Looking Back: When homecoming equaled floats, fire, frolic, football and fantasy

Published 9:04 am Saturday, September 27, 2008

Homecoming at Albert Lea High School has changed through the years. Proof of this can found in a review of the events which took place five decades ago. And one detail emphasizing this point is how all the traditional yearly events, with one exception, took place within a one-day period.

On Friday, Oct. 10, 1958, a special assembly was held for the student body where the homecoming queen would be crowned. That year there were seven contenders for the honor.

The Ah La Ha Sa student newspaper reported, “Presenting an impressive spectacle to the thrilled audience was gracious Queen Janet Gurwell, attired in a traditional, flowing white formal; holding a bouquet of scarlet roses; and surrounded by (six) lovely attendants who were arrayed in brilliant red gowns of taffeta and net with delicate, white rose wrist corsages.

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“After introducing Queen Janet to the audience, Mark Knutson. student council president, crowned her with the sparkling rhinestone tiara that matched glistening tears of happiness in her smiling eyes, and majestically but humbly she repeated the solemn vow.

“Representatives pledged their loyal support to the queen, and David Skoloda provided a fitting climax with his talented vocal rendition of ‘A Perfect Day.’”

The new homecoming queen for 1958 was an active member of Masquers, Thespians, Hi-Teens, Pep Club, A Chorus and was student council treasurer.

The one preliminary homecoming event taking place that year was the parade and bonfire-pep fest on Wednesday, Oct. 8.

Each class, student organization, and homeroom in the high school somehow acquired pickups, wagons and vehicles with flat beds to provide the basis for their float creations. Displaying what was termed “exceptionally enthusiastic school spirit,” the high students constructed 33 floats for the homecoming parade, carrying out the selected slogan, “Send ‘Em to the Clinic.” This slogan was based on the opponent for the homecoming game, the Rockets of Rochester High School.

The parade, which took place after school, went from Central Park to Fountain Street, then to Broadway Avenue to either West William or West Main Street and ended at Morin Park.

Adding even more length to the parade were vehicles with the seven queen candidates and the cheerleaders, the Albert Lea High School Pep Band (a smaller group of student musicians) and the junior high school band.

The floats were based on various aspects of student creativity. Rochester’s Rockets were “rammed,” “sent to the clinic,” “beat,” and even “blasted to the moon.”

The Junior Chamber of Commerce, which selected floats that excelled in originality and effectiveness, awarded the grand prize to Homeroom 113 for its interpretation of the theme, “Rockets to the Clinic.” The feature float prize went to Homeroom 309, second hour; the most effective organization float, Hi-Teens; and the winning class float, the junior class.

Besides preparing the floats, some students also gathered scrap wood and cardboard for the traditional bonfire which would take place within Morin Park at the end of the parade. Or, as the Ah La Ha Sa reported, “Excitedly scurrying to Morin Park, the students, led by the cheerleaders and accompanied by the Pep Band, yelled vigorously to encourage the Tigers’ victory in the coming encounter with Rochester. The fascinating flames of the huge bonfire leaped and crackled, symbolizing suspense and enthusiasm. … Large crowds gathered around the traditional fire as floats were torn down and thrown into the already mammoth blaze.”

After the crowning of the 1958 Homecoming Queen, there were still two more events scheduled on Oct. 10. Hopefully, the first of these events, the football game at Abbott Field would end in a victory for the Tigers. However, for the eight preceding years the Tigers had lost every homecoming game.

During the game’s half-time the Albert Lea high School Band, under the direction of L.J. “Cap” Emmons, presented a program on the field which included the musicians playing and marching around and forming several symbols. One of these symbols was a crown. At that time Queen Janet and her attendants came out onto mid-field on a special float.

Unlike the eight preceding homecoming games, this gridiron confrontation ended in a 13-7 victory for the Tigers, coached by Jim Gustafson, over the Rochester Rockets. The visiting team had actually confirmed the homecoming theme or slogan that year.

The 1958 homecoming festivities concluded with a dance at the high school gymnasium for students, faculty and alumni with music by Vance Dixon’s Orchestra. The gym had been decorated by the Hi-Teens organization with cherry and blue goal posts, balloons, and silhouettes of cheerleaders and football players, all based on the theme, “Football Fantasy.”