Once a Panther, Always a Panther

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Once a Panther, Always a Panther

Alyssa Pankoff and The Beacon's Editorial Staff

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She’s almost 100 years old and has walked the halls of Washington Park High School. Clare Purnell (nee Dkystra) was born February 20, 1919.  She graduated Washington Park High School in June of 1939, only eleven years after the school opened its doors, with four hundred students in her graduating class. While her favorite academic subjects were history and biology, Purnell also excelled in athletics.  During her years at Park, she played basketball, field hockey, and volleyball as part of the Girls Athletic Association (G.A.A). At that time sports teams were organized by grade level and played each other in school championships.

Besides being an active member of the student body at Park, Purnell (nicknamed “Tootsie” by her family) took on the role of caregiver when her mother could not. All throughout high school, Purnel, the eldest, helped take care of her five brothers and four sisters. Before she even got to school, she would get the kids ready: bathed them, do their hair, feed them, and wash their clothes (without the help of a washer or dryer). If that wasn’t enough, the Purnell family did not have a bathroom inside their home nor paper products.  No paper products meant no toilet paper and in those days, disposable diapers hadn’t even been invented.

For non history buffs, Purnell attended Park during the Great Depression and many families struggled to make ends meet. Because times were tough, Purnell sewed her siblings’ clothes with the youngest child only a baby. The family did not have enough money to afford a crib, so her parents pulled out a dresser drawer and it served as a makeshift crib.

After graduation, Purnell attended college in Chicago, Florida, and England. She worked as a switchboard operator for Cambridge working many hours, day or night. She became a certified nursing assistant and later a certified nurse in Florida. She fondly remembers collecting shells at the beach across the street from her house. To this day, she still has a vase with all the shells in it. Each seashell is as unique as the life Purnell has lived. Perhaps, they remind her that a girl from Racine can accomplish her dreams and stay strong no matter how rough the waves. She continued her love for traveling as a flight attendant and was Miss United Airlines. It seemed that the sky was the limit for Purnell as she went on to have a modeling career.  

Purnell eventually settled back in Racine, married James Purnell in 1945 at twenty-seven, and were happily married for over thirty years.  Clare Purnell walked the halls of Washington Park High School during a time of economic hardship. She and her family struggled, but she never gave up.  No matter what task needed to be attended to, what homework assignment needed to be completed, test studied for, sport practice to attend, or child to bathe Purnell did what any Panther would do and gave it her all.  I’m sure in her day it was always a “Great day to be a Panther.”

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