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The City Journals

Beetdiggers’ traditions changed some in 112 years, but still holds strong

Oct 21, 2019 03:57PM ● By Julie Slama

Jordan High students support their sugar beet tradition by wearing “Our hearts beet as one” T-shirts. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

On the Jordan High wall honoring famous alumni, including astronaut Don Lind, world middleweight boxing champion Gene Fullmer and PGA golfer Don Collett, is former Midvale City Mayor JoAnn Seghini’s plaque.

Seghini, who attended Jordan in the 1950s, can recall a thing or two about the high school back in the day.

“It was a time where everything was changing,” she said. “Many of our friends who lived on the west side were told they had to go to Bingham because the population was growing so fast. It was the end of an era and the beginning of the next.”

Jordan and Bingham high schools have been tied together from the start, when Bingham was formed a year after Jordan originated in 1907 as the only high school in the southern part of the Salt Lake Valley. Then, in 1958, when Jordan Board of Education changed Bingham’s boundaries to include Herriman, Riverton, Bluffdale, South Jordan and West Jordan, the former Beetdiggers found themselves in the Miners’ camp.

“However, many traditions remained the same at Jordan,” Seghini said. “We had wonderful athletic programs; we always won. We had dances; I wore a poodle skirt, sweater and saddle shoes back in the day like everyone else. I was on the debate team and wrote for the school newspaper.”

And she is a proud Beetdigger.

“We were called the Beetdiggers because there was a lot of agriculture, sugar beets, in the surrounding fields. It was an important crop then. Students would have a couple weeks off to go harvest beets for the West Jordan sugar plant. These were big ugly things, but they were sweet and used for sugar,” she said. The crops eventually subsided as manufacturers found sugarcane as an alternate source.

Since those days, students no longer are excused for weeks to harvest sugar beets, but they have kept that strong bond to their roots.

Students now re-enact the topping of a beet with a sugar beet knife, which has a hook for stabbing and lifting the beet from the ground, and a sharp cutting edge used to chop off its leafy tops.

Nick Hansen, class of 1997, remembers as a student body officer traveling to Idaho to beet farms where they dug up beets and chopped off the tops and ate them as a commitment to their namesake.

“It was considered a field trip, but it was an important thing we had to do,” he said. 

This year, the beets were brought to the school. The current tradition of the sugar beets is to have each new student body officer as well as teachers and administrators chop off its top and take a bite at a school-wide assembly.

It is the favorite tradition of Charlonian drill team member Kayla Siebeneck, class of 2022.

“It’s pretty funny watching them chop the leaves off and eat them,” she said.

Former school principal Tom Sherwood said it’s not only fun for students to see, but they’re also learning an important lesson.

“The sugar beet tradition is cool,” he said. “A lot of kids haven’t ever seen one and the historical reference of the sugar beets is a big part of our history and industry in the Salt Lake Valley. It’s why the Beetdiggers are called the Beetdiggers.”

Sherwood is credited for giving honorees, as well as retiring faculty who have served at the school for more than a decade, a sugar beet knife.

“We laser-engraved it and would present them at the closing faculty meeting and they just loved it,” he said. 

Seghini has hers from when she was appointed to the Hall of Fame, tucked away with her yearbooks. Sherwood’s is in a shadow box on a shelf.

Watching the traditional chopping was Digger Dan, who cheered on those who sampled the beets. Digger Dan, who Seghini said wasn’t around when she was at school, actually began as a cartoon character named “Topper” in 1955 in the school yearbook, according to Diane Workman, who served as the vice president over archives for the Jordan High Alumni Association. 

There’s even a bobblehead of Topper in the Alumni Association’s room, sandwiched in a display case amongst yearbooks, megaphones, old photographs, plaques, sporting gear and other Jordan High mementoes.

But it was the class of 1986 who started Digger Dan’s legacy, Workman wrote for the Alumni Association.

“The motive was to increase student involvement, show school spirit and liven up the student body at assemblies and sporting events,” she said.

Hansen, who played wide receiver on the state championship team as well as played basketball and ran track, said during his era, his class voted to keep the traditions of Jordan High when the school opened in its new building in 1996.

“Everyone loved the name, the mascot, the colors; it’s who we were. It seemed like a seamless tradition,” he said, adding that the class of 1921’s stained-glass mosaic JHS window that illuminated after each victory was moved to the new school.

That is part of the history with the Beetdiggers, said Alumni Association President Kathy Damjanovich, who recently bestowed their annual Harvest Award at a school assembly.

Damjanovich graduated in 1963, after her dad and mom graduated from Jordan in 1942 and 1943, respectively; her brother; her husband in 1961 and his father before him; and even her son graduated as a Beetdigger in 1999.

“Jordan High was the center of activities in the area,” she said. “Everyone went to the school on Friday nights for football or basketball — the entire community.”

Damjanovich, who was a member of the Charlonians and followed her mother as editor of the school newspaper, knows much of the recent school history. Her dad cut beets in the fields. She and her husband felt the after-effects of the boundary change that split Jordan and Bingham high schools. Her son was a Beetdigger in the starting years of the third and current high school.

“We had an open house about the move and there was much talk about carrying over our traditions,” she said about the school that first started in the basement of a church. “It was joked that Larry Miller (West High alum), who bought the old school, was going to tear Jordan down because it would serve us right since Jordan beat West High for the state championship. But he was the one who offered money for scholarships, which started our scholarship fund which now is over $200,000 that we’ve given 10 per year since 1995.”

Damjanovich said those “amazing” service scholarships are part of the heart and foundation of the Alumni Association, which began in 1994 under the direction of Glenn Sacos for four years, then carried on 16 more by Glen Watts. 

Damjanovich, who has been the president for the past decade, said the organization not only supports students in several activities, but they also hold car shows, yard sales and sells memorabilia to add to the scholarship fund and boost spirit.

Current Principal Wendy Dau said the association is 50,000 members strong and supportive of current students.

“They help keep our traditions strong,” she said. “We have T-shirts for the students to wear to the game tonight that say, ‘Our Hearts Beet as One.’ It’s our theme. Being a Beetdigger brings us together. It doesn’t matter what our background is; we all attend school here and graduate as a Beetdigger. It unifies us.”