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Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, Published May 25 2009

Graduates leave ’07 tornado behind

NORTHWOOD, N.D. – Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the commencement exercises for the Class of 2009 here is how ordinary it was.

Like every North Dakota graduating class, these 24 Northwood seniors seemed a little giddy, a little sad and a just a little glad to get it over with.

Their slideshow of baby pictures and inside jokes went too long and used “Good Riddance” by Green Day as theme music.

One of the girls – Andrea Uglem, in this case – was given the title of “most likely to freak out over a reptile.”

The kids speaking were at times nervous and talked too fast into the microphone.

But this is a class apart.

The class was first to graduate in the new-paint-smelling building just barely completed enough to use Sunday after their old school was blasted a stone’s throw from smithereens by an EF-4 tornado just as they were to begin their junior year.

The tornado killed one man, injured about 17, and wrecked much of the town, including many buildings on the main drag. It also ruined many homes, including gutting two small mobile home parks, doing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.

The word “tornado” wasn’t heard during this graduation until the third of four valedictorians spoke.

That was Tyler Bilden. His family goes back five generations in Northwood to when it was founded in the early 1880s.

And when the tornado ripped across this city of 1,000 on a hot August night in 2007, it wrecked his home enough that he and his family had to live in the basement for five months until it was repaired enough for them to move back upstairs.

Now, they have a new school fixed up way better than anything they ever had before, just in time for this class to exit – never using a classroom in the $13 million building.

“Definitely,” Bilden said, he feels a little jealous of the underclassmen who will attend classes in the building, as he stands in line waiting to enter the gym for the first and last time as a student.

In that sense, there’s a little lack of nostalgia for this place, said Tiffany Johnson, one of 13 girls who graduated Sunday.

“For me, it wasn’t a big disappointment because I never went to school here,” she said, looking around the spacious entry. “The first time I was even in here since it was finished was Thursday.”

The new school is on the west side of town, and lots of work remains to get it ready for next school year.

The old building, opened like a tin can by the tornado, was mostly torn down. Ebenezer Lutheran bought the site and will use the newest addition that survived and build a new church next to it to replace the old one.

The new school structure is impressive. The 700 people attending graduation far from filled the gym. They would not have fit in the old one that seated around 400.

Ebenezer’s pastor, the Rev. Tim Johnson, invoked the divine for the commencement, thanking God for keeping the class together, providing the nearby Hatton, N.D., school for classroom space in the interim and bringing them all to this point.

“It is my great honor and privilege to be able to say ‘Welcome home,’ ” Johnson said, invoking loud and lasting applause.

Tiffany Johnson, like many of her classmates, has memories of hiding from the storm, in her case huddled in the bathroom of her apartment home with family members. But that’s a distant memory for this class who made it to this point.

But not all made it.

Three boys who would have graduated Sunday – Gus Kueber, Tony Waklee Jr., Dillon Zimprich – transferred after the tornado to Dakota Prairie because it was closer to their homes than busing to Hatton.

“We kept in touch for a while but not as much as we wanted,” said Rami Carlson, in between hugging family, friends and classmates in the receiving line after the ceremony.

This is a close-knit class in a close-knit town, where families are interwoven over the generations. Only four of the 24 didn’t start kindergarten together, if you count Aaron Bjerke, who skipped seventh grade to join his graduating class.

“I’m the only one who isn’t 18,” he said. His great-grandfather, Carl Bjerke, went to high school in Northwood, as did his father, Aaron, and grandfather, Keith Bjerke. His great-great-grandfather Peder Bjerke would have attended except, like most farm kids growing up in the 1880s, he couldn’t get out of farmwork to get to high school.

Those deep roots have helped this class weather the worst storm in the history of this city and this school.

Joan Thompson, senior class advisor for 18 years and a social studies teacher, kept her upper lip stiff until greeting and hugging each senior as they recessed.

“I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” she said, feeling the need to explain the tears.

But tornado was not the theme this day.

“These kids have gotten over it,” Thompson said. “They have moved on.”

Superintendent Kevin Coles might be moving on, too, after the School Board decided to cut expenses by making it a half-time position. Coles didn’t want to talk about his future, saying the day was about the students and the community, everyone lauding the new building few had seen up close.

“It’s a great day for Northwood,” Coles said.

After commencement, the seniors piled on the old school bus Bjerke and classmate Ryan Korsmo bought for $750 from the Hatton school to take a few last laps together around their hometown.

“It’s hard to believe this will be the last time we all will be together,” Rami Carlson said.


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