Squash kings, time outs and a thriving Korean community


The former New Brighton Elementary School, which was located at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and Seventh Street. On the left is the original building, constructed in 1939; on the right is a later addition, added in the early 1950s. After serving as a school, and later as a Korean United Methodist Church, the building was sold to the city in 2017 and demolished last month to make way for multi-family and senior housing. (courtesy of the New Brighton Area Historical Society)

The building was purchased by the Korean United Methodist Church in the early 1980s, and housed up to 300 members for weekend services in its heyday. Parishioners came from as far away as Duluth and River Falls, Wisconsin to attend Korean-language services. (File photo)

Students, staff and community members gathered at the 1939 dedication of the then-new New Brighton Elementary School building.

A program from the dedication of the second elementary school building, which stood from 1939 until 2019. One name that might be familiar to today’s residents is Fred Beisswenger, who is listed on the program as chairman of the school board. He was also the founder of Beisswenger’s Hardware, which has been in business in New Brighton since 1919. (photos courtesy of the New Brighton Area Historical Society)

Following its demolition, residents reflect on former New Brighton Elementary School​

Nestled in the heart of the city, the former New Brighton Elementary School bore witness to much of the 20th century. The recently-demolished building was erected in 1939, just before the start of the second world war. It closed as a school only in 1978, the same year that “Grease” was released and the Bee Gees dominated the pop music charts.

On a local level, the school hosted numerous election days, many “King of Squash” coronations and thousands of students through its doors — and when one door closed, another opened. The building was reborn as a Korean United Methodist Church for over 30 years until its sale to the city in 2017.

Now that the building itself is gone — torn down in late August to make way for housing — memories live on in the minds of residents and parishioners, as well as in the records of the New Brighton Area Historical Society.

 

Ain’t misbehavin’

“I didn’t like school,” former student Dave Szurek puts it bluntly. “I was not the nicest student, I was one of them - what you’d call wise guys.”

In third grade, Szurek says one teacher became so fed up that she made him stand in a corner of the classroom. Last year, he was able to walk through the school once more at the invitation of the city; he took a picture of himself in the exact same corner, almost 70 years later.

Szurek’s onetime classmate and historical society president Fred Behrens says teachers had plenty to deal with; looking back on an old school picture, he counts nearly 40 children in his class.

“In 1952, the school was stuffed. It was full to the brim, and they actually built a classroom out in the hallway between the fifth and sixth grade,” recalls Szurek. “They had two kids on one side of the hallway and then there was a passageway and then two kids on the other side of the hallway, and there were six kids in each class.”

Before the start of work on Mounds View High School, students would leave to complete grades seven through 12 elsewhere in the north metro and even as far away as St. Paul’s Central High School.

While Mounds View was under construction in the early 1950s, the elementary school held students over for seventh and eighth grade in order to keep them in the district before sending them on to the newly-built senior high.

“I’m sure most of my old teachers are probably passed on by now, and I’m sure they’re in Heaven because they paid their dues,” jokes Wayne Searles, another former student who lived just a block away from the school.

Searles made up for his misbehavior by becoming a school cop in sixth grade.

“They assigned me to a route, and I would take students home after school, as well as those that went home for lunch,” he explains. “I would carry a stop sign — a stick with a flag on it — and I’d have four to six kids that would line up behind me.”

 

Fond farewell

Joyce Kloncz got to see both sides of the classroom, attending the school first as a student in the early 1950s and then returning as a teacher in the 1970s, just in time for the advent of “Star Wars.”

“When I was teaching there, every year on Halloween we would have a little pizza party for the kids,” says Kloncz. “One year, when ‘Star Wars’ had just gotten very popular, I dressed up as Darth Vader ... and the kids never knew it was me.”

Another of Kloncz’s favorite memories, although bittersweet, was the school’s closing ceremony in 1978.

“The kids were supposed to dress up like it was 1939, and they had a parade through New Brighton. Parents had pickup trucks and we had the band kids in the back,” she recalls. “It was so special to see how everybody bent over backwards to make it a special last day.”

Teachers and families were notified that spring that the school would close its doors, which Kloncz says was a blow to many who lived nearby. Still, she understands that it would have been an expensive project to renovate and maintain the 40-year-old building, while the district was also trying to consolidate schools.

 

Another tight-knit community

Although the building no longer made sense for students in a rapidly-changing district, it ended up being just what a local congregation of the Korean United Methodist Church needed.

“We moved into the building because we outgrew our old facility, which was a small church in Oakdale,” says parishioner Steve Watters. “The school was a perfect fit because it had classrooms for teaching our kids. It had a cafeteria. And our service hall was the old school gymnasium.”

Watters recalls the 1980s and 1990s as a peak time in the church, with membership in the New Brighton congregation reaching roughly 300 people. “Even with the size of the building, I can still remember days where every seat in the pews was filled.”

As a church, the building became the focal point for a different, equally tight-knit community — not the surrounding New Brighton neighborhood, but the state’s Korean Methodist population.

“We had members attending weekly from as far north as Duluth, as far south as Rochester, from St. Cloud to probably River Falls on the eastern part,” says Watters. “The big draw of the church was that Koreans could come together and not only worship, but have a hot meal and associate with other Koreans in the afternoon, because they didn’t live next door to each other.”

Over time, as second- and third-generation Korean Americans began to use English as their primary language, the church transitioned into having more English-language services and Bible studies.

Watters said this was helpful for him, as he is not a native Korean speaker. His wife, Park Sun Hui, brought him into the fold when they met and he says he’s never looked back.

“Our church believes everybody should be welcome,” explains Park.

For her part, she’s sad to see the building go. Still, both her and Watters say that with fewer members and the expense of maintaining an older building, it was time for the congregation to move on. All of its members moved to a space in St. Anthony after it sold the former school building in 2017, and the church continues to have nearly 100 people in the pews every Sunday.

 

More than a school

Even before the building became a home away from home for Korean-speaking parishioners, it served as more than just a school for the surrounding neighborhood. New Brighton residents would visit the building to vote, dance and — perhaps most importantly — judge squash.

“Back then, schools were the center of the community,” says Kloncz. She recalls that, when she was a student, the elementary school was a polling station. “People would come in to vote while we were having lunch in the lunchroom. It was so interesting to watch all of these adults come in.”

Searles recalls that the school used to rent out its gym. One time, he remembers, the Red River Valley Barn Dance radio broadcasted live from the elementary school. More than a one-off event, the building also hosted a squash show every fall.

“They would take the luncheon tables and set them around the outside edge and then the various farmers in town would display their gourds and squash and muskmelons,” recalls Szurek. “At the end of that, there would be a talent show and then there would be a ceremony where one of the farmers was crowned ‘King of the Squash.’”

Szurek also recalls that every year at the squash show, local grocery stores would raffle off bags of groceries. “We won a couple of times, and carried the bag of groceries home so very proud,” he says.

 

Keeping memories alive

New Brighton Mayor Val Johnson has her own memories of the school, especially going to the building’s gym to watch movies like “Lassie.” Going forward, she hopes that people with connections to the space will find other ways to commemorate their experiences without the presence of the physical building.

“It’s great that memories stay there,” says Johnson. “A picture can bring back those memories, or what I did is, I challenged people who have those memories to contribute to or join the New Brighton Area Historical Society.”

As a longtime area resident, and charter member of the historical society when it was founded in 1980, Kloncz has seen many old buildings begin to deteriorate and finally get torn down.

“The historical past is very interesting, but there are points where you can’t maintain those old buildings. And I know that, because we put in hundreds of hours renovating the old depot that sat on the south end of town and now is at Long Lake Park,” says Kloncz.

The depot now serves as the historical society’s museum, which is open on weekends from 1 to 4 p.m., June through September. Although much of the former elementary school is gone — and many of the original furnishings were divvied up among other district schools when it initially closed — the cornerstone was preserved and is now housed at the society’s museum.

“That’s what’s really keeping the memories of New Brighton alive,” Johnson says, of the society. “They do amazing work.”

For more information on the New Brighton Area Historical Society, visit www.newbrightonhistory.com.

 

–Bridget Kranz can be reached at bkranz@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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