Class Reunion

Americana, On the Road, Traditions
on September 23, 2007
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Mark Harenberg walks into the Chaparral Country Club in Clovis, N.M. (pop. 32,667), and picks up a conversation with classmates he hasn’t seen in 20 years as if it were yesterday.

“What happened to your hair?” someone asks him at the reunion for Clovis High School’s Class of 1987.

Harenberg, 38, grins as he puts a hand on his short, thinning hair. “My mom made me cut it,” he replies. “I’m still mad about it.”

During his days at Clovis High School, Harenberg was famous schoolwide for hair that tumbled past his shoulders until the mother-mandated trim before his senior photo.

Enthusiastic greetings, hugs and laughter created a happy hubbub at the reunion last June. Classmates and reunion organizers Doug Taylor and Monica Justus distribute nametags, which conveniently include each attendee’s senior photo, just in case time has receded a hairline or increased a waistline beyond recognition. For icebreakers, they provide disposable cameras to encourage candid shots, CDs with 1987 hit songs (such as Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth”) and a 1987 trivia quiz.

Harenberg, a real-estate developer in Albuquerque, didn’t think he’d ever attend his class reunion. “When I left, I said I wasn’t coming back.” Then he opened the invitation and read the list of old friends who already had registered. He saw the names of guys, not just his high school buddies, but also former Little League teammates.

“I’m having a blast,” says the father of two. “The class reunion transcends time.”

On any given weekend, former high school classmates are gathered somewhere in the United States, but the most popular time for class reunions is fall, says Wanda Diroll, president of the National Association of Reunion Managers. While some classes have do-it-yourself reunions, others opt to let a professional organize the event, from tracking down alumni to setting up banquet tables and hiring a band.

One in four high school graduates will attend a class reunion sometime in their life to see how their classmates have fared, renew old friendships and revisit familiar places from their past. Even people who are apprehensive about attending end up having a good time, says Diroll, owner of Creative Class Reunions in Torrance, Calif.

“People don’t realize how much they’ve missed their classmates. A reunion brings a flood of memories,” she says. “People see how far they’ve come and they get in touch with their roots. It’s almost like a family reunion.”

Class reunions in small towns often feel and look like family reunions, especially when all graduates of a school are invited. In Claremont, N.H. (pop. 13,151), several hundred graduates of Stevens High School reunite each year for “Alumni Day,” complete with a downtown parade of former students. The social gathering has been held every year since 1871.

“We’re the oldest active high school alumni association in the good ol’ USA,” says Robert Stringer, 64, vice president of the Stevens High School Alumni Association, and a member of the Class of 1961.

During Clovis High’s Class of 1987 reunion, about 150 classmates caught up on what’s happened in each other’s lives in the last 20 years. As with all high school classmates, they shared many of life’s firsts: first job, first car, first love, first heartbreak. They knew each other before and on the brink of adulthood. And while adulthood led the 432 graduates in different directions, they all began their journey together in the halls of Clovis High.

At a table decorated with old photos and sports memorabilia, former classmates Sharon Ferguson, Renee Brimmer and Kathy Castillo flip through yearbooks, reminiscing and marveling at the “then” and “now” faces. A purple and white Wildcats letter jacket on display belongs to Lonnie Ward, 38, of Clovis, who models it while snaps strain, cameras click and classmates laugh.

Some high school memories are bittersweet. Joe Bartlett, 38, who played drums in Clovis High’s marching band, remembers performing at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City in 1984. “We ate Thanksgiving dinner at the World Trade Center,” recalls the Portales, N.M., resident. “I have photos that are pretty precious to me.”

Many of the classmates have fond memories of cruising Main Street, the hot spot for meeting friends and flirting. Best friends Cynthia Morales and Cheryl Howell recall hopping in Howell’s ’79 Mazda and joining the procession of cars.

“Every Friday and Saturday night, it was bumper-to-bumper traffic,” says Howell, 38, of Tulia, Texas (pop. 5,117). “We’d go down eight blocks, turn around and come back for hours and hours.” Cruising Main Street was one of the weekend’s reunion activities, along with visiting the Taco Box, a Clovis hangout that opened in 1969, the same year the graduates were born. Racing against the school bell to grab a burrito and a cherry-vanilla Dr Pepper at noon was another cherished tradition.

“I drove and piled as many people in my car as I could,” says Eddy Lynton, 38, of Denton, Texas. “If someone was ordering something and was short, it was like ‘here’s a dollar.’”

Classmates reminisce about working on the Purple Press school newspaper, cramming for tests, cheering and playing for the Wildcats in a football-crazy town, toilet-papering the principal’s house and traveling with the drill team on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Tokyo.

“We’re like long-lost friends. We have this bond,” says Terri Damron, 37, of Clovis, who will always be the football homecoming queen who married football defensive captain Danny Damron, 38. The 20-year reunion is more fun than the 10-year, Lynton says. “At the 10-year, there was some of ‘Oh, I’m the chief of so-and-so.’” At the 20-year, most pretensions and cliques have been replaced by the maturity that comes with marriage, kids and mortgage payments.

In Evening Shade, Ark. (pop. 465), classmates gathered in their old classrooms and walked the halls of Evening Shade High School for the last time in April. The high school has closed, but the school building will continue to house elementary grades.

“There’s so much personal history here. Everybody knows everybody,” says Linda Spurlock, 59, of Evening Shade. “My older brothers and sisters graduated from here and my nieces and nephews go here. All of our pictures are up on the wall.” Group photos of each senior class line the library walls. The five members of the Class of 2007 will be the last.

Retired teacher Eunice “Brownie” Brewer, 89, of Evening Shade, and Pat Smith, 64, of Sidney (pop. 275), who has taught English at the school since 1963, visit with two and three generations of students.

Laughter erupts as classmates look through piles of school photos heaped on library tables and discover one doozy after another. “These were the Brillo pad days,” says Jennifer Massey, 32, of Mount Pleasant (pop. 401), as she waves a 1950s photo of girls with short, tight perms in their hair.

Even more amusing is the school yearbook brought by Gordon Hale, 69, Class of 1957. He gleefully points to an autograph in his yearbook—“Dear Gordon, I wouldn’t marry you for all the money in the world! Charlotte”—and then introduces Charlotte, his wife since 1960.

Whether classmates graduated five or 50 years ago, a high school reunion brings back memories—pleasant and poignant—shared during those awkward and amusing teenage years. When a classmate begins yet another sentence at the reunion with “I remember when . . . ,” no one yawns. They remember, too.