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Denfeld grads reflect on 75 years of life

Pat Munger Lehr, Betty Myhrman Lahti, Shirley Smith Kilgore, Claudia Christianson Nimrichter, Karen Johnson Somrock, Wanda Bussa and Joan Mitchell Asperheim (from left) have been friends since high school. They graduated from Denfeld in 1953. Beth Koralia/For the Budgeteer

Best friends since high school, Pat Munger Lehr, Betty Myhrman Lahti, Shirley Smith Kilgore, Claudia Christianson Nimrichter, Karen Johnson Somrock, Wanda Bussa and Joan Mitchell Asperheim recently gathered in Duluth to celebrate their collective 75th birthday.

The women, many of whom have known each other since kindergarten, graduated from Denfeld High School in 1953. They have remained close throughout the years and often get together, occasionally meeting in Hinckley for lunch.

"It's unusual for girls to keep in touch so long. We send cards and talk on the phone and every five years we get together," said Patsy Munger Lehr. "There were about 15 of us who were really tight."

Recently the group lunched at the Kitchi Gammi Club and spent some time at the Larsmont Cottages near Two Harbors. They also attended a memorial service for their friend and classmate Marge Colberg McMannus.

The group has seen many changes in Duluth over the years. When these women were in high school, the town looked quite different.

For starters, Shirley Smith Kilgore noted, "There was no Lakewalk."

It is difficult to imagine Canal Park without the prominent landmark. The entire area was not the hopping hangout it is today.

"Canal Park was a dump," Joan Mitchell Asperheim explained.

The freeway had not yet been built either. Without it, speed limits were slower, lengthening the drive to the Twin Cities. Travelers still had the option of riding the train. Public transportation was excellent, and the girls took the nickel-per-fare bus just about everywhere.

Compared with today's teens, Wanda Bussa said almost "nobody had cars at school. There were only a few in the lot."

Only one of the women, Hjordis Olson Taven, had a car. All of the girls would cram into it, and each contributed a quarter for gas money. On homecoming, they would decorate the car.

After school, the girls would go straight home, unless they were in band or choir. But on Friday nights, the girls would often take the bus, to one of several movie houses in town, usually the Zelda Theater.

According to Lehr, "If we went to a movie ... I'd get on at 75th, Shirley on 71st, Marge at 60th, Kay at 59th and we'd all try to get on the same bus. Can you imagine how many phone calls that took to organize that."

Betty Myhrman Lahti recalled, "Twelve cents could get you to the movie and buy popcorn, and you'd still have a penny left over."

In the summer, the girls would head down to Park Point and stop for ice cream at Fritz's, one of many destinations in that neighborhood. When the weather was warm, the beach (which still had changing houses) was packed with people.

Growing up, the girls idolized Dennis Morgan, Doris Day, Sonja Henie and Dinah Shore, to name a few. Movie stars inspired the girls, not political figures or entrepreneurs.

Karen Johnson Somrock recalled: "Doris had a picture of Rock Hudson on her locker door. What a shocker it was to find out he was gay."

On the weekends, they would have pajama parties, picnic at the zoo or walk along Skyline.

Somrock said, "We found things to do that were simple."

The women feel that modern fashion with mini skirts and low-cut tops is too casual compared to the conservative attire they sported at school, mostly long dresses.

"We never wore pants," Bussa said. "Western Roundup Day was probably the only day we wore pants."

Lahti, venting her frustration, remarked, "Now, people wear jeans to weddings and funerals."

"And they pay $100 for jeans," Kilgore said.

Asperheim said that they wore button-up shirts with skirts, saddle shoes and "our socks matched our tops."

They even dressed up to go shopping, but then "dressing up" meant wearing hats and gloves.

Bussa cannot remember her mother wearing anything but a dress: "Our mothers always wore house dresses."

The girls described their parents as "hard-working" and "very church-going" disciplinarians.

Even though they were taught to respect their elders, Asperheim reminded, "We had fun with them too."

Their parents were especially giving: "Pat's dad would do anything for anybody," Claudia Christianson Nimrichter said.

During winters, Nimrichter recalled jumping off rooftops into tall snow banks. She thinks there is less snow in winters now. But the lack of snow in recent winters does not get these women excited about global warming.

"The earth is changing all the time," Asperheim believes. "It goes in cycles."

Several of the women have adapted to changes in technology easily. Many are quite tech-savvy: They own cell phones and send e-mail and texts.

"I couldn't live without my computer," Kilgore said. "It's easy once you start, but it's a different way of life than when we grew up."

Technology may have changed, but some things about Duluth have not. The girls commented on what they thought could use a few changes.

Somrock offered: "We've always had a problem with jobs. We need to bring more in so that we can keep the young people here."

Nimrichter agreed: "The population was over 100,000 when we grew up," she said.

The women think the prices in Duluth are outrageous, speculating that tourists will be discouraged from returning by such high prices for hotels and parking.

The women have also noticed a spike in crime, convinced there are more murders now. Kilgore could recall only one murder during her youth, behind Hotel Duluth.

"[People] are more hesitant about walking outside at night," Somrock said, recalling spending many evenings outdoors.

Despite the new perils, Lahti and the rest of the girls "didn't appreciate how beautiful [Duluth] really is."

In the coming years, the women hope to still be having birthday parties, and they will continue to be as active as possible.

Duluth freelancer Beth Koralia last covered Harbor City Squares for the Budgeteer. She can be reached via