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South St. Paul to bid 1920s school gym farewell
Sixth-grade center to replace storied structure
On those Friday nights when he got to stay out late, a 9- or 10-year-old Steve Doody watched the big kids play and a big crowd fill the South St. Paul Secondary School gym for varsity basketball games.
Now 52, the father of three South St. Paul graduates recalls the city’s winning basketball teams (they went to the state tournament in 1952, 1962 and 1970) playing games in the cramped 1920s gym and inspiring him and other youngsters to compete.
By the time Doody got on the team later in the 1970s, the Packers were playing in a larger gym and the ‘20s model had been relegated to other uses.
Soon he and other alumni will have a chance to say goodbye to the old gym, which was built in 1922 and expanded in 1928. It will be gutted to make way for a multi-purpose space and sixth-grade classrooms.
“There’s a lot of pride in being connected to this community,” Doody said. “It’s important for a lot of those people to see that gym, connect up and say a fond farewell.”
A brief ceremony at 5:15 p.m. on May 14 will include picture-taking, speakers and reunions of classmates. The same night, more than $300,000 in scholarships, many funded by proud alumni, will be awarded to students.
“With ... generation after generation having played basketball or participated in the commencement ceremony in that space, we wanted to handle the transition of that space well, and invite all of our former graduates and community members to say farewell,” Superintendent Dave Webb said.
‘Unreal’ excitement during games
Before a brick wall was built between the old gym and the auditorium, a partition could be pulled back for overflow seating. But it was still very close quarters during big basketball games.
There was little room between the wall and the baseline, throwing off the opposition that wasn’t used to the tight squeeze and lending a “home court advantage,” by some accounts.
“The excitement of that gym was unreal,” Pete Veldman said. “When you played the good teams, you had the good crowd. It did us well early on.”
The 80-year-old, whose four boys graduated from South St. Paul and has grandkids in the district, was the activities director from 1964 to 1993, overseeing all sports practices, games and competitions. He watched opportunities for girls to play sports expand with Title IX, and the new competition gym go up in the early 1970s.
But memories of the old space, echoing with the Packer fight song and with spectators so close to the action they might catch an out-of-bounds ball -- or player -- are still vivid.
Recalling one of many legends on the court, Doody said a senior playing with the junior varsity team wanted to “go out with a bang” during a game one year. Rolling off a pick, the point guard jumped up, kicked himself off of the wall, and dunked the ball into one of the side hoops.
He said the Packers’ coach then called a time-out to apologize.
“It was mildly unsportsmanlike, and kinda funny,” Doody said.
Doody also remembers Christian Laettner, who played for the NCAA National Championship team at Duke University and later the Minnesota Timberwolves, starring in a commercial in the old gym.
“That was kind of a big deal,” he said.
Even though it’s long been phased out as a gym filled with roaring crowds, Veldman was hoping the district would keep the storied space around.
“It’s going to be gone, and we’re going to have to live with it,” he said.
Where the community gathers
In recent years, the dance team and the drum line have used the old gym for practices. On Wednesday, it was filled with paintings, drawings and sculptures for a student art show.
Although the gym hasn’t been what it was for more than 40 years, alumni have already been requesting pieces of the wood floor, which is mostly covered in carpet from when the space was used as a cafeteria, according to Webb. The floor still shifts and creaks beneath the cushy surface when it’s walked on, a reminder of what it used to be.
The first high school was built in 1922, according to a yearbook kept by the Dakota County Historical Society.
Veldman explains that back then, family and town life revolved around the school’s sports, plays and other activities, as the building acted as a predecessor of modern community centers.
“Schools in the ‘20s and ‘30s, they were the center of the community,” he said. “Almost every kid could walk (to school) except the farm kids. That’s the way it was back then: The school was the focal point of the community.”
Doody said the schools and its sports still tie the community together.
“The thing that we have going for us in South St. Paul is our sense of community,” he said. “That focus starts with our schools. You go and have a coffee and they’re talking about last night’s game.”
With that lengthy a heritage, it’s hard to see the gym go, Veldman said.
“It does have a lot of history to it,” he said. “You kind of feel like, ‘Well, why destroy it?’ It is what it is, I guess.”
Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and email@example.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.
Buildings changing to adapt to curriculum
The South St. Paul School District is changing yet again, and students are becoming more advanced earlier on.
More than a dozen students will be graduating from South St. Paul High School this year with a high school diploma, a two-year associate of art’s degree and an international baccalaureate, and the district plans to expand early learning programming, according to Superintendent Dave Webb.
To resolve overcrowding in the elementary schools, address safety and security needs and advance learning opportunities, the district is planning several structural and program changes funded by a $26.68 million bond approved in a referendum last May.
Among other improvements, three classrooms will be added to both Kaposia Elementary and Lincoln centers, a STEM education center will be renovated and classrooms will be added at the secondary school, moving sixth-graders to the same facility as grades 7 to 12.
The district will open bids on April 22, getting ready for construction to start in mid-June, and wrap up in August 2015, Webb said.