May 10, 2013 10:43:08 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
Mother's Day weekend is typically a time for families to come together, and one of Caledonia's largest families will kick the weekend off early tonight, gathering in Caledonia High School's cafeteria/auditorium for an event that has become one of the town's most cherished traditions.
To refer to the school's annual alumni banquet as a class reunion would be a misnomer. Every student who has ever worn the Caledonia Confederates' mortarboard is eligible to attend, including the current senior class. But for the hundreds who will flock to campus tonight, this is more of a homecoming, and the attendees are more like family than classmates.
Ask anyone when the alumni banquet was first held, and you're likely to get a completely different answer. By some accounts, it began in the 1930s, and tonight will mark the 79th annual celebration. Others say it began in 1910 when the home economics class held a dinner for the school's four graduating seniors.
But recently, while combing through old photographs to use in a slide show, organizers found an image of the Stephen D. Lee Caledonia Rifles circa 1898. Information accompanying the image stated that the high school had "a very active Alumni Association, meeting each year on Friday night before Mother's Day."
The one thing not in question is how much the banquet means to members of the close-knit community. With a population of just over 1,000 people, nearly everyone in Caledonia is related in some way, whether directly, distantly or simply in that genial Southern manner in which strangers become almost instant family, drawn into an unbroken circle of minor squabbles and enduring affection.
This year's banquet committee president, Cindy Egger Goode, is part of a long line of Caledonia graduates, many of whom began school together in the first grade. She graduated in 1989. Her brother, Matt Egger, graduated from Caledonia in 1991. Her parents are also CHS alumni: Her mom, Suzanne Walters Talbert, is a 1968 graduate and her father, Bobby Egger, graduated in 1961. Aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, step-siblings, in-laws -- most share that common tie.
The Eggers (originally spelled "Yegger") were among the founding families of Caledonia, settling in the area in the 1830s and naming it "Yeggerstown." A Wikipedia entry suggests that, based on historical texts from the local library, one of the Yeggers renamed the town "Caledonia" after falling for a girl with the same name.
The family connections, and the long tradition, are what make the alumni banquet special, Goode says.
The exclusivity also sets it apart from other class reunions. Only CHS graduates are allowed to attend, so if your spouse attended school elsewhere, they will be spending tonight at home. (The one exception is for members celebrating their 50th class reunion or more.)
"The community is so small," Goode says. "It's a small town where everybody knows everybody. It is tradition and pride. We take pride in saying this is a banquet only we can come to."
Over the years though, time has taken its toll, and many fear the banquet is losing its importance.
About 325 people are expected to attend tonight's festivities, but Goode would love to see 600 or more people turn out for the program, which bears the theme, "The History That Defines Us."
Goode -- along with Donna Grant (Class of '72) and Patti Brown Stanley, (Class of '88) -- remembers a time when the current senior class was not "invited" or "encouraged" to attend -- it was a requirement in order to graduate.
As the honored guests, the seniors have a table to themselves and receive their meal first. But some are either not aware they are invited or simply don't see the importance of it.
"We didn't want to go: We were made to," Goode says. "Now that I'm older, it is more important to me, because it's keeping the tradition alive. We're probably the only ones in the U.S. that still even do this."
She speculates the encroaching apathy may be in part due to the large number of current students who are "transplants" -- children who move to the area because of their parents' involvement with nearby Columbus Air Force Base.
"The town has grown so much, and the school has grown so much," 1981 graduate Duane Perkins says. "It used to be, you started and finished at Caledonia, so the roots and the bond was probably deeper than it is now."
A past president of the banquet committee, Perkins has only missed attending one year while taking a class field trip to Washington, D.C. with his son. For him, it is a way to support the school and catch up with people he may not often see during the rest of the year.
He started school in the first grade at Caledonia Elementary and remembers not only his old friends but also his favorite teachers, many of whom were Caledonia alumni.
His instructors were not only influential figures on campus; they were part of his daily life outside school. They were his Sunday School teachers, neighbors, local business owners. They were there because they wanted to be, he says, and that made a strong impression on the students.
If the younger alumni stop coming to the banquet, eventually the attendees -- and the banquet itself -- will die out, ending a multi-generational tradition, he fears.
But for 1995 graduate and committee member Emily Hankins, she wouldn't miss it for anything. There are too many special memories, she says.
Her father, Gary Weathers, graduated in 1972, and her grandmother, Hazel Forrester, graduated in 1948. Her grandfather, Ed Weathers, was called away to serve in World War II but returned home and graduated from Columbus High School.
"We were taught to value tradition and heritage," Hankins says. "Most of us grew up more like family than classmates."
Tonight's event will include a slide show of images from more than a century of Caledonia's history. The hallways will be lined with memorabilia, and a meal will be served. Doors open at 6 p.m., and tickets, which can be purchased at the door, are $15 per person.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.