
The roads at that time were all gravel except for a few blocks on 4th Avenue in Anchorage. Wasilla had about 100 people in the townsite. I attended school in the building that is now City Hall where there were about 100 students from Wasilla and the surrounding area in all 12 grades. Later they built the addition onto the school that was supposed to solve all the growth problems caused by so many new homesteaders moving in. I wonder what those designers would think if they saw the student population of Wasilla today.
Like almost everyone else, we ate salmon, moose meat and potatoes. My mother canned produce we raised in a large garden and supplemented our food supply with some rare groceries.
Television came about in the mid-50s. Everyone used to go to Teeland’s store and watch the test pattern before commercial broadcasting began. At first broadcasting started about 4:00 pm and went off at 10:00 pm. The television programs were shown two weeks after they were aired in the states. The news was shown a day late as the films had to be flown up from Seattle. If the plane was late or other problems occurred then there was no news that day. Another popular activity, before television, was buying and trading comic books.
After high school I left Wasilla to go to college, then dropped out to join the Marines and serve in Vietnam. After Vietnam, I returned to college and earned a degree. I worked for the post office for a number of years as an electronics technician. One of the projects I was able to participate in was the original computerization of the post office in Alaska. Later I went to work as an electronics/computer technician for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. After retiring we relocated outside for family reasons. Currently I spend my time writing and doing volunteer work in the community.
Although we have visited in person, had contact through social media, email, and phone calls, August of 2015 was the first time all four of us gathered together since our graduation in 1965. We took current pictures and compared them to 50 years ago. In some ways we were quite different, age has taken its toll, but we were mostly the same. It seemed we were brothers and sisters rather than old friends.
There’s no town like your town, there’s no place like home, and old friends are the best friends.
By Roger Lincoln with Frieda Hulke, Susanna Katkus, and Judith Bergman