The front page of the Great Bend Sunday Tribune on May 16, 1971, was dominated by a photo of Lana Alefs, who, on that Saturday evening, became the first graduate of Barton County Community Junior College.
On Friday evening, Dec. 6, several of Barton’s first graduates returned to the campus as part of the college’s yearlong celebration of its 50th anniversary. The event was held in the Shafer Art Gallery.
Alefs had the distinction of becoming the first graduate by virtue of her place on the alphabetized list. At the time, she was majoring in dental hygiene and was employed by Dr. Mark Mingenback.
Were she to graduate today, Lana Alefs Wolf’s name would come much later on the list. There were 171 members in the first graduating class.
Returning graduates were welcomed Friday by Coleen Cape, Barton’s executive director of institutional advancement.
“You know, in our lives, we’re all part of history every day,” Cape said. “But we don’t always get to be history makers. You are history makers.”
Vice President of Instruction Elaine Simmons spoke next, noting she graduated from Barton in 1980. “I think my tuition and fees might have been $9.50 a credit, or something like that,” she said.
“The data folks tell me that in 1969 we enrolled slightly over 800 students,” she said. “In comparison to our current year, we enrolled slightly over 13,000. ...
“I asked a number of my colleagues throughout the week, ‘If tomorrow a brand new college opened up, would you send your sons and daughters to that brand new college?’” Most were not sure they would. “And I thought that was very telling about you,” she told the Class of 1971. “This brand new institution opened up, and you came, over 800 of you came. And to me that represents risk taking — pioneer spirit.”
Alumni who talked about their time at Barton included Nancy and Kevin Sundahl.
“Probably the first thing I remember is walking out here and there’s three buildings – no trees, no grass,” Nancy Sundahl said. “And so if you can imagine the wind and the dirt, it was awesome.”
Roger Hammerschmidt would also recall the days when the campus had only three buildings. By 1971 there was also a Physical Education building, where the graduation was held.
“I remember one of the evenings we were trying to get from the west building over to the central building and the wind was blowing so hard, so bad. It got icy, the snow started coming, and there were about four or five guys, about a dozen girls and we were all locked in arms trying to get this way. And we almost did not make it.”
But it was also an adventure. Hammerschmidt would go on to say, “It’s a phenomenal college.”
Nancy Sundahl and others said one of the most exciting things about being first was creating Barton traditions.
“We got to pick our school mascot, we got to pick our school colors. We got to name the newspaper. It’s really neat to say you were one of the first to do that.”
Barton is also where Kevin and Nancy Sundahl met. He was the first athlete to sign on at the college, with a track and basketball scholarship.
“It may not be the best two years of my life, but it was the most fun two years of my life,” Kevin Suhdahl said.
“We had three buildings that first year: Library, Science and Math and the Technical Building. So we had to play our basketball games at Great Bend High School. ... We practiced at the City Auditorium downtown ... and it worked out pretty well.”
Connie Karlin agreed that in 1969, the first students didn’t realize they were making history.
“I think you don’t realize what it’s like to be first,” she said. “When we were here, I don’t think we really appreciated that we were the start of this college, that what we were doing was laying the foundation for what this institution would become. ... There were no Barton traditions.” When it was time for a basketball team to take the court, they needed a mascot. “So we voted. We had a contest. We decided we would be the (royal) blue and gold Cougars. ...
“I think it’s only now when I see how this campus has grown and how beautiful it’s become, when I hear how many thousands of students have gone through here, I think now I can finally appreciate what it really meant to be first,” Karlin said. “It was an honor — Go Cougars!”
Music was provided by the Barton Jazz Band. Luis Palacios, Barton instrumental music director, joined the band on saxophone because the lead tenor was at a swim meet. Students of Barton Dance Theatre Director Danika Bielek presented three dances.
Tricia Reiser and Don Learned from the BCC Board of Trustees also spoke.