Former teachers and students share Whatcom school memories

Within hours of the major fire at Whatcom Middle School on Thursday, Nov. 5, Bellingham residents shared their memories of the school with The Bellingham Herald.

Here are their stories:

Jack Carver of Bellingham was a senior at Fairhaven High School when fire gutted the school on Dec. 31, 1935. He and his classmates finished the school year at Whatcom High School, with students on a half-day schedule.

"I went from 12:30 to 5 in the afternoon," he recalled. "Whatcom kids went in the morning, 8 to 12:30, I think it was."

At the time, those were the only public high schools in Bellingham.

"We managed," Carver said. "It worked out pretty well, for the six months we had to do it."

Angie Erickson Brionez of Bellingham met her future husband while attending Whatcom Middle School.

"Whatcom Middle School was one of the first places in Bellingham I got to know very well," she recounted in an e-mail. "We moved up in 1989 and I started as a sixth-grader in September of 1990. My older brother had been there in '89, so I had somewhat of a security blanket waiting for me.

"My mom, Linda Erickson, also worked there as a noon duty and quickly moved to attendance secretary. She has been there ever since.

"I met my husband, Armando Brionez, in the halls of Whatcom. I showed my glowing appreciation for him by kicking him in the shins; the highest compliment of an 11-year-old girl. He spent a lot of time in detention with my mom!

"I also started a lifelong friendship with Mrs. (Sonja) Moon. She was my core teacher and she had a great understanding for my moodiness. She was again my teacher in the eighth grade.

"When I moved on to high school, I cleaned her horse stalls and weeded her garden. She also taught me to drive. Mrs. Moon came to our wedding (she had my hubby in class, too).

"My husband and I even ask mom to order some sub sandwiches from the cafeteria - nostalgia makes them taste even better than they already are.

"The building will be missed, but the relationships last, and the teachers and staff will continue to change lives. What a blessing."

Denny Cleary of Bellingham retired last June after working at Whatcom Middle School for four decades, mostly as a counselor.

"There's such a feeling of tradition, because it's been there forever," he said. "This is a terrible loss, not to have it there."

He credits the staff at Whatcom with enjoying children and enjoying teaching them.

"It's almost a privilege to work there," he said.

Pat Rutan of Bellingham was a registrar and counseling secretary at Whatcom Middle School for 27 years. She retired last June.

"It was hard to turn in my keys after all that," she said. "It was a special place to work."

Rutan, whose three children attended Whatcom, had lunch Thursday with two women who both attended Whatcom and whose parents had attended high school in the same building a generation earlier.

"It was a horrible shock," Rutan said. "It's going to affect a lot of people in town."

The collegial atmosphere for workers, and the staff's interest in children, gave Whatcom a comfortable feeling for parents and youngsters, alike, she said. That's one reason she went by the burned school Thursday.

"I did a drive-by and got sad again," she said.

Beth Bacon of Bellingham was a counselor at Whatcom Middle School for six years before transferring to Fairhaven Middle School three years ago.

"That was my longest place in one building," she said. "The building itself was just beautiful. So much history there, which you could feel when you walked through the doors."

She enjoyed Whatcom's spacious classrooms, wide hallways and high ceilings, as well as the committed teachers and other staff there.

"My heart is just breaking for them," she said.

Bacon drove by the school Thursday to look at the ruined building. She cried.

"Generation after generation after generation of kids has gone there," she said. "It's a huge loss."

Related stories from Bellingham Herald