Celebrating a Culture Within a Culture

Published June 17, 2007 by Colorado Springs Gazette.

On a campus older than the state itself, more than 100 deaf alumni of The Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind gathered. A mix of graduates from different classes, many seemingly over 60, some in their 80s, come back each year to share pictures, memories and the camaraderie of a culture within cultures.

Jerome Aregi is the acting president of the CSDB Alumni Association, which sponsored the reunion and barbecue. At one point, Aregi was surprised by an alumnus who gave him pictures of himself and classmates baking bread, making shoes and writing on the chalkboard in their graduating year of 1956.

Aregi met his wife, Joyce, at the school while celebrating a friend’s graduation in 1961. The two hit it off at a Halloween party and, after she graduated in 1963, were married the following August.

Both have played a part in running the alumni group since, the idea originating at a celebration of the school’s 100th anniversary in 1974. To commemorate the school and its history, at its current site since Colorado Springs founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer donated 10 acres in 1874, the alumni are raising money to create a museum at the school to stash old class pictures, desks, trophies and general artifacts.

“People have given me a lot of stuff, and I’m just planning so we can put it up and people can visit anytime,” Aregi said.

Many of the alumni donned the school mascot, a bulldog, on T-shirts and hats, among them Tim Elstad. Elstad, a 1978 graduate, was the quarterback of what is believed to be the first deaf team to win a state championship in the country.

The 1-A squad went to the state championship game twice before capturing the title in 1977 with an undefeated record. Before winning the state championship, Elstad and his teammates grew up together in the school’s halls and dorms, some of them, like Elstad, since they were 5 years old. About half of current students live in school dorms. It was the team’s unity that made them champions.

“We stayed in the same group,” he said. “It was like being brothers.”

When he was 5, the school wasn’t so appealing. On his first day in class, the first thing Elstad noticed was the hearing aids and their wires hanging on the wall. Startled, his second observation was that people read lips instead of sign language.

“I was done,” Elstad said. “I ran and then my brother tackled me. I said ‘I don’t want to go to school here.’ So he dragged me back to class. The teacher said ‘Stop crying and be a big boy.’ And I stopped.”

Good thing he did. Today he’s the school’s athletic director and coordinator of student life after assuming several duties at the school since returning 14 years ago. His son is the school’s quarterback and under the guidance of the same coach, Joseph Sinernos, who found Elstad decades ago on the school’s lawns while playing ball with other students.

“I call him Coach Joe, then he calls me boss and I get confused,” Elstad said with a smile.

Melvin Haptonstall and his two brothers came from Wyoming to attend the school in the 1940s. He also met his wife, Patty, here when they were in fifth grade. She didn’t want a boyfriend, and he didn’t want a girlfriend. But his brothers pressured him into talking to her.

“I started dating her just for fun, but then I fell in love with her,” Haptonstall said.

His wife died five years ago; their daughter Tammy Nykaza is a reading specialist at the school. Doloras Adamson moved to Montrose after retiring in 1990. She graduated from another school when her father, who worked in road construction, was transferred to California. She connected to the alumni association five years ago.

“When I was a little girl there were two girls here, in the whole school. That was it. I was like the devil girl, she was the sweet girl,” Adamson said. “I just wanted to have fun.” At that time, she said, the school was “kind of my home.”

“There’s good friends here,” Adamson said, mentioning that some of her classmates from her childhood were here today. “The school, I don’t like the school. But the friends…”

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