LA PORTE, Calif. — The last person to graduate from the little, red, one-room schoolhouse in this remote, mile-high Northern California hamlet will deliver the commencement address here tonight.
Bill O'Rourke, 60, graduated from La Porte Elementary School 45 years ago, the only member of the graduating class that year.
History is repeating itself. Erica Lenart, 13, is the only graduate this year.
"We ran out of kids," recalled O'Rourke, a lifelong resident of La Porte, population 26. "I was the only one in school my last two years. After I graduated in 1941, they closed the school."
The quaint, clapboard school in this 19th-Century gold mining town at the end of a narrow, twisting mountain road in the High Sierra stood vacant through the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s waiting for families with children to move here.
It finally happened.
Cobwebs were brushed aside, the school was repainted, the voices of children and teacher once again echoed through the picturesque building. Classes were resumed in the school two years ago, with seven students.
"It's really great to have the school open again, to hear the school bell ringing in the woods, to go by the school and see the kids in here sitting at their desks," said O'Rourke, maintenance superintendent for Plumas County roads, as he sat at one of the tiny desks with Leroy Post, 96.
Post, O'Rourke and his brother, Dick, 67, are the only graduates of the elementary school still living in La Porte. Post graduated in 1904; Dick O'Rourke in 1934.
The present school was built in 1939. It replaced the one-room school that doubled as a community church and was located in the center of the old La Porte cemetery.
"I went to the school in the cemetery from 1896 until I graduated in 1904," said Post, who was born here. For years, Post skied 19 miles out of the mountain village to pick up the mail during the winter. He also worked in La Porte as a miner and a lumberjack. Timbering is what keeps the town alive today.
"Everybody in town is happy to see the school back in business again," Post said. "Nothing beats a one-room school for getting a good education."
Teacher Fran Efird, 36, had five girls and two boys in her class this year: two first-graders, Starr Morton and Chadd Burroughs; two second-graders, Paulee Morton and Raven Burroughs; Bear Morton, a sixth-grader; Karrie Efird, the teacher's daughter, a seventh-grader and Erica, the eighth-grader who is graduating.
"Teaching here is pure nostalgia. I love it," said Efird, who moved to La Porte three years go to reopen the school.
The schoolhouse is across the street from the old cemetery. Every day, the teacher and her students get their exercise running around the cemetery's white picket fence three times.
"It's really something special to be in a school like this," said the 1986 graduate of La Porte Elementary School, who is moving to Alameda, Calif., to attend high school.
"Not many kids get to be valedictorian, the most likely to succeed, both class and student body president and be able to have a class reunion anytime they want," Erica said.