Putting the home into Homecoming

by Tom Coombe

by Tom Coombe. Echo Editor
The hallways at Ely Memorial High School are much emptier now than when Doug Luthanen graduated in 1967.
Same goes for when Virgie Ivancich finished at the top of her class in the 1950s or when future mayor Ed Steklasa was valedictorian of the Class of 1962.
The graduating classes now are half the size, sometimes smaller, than they were when Sue Becker, then known as Sue Palo, was part of some of Ely’s outstanding girls sports teams in the early-1980s.
When Larry Mischke started teaching, they put three classes inside the Memorial Building instead of the seven housed there today. Tom Wetzel joined Ely’s faculty not long after and Bob Braff coached an outstanding volleyball team, one led by a hitter named Connie Mavetz, that reached the District 27 finals in 1987.
One could say it was fate, or perhaps a strange confluence of events and family ties, or maybe most notably Fall Homecoming Week and an unbeaten Ely volleyball team, that brought them all back inside the nearly 100-year-old gymnasium on Monday night.
Yesteryear and this year came together, certainly on that night and inside that gym but really all of this week as Homecoming was celebrated inside those 100-year-old walls, as well as in a brand-new addition on campus as well as throughout town.
Luthanen, who is still remembered in some circles for his “shot heard around the Range,” one that gave Ely’s boys basketball team an improbable upset win over Aurora-Hoyt Lakes in the District 27 basketball tournament, was inside his old stomping grounds for only the second time in a half-century. Like a few other onlookers Monday, he peaked around not only the gym, but the new building that links the Memorial and Washington facilities and houses a new auxiliary gym, a cafeteria and commons space, a must be seen to be believed band and shop area, as well as offices and the media center. Luthanen smiled as he looked around at the impressive new structure and openly pondered if Ely - at some point in the future - would ever outgrow its current educational space.
Ivancich is a regular at the gym, joining others such as Betty Kunstel, who’s also known as Ely’s oldest cheerleader, and Theresa Jamnick. Had one walked into a volleyball or basketball game 30 or 40 years ago, there’s a decent chance one might see all of them in the same space.
In town from the Twin Cities to visit her mom, Becker stepped back in time this week and recalled basketball practices led by another fan in attendance Monday - now-retired teacher and coach Judy Klun. Other than some padding and a new scoreboard, the gym looked much as it did when she played basketball for the Wolves.
Stories were aplenty on this night with Mischke, Wetzel and Braff in different parts of the gym. Over the span of almost 50 years, they’ve seen an evolution of sorts when it comes Ely High School.
Mischke arrived as the days of 100-plus member graduating classes were coming to an end, but all three taught and coached in an indisputably different era than today, when a 40 or 45-member graduating class is cause for celebration.
But Homecoming is Homecoming, whether there are 100 seniors or 35, and whether one could fill Ely’s gymnasium with high school students and staff, or put the entire K-12 student body inside with room to spare.
Homecoming royalty, class competitions, school spirit and pep fests, the band and even a parade remain part of this memory-filled rite of fall.
This year’s celebration seems to have more of a jolt, and one can thank the volleyball team for part of that.
Remember Braff’s 1987 team and that hitter named Connie Mavetz? She’s Connie Coughlin now and her twin daughters - Rachel and Kate - are two key cogs in a Wolves machine that has won 17 straight games without a defeat. It’s a group that has turned heads around the area and is beginning to capture stateside attention. Stay tuned over the next several weeks: this group has a few more chapters to write in what has already been a storybook season.
The volleyball team made quick work of Northeast Range on Monday, finishing the game in less than an hour even with a break to introduce the Homecoming court.
They attracted one of the larger crowds to see a volleyball game in town in some time, including a student section that needed a few folding chairs to fit everyone into their usual lower corner area and one that has a cheering section that’s getting more creative by the game. Students mingled and posed for pictures after the game while some of the adults stuck around just to visit, and perhaps reminisce about their own Homecoming memories - many at Ely Memorial High School.
The fun continued on the football field Tuesday morning and fittingly enough, a celebration that includes a parade wraps up tonight with a dance in the brand-new gymnasium and in the facility that links the past with the future.
Until the day student numbers rise again, Memorial High School and its history, its tradition, and its legacy, carries on.