The Wapsie Experience (5/11/17)

Ken Donnelly · Wednesday, May 10, 2017
One day last week I was listening to WGN radio from Chicago, as I often do, and was heading into town past the "unofficial" auto graveyard on West Prairie Street, the listeners were calling in about their favorite prom experiences.

Since my last two columns were rather serious; the Cedar County "Cow War" of 1931 and the anti German language campaign by the Iowa Governor in 1917-18, I figured it was time for something light. I decided upon a ritual the great majority of us have participated in during our high school days: the prom.

This will be a two-part effort. Part one: prom memories from local residents that we all know and love. Part two: further research to find out when the first West Liberty high school prom occurred and then follow through the years to the present to see how they evolved. I’ll look into what is considered a

prom today and memories from each decade from the 1940s to the present, including talks with prom-goers in each decade.

I have attended 34 proms, three as a high school student and 31 as a teacher/chaperone, both here in Iowa and in Illinois.

The first one was in 1958 at Cosgrove High School, now part of the Clear Creek Amana district. My date was a farmer's daughter whose family raised Black Angus cattle. One part of the evening that might strike today's youth as old-fashioned was that all attending this junior-senior prom ate in the gymnasium and had a meal cooked by the mothers of several of the Cosgrove party-goers. A few days later, for the Saint Patrick's high school prom, one of our teachers, Sister Mary St. Celestine, called the junior boys one-by-one into the cloakroom adjacent to our classroom and told us which of the girls had not been asked to the prom yet. She asked which one would we like to take since the Sister's sources told her which boys hadn't been paired-up yet. By the way, the girls were elsewhere in the building in their physical-education class. My partner for the night was an Irish girl whose family owned a popular Iowa City dining place.

Here are some local prom memories: Melody Wieneke Henderson fondly remembers her 1973 prom held in the gym facing Columbus street. Guests entered from the back of the stage and were visually treated to a Japanese theme, complete with live goldfish in a pond and a bridge to cross over to reach the dance floor.

Her date was her future husband, Mark Henderson. Melody wore a hand-made dress she styled herself, it was midnight blue with white and pink flowers adorning it. Many of the young women that year wore dresses they had fashioned. Platform shoes were also part of her ensemble. My younger readers might be amused to learn that young men, just a few, wore platform shoes also!

This couple’s pre-prom meal was at the Bit O’ Orleans on the corner of Gilbert/Washington in Iowa City. There was no after prom party.

Dorothy Hildebrand Phelps danced in the old, old gym for her 1942 prom. The theme of the evening was a jungle motif. She traveled to Chicago to buy a black and white tafeta dress for this special evening. Her shoes were red. They were not modeled after the ones worn by Judy Garland three or four years previously in a Hollywood film. Surely my readers know what I am talking about!

Since there was rationing for gasoline during World War II, which had begun five months earlier, she must have taken the Rock Island railroad. Her date was John Reed who drove his mother's car to the dance. The couple double-dated with June Sanders and Don Bretting.

After the dance, the four drove to Muscatine to what is now called the Mark Twain Overlook near the Mississippi River bridge. At some point, June fell asleep and John in the front seat did likewise. So Dorothy spent some considerable time, before the group breakfast in West Liberty, talking to June's date and not her own! As I visited with Dorothy in her Mercy Hospital bed, she perfectly recalled that night 75 years ago as if it were yesterday.

Ron Jensen and Rhonda Miller sat in the waiting room of Wiele Chevrolet with me as they recalled that special evening, while Tom Wiele prepared their vehicle.

This magical evening was in the new gym facing Columbus street with a theme of "Reflections.” You may recall that this was the name of a popular tune of that day. The ceiling was lowered with multiple rolls of Alcoa aluminum and tin foil. The year was 1972. A band played whose name has been lost with the passage of time.

They double-dated with Vicki Burr and Eugene Maylone. The special evening meal was enjoyed at Ming Gardens in Coralville. There was no after prom party; however, the prom crowd ate a breakfast together the next morning.

Korey Wiele, before heading for Coe College, went to the Durant prom in 2012. The year previous he had graced both the West Branch and West Liberty proms. He said he and his date one prom ate at the food court in Coral Ridge Mall.

Chari Esmoil and her future husband, Mark, partied at the Riverboat in nearby Muscatine during their prom night in 1992. All present ate on the boat and danced to the music of a disc jockey. It rained that night, but the showers held off long enough so that all could promenade on the upper deck. Chari wore a dazzling dark pink dress that she bought at North Park Mall in Davenport.

Bob Cline's 1955 prom was in the old, old gym which later became the cafeteria in the old high school. For a seasoned citizen Bob's mind is razor sharp. He escorted Wanda Kay Barkhurst Gerrard to the dance. He noted in passing that the WLHS senior class totaled only 31 that year with one Hispanic, an Atilano girl. No rented tux for this former banker, just his best suit and tie.

The pre-prom meal was at a forgotten Muscatine restaurant torn down long ago. His date's corsage came from the Geneva Henderson Campbell's Greenhouse in the 400 block of East 4th street. He drove his 1950 Plymouth (for my young readers, this was the Chrysler Company car that failed to compete with GM’s Chevy and Ford's Ford) and has disappeared long ago. Gas was 26.7 cents per gallon and Bob filled his tank at "Fat" Newton's gas station on Third street. There was no after prom party.

Bob remembered his junior prom. The queen was Carol Jean Barkhurst Roberts Miller. The theme was "Moonlight and Roses" and the Art Reifsnyder six piece group played for the evening.

Josie Garcia Gingerich attended the prom all four years of her high school experience from 1994-97.

Prom was held in a different venue each year: Holiday Inn, downtown Iowa City; the Highlander, Iowa City; the WLHS gymnasium, and the University Athletic Club on Melrose Avenue in Iowa City. Josie’s date every time was the same guy, her husband and my neighbor, Justin Gingerich.

As for her prom dress, one year her great aunt created a special one. She used shopping trips to Muscatine and Davenport to supply others. Every year of the four there were after prom parties provided by the parents of the junior class. She remembered no organized breakfast the next day at any of them.

Sharon Smith likewise went to four proms; as a worker when she was a sophomore, and with her husband, Steve Shetler, the other times.

One year the theme was "Under the Sea.” One has to wonder if there were sea creatures and submarines in the high school gym. There were no after prom parties in this era and no organized breakfasts either. Smith too shopped in Davenport for that special dress. Pre-prom dining for these two was Bryn Mawr in Columbus Junction and Kingsbury in Letts.

While on depot campus duty last week, I had a surprise visit from some Georgians; Wayne Chelf '66 and his wife, as well as his mother, Ruth Siders Chelf '41 and Marilyn Chelf '73.

When I mentioned prom, Ruth excitedly recalled her 1941 evening at the prom. Her date was Bob Bretting, older brother of June Sanders' date, Don Bretting. Ruth wore a pink dress to the event that had a Southern plantation theme. She remembered that her date didn't have his own car, but they still got there.

The prom was in the old, old high school gym as Bob Cline likes to call it. I asked her if a band was playing and she said, "we had real people" for the musical entertainment. She also commented on Dorothy Hildebrand's date, John Reed as "the perfect son." She intimated that a few of the young men of that era smoked and drank. Meanwhile World War II was months away. But for one evening West Liberty high school seniors and juniors didn't have a care in the world!

Marilyn Chelf fondly remembered the 1973 prom. She went with Mike Dreibelbeis. The pre-prom meal was at a swanky restaurant in Rock Island and they dined with Jim and Mary Jane Dreibelbeis, Mike's parents, and Mike and Lana Vun Cannon, Mike's wrestling coach and his wife. For you fashionistas, Marilyn was dressed in a light blue knit dress with an empire waist, a high neck and a crocheted inset. There was no official post-prom party, but they went to a gathering in Connie Cousins basement. At one point they moved on to Kimberly Park.

There were no fancy hairdos styled by Marilyn and several of her female friends as they had all caddied that afternoon for the conference golf tournament. Some of the young ladies even got slightly sunburned!

Older brother, Wayne Chelf, passed when I asked him to reflect on relating his prom experience. Should I ask Rick Kennedy, Steve Burnett and Steve Probst for details?

Leta Mae Christensen '50 greeted me at the door of her upscale condo wearing one of the long black tafeta black gloves she wore that evening sixty-seven years ago, it went up to her elbow! The theme for the evening was "Stardust". Really old readers will recall the Hoagy Carmachiel classic of the same name.

Using the class colors of French blue and silver, the walls of the gym and the ceiling were decorated with blue streamers with aluminum silver stars attached all over. Blue pools of water, placed in bird baths, kept up a bubbling effect all evening. Leta Mae laughed about this claim and said the moth-balls, placed there for a bobbing up and down effect failed most of the evening.

She wore a black dress, full skirt with a bustle in the back. The dress was purchased at the Yetter's department store in Iowa City. Her date in 1949 was Logan Steen and senior year, her future husband, Dale Christensen. They did not go out to eat prior to the dance. She also mentioned that most kids attending did not have their own cars.

The Stan Stanley orchestra, described as one of the best in the area, provided the music. Dick Peters of the State University of Iowa played the piano for the intermission program. The students dined at the "Milky Way Cafe" on ice cream, strawberries and angel food cake.

The great secrecy that existed in the days preceding the prom was remembered; all the windows were covered up so that one couldn't peek into the gym.

Orma Chelf had freshly baked cookies when I arrived. In 1953 and 1954, she starred for the Belle's girl's basketball team at the tournament in Des Moines. One day there she took time off from scoring baskets and went shopping at Younkers where she bought a white prom dress, pleated on the side.

I should mention in passing that our West Liberty girls at that tournament were the first in Iowa to wear bare midriff outfits!

Orma smiled recalling that lots of fill dirt was hauled into the gym floor for a garden that was part of the theme. There was live music, the Jimmy Adams orchestra. Her date was Ron Heick both times; they doubled with Carol Barkhurst and Tom Roberts one year. At this point, guys did not wear tuxedos, there was no after prom party, no breakfast gathering the next morning. Corsages were roses and carnations, not orchids.

Tom Brooke happily recounted his 1945 and 1946 proms. Both years he escorted Lutene Weinard Paulsen to the dance. She, like Tom, graces our community to this very day 72 years later.

Junior year, eight students went to the D&L Grill in downtown Iowa City for a meal. There was no after prom party that year and it should be noted that the German nation surrendered on the first V-E Day observance around the time of the prom.

Senior year, Tom and Lutene, double-dated with Don Wilson and Shirley Lewis and went to the Claire Brooke cabin on the Cedar River after the dance. Three months prior to the prom, in February 1946, Tom and Lutene and Loretta Weinard and Earl Jehle, took the train to Davenport for a live concert by Sammy Kaye and his orchestra. It was an evening of "swing and sway" with Mr. Kaye.

It was a snowy night and the train back to West Liberty was delayed by the weather; while waiting, our local teens ran into none other than Sammy Kaye who was also waiting for a different delayed train. The famous musician asked for a critique of the evening's concert, it was very positive.

The local students proceeded to ask him if he would consider playing for their prom the following May. "If I'm in the area, I'll bring my band and play." Sadly, Mr. Kaye was busy that night entertaining elsewhere in America!

Tom thought the seniors danced to 78 rpm records at the prom.

Sunday, I visited Rodger Johnston at the Heath Manor Assisted Living complex. He graduated from high school here 84 years ago this month and had no recollection whatever of any special final dance held. We agreed that the depth of the Great Depression might have been the reason.

In June, I will reproduce a history of the institution known as the high school prom and how it has evolved over the many decades. I will likely throw in a couple of big city Chicago stories as well. They do it differently there, not necessarily better, but differently.
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