SIOUX CITY | Students stepping into kindergarten on their very first day of school encounter a world of new experiences.
A new teacher. A classroom full of desks and new books. A whole bunch of potential new friends.
Back in 1947, a couple dozen kindergartners entered Sioux City's Bryant Elementary School for the first time. Amid all those new experiences, friendships so strong that they'd last a lifetime began to take root.
"Our Bryant grade school class was a very close group of friends and continued to be so through junior high, high school and after graduation," said Harold Zabin, a member of that class who would become a lawyer and is now retired and living in University Park, Florida.
Ask any of those former classmates how they stayed so close over the years, and they'll tell you one guy played a huge role: Cornelius Hyink, whom they all called "Neil."
Though he had moved from Sioux City years ago, it was Hyink who would email everyone interesting news items about events going on in Sioux City. He helped arrange high school class reunions, even a reunion of their Bryant Elementary class in 2005.
"Neil Hyink was the glue that held our class together," Zabin said.
So when Hyink, that glue, died at age 75 on Jan. 1 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, it was a blow to the class.
"Oh my, it was a surprise," said Patty Beyer, one of the few classmates who remains in Sioux City.
For all that Hyink did for them, his classmates decided they owed it to him to keep his memory alive. Within days of Hyink's death, his friends spoke with Sioux City parks superintendent Kelly Bach. They decided together that a bench with a memorial plaque would be the most appropriate way to pay tribute to their friend.
It will be placed near the playground in Grandview Park, where many of them played together while growing up.
"That is how we remember ourselves as children is at the playground," Zabin said.
In less than a month, 24 classmates living from Alaska to Florida and points in between pooled some $1,800 for the memorial, which gained city approval last week. Bach said he hoped it would be installed near the playground, in an area where there currently are no benches, in April once the ground thaws.
Beyer, who went to school with Hyink from that first day at Bryant Elementary, which was closed and demolished last year to make room for a new school, all the way through their graduation from long-closed Central High School, said it's a perfect way to honor their friend.
Hyink grew up in a house by the park, she said, near where the Hy-Vee Mainstreet store at 2611 Pierce St. now stands. If the group of friends wasn't in the park, they were hanging out in the 27th Street neighborhood, where they hit the drug store or the bakery or attended matinees at the Uptown Theater.
"We just hung out together. We were just good friends," Beyer said.
Nearly all of them left Sioux City to pursue lives of their own. After graduating from Morningside College, Hyink was a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War and later was an airline pilot before becoming an aviation safety representative for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Hyink, survived by his wife, Gretchen, and their two daughters, led a busy life, according to his obituary, as a high school sports official, and he also ran the scoreboard for local high school basketball games.
But he always had time for his old Sioux City friends, spreading news, helping organize reunions and loving every minute of it.
"Neil was such a giving person. He always had a smile on his face," Beyer said.
It's why establishing a permanent reminder of him was so important to his classmates.
"We all had a mutual feeling of loss," Zabin said. "We wanted to do something together to commemorate Neil and his loss."
Sometime, maybe this spring, Zabin said, it's possible that the former schoolmates will gather once again, this time around a new bench at Grandview Park.
Their friend who without fail kept them abreast of the latest news from their hometown won't be there in person.
But they know he'll be there.
Just as he always had been, and now, thanks to his friends, will be for years to come.