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Ex-Spokane schoolgirls reconnect at site of first lessons

Carol Willette and Cleda Sweetland met in 1961 at Our Lady of Lourdes School in downtown Spokane.

They were first-graders, daughters of career Air Force fathers.

After second grade, Sweetland moved away, but the friends vowed to be pen pals forever. They not only kept their vow, they reconnect as adults for frequent reunions.

The two women recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of their friendship by returning to Spokane. Willette lives in Phoenix, Sweetland in Sarasota, Fla.

How they met

Fifty years ago, Catholic children living on Spokane-area military bases were bused to Catholic schools throughout Spokane.

Cleda (maiden name Laferriere) met Carol (maiden name Eppinger) in Sister Michelle Marie’s first-grade class.

The two girls became fast friends, but because their families lived in different military housing communities, the girls only got together once outside of school – at Willette’s 8th birthday party.

“We really don’t know what (forged) the bond so young,” she said.

Revisiting their school

At Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral one recent, brisk autumn morning, the women met up with Bill Oakley, superintendent of buildings and grounds and church historian.

The school building was torn down in 1974. But the cathedral, there 50 years ago, remains.

Oakley unlocked the massive church doors.

The Communion rail where they received their first Communion. Gone.

A platform now extending from the altar. Not there when they were kids.

The pews? Replaced.

But of the beautiful stained glass windows, Willette said: “Thank God those are preserved.”

Oakley then guided the women into the church basement, which once served as the school lunchroom. Hasn’t changed much at all.

“They did the most fabulous homemade rolls,” Willette remembered. “All the lunches were fabulous except for the sauerkraut and wieners.

“The nun basically stood at the garbage can making sure nobody threw anything away because there were starving children in China.”

The auditorium, just off the old lunchroom where their First Communion photo was taken, looks the same, too, though it’s been updated.

The women then walked back outside to the parking lot where the school once stood.

They reminisced about recess long ago on hard blacktop.

Willette said: “It was divided in half. Girls on one side, boys on the other.”

Sweetland said: “I excelled at jump rope.”

The women have fuzzy memories of tense drills during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which happened 49 years ago this month. They remember students running for shelter into the building across the street, then Smith Funeral Home.

Like most children of the early 1960s, they remember the palpable fear that the world would end in nuclear disaster.

But both also remember their first crushes. For Willette, Louis Barron. For Sweetland, David McDonald.

And what did they want to be when they grew up?

Nuns, like the Holy Names sisters who taught them.

As Sweetland pointed out: “That’s what all little Catholic girls aspired to.”

Life after Spokane

Sweetland’s family left Spokane the summer after second grade because her father was transferred to Japan. Willette’s family remained in Spokane until 1964. The girls promised to write and they did, faithfully.

Sweetland’s father died in an accident when she was in fifth grade, and Willette has never forgotten the depth of the letter written by a then 10-year-old.

They both wrote in perfect penmanship, using excellent grammar, the hallmarks of parochial school education in the 1960s.

In high school, when Sweetland lived in Rhode Island and Willette in a suburb of Phoenix, the teens compared the similarities in their lives. Both worked on their high school yearbooks. Both worked in ice cream parlors. Both had steady boyfriends.

The letters continued through their marriages, children, careers. Sweetland is a dietitian who specializes in meal plans for elders living in care facilities. Willette has worked 30 years as a teacher, counselor and principal.

In 1983, they decided to meet again in person in Rhode Island, where Sweetland was living at the time.

They were both 28 and hadn’t seen one another since they were 8.

“As I stepped off the plane and was greeted by her and her family, it was evident that we were truly kindred spirits,” Willette said.

Reunion ritual

The women have met up 18 times since 1983 in locations throughout the country. They hike, shop, drink wine, stay up all night chatting. On a dollar bill they’ve split in half, they write the dates and locations of their reunions.

In Spokane this 50th anniversary trip, they stayed with Willette’s brother and his wife, Al and Deanna Eppinger.

They hiked through Riverside State Park and up Tubbs Hill in Coeur d’Alene. They sampled wine at Arbor Crest. They rode the Carrousel at Riverfront Park, which Willette remembers riding 50 years ago in its original home, Natatorium Park.

The women marvel about the longevity of a relationship that began half a century ago in a city where their families lived only a brief time.

Will they remain in touch the rest of their lives?

Sweetland said: “She couldn’t get rid of me now if she tried.”

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