FARGO - The world was an uncertain place in April 1966.
President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated two and a half years before.
The civil rights movement was growing; marchers were being beaten or jailed.
Racial tensions sparked massive riots in Los Angeles.
Combat troops by the tens of thousands-many not long out of high school-were being sent into the Vietnam War.
For students at Fargo's Central High, the headlines must have read like the world was burning.
Then, just after noon April 19, with a spring snowstorm swirling outside, Central High started burning, too. Literally.
Jim Ohnstad, who is helping to organize the upcoming 50th reunion of Central's Class of 1967, remembers the day well.
He was a junior in study hall in the school's two-story auditorium that day.
"There were a couple hundred kids sitting alphabetically every other seat. I was half asleep," the Fargo man said.
Then he looked to the ceiling, "and there were flames licking out of the spotlights," he said.
Study hall instructor Tom Manley told The Forum that people heard popping sounds and looked to the rear of the auditorium, where they saw flames near the ceiling.
The popping sounds were thought to be sprinkler heads activating.
Ohnstad said the evacuation from the auditorium and the school was surprisingly orderly. That was probably helped by the opening of North High School in the fall of 1965, which took about half of the students that had previously crammed Central's halls and stairways.
Principal Otto Bernhoft also got on the school's intercom and warned everyone that "This is an active fire, not a practice."
Ohnstad said he stood along Second Avenue, eyeing the chemistry room, "waiting to see the big flame (of a large explosion), but it never happened."
Despite the efforts of firefighters, the roof, third-floor classrooms, library and auditorium were destroyed, with smoke and water damage throughout the building, according to news reports.
'Burn, baby, burn!'
While fat flakes of snow swirled around them, Ohnstad's classmates rooted for the fire.
"I remember people saying, 'Burn, baby, burn!' not knowing the repercussions," Ohnstad said.
As it turns out, more than 1,000 students would be in North High a week later.
Linda (Weitzel) Graf of West Fargo was in geography class on the first floor.
"We heard the fire bell and we just figured it was a drill. Then we could smell smoke, and it was, 'Oh, this could be the real thing!' We all just stood in the cold," she said. "The auditorium was on fire. We just kind of watched it burn, basically. We just all stood around agasp."
Some students, realizing it was a real fire, just tossed their books in the hall, she said.
Some students cheered a small explosion in the chemistry lab, she said.
"It was sad. It was really sad. I really liked Central," Graf said.
Robert Dregseth, now retired after working as a technician at North Dakota State University for 40 years, was in a noisy shop class when the fire started.
"Someone came in and yelled fire, and I thought it was a fire drill. We went outside and waited a while," the Fargo man said. Then they waited in nearby Emerson Smith School, which was an annex for Central's overflow classes.
Dregseth said he walked home from Central. At home, he looked back to the school and "I saw flames coming from the top of Central."
The loss was pegged at $700,000 to $1 million.
If there was any good fortune, no one was injured in the fire.
2 Centrals, same result
Central High was at 1017 3rd Ave. S., just west of the Cass County Courthouse, filling the block bounded by Second and Third avenues south, and 10th and 11th Streets.
Nearby Emerson Smith, at 211 11th St. S., was originally a grade school. In the late 1950s, it became an annex for Central. Students shuttled between the two buildings-even in the dead of winter without coats. The passage across 11th Street was nicknamed "Pneumonia Alley."
Central was the second high school on the site. The first Fargo Central opened in 1892. It, too, was destroyed by fire.
That blaze started on Dec. 28, 1916, and burned overnight. Thousands of people were reported to at least briefly have stopped to watch firefighters fight the fire in temperatures that dipped to 8 degrees below zero, according to Forum reports.
After the old building was razed, the second Central High was opened for the 1920-21 school year. Superintendent Arthur Deaner called it modern and, in what now appears to be an ironic twist, "fireproof throughout."
Split shifts at North
North High opened in fall 1965, though it had also had some problems. Heavy snow collapsed the roof over the gym seven weeks before the fire at Central.
About 86 percent of Fargo voters agreed in spring 1963 to bond $2.15 million to build North and upgrade Central. Later, rising enrollment projections caused the school board to enlarge the school from 102,000 square feet to 142,000 square feet. Plus, more money was needed for equipment and supplies.
The price tag rose to $2.5 million and the board's planning and enrollment projections were roundly criticized.
As it turns out, North's extra room was a boon after Central's fire. Students attended in split shifts: North in the morning and Central in the afternoon.
"It was a rude awakening to go to North," Ohnstad said.
North had few windows, unlike Central, which had big windows that allowed "for a lot of daydreaming," Ohnstad said. North was also a sprawling structure, making it tough to get to far-flung classes.
Mike "Spike" Newgren, who is taking over as office manager for Central's alumni association and editor of its Cynosure newsletter, thought North was "sterile, cold, unfriendly," compared with Central.
"The only good thing about going to North was that we didn't have to be in school until about noon," the Fargoan said.
But not everyone thought the experience negative.
"Even though it was really crowded, I did enjoy meeting all those people on the north side," Graf said. "I still treasure all the memories of those people on the north side."
Scramble to build South High
The school board moved quickly to replace Central.
The board went to voters with a $3.2 million bond issue to pay for a $4 million four-year high school on the city's south side able to hold 1,600 students. The rest of the money needed for construction was to come from the insurance settlement on Central, the sale of the Central and Emerson Smith buildings, and about $900,000 in federal funding.
Voters narrowly approved the bonds for South High in the June 28, 1966, special election.
Using the North High building plans, bids were then quickly let, with the aim to have South ready by fall 1967.
The name South High School became official shortly after the bond vote.
'That was a big deal'
Newgren was proud to be at Central.
"For a 14-year-old kid growing up in Fargo, that was a big deal, Central High. I remember it to this very day-my very first day," Newgren said.
Central, with its wooden floors and cast iron stairways "was a very cool place. I think a lot of us had this love affair for the school," Newgren said. "The gang that I hung out with, we used to meet every morning inside the front door of the main entrance by one of the old radiators. Sit there and chew the fat and tell all of our stories. Did that every morning. It was something that we looked forward to."
Karen Olson missed Central's big windows and large trees.
The Fargo woman loved heading out for lunch to the nearby Dutch Maid cafe or the Dairy Queen for a hot dog or a sloppy joe.
Her father, aunts, uncles and older sister also attended Central, Olson said.
"All of us who were the last class had a particular attachment to it. ... Once our class graduated, Fargo Central was gone. As long as we were still in school, the school existed, even though the building didn't," Olson said.
Ohnstad recalled a Central High gym instructor who tossed chlorine into the pool with a grain shovel, then encouraged the boys in the gym class to jump in and help get it mixed up. There was also a lot of squirming through overcrowded halls and up and down stairways.
In the five decades since graduation, Ohnstad, who worked his way up to president of OK Tire, said he and other members of "The Final Edition" class feel privileged to be the last graduates as Central High Midgets.
Though, Olson said they sometimes must argue their position.
The Class of 1965 says they were the last graduating class because they were the last to finish their educations in the building. The Class of 1966 says they are the last because they spent most of their senior years in the school.
"That's a sore spot with my classmates," Olson said.
Newgren says he just tells folks that it said Central on the diplomas, class rings and graduation programs.
"This is the last class. That's a big deal. We think so, anyway," he said.
The class will be meeting at Divot's at the Edgewood Golf Course on Friday, Aug. 25, and at the Fargo Holiday Inn on Saturday, Aug. 26.