Marietta High School graduated 205 students during its 37-year existence. A number of those graduates have now paid it forward by helping to create a permanent memorial to their alma mater.
Using alumni contributions, a brick and granite memorial to what was once the smallest accredited school in the U.S. was recently completed on the parish grounds of Presentation Catholic Church located five miles east of Bellwood along Highway 64.
St. Mary’s School, which later became better known as Marietta (meaning "Little Mary”), first opened in 1898. Following construction of a new three-story brick school building in 1917, high school level classes were added in 1924.
The facility then provided several generations of area students with educational opportunities as taught by the religious orders of nuns and priests that staffed it.
Marietta’s final high school class graduated in 1961, followed by the closing of the elementary school in 1970. The school building then stood vacant until it was razed in August 2016 due to its deteriorated condition.
The new Marietta memorial is the culmination of a nearly two-year effort by parish members. At a 2015 reunion of Marietta alumni, the parish pastor at the time, Father Joseph Steele, suggested that some means of memorializing the history of Marietta be considered once the school building was removed.
A school memorial committee was soon formed. Two of its members, Bernard “Butch" Hain of Octavia, MHS class of 1960, and Dave Beringer of Omaha, MHS class of 1961, soon found themselves in the forefront of finalizing plans for a fairly large memorial as it came to be envisioned.
Hain, a retired farmer, and Beringer, a retired architect, eventually agreed that any memorial should be located near the former site of the school building, between the parish hall and grotto.
The next step was to raise funds for its construction. About 350 letters were sent out May 1, 2017, to former Marietta graduates and students asking for contributions to build the memorial.
About 50 percent of Marietta's high school graduates responded with donations, the first arriving just three days after the letters went out.
“We had a feeling that people would donate to the thing, and they did. It worked out the way we hoped it would,” Hain said.
Initial plans had called for the memorial to be dedicated in September, exactly 100 years after the school building was originally dedicated on Sept. 12, 1917.
However, Hain said work on the project was delayed until mid-September in order to assure there were sufficient funds for construction. Final work on the memorial was completed on Nov. 17.
Beringer, who designed the memorial to roughly resemble the school building's outline, said he wanted to give back to Marietta in gratitude for the education it provided him, and which later led him to pursue a 40-year career as a professional architect in the Omaha area.
While a student at Marietta, Beringer said he needed to take a course in trigonometry prior to entering the Notre Dame School of Architecture at South Bend, Ind. Although Marietta did not normally offer such a course, Beringer was given one-on-one lessons in trigonometry during the summer by one of the school nuns.
“I found that Marietta provided the education that I needed in order to compete (at Notre Dame), Beringer said.
“Butch was the bug in my ear for doing a monument,” Beringer added. “I knew it would be very meaningful to people."
When designing the memorial, Beringer incorporated several key elements saved from the building: A galvanized tin cross from the cupola, the school bell from the cupola, the school cornerstone and a limestone sign from above the main entry.
“We did not attempt to refurbish the bell. We were told it might do more harm than good to it,” Beringer said. However, the bell can still be made to ring on occasion.
The brick used in the memorial, acquired from a Lincoln brick yard, is “spot on” in regards to matching the different colored brick used in the old school building, Beringer said.
The Marietta memorial committee also wanted to include informational panels containing images and pertinent information about the school, along with lists of the priests, sisters and lay teachers who served there.
This information, engraved on highly-polished granite panels, was provided by Butch’s wife, Jean Hain. The couple have been married for 52 years.
Jean graduated from Seward High School, but because she helped with many Marietta alumni reunions, the group made her an “honorary” graduate of Marietta in 2010.
Getting the school's history and the many faculty and staff names correct the first time proved a major challenge, Jean said.
“I fretted, and worried, and punctuated. It was nerve-racking that it will be up there permanently,” she added.
Jean also compiled two books on Marietta’s high school and elementary students. These were sealed in a copper time capsule and placed in the memorial’s cornerstone.
The time capsule also contains 1917 era newspapers and coins recovered from the school's original time capsule, as well as a letter from a Cardinals letter jacket, representing the school’s basketball and football teams.
Images on the memorial include a copy of a painting by the late Gerald Mick from Bellwood. It shows the Marietta students and nuns marching as a body from the school to the church in order to attend daily Mass.
Main contractors on the project were Samek Masonry of David City, Columbus Monument Company, and Nebraska Welding of Omaha.
Butch Hain said a formal dedication of the memorial is now planned for August 2018, when the next MHS alumni reunion is scheduled.
Meanwhile, the memorial sits near the parish's recently renovated grotto that features a new Madonna statue that was donated. Pastor Father Janusz Marzynski and parish members re-dedicated the grotto on Dec. 10.
The Hains said they hope the memorial will long perpetuate the people and activities connected with Marietta.
“We hope it brings back good memories of the school and the teachers who were here,” Butch said. “Or for strangers to know what this place was about.”