Golden Memories: Meet Darlene, Class of 1941
When Darlene (Pearson) Pitsenbarger graduated from Waukee High School in 1941, she was one of 26 students in her class.
“I don’t think there’s anybody from my class living anymore. I tried to keep track of people,” Darlene said.
At 99, Darlene lives in the same farmhouse she’s owned for 75 years on the outskirts of Waukee. Over the decades, she has watched the community — and the District — grow. She remembers when Hickman Road was gravel and Waukee High School had a dozen teachers. Today, Waukee Community School District is the sixth-largest district in Iowa with 20 buildings and 13,000+ students.
Recently, Darlene visited both Northwest High School and Waukee High School to see the changes for herself. As she toured the hallways with her granddaughter, she shared memories — from the superintendent whom everyone feared to the boy who brought mice to put in classmates’ desks, to the history room where students would sneak off to during lunchtime.
“I knew it was going to be big,” Darlene said of visiting NWHS for the first time, “but it really was even bigger than I expected it to be. It’s altogether different now.”
Back to the Beginning — Born in 1924
Darlene was born on April 6, 1924. Her family lived on a farm that was across the road from the district line to attend elementary school in Waukee. Instead, she went to a small country school from 3rd to 8th grade.
“I used to take a potato from home. At recess, I’d put it in the ash box of the stove that kept the room warm. We’d brush it off to eat. We thought we were pretty lucky to have something hot for a meal,” Darlene said.
Darlene remembers thinking her family was fortunate to have a John Deere tractor and a ‘24 Chevy to drive around. She explained her family put their food in the ground to keep it cool. “I remember some neighbors had a refrigerator,” she said. “I thought that was really something!”
Reliving High School Memories
When it was time for 9th grade, Darlene went to Waukee High School, which was located in what is now the Vince Meyer Learning Center in the heart of old downtown Waukee.
Looking back, Darlene recalls all the female students were required to take two years of home economics. During the first year, she and her best friend, Eloise Leonard, realized they had already mastered basic cooking skills through 4-H and helping their mothers at home.
“We decided it was a waste of our time, so the next year we went to the principal and begged him to let us be in a science class instead!” Darlene said.
However, one memory from the home economics class stands out.
“We had to prepare a meal for the school board,” Darlene explained. “We had special reminders about the protocols for serving dinner and how you serve from this side and not the other side and that type of thing. So we did learn some valuable lessons that day.”
One of her favorite classes in high school was typing. “I suspect typing was my favorite because it was so new,” she said. “We were supposed to be able to type 60 words per minute with no mistakes.”
The prom was also much different in the 1940s. Darlene explained they didn’t have any dances.
“There was a really nice dining room on the top floor of Younkers, and we went there for dinner. Then we went to a movie. That was what the junior-senior banquet was about,” Darlene said.
As part of her tour, Darlene wanted to see the music facilities at WHS. She explained that most of her energy in high school was in music. “I could play the piano so I accompanied groups. I sang in the girls sextet, and we had a trio in high school. Music was an important part of our education.”
She also proudly told the story of when she was selected to go to the national music contest in St. Paul, where she scored a one.
Looking around the WHS choir room at the risers, mirrors, and pianos, Darlene gave a little laugh. “We didn’t have anything like this in the old high school. The music room was clear down in what I’d call the basement.”
Graduation and Beyond
During Darlene’s visit, she brought an old yearbook and her class composite, pointing out the class president, old friends, and even her high school sweetheart — Jim Morris. To this day, she keeps up with Jim’s family.
“He moved to Arizona. Years ago, when my daughter and I went to Arizona to visit my sister-in-law, we visited Jim and his wife. I had a conversation with his wife just in the last 10 days or so. We still keep in touch, even though Jim is gone now,” Darlene said.
Jim wasn’t the only classmate to move away from Iowa. Darlene explained many of her friends scattered to different places. Some of the men went on to serve in the military during World War II.
Darlene, who was valedictorian, was also the only one in her class to attend a four-year college. After earning her degree, she became a teacher for more than 30 years. She and her husband bought a farm and had two children — a boy and a girl.
Today, Darlene spends her time keeping up with her six grandkids and gardening. “I have flowers and food in my garden. I always say, ‘I’ve got food for my body and food for my soul.’ This year, the food part didn’t do so well. But, I had some nice flowers in the garden for my soul,” she said.
When asked if she has any tricks to living to be 99, Darlene suggested enjoying everything in moderation, washing off your makeup before bed, and moisturizing.
She also offered these words of advice for current Waukee CSD students: “No matter what you do, do it because you love to do it.”