WAHOO – The year 1969 was a pivotal one, not only in American history, but also in Wahoo’s past. The first full graduating class from John F. Kennedy College in Wahoo walked the stage to receive their diplomas that year.
To mark the 50-year anniversary of this momentous event, the alumni of John F. Kennedy College are holding a reunion weekend filled with multiple events Oct. 11 to 13.
Linda Collins, JFK alum and reunion organizer for nearly 35 years, said the weekend is open to anyone associated with the school, which was in existence for only 10 years.
“I don’t care if their grandma went there, we’re open,” said Collins with a laugh.
John F. Kennedy College was situated on the former Luther Junior College, located on about 20 acres on the then-northwest edge of Wahoo.
A group of locals formed the Wahoo Education Association (WEA) to raise funds to purchase the property and keep a post-secondary school in the area. Members included Lee Bronson, Garwood Anderson, Joe Bruenig, Clifford Ericson, Lillie Gibson, Robert Hoppe, Harold Lampert, Thomas Ludi, Robert Shmer, Robert Sullivan and J.R. Swanson. Mert Oden was named the first director of promotions and assistant director of admissions. The first president of the college was Raymond Greenhalgh.
The WEA chose to name the school after President John F. Kennedy in 1965. The board said they wanted a name that would have national as well as local appeal, according to news articles printed in the Wahoo Newspaper. It was the only school named after the late president at the time.
JFK College was a liberal arts school that began at the same time that three other similar institutions were started in the Midwest, Collins said. They were Hiram Scott College in Scottsbluff, John J. Pershing College in Beatrice, and Midwestern College in Denison, Iowa. Although JFK College was only in existence for 10 years, it stood the longest of the four colleges.
“We did last longer than the other three schools,” said Collins.
Three devastating fires in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped bring the college to an eventual close. In 1969, South Hall lounge was gutted by a fire, which killed house mother Mrs. Wilie M. Maddox and injured two students.
Two years later, West Hall and Old Main were destroyed by fire within weeks of each other. West Hall was a dormitory and also housed the cafeteria and the offices of the campus newspaper and yearbook. It was historically significant as it had been used as the first courthouse in Wahoo. Ironically, firefighters worked very hard to save neighboring Old Main, only to have it succumb to fire just over a month later.
The three-story Old Main building housed the college library, administration offices and classrooms. Fire departments from six other communities were called to assist the Wahoo Volunteer Fire Department to fight the blaze.
The college administration, students and local community fought to keep JFK alive after the fires. College President Ted Dillow and Student Council President Phil Otto competed in a 40-mile walk to Omaha to raise money. However, their efforts could not save the college, and the doors closed in 1975.
“A lot of people worked really hard to keep it open,” said Collins.
Now, a lot of people are working hard to keep the memory of the college alive. Collins said she has been planning reunions since 1985. Her last one was in 2009, and she was not going to head up another reunion, she said, until a fellow alum reminded her that 2019 would mark 50 years since the first graduating class.
Collins’ husband, Mike, was in that class of 109 students. So Collins dusted off her list of addresses and started working on the 50-year reunion.
“I’m calling it my last hurrah,” she said.
Reunions are a way to reconnect with friends from across the country that formed bonds while living on campus at JFK. Collins is originally from Iowa, and her husband grew up in Massachusetts.
“You became family,” said Collins. “You lived together 24/7, you developed friendships.”
Those bonds become tighter as the friendships are renewed.
“When we get together, it takes us about 15 minutes for us to revert back to the people we were in school,” Collins said. “Everybody falls back in their role.”
Collins said she graduated in 1970, and did not know the students who came after her until she began planning the reunions.
“I’ve gotten to know those people,” she said.
The reunion also gives alumni a chance to remember the highlights of their time at JFK. Like the day Robert F. Kennedy toured the college during a campaign stop on April 22, 1968. Kennedy gave a speech in which he said having a college named after his brother was one of the greatest tributes anyone could make.
Sports were a big part of the JFK College experience. The JFK women’s basketball team visited China in 1973, one of the first groups of Americans to visit the country after President Richard Nixon opened the borders. Karen Williams Nicodemus, wife of the late coach, George Nicodemus, will be attending the reunion, Collins said, along with four of the starting players.
The grandson of one of the persons who chaperoned the team on the trip is making a documentary and is planning to be at the reunion to interview team members, Collins added.
“He’s coming with a crew to the reunion to film,” she said.
There were many JFK students and graduates who went on to successful careers. Collins mentioned Brian Hill, who played on the JFK men’s basketball team and went on to coach the NBA’s Orlando Magic. But there were others whose legacy may not have been as famous, but was just as important.
“We have mayors, college professors and people who’ve done some fantastic stuff,” said Collins.
Many of these people will be in attendance for the three-day reunion, which starts Friday, Oct. 11 with a get-together at the Starlite Ballroom starting at 5:30 p.m. A dance, featuring “Bartek and James,” will begin at 7 p.m.
Saturday’s events start with a golf scramble and brunch at Hilltop Country Club. In the evening, there will be a banquet at The Shed. The Beatles tribute band, Come Together,” will perform later at Maly’s Landing. The weekend will conclude with a brunch on Sunday at Hilltop Country Club.
Collins said they are expecting about 150 people to attend the events from all over the country. Many have not been back to their old college stomping grounds in 50 years.
“This might be the biggest reunion since the first one that we did in 1985, she added.