Wapsie Experience (10/12/17)

Ken Donnelly · Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Homecoming: an annual fall event in American high schools that has the opportunity to provide varied events that produce memories that last a lifetime.

It’s the week-long anticipation of Friday night with the big game, theme days with varying amounts of costume whimsy and the entire town being alerted to the gridiron battle with decorated windows in downtown stores urging a victory.

In my Iowa City high school years, I was never part of a homecoming celebration. Saint Patrick's high school had no football team in my three years there and thus no alumni football gathering. When I attended newly opened Iowa City Regina my senior year there was no homecoming that first year for obvious reasons.

The Index for the September 28, 2017 issue contained all the details of the Comet's first homecoming on Friday, November 20,1931. The football game ended in a scoreless tie with Anamosa high school with no means, in those days, to settle the knot.

Last week I spoke with someone who attended the very first West Liberty Homecoming game 86 years ago.

Rodger Johnston,101, now living in Heath Manor Assisted Living, recalled eating at the Crystal Cafe with school chums before the game and did not recall any dance afterwards. Imagine; there have been 13 U.S. presidents since that afternoon when Roger watched the Comets battle Anamosa!

This month and November and December, in a three-part series, we will look at the eighty-six homecomings that followed the first down to the present day.

The Index declared back in 1931: "Homecoming promises to be a great event.” Have they been? I would argue in the affirmative that they have.

This year were two co-incidences with the first homecoming in 1931. Firstly, our first opponent was Anamosa and the most recent homecoming was also Anamosa. Secondly, the 2017 pep rally was cut short by an imminent rain storm, the first homecoming had a

play after the afternoon game entitled: "Looks Like Rain"!


WL 6 U-High 0

It was a 2:30 p.m. game on Armistice Day at the Fairgrounds. There was a bonfire and pep rally the night before on the corner of Third and Clay streets. There was a party after the game at 8:30 pm at the high school with musical numbers and solo dancing. There was also a novelty boys basketball game in which the teams wore boxing gloves. The game’s official was Joe Howard, father of Leta Mae Christensen, Gertrude Nath and Jim Howard.

"Winnie" Keith caught a pass to win the chilly struggle. Quoting the Index: "for five minutes of the final quarter...shivering fans forgot that they were shivering and turned to the more important task of pounding circulation into the shoulders of their neighbors." "It was a tough game played clean on a frozen and treacherous field whose surface had turned uncertain without softening the landing.” (85 years later we don't mess with November weather and instead play November playoff indoors in a 72 degree heated dome. Believe me, I have been there nearly a dozen times to watch heated high school football.)

It also should be noted that the Comet eleven went through the game without substituting.


WL 0 Anamosa 7

Captain and star, John Kimball, played his final game. Hundreds of future footballers would later see this man for their football physicals; climbing steep stairs to his second floor office on the corner of Third and Calhoun Street.


WL 14 West Branch 0

There was a 2 p.m. kickoff and "the old rivals are rarin to go."

This fourth homecoming brought a suggestion from the school newspaper. “The Blue and White wonders if slips of paper with the two teams and their respective members printed together with the numerals wouldn't become very popular." This was the birth of the high school football game program… locally at least.


Under the leadership of Nauman touchdowns were scored by "Bud" Creno and my old landlord in 1965, Ed Waite.

The traditional bonfire was described this way: "Robert Nichols touched a match to the heap of boxes and cobs and West Liberty was off to celebrate the annual homecoming with a huge bonfire south of the creamery. Students yelled and sang in honor of WLHS....The fire blazed and shone on the interested faces of the spectators." "Crowds organized in a line and a snake dance through the streets chanting ‘Beat West Branch’.” The dance ended in front of the Strand Theater.

Again there were no Comet substitutes during the entire game. The team consisted of the following: Peterson, center; Capen and Perry, guards; B. Grandjean and Burr, tackles; Stahle and Waite, ends; E.Creno and J. Grandjean, halfbacks; G. Creno, quarterback; and Nauman, fullback.


WL 6 Anamosa 0

Gene Moylan, the Comet punter, scored the only touchdown. Sam Koster, later the Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, played the second half with a broken right index finger.

It was said to be the largest homecoming party ever as 250 attended after the game. Perhaps a new tradition began as seventeen Comet lettermen received their letters at the intermission of the dance. Is that a tradition worth reviving at the pep rally?


WL 21 West Branch 0

It was a battle between Captain Pedersen for West Branch and Captain Peterson for West Liberty. This year homecoming badges were mentioned for the first time, they were sold at school and around town by members of the Pep Club.

There was a parade from the high school to the fairgrounds led by the high school band and other students (Note: for reasons unknown to me, the WLHS band in 2017 did not march in the parade).

The homecoming dance featured the Dusty Keaton orchestra. The pep rally had remarks from present and past stars of our high school. Goal posts were wrapped and lamp posts and merchant windows were also decorated.

Highlights of the game: perfect weather for November; record attendance, about one thousand; a scoreless halftime score.

Quoting from the Index: "It was just before the close of the game, after a reserve line had been sent in to face the visitors, that West Branch earned her first and only downs of the game." Apparently Coach "Butch" Pedersen was not coaching 81 years ago or the game would have been much closer!


WL 7 Anamosa 20

We have the first mention of homecoming royalty as follows: "Between the halves of the game, Corrine Foster, was crowned as the queen of the occasion, in recognition of her standing in the student body." Her attendants were Betty Nauman and Audrey Walker.

The queen was presented by Principal Blazek who placed the crown on her head.

Wachs (Not Denny) was injured and carried from the field to further weaken the team. One reason for an Anamosa victory may have been the fact that their backfield had won the state relay title the previous spring!


WL 21 West Branch 0

A new innovation emerged for the pep rally; a PRINCE and PRINCESS of homecoming were presented. Homecoming badges and game programs were being sold and buying them gave one the right to vote for this new couple. New too was an unofficial censor board in Principal Klinefelter and students Juanita Jack and Margaret Carey. This trio had to approve of all homecoming plans.

As for the game, the Comets did not experience a great deal of trouble in winning!

Our first Prince and Princess were Ronny Hintz and Patty DeForest. The “Prince" appeared at the game wearing "a blue robe trimmed in white" and the ”Princess" was attired in a blue cape trimmed in white fur" (This was the first and last year for the Prince/Princess experiment).


WL 34

Columbus Junction 0

This year the Blue and White did profiles on the starting team.Two of these young men I knew in my early West Liberty days: JOE PHELPS, fullback, 5 foot 9 inches and 176 pounds. Captain Joe is the never say die type. He is big and tough and runs with the drive of a steam roller.

The other: LYLE WALKER, senior, 5 foot, 11 inches and 150 pounds. Lyle suffered the fate many have suffered, ole man injury. Lyle was a triple threat with an accurate passing arm.

This year's parade featured no less than 14 floats! Floats were built by freshmen, sophomores, juniors, seniors, 7th grade, 8th grade, GAA, home ec department, civil reserve, journalism department, band, FFA, normal training class, faculty and pep club.

Audrey Walker, a popular lass from the junior class, was homecoming queen. Dale Christison, president of the Student Council placed the crown on her head and presented a bouquet of American Beauty roses (Note that the prince and princess have disappeared).


WL 12 West Branch 6

There was high school football on a Monday afternoon, Armistice Day. The pep rally was Saturday night at 7:30 pm. On Monday the homecoming parade preceeded from the high school to the fairgrounds and the game began. Since we were playing the Bears the largest crowd of the season was certain.

Blizzard conditions greeted fans, the Index described it: "Snow filled the air for practically the whole game." Scores of fans watched the action inside their autos. Those who stayed outside, conditions were described as follows: "the hardy ones frozen, backed up against the wind on the west side.”

In a phone conversation, Leta Mae Howard Christensen, recalled the blizzard she experienced as an elementary school student attending the game. She remembered the Rummells twins as West Branch football stars. One of them is still alive in his early 90s she said.

(Note: Leta Mae had sketchy memories of a "rumble" that was talked about between some Cedar County lads and our local boys. It was going to happen somewhere near Downey, which is halfway between the two communities. Did it ever happen? If so, who was rumbling? Totally unknown at this time.)

This year's queen was Jeanette Reedy. Because of the bad weather she was crowned at the dance rather than at halftime.

Bob Hawker, nicknamed “Hawker the Hardy,” was quarterback. Guy Wieneke and Billy Anderson both performed well for the Comets. Tom Brooke recalled a punt by Wieneke in this game that went for negative yards due to the wind.


WL 13

Columbus Junction 0

The queen was Phyllis McCabe. Dorothy Hildebrand Phelps was one of the attendants and received yellow roses. Of course the queen had red ones! I asked this lively 1942 grad about her senior homecoming and she recalled that her boyfriend and eventual husband, Joe Phelps, missed the game as he was delivering a calf to Ames for the local vet. Dr. Jim Carey. But, he arrived back in time to take her to the dance!

“Red” Heath scored both our touchdowns; Curt Utley starred as well, he was described as follows: "this boy has what it takes." The Comets held Columbus to just three first downs and blocked three of their punts.

The Corner Cafe, operated by Mrs. Katherine Papenthien, supported the team in an Index ad, "Let Us Cook Their Goose, We Know How To Cook Here At The Corner Cafe."


WL 13 West Branch 8

Our queen was Betty DeForest. Singled out for praise was Captain Bill Hime, the center, who played a brilliant offensive and defensive game. Jerry Owen and Jim Walker scored the Comet touchdowns.


WL 6 Tipton 27

Earlier in the season the Tipton Tigers had creamed West Branch 40-0! Top billing at halftime went to the Tipton marching band known as one of the best in the state.

Captain "Red" Heath played his last contest as a Comet as he was now Private Leroy Heath of Uncle Sam's Army. The Blue and White praised him: "If "Red" proves as good a soldier as he did as a football player, then it's doubtful if the younger boys in school will have a chance at the enemy."

Tom Brooke, Don Owen and Don Wilson were noteworthy athletes this special evening, but any hopes of an Eastern Iowa Hawkeye conference high finish were blasted away.


WL 0 West Branch 32

This year Betty Jean Smith reigned as the Homecoming Queen!

"The stats tell it all, West Branch gained 183 yards from rushing, West Liberty 23; yards from passing, West Branch 146, West Liberty 0; first downs, West Branch 9 and none for West Liberty! The undefeated powerhouse eleven from West Branch, playing in red and white, remained undefeated!


WL 20 Tipton 7

We had a new coach in town; Coach Quire, a William Penn College grad at 6 feet tall and 200 pounds.

Almost 2,000 fans attended the game, one of the last ones to be held at the fairgrounds. Soon the Comets would be playing on Elm Street at Memorial Field, which would be dedicated to those who served in the war that had just ended.

The queen this year was Edith Mae DeForest. She was presented at the halftime of the game by Tom Brooke, senior class president. Queen Edith in a Blue and White interview said: "this is one of the most successful homecomings West Liberty has witnessed because WLHS won the game."

As for the game, Tom Brooke and Don Wilson did most of the ground gaining. A special moment in the game was described as follows: "Then with 4th down and 12 yards to go for a first down, instead of punting, the Comets sent Brooke out around right end on a tricky reverse and the halfback gained 35 yards before he was stopped on the Tiger's 10 yard line." Two plays later, Brooke was in the end zone. TOUCHDOWN---LIBERTY!!!

Three hundred attended the homecoming dance. Live music was provided by a 12-piece orchestra from Tipton high school.


WL 7 West Branch 13

This year the queen was Grace Phelps. This year was an afternoon game. Though Captain Don Owen crowned the queen I could not find her name in the story. Don Owen also scored the only Comet touchdown.


WL 7 Tipton 6

Both teams were undefeated in the EIHC play prior to the Oct. 16th game. The American Government class under the direction of Mrs. Fran Bodie counted the ballots for the queen and her court. This year the queen was Betty Jean O'Haver.

The royal court was all dressed informally and wore corsages of red roses. It was reported that a crowd of 3,000 fans witnessed the game.

Outstanding men for the home team were Smith, Jehle, Chelf and Heick. The game produced a most unusual stat: West Liberty passed just once, the Tigers three times and none of the passes were completed! A high school football game with no completed passes!


WL 13 West Branch 0

The two teams were tied for the conference lead as both had perfect records. When the two teams took the field on a Thursday afternoon, nine of their players had been placed on the Muscatine Journal all-conference team!

The queen was Donna Mott, who received the crown from Marvin Pierce, co-captain.

A very original float this year deserves mention: a truck with a live chicken in a pen bearing a sign "We're Laying for the Bears"; three live pigs with a sign "We're Rootin for the Comets" and a small calf with a sign stating "This Is No Bull."

An effigy of a West Branch bear was burned in the bonfire and this was the first time mention was made of such action. "Big" Bill Kay, a University of Iowa first team tackle spoke at the pep rally.

The Index said it all in a headline: "Record Crowd Sees Comets Upset West Branch 13-0.”


WL 0 West Branch 26

June Young was the homecoming queen. Earlier the Blue and White reported "HOWARD, MAC GOWAN or YOUNG to be HOMECOMING QUEEN" I spoke with Leta Mae Christensen and ask how she coped with the loss. She said, "I knew she was going to get it, she was tops in almost everything. We were best friends and later college roommates.”

It was a 2 p.m. Armistice Day game with a homecoming dance from 8:30-12:30 with $1 admission, music by the Stan Stanley orchestra.


WL 40 Wilton 0

Queen Janice Richards was escorted by Bob Heick. Ken Jehle was the leading ground gainer for the Comets. Coach Elllermeier's men showed improved form and spirit and the line play was also better than previous games.

Homecoming dance was from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Cupcakes and pop were served by the Student Council. (Wonder what they serve these days?)


WL 18 West Branch 7

On November 9th, West Liberty with a 6-0-1 record took on West Branch 2-4-0. At the traditional pep rally co-captains Carroll Marshall and Marvin Jarvis threw the "bear mascot" into the bonfire. There were speeches by Earl Jehle and Coach Ellermeier.

West Liberty rolled up 379 yards in the victory compared to West Branch's 198.

The queen was beautiful Betty Wieskamp Zimmerman, who recalled in a conversation with me that game night was a cold night. She was fortified from the cold by hot chocolate made by her mother. Queen Betty rode in a convertible to the center of the football field where the West Liberty marching band had formed a heart; she arrived to the center of the heart and was serenaded by the love song, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."


WL 13 Wilton Junction 0

The queen was Janice Brown, later married to a Mohr.

Pelzer and Himes scored the two Comet touchdowns. Gregg, Wolf and Pelzer played fine ball in the backfield the entire game. The star for the Beavers was Jake Freeland, who carried the ball for 111 of their 113 rushing yards.


WL 14 West Branch 7

The queen was Janet Ping. She later married Jack Simon in August of 1954 and their current tribe remains one of the most prominent Catholic families in the area. My friend, girl's basketball star, Orma Chelf Heick, was one of the queen's attendants. According to the Blue and White, “a very happy Janet Ping gave a speech of thanks for her election and invited everyone to the homecoming game and dance."

The usual routine at the pep rally had co-captains Ed Roberts and Dick Palmer throw the "bear", symbolizing West Branch, into the blazing fire. It was noted that the queen and her court rode in convertibles in the parade; could this have been their first time such cars were used? There was a snake dance all around the town led by the cheerleaders, captained

by Barbara Brennan.

As for the game, Don Palmer and Gary Bailey "hot-footed and plowed into and over the Bears for the margin of victory!"


WL 13 Wapello 13.

The queen was Barbara Romaine. She was crowned by Jim Howard, Student Council president.

Co-Captains Bob Henderson and Bob Kaalberg had the honor of tossing the effigy of a Wapello Indian into the fire. (Wouldn't General George Armstrong Custer have been excited?)

The pep rally featured for the first time a speaker from the media; Jim Ryan, sports editor for KWPC in Muscatine.

Wapello scored first with a touchdown from Gary Grouwinkel, who would one day play for the University of Iowa. Ronnie Heick roared back with an 85 yard touchdown run, later Heick threw a 40 yard pass to Gary Bailey for the second touchdown.


WL 0 West Branch 58

Nancy Feldman was queen of homecoming. Prior to this game the Bears were 4-3 in the conference, the Comets 0-6.

There was a light drizzle in the first half and a downpour the second. There was also a downpour of West Branch touchdowns throughout the game. The Bear's hero of the night was Keith Schiele who scored four times and four teammates crossed the goal line also.

The Blue and White summed it up: "The Comets were hampered by fumbles and interceptions." As the season ended we were undisputed holders of the cellar.


WL 7 Wapello 18

Bob Thurness presented roses to Queen Karen Felton. Nancy Robertson, Student Council president, was mistress of ceremonies for the pep rally (Was she the first woman to hold that office at WLHS?). Jerry Bush escorted Karen Felton to the dance. Fifty-one years later they are still a couple!

Jerry scored our only touchdown and the extra point too. A Don Jepson pass interception led to the final Indians score.

What was different about the 26th homecoming celebration from all that preceded it? The parade featured "Twirlers who will present a lighted baton routine!"

The dance on Friday night was from 10-1:00 am. (I can't imagine a high school dance being allowed to finish that late today!). Cost of the dance $1 per person.

It should be noted that for our first 26 Homecoming games, the Comets can boast a 16-8-2 record.

Next month will be exploring 1957 to the 1980s in part two of this three part homecoming Wapsie Experience special.
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