GRANGER, Wash. -- Norma Lee Wentz graduated from Granger High School in 1943. And though Wentz is 92 and lives in Oroville, Calif., she was determined to attend the annual Granger Alumni Association Banquet in April.
“I just wouldn’t have missed this class reunion for anything,” Wentz said of her 75th. “Not very many people reach that milestone, and they were honoring the class of ’43. I just decided I wanted to go and visit my family.”
No one else came from her class of about 35 students, when she was Norma Lee Norman, but that didn’t really matter because all Granger graduates are invited, along with current and former staff. Her youngest daughter drove her; it took about 11 hours.
The 55th annual alumni banquet took place April 28 at the high school on the same Saturday and in the same place as it always does. People came from across the United States for events that included school tours, casual get-togethers and a catered dinner for 265 people, with scholarship presentations and a performance by the Baker’s Dozen, a group of alumni singers and musicians led by retired band director Karl Wiederspohn.
It’s common knowledge that strong schools and caring teachers inspire devotion among their graduates and unite their communities. That’s what draws Granger High graduates and current students, past and present teachers and administrators, and their families to the annual alumni event, also a city reunion of sorts.
But Granger High, with graduating classes of about 120 students, boasts alumni whose efforts go beyond catching up with family and friends. Since the alumni association awarded its first scholarship in 1964 for $100, the nonprofit has awarded 300 scholarships totaling $329,525.
This year, the alumni association gave out 10 scholarships — the most in a single year — totaling $19,000, the largest annual amount, thanks to members who pay annual dues of $5 and give beyond that, along with others.
“The dues pay for some of the scholarships, but we get hundreds and hundreds of $5 to $10 donations, up to $100, for scholarships. A lot of people (give) $100,” said Jon Klarich of the alumni association board.
Recurring and one-time memorial donations and two generous endowments also fund the scholarships.
Granger’s generosity and support for its schools still impresses Klarich, a 1987 graduate who got involved with the alumni association several years ago.
“It’s a combination of things, I think. It is amazing,” he said. “We’ve had really strong teachers for years. We’ve always been decent in sports, we’ve always had lot of different activities, just stuff that people take pride in.”
The Granger Alumni Association has more than 2,700 graduates and staff in its database and sent 1,750 letters of invitation to this year’s event.
“Our list is as complete as we can get it. We do research every year,” Klarich said. “We have a mailing list. It’s not 100 percent complete, but it’s close.”
The 10-member alumni association board meets several times a year. Members serve three-year terms. Helen Dodd, board treasurer, joined in 1985.
She and husband Ollie didn’t attend the banquet before then because it falls in the first week of fishing season — it’s always the last Saturday in April — but she persuaded him for her 35th class reunion.
“I loved the teachers, the friendships made,” said Dodd, who moved with her family to Granger in 1948, when she was Helen Ruff. “We’re kind of dwindling in the number of us, but there’s a few of us still around.”
The continued strong support of Granger graduates, staff and residents “just boggles my mind,” she said.
“People are so generous, whether it’s $5 or $500,” said Dodd, noting that four generations of her family have graduated from Granger High School.
“We’re probably the Valley’s best-kept secret. We do a lot of good things here in town. We’re so proud of our alumni association.”
With a population of about 4,000, Granger is best known in some circles for its more than 30 concrete dinosaurs throughout the city.
Formed in 1905, the Granger School District predates the city’s incorporation in 1909. Granger’s first public school building was two years old then, and the first high school building was finished in 1911. It stood until the late 1950s. Its gym houses Granger School District offices.
“Granger had a really thriving business district. At one point five different train lines had trains that went through Granger,” Klarich said. “We had a huge hotel, a theater, stores, businesses, bowling alleys. It started going away in the late ’50s.”
The city was also known for Granger Clay Products, which began in business in 1903. Before closing abruptly in the early 1960s, it produced bricks used in buildings throughout the Yakima Valley and beyond.
Over the years, schools in surrounding towns such as Liberty, Alfalfa, Satus, Orchardvale and Lincoln began closing as populations diminished. Their students came into the Granger School District, itself still among the smallest in Yakima County.
“We have a small school district, mostly agricultural. We don’t have a big tax district — we have small farms, farmers — but the community is really strong,” Klarich said.
And supportive of its schools and their students, beginning with $5 apiece.
“A little can add up to a lot,” he said.