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Kennedy graduates final class

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

Daughter of the late LaVerna Gasper

The Drees name has been associated with the tall brick school building at 1309 Fort in Hays for a long, long time.

So long, in fact, that one of the first Drees boys to attend what was then St. Joseph Grade School in 1914 -- James A. Drees -- was part of school history to the very end.

On Friday night, John Drees followed in the steps of his great-grandfather James A. Drees, his grandfather James H. Drees and his father Tom Drees in graduating from Kennedy Middle School or one of its predecessors.

James A. Drees was one of the first students to step foot in the door when the school was built in 1914. Ninety-eight years later, his great-grandson John was a member of the final graduating class of Kennedy, which will close its doors at the end of the school year.

"I'm just glad I didn't miss it, glad I was in eighth grade this year," John said following Kennedy's 2012 recognition exercises in Fort Hays State University's Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center. "I'm glad I could be part of the last class to go here."

Lots of families have longtime ties to the school that changed names several times through the years.

Making John Drees' situation even more unique is that he also is the fourth generation on his mom's side of the family to attend school in the Kennedy building.

John's mother, Patricia (Penka) Drees, was one of two daughters of Judy (Weltz) Penka who attended the same middle school as their mother. Both of Patricia's parents, Elmer Weltz and Charlotte (Houser) Weltz were members of the school's eighth-grade graduating class of 1932.

The Drees family was reminiscing and comparing stories as it gathered outside the Kennedy building just before the eighth-graders' fun night Friday.

"When you're in eighth grade, you don't think about your children going here some day," Patricia Drees said.

While Kennedy has been a public school since 1941, it still had a taste of the strong Catholic tradition in Hays.

Judy Penka remembers those days at the school that was called Jefferson West in the mid- to late 1950s.

"We had to bring our breakfast because we had 7:30 (a.m.) Mass, so we ate breakfast after Mass during religion class," she said. "Then when the bell rang, we became a public school."

A total of 94 eighth-graders were listed on the historical 2011-12 eighth-grade roster, with asterisks by three names of those who since have moved away from Hays.

The other 91 proudly walked across stage and accepted their historical certificates.

"All of you are part of history," said Principal Shanna Dinkel, who handed out certificates with the help of Lee Keffer, who had taught and worked in administration at Kennedy for nearly 20 years before transferring across town last fall to become principal of Roosevelt Elementary School.

"Each of you have your own story," Dinkel told the eighth-graders. "You're writing your own story. ... You need to decide what you want the story to say about you."

Melissa Pfeifer and Jared Rack were the final Outstanding Irish Students at Kennedy, voted on by teachers on the basis of overall excellence in leadership, character and academics.

Pfeifer was one of three eighth-graders to go through Kennedy for the last time with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages during their career there. The other two were Morgan Weber and Tyra Younie.