What the heck's a Beetdigger?

If you know the answer, and link it to the name "Dan," your blood probably runs maroon and grey.

And if that's the case, no doubt you've been invited to the school party of the century.

Jordan High School is 100 years old. Thousands of alumni — some, cruisin' from Florida in a Winnebago — will mark the occasion at the South Towne Expo Center Friday night and Saturday with memorabilia, music, dance and a car show, of sorts, featuring at least one automobile made in each of the past 100 years.

There will be a 200-page Jordan High history book for sale, a golf clinic from pro Don Collett, performances by an Elvis impersonator, military bands, barbershop quartets and comedy acts. There's even an alumni choir, which will include a woman from the class of 1939.

"Those of us that are alive are going to party," said Sherma Yeates, member of the golden anniversary graduating class of 1961, who's helping with publicity for the centennial celebration. "My husband didn't know what hit him when he married a Beetdigger. We are an unusual bunch, but we're proud of it."

So what makes the Beetdiggers love their school so much that they'd throw a party to rival a celebrity wedding?

Some say it's the people — the school educated future golf pro Don Collett, astronaut Don Lind, U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson, Olympic medalists and other community leaders. Others cite the spirit-inspiring teachers and principals, and all those good kids who go there today.

But history — and lineage — play a big part.

Case in point: Alumni Association vice president Kathy Birch Damjanovich, whose son graduated from Jordan High, while other children completed high school at Alta High.

"I was so excited to have a Beetdigger, and he married a Beetdigger, so we have a whole 'nother generation of Beetdiggers," she said.

"My parents and grandparents all went there," said alumna Lael Askew Ehlers. "I think for a lot of kids who went to Jordan (school pride) was passed down through their families."

Jordan High, the premiere high school for what's become Utah's largest school district, once took in every community in the south Salt Lake Valley — except Bingham.

The intense rivalry between Bingham High and Jordan comes as no surprise: Bingham, which is 99 years old, was created as a satellite campus for Jordan High, said Bingham High history teacher Scott Crump, author of "Jordan High School: The First 100 Years." (Though named an "honorary Beetdigger" for his work, Crump remains a blue-blooded Bingham Miner: He'll write that school's history next.)

"You've got traditions and things going back 100 years for both (of) the schools, and literally thousands and thousands of alumni that went to Jordan High School, and there's a bond ... that keeps them all together and gives them a common link to their past," Crump said.

In 1957, the schools' rivalry hardened. The school district divided Jordan's student body at the Jordan River, sending the west side to Bingham and the community into an uproar, Crump said. Many parents refused to let their children register at Bingham, and some led a boycott on the first day of school.

Cooler heads soon prevailed, and the old Jordan kids and parents embraced their new school, Crump said.

Remaining Beetdiggers' pride, if anything, deepened.

"When you go to a social in Draper now, the kids go to Alta. But the conversation's about Jordan, even now," said Caralee Backus Skinner, Jordan Class of 1961. "I think it's just like a family, a bond that you have, and you're proud of that lineage of being a Beetdigger."

So it's only natural that S. Glen Watts has spent the past 13 years dreaming up a centennial party for his alma mater.

The Alumni Association president was watching a Utah-filmed movie — he forgets the title — where a school's 100-year celebration was held at the state Capitol.

"I thought, you know what? If we had a 100-year celebration, we should do some wonderful (thing) ... not just a picnic in the park," Watts said.

A committee was set up, with alumni overseeing different decades of the school's history, booking entertainment, getting the party word out. Skinner and her husband, Barry Skinner, worked to gather all the classic cars. Last week, all were in line, except for 1942-to-1945-era Army Jeeps or other military vehicles (no automobiles were made during World War II). The school has a new archives of memorabilia from way back when.

The centennial celebration work has become a sort of "field of dreams": Build it, and they will come.

And coming they are. Some 6,000 tickets were sold as of a week ago, Watts said. People have checked in, saying they're crossing the country in their motor homes, renting buses for the trip from St. George, buying airline tickets.

"We have guys looking for their high school sweethearts ... asking, is such-and-such going to be there?" said Watts, who graduated in 1963. "One couple will celebrate their anniversary there. We'll also have a 'meet and greet' for all the veterans who served in the military.

"The ride getting to this point has been fantastic."

Yeates says there are about 80,000 living Beetdiggers. Damjanovich has been trying to track them down. "I told somebody, I'm going to get a private eye license after all this," she said.

So, for all you other-than-Jordan-educated folks out there, here's what beet diggers do: They harvest sugar-beet crops, common in the south valley at the turn of the century.

They would plow the beets, which grow sort of like carrots, use a beet knife to cut the green tops off and toss the yield into a wagon for transport to a sugar-processing factory, Crump said. The practice was so vital to the local economy that classes recessed for two weeks during fall harvest.

By 1961, Skinner recalls, the harvest break had been pared to two days. It shortly after disappeared with the vast farmlands, as did the tradesman name from the modern-day vernacular.

Except, that is, for Jordan High alumni. And even they have had to fight for Beetdigger Dan's life.

There was talk of changing the mascot this past decade, when the old school became Jordan Commons entertainment center, and a new one was erected down the street. But alumni successfully lobbied to preserve the historic Beetdigger Dan.

"The alumni said, 'Change the school song. But we give a lot of scholarships. As long as you keep that mascot, the Beetdiggers, we will make sure you have scholarships,'" Skinner chuckled.

"Not that I like to think that we blackmailed them in any way."

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If you go ...

Jordan High's Centennial Celebration features a music and dance performance Friday at 7 p.m. and a Saturday car and memorabilia show and "entire school reunion" from noon to 10 p.m. Both are at the South Towne Expo Center in Sandy.

Tickets are $10 and include a raffle ticket. They can be purchased at www.jordanalumni.com or the LDS Conference Center.

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com

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