BACK WHEN: Commencement exercises always an important event

Otto Slehofer

Otto Slehofer

JUNE IS HERE, and it’s a time for transition. We’re transitioning from spring into summer, from good weather to gorgeous weather. And for some younger people, they’re transitioning from school into adult life.

In times long ago, commencement was an especially important ceremony for graduating students. Graduation is the official awarding of your diploma; commencement is an event which celebrates completion of that schooling.

Commencement exercises were certainly different 80 to 100 years ago. Yet, the messages to students have not changed much. In 1921, 30 students graduated from Port Angeles High School. At that time, it was the largest class of graduating seniors.

On Sunday prior to the commencement exercises, all the senior class, their instructors, parents and a large group of citizens gathered at the high school auditorium for the baccalaureate service. The Rev. Schmidt delivered the class sermon, which was intended to inspire their souls and provide timely suggestions and advice. He admonished these students on the disgrace of profanity, the sanctity of the home and obedience to the laws of God and man.

We need to realize it was a time different than ours. Only 29 percent of students graduated from high school in the 1920s. Many students entered the workforce before graduation. Unlike today, many jobs did not require a high school diploma. Still, many graduated even while they had jobs.

The 1921 Class President, Eugene Buckner, was an example of that. The newspaper made a lighthearted comment, hoping he would arrive in time to take his place in the program. The reason? Buckner worked on the lighthouse tender ship Heather. The school superintendent and principal made a special request to the 17th U.S. Lighthouse District to allow Buckner to attend the ceremony.

In the end, he could not attend, but he did receive a diploma.

The 26th annual commencement for Port Angeles High School occurred in 1921. The Rev. Duncan Brown gave the invocation, and Doris Cooney gave a salutatory address. She extended a welcome to the large gathering and expressed appreciation to the parents who made many sacrifices to give their children the benefit of a high school education.

At least 600 people crowded into the high school auditorium for the ceremony. Even so, about 200 people were unable to find standing room, making it clear the town needed a larger high school.

Student David Critchfield spoke about the history of the Student Body Association and expressed hope that their class of 1921 might grow stronger each year with ever-increasing accomplishments.

Robin Bingham, the class valedictorian, gave a speech titled “A History of Port Angeles,” going back to Don Francisco Elisa in 1791. He spoke of Victor Smith’s influence and President Abraham Lincoln’s order setting aside a government reserve.

The ceremony’s theme called students to understand the past and the influences that led to the current time, so they could better shape their futures.

In recent history, we see a large number of students receiving scholarships from many institutions and foundations. That was not the case in 1921. Cooney was the sole recipient of a scholarship. The Clallam County branch of the Washington University Alumni Association gave one each year.

Along with high school graduation, there also were commencement exercises for junior high school graduates. I visited an old friend, Otto Slehofer, who was a 1942 Port Angeles Junior High School graduate.

Slehofer said junior high school graduation did not have the same pomp as the high school. Though the graduating ninth-graders did not wear caps and gowns, it was still a significant event.

The 1942 ninth-grade commencement exercises were no small affair. The theme was “Our American Heritage, How to Use and Preserve It.”

The junior high school orchestra played the grand march for the processional of graduating students. The Rev. R.E. Nichols of the Free Methodist Church gave the invocation.

Two ninth-grade class valedictorians gave speeches. Mary Marquardt spoke on “The Roots of American Life and Democracy,” and Marjorie Hagaman spoke on “The Freedom We Defend.” Honor student Roberta Lawson spoke on “I Am an American.”

Various students, including Slehofer, gave musical performances. Slehofer remembers playing “Promenade.” He had earned high ratings in district music competitions.

The keynote address was given by Superior Court Judge Ralph Smythe. His message was titled “Our American Democracy and Heritage.”

Smythe reminded the students of America’s reputation as a “country without a history.” He reminded them this reputation was earned because so few Americans know their nation’s history. He further stated that a democratic form of government is only as good as the people making up the government, reminding them it was their responsibility to keep the rights provided by our democratic government.

The students received a diploma every bit as nice as the one awarded at the high school. It was an especially important document for them. In 1942, the high school graduation rate was less than 50 percent. So, for many students, this diploma marked the highest educational achievement they would receive.

Slehofer went on to graduate from Port Angeles High School in 1945. After a tour in the U. S. Navy, he attended Washington State University and received an engineering degree.

These ceremonies focused on our history. It has been a key part of these ceremonies over the years. It was understood young people tend to see life in black and white, and the keynote speakers had a greater appreciation of the complexities of life. They hoped the graduates might find it easier to appreciate those complexities and deal with them.

Understanding history has long been an important part of a civics curriculum. Students need to be prepared to be effective citizens. Students need to be more than simply outspoken; they need to develop a respect for others’ perspectives and the ability to articulate their own.

So, congratulations to the Class of 2021. Well done!


John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].

McNutt’s Clallam history column appears the first Sunday of every month.

Otto Slehofer’s junior high school diploma. (Photo courtesy of Otto Slehofer)

Otto Slehofer’s junior high school diploma. (Photo courtesy of Otto Slehofer)

An editorial cartoon from June 1921, highlighting the stress students face. (Port Angeles Evening News)

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