By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: Savoring the feat of graduating


Recent activities pertaining to high school graduations that necessitated elimination of customary festivities reminded me of my graduation ceremony at our high school many years ago. My senior class had four students — all girls. Our high school had two teachers: Mr. Kauppi and Mrs. Canova.

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McMinnville's Elaine Rohse is fascinated by words, books and writing - and spends much time sating that fascination.

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Ours was cattle-ranch country and the boys, eager to own their own ranches, often opted to give up high school and get an earlier start.

This was during the Great Depression and our school district could not afford school buses. My older sister and I walked the mile and a half to school, as did my younger brother and sister.

No family drove a student to school. Some boys rode horseback, as did one of our grade-school teachers. One girl, Cora Mae, lived in a community that had no high school, and walked 5 miles each way to high school at Monument for four years.

Cora, when asked how she did it, answered, “I just kept putting one foot in front of the other because I wanted so much to do it. And I did it. I got my high school diploma.”

I thought our simple graduation ceremony memorable. Tucked away somewhere is the diploma I received that night.

One day at school during that senior year, Mrs. Canova called a meeting of our class to discuss ordering our commencement invitations. It was also time for our class to choose graduation invitations, class motto and class flower. I have no recollection as to what the latter two were but we gave much profound thought to the decisions.

But the most important item on the agenda of that meeting was to make certain to order the maximum allowable number of invitations. Every student, almost without fail, ordered that maximum allowable number and we had just reason for doing so. We were greedy.

In Monument, we had a rather strange custom. If a graduation announcement was received, it was customary, almost obligatory, to send a gift. One of the most interesting topics at the start of every school year was the size of the senior class. In the worst years, it might be perhaps seven or eight. Everyone in Monument hoped for a small class of seniors.

And, indeed, it was no doubt a burden for elderly widows on limited budgets, who might never even have had conversation with the student who sent an invitation to commencement. But we seniors vividly remembered the influx of gifts when older siblings were seniors.

When my older sister graduated, it was like Christmas. So I would send out every one of my invitations. After all, Monument had a population of about a hundred. I did not, unfortunately, have a host of nearby relatives, whereas some kids used all their invitations for aunts, uncles, cousins.

At that time, boxed handkerchiefs of three were popular, and I got many lovely boxes. Next in popularity as a gift for girls were panties. One of my many sets included seven pairs, each imprinted with a day of the week. I always wondered if one should pay attention as to which day each was worn.

But I appreciated and prized every gift, and I hope my mother badgered me until I had written a thank you note for every one.

Our graduation ceremony was on a Saturday night in the high school gymnasium. It had a large stage upon which we graduates were seated. Sometimes, the county school superintendent was our guest speaker. Sometimes it was the chair of the school board, Oscar Schafer. He always handed out diplomas to the graduates.

Sometimes four of us high school girls sang at programs, and I think we sang a song about the world that was waiting for the sunrise. Usually several students spoke. Attendees came from across the county and it was an enjoyable event seeing people not often seen.

Decorations for the stage were large tubs of flowers placed across its front — mostly snowballs and lilacs if they were still blooming — and Mrs. Canova sent us kids out to scour the neighborhood for vulnerable yards and generous owners.

There was a great similarity about flower gardens in Monument. There had not been a single snowball bush in town until Gertie Wilson got one. Then everyone wanted a start and as the plant grew sufficiently to provide starts and baby plants, everyone in Monument had a snowball bush.

Monument could have been dubbed the snowball bush town. What was in one yard was in everyone’s yard with regard to most plants. We shared.

After the graduation program, our high school always sponsored a public dance in the community hall. We hired the band from Long Creek that played great dance music. And we gals could show off our new dresses.

We graduates never wore caps and gowns. Never, I am sure, did any male wearing a tuxedo put forth a foot in Monument community hall, but they dusted off their dark suits and we wore long dresses — formals we called them, but acquisition of them posed a problem.

Monument, with its one grocery store, certainly was not the answer. We didn’t often go to John Day, our big town, since it was about 55 miles down the road, and it was unlikely we could have found four formals there to our liking.

Wards, Sears and National Bellas Hess, I think was the name of the catalog we seldom patronized, were the solutions. But not even those catalogs had much in the way of formals. Always there was the fear that on graduation night there on the stage would be “the Bobbsey twins” wearing exactly the same dress from Sears — and the same color.

I was fortunate. My older sister who worked in Portland, offered to shop for me, so at graduation I was in a pale pink formal with little satin-covered buttons all the way down the front, fitted waist, flared full skirt — and it fit fine, I thought. It had no bare shoulders, no spaghetti straps, not even the slightest bit of decolletage. Even a hint of would have had, by early the next morning, every phone on the party line carrying every slightest detail.

And that night as we were sitting on the stage and our diplomas were being handed out, I leaned over and whispered to my classmate Fern, “We did it! We did it! I knew we could, but just look how many gals dropped out of school because they decided to get married and didn’t want to finish high school.”

“I knew I could do it,” Fern said. “Sometimes I sort of wondered, but I kept telling myself that I could do it. And I did. I did it.”

But then, suddenly, high school was over and I wanted so much to go to college. I had a scholarship to Albany College, now Lewis & Clark, but the scholarship paid only tuition and I would need money for books, clothes, room and board.

What could I do? This was during the Great Depression and many cattle ranches were having difficulty making payments on their ranches. I knew my parents couldn’t help me. Cattle prices were down. It seemed as if they were down every year. No jobs were available in Monument. It had no fast food stores, no retail stores, no office jobs.

But school had only been out a few weeks when I got a call from Mrs. Canova who lived in John Day. “Would I like to go to work for the county agent in Canyon City?” she asked. I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. I thanked her, over and over again.

I began working, and I loved it. I saved money. I could save enough during summer to get me through one year at Albany College.

And that night, I kept telling myself: You knew you could do it. You so wanted to do it. And you did it.

At midterm I enrolled at Albany and I loved college. I often thought I would like to be a perennial college student.

Albany College had no national sororities, but I joined Alpha Gamma, an Albany sorority. I discovered extra-curricular activities, intramural basketball, plays, Associated Women Students Activities. At times I had to remind myself I was there to learn. And it was because I had kept saying that I so badly wanted to do this and kept promising myself that I could. And I did. I did.

But much as I enjoyed Albany, I wanted to transfer to University of Oregon for my last year because I thought its journalism school was better.

So I transferred to Oregon my senior year, lived in a girls’ co-op where we worked for room and board.

Spring of that year I went to talk to my adviser to see if it had all the required subjects and credits for graduation. Just — barely — I did.

Later that year, when the sun was shining and everything in the world was beautiful, the ceremony for Oregon graduates was held. We walked across the campus in caps and gowns — and I walked with Mary Anne, another journalism grad.

My parents could not be there, nor any of my relatives. And then we graduates were advised to take the tassel on our cap and move it to the other side. And with that, it happened. I had a B.A. from the University of Oregon’s school of journalism.

Mary Anne looked at me, with a big smile on her face. We grabbed each other and hugged for dear life and I said, “I never thought I could do this. But, I wanted to do it so much and I kept telling myself that I could — and I did it. I did it.”

So now, in year 2020, here in McMinnville, I am so sorry you high school seniors could not finish your year as you hoped. But take heart and start thinking about what you want very much to do next. Tell yourself that you can do it, even if it seems so hard.

And before you may even realize it, because you believed in yourself and in what you wanted, all of a sudden you’ll be realizing that you have done it. You can say, “I did it.” And what satisfaction you’ll take in saying, “I thought I could do it — and I did.”

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


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