May 1, 2009
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
With all due respect to the late novelist Thomas Wolfe, Caledonia High School alumni would argue that you can go home again. Many of them do every Mother''s Day weekend, maintaining a long-held reunion tradition dating back 75 years.
"Every year, the Friday before Mother''s Day, all the alumni of the school meet in the school cafetorium for a meal, program and fellowship," said banquet vice president Karen Hall. "This is quite unique."
The school is one of, if not the, only school in the state of Mississippi to host school-wide gatherings on an annual basis. Hall (''74) is co-organizing the gathering with her brother, Duane Perkins (''81), president of the alumni event. Both still live in Lowndes County.
One alumna in particular remembers the tradition''s earliest days. Eva West Egger has been a part of every banquet, except one, since its inception in 1935, her senior year. Today, she proudly attends with as many of her five daughters, all fellow graduates, as possible.
"I only missed one banquet, in 1937," Egger shares in a vivacious voice belying her 91 years. "It''s just wonderful! We have people come from all over; once somebody even came back from Hawaii and brought leis for everybody," she chuckled.
Egger, who was named Outstanding Alumnus of the Year in 2005, and her family look forward to returning to their alma mater for the 2009 reunion Friday, May 8, at 7 p.m.
"We usually have big entertainment," Egger shared. "One year they did ''Hee Haw.'' That was something else! And last year, three of my daughters were the McGuire Sisters and another was Dolly Parton, singing ''9 to 5.'' And Duane, our president, did Elvis. It was wonderful; we all loved it."
Donna Grant, Egger''s youngest daughter, graduated in 1972. She and her sisters -- Dotty Richards, Evelyn Thompson, Nancy Gerhart and Sandra Slayton -- have been inspired by their mother''s example of loyalty to the school and community.
"The whole thing amazed me, when my mother said her class initiated this," said Grant, who serves in the education department of Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle. "Back then, they prepared the whole meal themselves. Students would get their parents to send something, even a jar of pickles. Of course, the numbers weren''t anything like they are today; but they all took it upon themselves and kept it alive year after year."
Many Caledonia grads plan their vacations around the reunion, to visit home for Mother''s Day and fellowship with old friends, Grant noted.
A moving part of each banquet is a time set aside to remember former classmates and faculty who have passed away since the previous gathering.
"We''ve lost so many people this past year," lamented Egger. "I''ve heard that the whole Alumni Association has lost 17."
Blessed be the tie
Many would love to see more graduates from recent years support the longstanding tradition.
"When I was in school, it was mandatory: you went to the alumni banquet," Grant said. "We felt like it was an achievement to be included in such a close-knit group, a connection we all had by living our lives here and being a part of the school."
The distance of years, she concedes, can add more meaning to the May ritual shared with family and friends. "I guess every year that I age, it''s a little more special."
Her vibrant mother agrees. "It''s a lot like a homecoming; I wouldn''t miss it for anything," she affirmed. " ... I''ve just loved my whole life, raising my daughters and seeing them all graduate from Caledonia -- I''d like to go back so I could live it over again."
At the conclusion of each banquet, everyone stands to join hands and sing "Blessed Be the Tie that Binds." John Fawcett''s lyrics speak of the "fellowship of kindred minds." The song, for many present, aptly represents the shared bond.
As the assembly of several hundred alumni of all ages raise their voices together, it may be the final line that best embodies the hopeful wish of graduates past and present:
" ... And perfect love and friendship reign, through all eternity."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.