In July 1956, Preston Burns invited all his family members and friends from church to gather at his home in Bailey, N.C., (pop. 670) following morning worship. After sharing lunch together, the children played beneath large trees in the yard while the adults fanned away the summer heat and swapped memories on the front porch.
Burns may not have realized the significance of his actions, but he was laying the foundation for a legacy that continues almost a half-century later.
Last August, the annual Burns Family Reunion drew 117 family members to New Vester Missionary Baptist Church in Sims, N.C., (pop. 128) for a weekend to tell stories, share home-cooked delicacies, and celebrate being a family.
“The more you do it, the more you look forward to doing it,” says Bettina Hocutt, a nurse who was only 2 years old when she attended that first gathering at her grandfather’s home. “Our main focus is to keep everybody connected. We try to make sure that our seniors are recognized every year because they’re our backbone, and we also try to keep the young people real involved to keep it going.”
“It means so much to get together and see those you haven’t seen in a long time,” says Alberta Parnell, 83, of Philadelphia, one of four surviving adults from Preston Burns’ generation. “The family has gotten spread out over the years, so it’s good to come together.”
Since its genesis, their coming together has taken many forms. The reunion has been held in homes, hotels, restaurants, church fellowship halls, and parks. Special events have included fashion shows, cake-baking contests, talent shows, spelling bees, and all sorts of family sporting events.
Tom Ninkovich, author of Family Reunion Handbook, sees such gatherings “as a way of recapturing some of the warmth and nurturing of older times” when both nuclear and extended families were much closer. Reunions, he says, also provide us an opportunity to learn more about ourselves. “We can always find out new things about our past. And with every new thing we find, we become a slightly different person—hopefully for the better.”
By his estimate, about 200,000 family reunions are held nationwide each year, drawing an average of 40 people per event.
“The first one is the easiest,” he offers, “because there’s a strong motivation to get to know others in your family.” He recommends getting together only once every three to five years to keep the interest level high.
Togetherness Plus Creativity
The Burns family’s annual reunions thrive by adding fresh twists. In 1991, the family decided to spend every other year in the communities of family members outside of North Carolina. They’ve gone paddle boating in New Jersey, walked “the strip” in Virginia Beach and Atlantic City, and visited Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
They’ve also grown more organized through the years. “We have some real innovative people who were dedicated, and we continue to build upon that foundation,” says Sharon Ewing, 31, who served as the family’s reunion organizer the last two years. “We’re very organized, but not to the point that we’re political about it.”
They keep a current directory of all known family members, conduct fund-raising efforts, sponsor scholarships, and maintain a family website. “We’ve had representatives to go to reunion conferences, and they’ll come back and say, ‘We feel so privileged because a lot of things that they teach we’re already doing,’” Ewing says. “We didn’t have a book or manual to tell us how. I think we accomplished this because we’re a spirit-filled family.”
They now maintain chapters in seven states that take turns hosting the reunions. “Each hosting chapter gets to decide what they want to do. Their committees decide what activities to have or games to play. A lot of it is based where the event is held,” Hocutt explains.
This August, the family will convene at a Maryland hotel, says Bobbie Best, Hocutt’s older sister and spokeswoman for the Washington/Maryland chapter. Although plans will not be finalized until June, “we are hoping to have a dress-up, sit-down banquet,” she explains. “That’s something we have never done before.”
Typically, the family comes together Friday evening for a business meeting and a meal, spends the entire day together in various activities on Saturday, and concludes with a church service on Sunday.
Labor of Love
The secret to establishing a reunion is determining who in the family has the dynamism to get people motivated, Hocutt says. “In my family, my older sister is like a mother figure, even though my mother’s still living. We can call my sister and, if we want something done, she can reach all the other family members,” Hocutt says. “If you want to have a family reunion, the best way to begin is by identifying the person in your family who connects with everyone else.”
“It’s a lot of work but it’s been an easy task because we’ve had a lot of cooperation down through the years,” Best explains. “Everybody just gets excited when you say it’s time to get down to the hard-core preparation and finalizing of plans.”
The task is not burdensome because “we were brought up as a close-knit family,” Best says. “My mama and daddy had 12 children. …We didn’t have a lot of money, but they gave us love and taught us how to be caring and concerned for others. And this is all we’ve ever known.”
Sharon Ewing sees the reunions as an opportunity to familiarize her 3-year-old daughter with the family through the experiences of others. “For me, it’s like giving to her some of the things I’ve heard about growing up,” she says. “I want to provide for her, through my involvement, some of the things I don’t remember.”
“If my grandfather were here to see what’s happened, I think he’d be very happy,” Hocutt speculates. “I think he’d say, ‘My living has not been in vain.’”
Three Top Tips from a Reunion Expert
In 29 years of research, author Tom Ninkovich has interviewed more than 3,500 reunion planners in his quest to collect useful information he shares in his book, Family Reunion Handbook, and through his website, reuniontips.com.
He offers three suggestions to ensure a successful reunion:
Start early. Too many people begin planning family reunions too late. He recommends starting a year ahead, although six months in advance will work for smaller families or those who do not have to travel long distances.
Show the kids a good time. “Older people are the most enthusiastic about family reunions and are doing the planning,” he explains. “But it’s obvious that kids are the continuation of the family and are the ones who will be planning the reunion in 40 years.” To that end, he offers this: “Remember, for a kid, it’s not a reunion—it’s a party.”
Tell the family story. “What’s really happening at a family reunion is that the family story is being told in various ways,” Ninkovich says. He suggests using memorabilia, home movies, scrapbooks, old photos, craft projects, and family trivia games to help tell the story.