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Amid change, Track and Field Day carries on

by Tom Coombe

Echo editor

Ely’s sprawling school campus has evolved through the decades.

Today, a brand-new addition with offices, a gymnasium, cafeteria and music and shop classroom space connects the century-old Washington and Memorial buildings.

Two other massive structures that once ate up much of the campus footprint - the Industrial Arts Building and the Kennedy Building - are somewhat recently demolished and relics of the past.

A walk around the grounds Wednesday morning triggered memories of some of those long-gone days.

At Veterans Memorial Field, the historic baseball field on campus, kids in third through fifth grade - one of them mine - were full of energy.

Track and Field Day at Washington Elementary has stood the test of time, although like much else at Independent School District 696 it has seen a few changes.

The ballpark is the new venue for the old event, and kids raced around the basepaths and popped balloons, two events that weren’t part of the docket on a cold, rainy afternoon in May of 1978.

For whatever reason, that Track and Field Day stands out the most among my memories of Track and Field Day at what was known then as JFK Elementary School.

Because of the weather, we went indoors and we were packed in like sardines in the bleachers of the Ely Arena.

Records show that there were 1,502 students in grades K-12 during the 1977-78 school year.  To put that in perspective, that’s nearly three times more than our current school population.

Recent word that next year’s kindergarten class currently has only 18 students created a spine-tingling shiver.

Take your political persuasion out of the picture.  It doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican, pro-mining or anti.  If anyone thinks Ely’s current school numbers are sustaining or signs of a healthy community, they’re smoking too much of the stuff that legislators are about to make legal.

But that’s a rant for another day.

Back to 1978 and in second grade alone, we had about 100 kids divvied among four classrooms for the Track and Field Day that had been marked on our calendars for weeks.

Miss Julie Hommerding escorted us to our seats in the bleachers at the arena, and the noise that day rings loud in my memory bank as we took our turns competing in sprint races.  There were other teachers - with last names such as Poshak and Lekatz, Johnson and Tammen, Stefanich and Passi - that brought their students as well.

Keeping us in line, bullhorn in hand, was a curly-haired, mustached principal from Gilbert.  Bob Jalonen was completing his second year in charge and he seemed to relish that bullhorn, as well as the days he led kickball games on the playground.

The second-grade boys were a competitive lot, with some future sports stars including Jon Kastelic and Bob LaTourell among the group.  They were among those grabbing coveted blue ribbons as part of Track and FIeld Day.

It didn’t matter if it was Track and Field Day, elementary basketball or in future years when we spread out to four different Little League teams - the Zup’s Yanks, IGA Cards, Motel Ely Tigers or the Jaycees Braves who would soon become the DQ Dodgers.  All of us wanted to win.

Only a few won ribbons in those days, but we cheered nonetheless when Mr. Jalonen and the phy ed teachers - Carol Petersen and Nancy Wavrin come first to mind - handed them out in the jam-packed Kennedy Cafeteria.

Parenting brings a different perspective now and over the last decade or so Track and Field Day has again become part of the May calendar.

There are far fewer kids now and the move to the baseball field was brilliant and far more parent and spectator-friendly.

Some of the games are the same - one can run a 50 or 100-yard dash just about anywhere - but it seems like events such as the long jump have been scrapped.

There are hula hoops, wheelbarrow races, three-legged races and an atmosphere certainly more relaxed than it was in 1978.

Phy ed teacher Max Gantt is a pro at the microphone and moving things along, and Chelsea Blomberg is right along there with him in coordinating the festivities and moving the kids along from event to event.

At least proportionally,  it seems like more parents watch Track and Field Day than did four or five decades ago.

Ely’s principals - Anne Oelke and Jeff Carey - were both out there to cheer their students on.  But neither brandished Bob Jalonen’s bullhorn.  It made me wonder if it’s stored away in a room somewhere on campus.

Time has passed and those who once were Track and Field Day participants were now at the field as parents, teachers, helpers or administrators.

Yet the enthusiasm and smiles and fun really haven’t changed all that much. One nine-year-old smiled as she brought a ribbon over to her mom and carried on with the day.  Perhaps one day she’ll  carry the torch and share her own remembrances of an Ely tradition.

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