Martin Ring still remembers the day a Civil War veteran visited the old John Hay Elementary in north Minneapolis, almost nine decades ago.

Ring was a wee lad then, but he clearly recalls the old soldier leaning in, looking the children square in the eyes and offering the key to a long, productive life:

"Keep breathing."

The two words have become an unofficial motto of sorts for Ring and his classmates from the North High School class of 1936.

"We just keep going," Ring said, "and breathing."

They gathered for their 75th reunion last week, eating, laughing and dancing -- in their chairs -- to accordion renditions of 1930s favorites from Fred Astaire, Irving Berlin, Perry Como and Fats Waller.

"There's no Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga at all," accordion player Skeets Langlie said.

The ravages of time have whittled the class of at least 900 students down to double digits; nineteen attended last week's get-together for soup, soft sandwiches, dessert and a healthy dose of catch-up.

Classmates shed tears, shared hugs and looked back on their childhoods in north Minneapolis, a Jewish enclave at the time: the miles-long walks to school, halls crammed with students and a taskmaster principal, Waldo W. Hobbs, who scared the dickens out of them.

"This is more than we had ever hoped for," said Lillian Raen, one of the reunion organizers.

After graduation, class members didn't gather until 1961, when they celebrated their 25th. The next celebration was the 40th.

As time has passed, they've met more frequently, all of them fearing that a lost year could be their last.

"It gets smaller every year, but they're spunky," said Byerly's waitress Barbara Tverberg, who's worked several of the luncheon reunions.

"They all just want to talk and share their stories."

In 1936, a loaf of bread cost 8 cents, a gallon of gas a dime and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to his second term.

The graduates were born at the end of World War I and matured during the Great Depression.

Many fought in World War II, then lived long enough to experience the Great Recession.

Almost all the graduates were immigrants or the children of immigrants, who saw education as the key to establishing themselves.

North High helped mold a host of entrepreneurs and educators from the class of '36.

After graduation, they spread from the tip of Florida to the northern California coast and from Anchorage to Jerusalem, class records show.

Years later, their diplomas seem parchment-like, yearbook pages have weathered and yellowed and graduation gowns have long since disappeared.

In spite of the passage of time, their memories remain fresh and wits quick.

"You remember me?" a fellow graduate asked Ring.

"I don't remember anything, if you want to know the truth," Ring chuckled as he offered his old classmates a handshake.

As he bid the grads goodbye, Langlie filled a final request, one that he's played year after year: the North High fight song rang out, his accordion inhaling and exhaling the tune.

The graduates still had the words committed to memory, 75 years later.

"We're loyal to you, North Side High ..."

"To you, we pledge our hearts and hands to dear old North Side High."

Langlie plays the reunion for a pittance, as a tribute to his mother, a 1935 North High graduate who grew up with many of the reunion attendees.

"It's an honor to be here," Langlie said. "Look at these people -- I can't believe most of them are in their '90s."

Before he sat for lunch, Ring leaned in and offered a reporter his own twist on a piece of advice he got years ago.

"Just keep breathing," Ring said as he smiled, "and don't be afraid to run away from a fight."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491