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How times change

Former Whittier Elementary School teacher Tom Swanson (left) joined members of h

BAXTER - Who says school reunions have to be big, stressful ordeals?

Inspired by his discovery of an old class portrait, Nick Sucik, a 1991 graduate of Brainerd's Whittier Elementary School, organized a mini-reunion of his fifth-grade pals from the now closed north Brainerd school.

Taking a break from his studies at the University of Northern Arizona, Sucik rounded up four classmates and a special guest, their fifth-grade teacher Tom Swanson.

Last winter Sucik posted onto Facebook the photo he had found of his fifth-grade class. The picture, almost 20 years old, had been modified by Sucik long before Facebook was invented. The young Sucik had drawn a halo over his head and what appeared to be devil's horns on the head of a classmate.

The Facebook posting, he said, became the staging ground for a mini-online reunion, which in turn led to last week's gathering at the Baxter Caribou coffee shop.

Sucik explained that because of the small enrollment at the now closed north Brainerd schools, students went from kindergarten through fifth grade with many of the same classmates.

"I've never been with any group of people that long," Sucik said.

So, instead of worrying about what to wear to a fancy reunion, the Whittier alumni kept it casual and focused more on their fifth-grade pictures. In some cases the now-30-year-olds wondered what they were thinking when they styled those 1991 bangs.

Whittier, which is still owned by the school district but will be leased by Essentia Health for training this year, was a neighborhood school and many of the pupils could walk to school from their homes. Erin Patrick, a stay-at-home mom who is pursuing her master's degree, lived near Whittier and recalled being allowed to play outside after dark.

"Everything is so different," she said regarding the life style of today's children.

The classmates were disappointed Whittier wasn't being used as a school anymore but were glad to see the building was still being used.

"There were so many wonderful memories there and the small neighborhood," Jenny Kellerman, who now works in marketing with Close Converse Commercial and Preferred Properties, recalled. "We grew up together, almost."

Jennell Welliver, a special education substitute and bartender, remembered the fun she had with her classmates and the bonds they formed.

"I think we were a pretty tight class," she said.

The district's hearing impaired program was based at Whittier in those years and Jericho Croyle, now of Knoxville, Tenn., points to that as one reason she chose a career in speech pathology. She remembered learning sign language in elementary school.

Sucik said the small number of Whittier students helped them form close friendships.

"You can't have that many cliques ," he said.

Welliver, who had diabetes as a child, recalled she couldn't share in some of the sweet treats at school but her classmates didn't forget her.

"Everyone knew to bring something different," Jenny Kellerman told Welliver. "And you got apples and raisins."

Other stops along the Whittier alumni's memory lane included tales of dissecting frogs, visits from Cookie Monster and the think tank, where pupils were sent to temporarily think about inappropriate behavior.

"I had to use it a few times," Welliver said of the think tank.

Swanson, who retired from teaching in 2004, said this was the first time a group of former students had invited him to such a mini-reunion. During his 34 years in the Brainerd district (23 years at Whittier and 11 at Garfield) he estimated he taught about 950 kids.

"I'm very grateful," he said about his invitation to the Whittier gathering.

MIKE O'ROURKE may be reached at or 855-5860.