A few months ago I was asked to be a featured speaker for the 40th reunion of my high school class — the South Stokes Class of 1977. I reluctantly agreed. Although I’ve done some public speaking — mainly related to my former work in newspapers — it’s not something I’m comfortable doing. I’m happy to report that I got through it with relatively few major glitches and it seemed well received by the classmates and friends from so many years ago. Or they were being very, very nice. Either way is great. The reunion itself featured some very pleasant surprises: One, I hadn’t expected to run into Allan Brown, someone who lived in Danbury a long time ago. It was delightful, well-planed and executed event — very casual, outdoors at a park with food trucks and our very own house band — the Men in Black, whose members are largely former classmates.
Here’s the text of the speech delivered Saturday, September 16 in King, North Carolina. The parts I embellished or improved during the delivery of the speech aren’t contained here, mainly because I can’t accurately re-create it.
I was introduced by our class president, Mike James, a retired major with the North Carolina Highway Patrol. Mike always wanted to be a state trooper and that’s exactly what he did.
Thanks Mike. Never in my wildest dreams as a teenager did I think a highway patrol major would ever say nice things about me. In those days, patrol troopers were trying desperately to keep me on the straight and narrow – if not the county jail in Danbury. I was a slow learner.
First of all, let me say it’s wonderful to see so many vaguely recognizable faces. And thanks for coming to this 40th reunion of the South Stokes Class of 1977 – an event that also offered invitations to the South Stokes Classes of 75, 76, 78 and 79. Expanding the reunion was a great idea. I was just as friendly with students in all of those classes as much as my own. Welcome to you all.
Quick story, some of those friendships started with the older kids back when I was in fifth grade at Walnut Cove Grammar School. I had a habit then of talking a little too much – maybe making wiseass comments when keeping my mouth shut was the smarter option. Shocking, I know.
My teacher, Mrs. Lash, had a zero-tolerance policy for sassy talk and each time I crossed the line – and I was a habitual line-stepper then and now – she made me stand out in the hall. A lot of days this happened when the seventh and eighth graders were waiting in the hallway to get into the cafeteria for lunch. I was out there so often the older kids got to know me by name. One day Keith Dodson looked at me standing outside the classroom and asked, “Madison, are you out here again? Can’t you learn to behave?”
So that was among my first – but certainly not last, “What we have here is failure to communicate” moment. Again, I was a slow learner.
And second, I’m not entirely sure how I wound up here in front of you all today after so many years. Let’s just say Don Corleone, “The Godfather,” has nothing on Lauren Alderman Coe. She made me an offer I don’t refuse.
Yes, Lauren wasn’t about to take “no” for an answer – and really isn’t that largely unchanged from 40 years ago? Today I’m happy she kept the pressure on. It’s flattering to be remembered at all and even more flattering to be asked. Flattered to be remembered because this is the first time I’ve attended one of our class reunions ever and up until about 2008 have been largely out of sight to so many old friends. I apologize for not showing up sooner – after all 40 years is a damned long time. The reason is simple, I really, really didn’t want to actually see how old we were all getting – not like my brother Spotswood didn’t enjoy reminding me already.
Today, though, this is a problem that no longer exists. Through the miracle of social media we actually already know full well how old we all look – and may I say at this point, “YIKES!” That’s what I scream daily when the image in a mirror looks back at me.
So I would say social media opened at least one door to this particular reunion – for me anyway. And honestly, through sites like Facebook, many of us have been holding mini-reunions on our own for several years now. Most of you know that I was a newspaper sports writer, news reporter, columnist and editor for about 34 years. No shock there either. It’s what I did in high school, too.
And some of you know other stuff about my life. Like, after college I worked at a few newspapers. I lived for 15 or so years on the coast in that area around Swansboro and Emerald Isle. While I was there I met the former Roselee Papandrea and married into an Italian family. True story, my longtime friend Barry Southern, one of our organizers today, has an older brother Greg who predicted when I was in high school that I would one day meet a girl from New York and marry her. Greg was off on the timing. Greg said it would happen in college. He missed it by around 16 years. But hey, credit where credit is due. And it’s the single best thing I’ve ever done and will ever do.
And it’s no secret that I hit the eject button on newspaper work a year ago. It was well past time to do something different and, well, I didn’t want to be the last person left in a collapsing building. That led to the big surprise to anyone who’s paid attention — I got hired for a job by an American university. Thankfully for the students at Elon – alma mater of 77s Frank Dalton and Billy Jones — I’m not teaching any classes or molding young minds or actually applying mold to young minds.
So yeah, we already know a lot about each other today through Facebook. This is both good and bad. Previous generations had to waste valuable time and perhaps several stiff drinks at reunions readjusting to how different we all look or catching up on small talk for the first few hours. Today, because we already know all the main details of each other’s lives, we can dispense with the chit-chat and begin arguing about politics immediately.
But please don’t, pretty please …
But what then to talk about, I wondered. This was my question for Lauren when she first approached me about this assignment a couple of months ago. What would I say? This isn’t a graduation event, after all. I can’t very well send you off to conquer the world and follow your dreams. Well, I guess I could. There are still dreams to follow. I know I still have a few if I can muster the energy to write that damned book.
Then I ran across an old Facebook post of mine from the late summer of 2010. I wrote then about how the Burlington High School Class of 1939 was holding its 71st reunion. I thought it was a pretty incredible piece of news – 71 years — and noted that at least four members of the Class of ’39 appeared to be speaking at the reunion and the program additionally listed “Relief breaks” that were 15 minutes long between speakers. Whoa, I thought. These people are around 90 years old. How long do these “relief breaks” need to be? And if four people were speaking, how many would be out there listening?
Our South Stokes ’77 classmate Malinda Dunlap Fillinghim responded that should our class have a 71st reunion way down the road, I should be the speaker. I replied that there was no way I would do it. Malinda, a co-editor our senior year with me on the school paper, didn’t miss a beat — she was always great at holding me accountable: “OK then Madison, if you won’t speak at the reunion, would you be the “Relief Breaks” monitor?”
That’s when I began to think this speaking thing today might not be such a scary gig after all.
So then I began to consider the whole idea of reunion. What does it mean really? By coincidence, at a used book sale last week I came across the collected writings of the late baseball commissioner and Yale University president Bart Giamatti who echoed a standup routine by the late comedian George Carlin about the goal of baseball – the ideal of it – is to go home.
Giamatti speaks of home frequently as the underlying and unifying concept in baseball – as it is with us all. “Home remains in the mind as a place where reunion, if it were to occur, would happen,” he wrote.
This is not as restrictive as it might seem. Giamatti also writes, “Home is a concept, not a place.”
I think most of us might find some truth in that statement. My spouse, the aforementioned lovely and talented Roselee Papandrea has often questioned what I mean when I refer to my mom’s house as “home.” After all, we have a home of our own in Burlington. But really I’m talking about home as a concept. It’s a place of familiarity, safety and nostalgia. How many of us today think of Stokes County in terms of “home,” even though we don’t actually live here?
I think of today, this reunion, no matter where we live now, as a return home. It has many blessings, some mixed.
I would be lying if I didn’t say I’ve thought a great deal the past few weeks about South Stokes and Walnut Cove Grammar School and Walnut Cove Primary School, and the Walnut Cove Lions Pop Warner football program – all elements that put me together with so many of us here today. The last time I visited King was a sad occasion. I was here to support a fund-raiser to help Brent Wall, Class of 76, pay for his cancer treatments. We lost him a few weeks later, taken far too soon. I met Brent playing little league football and we were lifetime friends. The same with Scott Tedder, in our 77 group – a teammate and classmate. And there are so many others. John Watts in the Class of 76 was claimed in an auto accident a few years back. John’s sister Beth, Class of 78, passed away a few years before that in an accident almost in the same place. Just a couple of weeks ago, Frances Murrell from the Class of 77 was also taken from us well before it was time. Within the past 12 months Lauren lost her husband and my childhood friend Ricky Coe, Class of 78. There are many more I haven’t mentioned, starting with Arlene Brown, who passed away our senior year and is memorialized in our 1977 yearbook. Let’s remember them all today but with a smile.
Flipping through The Saura to re-familiarize myself with names and faces for this reunion in itself was an interesting journey. It’s a publication that was well executed by our classmates but that is from another time, right down to the cute and funny but now politically incorrect artwork on the cover. It features cartoon drawings of Native Americans, two flashing the peace sign. On the back cover one of the cartoon Indians is holding a bow as if to later launch an arrow. I laughed out loud looking at it the other day and wondered just how that cover concept would be received by today’s students, teachers and parents.
Inside I found several things I remembered – the march through the state basketball playoffs, our senior photos (staggering number of leisure suits guys), the newspaper staff of the equally politically incorrect Smoke Signals and the photos of all the teachers – people who gave us so much when I think back on it. I would have never passed college English without Mrs. Lloyd. I tell people this often.
And I was equally stunned by the stuff I had no recollection of at all. For example, apparently I was not only a member of the so-called Anthropology Club but was also its parliamentarian – whatever that is. So if I randomly dug up anyone’s property without permission in a weird search for artifacts, I apologize.
Best of all, though, were the faces of all the longtime friends, many of whom I met in elementary school or middle school. People like Barry Southern and Joe Terrell; Bruce Wall and Brad Dunlap; Karen Dunlap (Wilson) and Peggy Leonard (Raines); or Sandra Hairston and Nadine Golden (Dennard) . We’ve known each other almost forever.
That’s one of the true measures of home, isn’t it? The North Carolina writer Fred Chappell wrote a book a few years back titled, “I am one of you forever.”
And so we are.