An old Spanish aphorism says, "There is no better mirror than an old friend."
When parents are gone and children and grandchildren know us only as adults, we still have our peers who remember us as children and knew us as we grew. Reunions--whether among families, military units, survivors of disasters or high school classmates--confirm the need for participants of a group experience, even a negative one, to renew a bond.
Bernita Boland Gray, who lives in Oxnard, was born on the same day in 1921 as Helen Eckes Roth. The two have been friends since the 10th grade. Gray and Jane Mary Ball of Santa Barbara have known each other "since we were born," Gray said. "Our mothers were close friends back in the Midwest before moving out here."
The three friends have maintained regular contact with about nine other female high school graduates for more than 50 years.
On the other hand, their classmate, Fred Merrill of Inglewood, was sorry that he "had not kept up contact with anybody."
About a year ago, Merrill called their old high school and offered to help organize the reunion. Merrill, Gray and Don Brubaker of Ventura spearheaded an alumni committee and with Phyllis and Randy Pazen of Class Reunion Enterprises in Camarillo organized the 50th reunion for Los Angeles High School's class of '39. More than 300 people attended the event.
"I was motivated by nostalgia to go," Merrill said. "It was a last hurrah. Part of it was wanting to close the loop on things. The high school graduation was quite an event in one's life."
People attend their high school reunions for several reasons, Pazen said, and nostalgia is high on the list. "It's a chance to go back to the prom. Most notably, it was an era of firsts--first love, first date, first job, first car."
Bob Knight, professor of gerontology at USC, said reunions and generational friendships are important in providing common memories from times together. "Our own memories tend to be selective, and these relationships provide a sense of continuity and a different perspective on yourself," Knight said. "When older people attend reunions, they discover that classmates remember things that the person himself does not recall."
Which may help explain why these events are so well attended.
"The turnouts for 50th reunions are tremendous. It supports the notion that people need to see who they are and were," said Pat Hughes, president of The Reunion Co. in Washington, D.C., one of the largest professional reunion-planning firms in the country.
In Ventura County, high school reunions are generally held in the summer. Pazen's company plans about 30-40 each year. Many more are organized privately. Some private high schools maintain alumni associations that track graduates. However, public high schools in the county have little to do with organizing reunions. As a courtesy they pass on information if you contact them, but the alumni, usually class officers, plan things.
As alumni committee member Don Brubaker put it, "It does take a little group of energetic people to get it started."
For help in organizing a reunion, call Class Reunion Enterprises, (805) 388-2559. You might also consult "How to Prepare for Your High School Reunion" by Susan Allen Toth (Ballantine, $4.95).