Chatham NJ High School
One Part Nostalgia, Two Parts Enthusiasm:
By Pete Steffens '66, Chairman of the Great Reunions of 1985 and 1997
Perhaps like sausage it's enough to enjoy a Great Reunion without having to know how it was made. Never the less, for those with insatiable curiosity I would like to ramble on a bit with war stories and wisdom (often gained the hard way) from the creation of the first two Great Reunions of Chatham High School.
In the beginning there was the idea and it was good. Paul Harris '53, living in California, had heard of a high school reunion in South Pasadena for all the graduating classes all at once. He brought the concept back east and planted the seed. After some fits and starts, and several meetings; the group of organizers had a $4,000 loan for seed money, a date for the event, and a host of ideas.
Unfortunately there was not much real progress. The initial Chairman, former Mayor John Bennett, was about to move to San Francisco. And of most concern, some key members were considering throwing in the towel. Great Reunions nearly ended before they began. At that time I was President of the Chatham Savings & Loan. One day John Bennett and Paul Harris walked into my office and asked if I would be the new Chairman of the Great Reunion. I gave a qualified yes on the spot because I was afraid that without designated leadership the idea might die. My hesitation was that key members of the committee might quit. After assuring myself that Dave and Connie Collin, Jim Pappas and Paul Harris would stay the course (and with the blessing of Peg Keisler) we were off and running. In recognition of their anticipated contributions I asked Connie Collin and Paul Harris if they would accept the titles of Co-Chairpersons. Over time it became clear that Connie truly was a Co-Chair.
The first order of business was to figure out what we were doing. We had to sift through the ideas and do a feasibility test on each one. We had to sort out which ideas held the most promise, which ones would fit into a four day weekend in July and which ones could even be accomplished. In short we had to organize the organizing committee.
Let me say at this point that the Great Reunions would not have happened without the quality people we had on the committees. Nearly everyone was a self starter bubbling over with notions of how we could do something better. Let me also state that you can't stifle enthusiasm and hope to generate volunteerism. So you patiently listen to everyone's thoughts on everything, and allow people to take the ball and run with is as often as you can. And you genuinely thank everyone often.
This sort of democracy may also come at the expense of efficiency, a balancing act is needed. We determined a schedule of events and assigned major responsibilities. Paul Harris, with his heart in Chatham and his body in California would write the book. Dave Collin would plan the all class party, Connie Collin would take care of the data base, Jim Pappas would do the sports, I would open and distribute all the mail and try to act like a Chairman, John Hadley would be the Treasurer, Sabin Segal the souvenirs, Charlie Salin the parade and picnic, and so on. We would assign other responsibilities as they arose. We were all feeling our way, this was all new, none of us had ever thrown a party for 1,200 to 1,500 people before.
There are an endless number of details to cover in the course of planning one of these events. Meetings must be held to decide, discuss and plan. Too many meetings tend to wear people out, too few and the interest is dissipated. Trial and error seems to indicate that once every six to eight weeks is sufficient at the beginning, once a month for the most part and more often as needed as the event date approaches. Begin meetings in earnest at least two years before the event. Find someone to be secretary and take minutes. Have the minutes distributed in between meetings. It helps keep everyone focused. Dorothy Bennett Villone '52 for the first reunion and Carol Brown Dibley '71 for the second each did an excellent job as secretary.
The purpose of the Great Reunion is to have fun, don't get so bogged down in the work that you forget to enjoy the fellowship. Find ways to lighten up the meetings. Bring refreshments, go out afterwards, whatever. During one GR'85 meeting we stuffed letters for a mailing at Dave and Connie's house at the shore. During one of the GR'97 meetings we had a food tasting party to decide on the menu for the all class party.
The GR '85 group faced the unknown. How many graduates had there been? Where are they now? How many might come? Colleges keep track of alumni to pester them for contributions. Since public high schools rarely do that no one bothers to keep track of their alumni. How would we find them?
We decided early on to have class coordinators. Someone from each class who would know the addresses of classmates and have a better chance of networking to find the missing ones. One of the mistakes we made as a committee was not putting enough effort into lining up class coordinators. We had delegated that job to one member of the committee and in retrospect that was probably asking too much. On GR '97 we initially had one person doing the job and that gradually grew to four or five. The organizing committee can send out letters and publicize the events as much as possible, but probably for most people the first motivation to return is to see old friends. The classes with larger numbers or larger percentages of returning alumni all had active class coordinators.
Successful class coordinators did most or all of the following: put together a mailing list of classmates that was accurate, as complete as possible and as early as possible; planned an appropriate class function during the great reunion; belong to classes that got together on a fairly regular basis, made time to make personal contact with classmates; and kept classmates posted on events and who was coming. Generally speaking, there is a direct correlation between the number of people who come back from your class and the amount of fun you will have. Probably five to ten percent will show up with little or no effort, how did your class do? Satisfied? Would you be the class coordinator next time?
The search for missing people is never easy. It is estimated that ten percent of the population may move each year. Some people will never move, but others will move continuously. Some classes began with pretty good mailing lists, others had no clue. And lets not forget the ever helpful unlisted numbers. Class coordinators persisted, however much to various degrees of effort, and submitted their lists. I think it helped to have meetings for the class coordinators, it was good for morale and kept everybody on the same page as much as possible. By the way, it's probably better to have class coordinators that are local to Chatham, but it is definitely better to have a worker in any location than someone who accepts the job and then does nothing.
The GR '85 had a mailing list and while they continued to look for missing alumni they mailed out registration forms, sign up sheets and life history forms. The life history forms were used to generate ideas for the Great Reunion Book. When ever we received one that looked promising it was forwarded to Paul Harris in California. In the mean time the committee members, and more specifically Dave Collin, were planning the All Class Party.
The All Class Party presented one of our toughest problems. We quickly discovered there is no place in the northern part of the state that could hold a party as large as the one we were planning. In the end Dave worked out a deal with Drew University to pitch a circus tent over their tennis courts. The people that provide food service for Drew would cater our function. We took a wild guess and predicated all our plans on 1,250 people coming to the all class event. That was extremely important because a significant portion of the cost of the dinner was the cost of the tent. The tent would cost the same if 500 or 800 or 1,250 or 1,500 people showed up. Would the fixed costs ultimately represent 10% or 25% or 40%, no one knew for sure. We also wanted to hold the cost down as much as possible, so that as many as possible could afford to come. We have always kept in mind that our total alumni base consists of both young and old, wealthy and not so wealthy, people that can walk to the event and others that must plan a costly trip to get here. Our arrangements had to guarantee a certain number of participants, this was one area where the committee clearly had to stick it's collective neck out.
The best number we have is that 1,340 +/- attended the '85 all class party. Not bad, except that approximately 400, roughly 30% signed up in the last week. Maybe it was uncertain travel plans, maybe it was uncertain work schedules, or maybe it was just procrastination, but the committee thought it might lose it's collective shirts up until that last few days before the event. We envisioned being hundreds below our estimate. It was so ominous that we tried to renegotiate our contract. Dave Collin was super throughout the whole process. In the end we had a party with enough participants to break even. Those who attended say it was perhaps the best party ever seen in Chatham. Funny, those who attended the one in 1997 say the same thing, those who attended both were twice blessed.
In 1985, as mentioned above, we attempted to keep the expense of attending the Great Reunion as reasonable as possible. Our finances, simplified, went something like this. Price the all class dinner, as much as possible, to stand alone and break even. Price the registration to cover the cost of the book and our mailing costs (printing, postage, P.O. Box, etc.,) and price the souvenirs to be as reasonable as possible but provide the organization with a little cushion. That's what we did in 1985. Despite over ordering on some items like the book, and ordering a less than optimal mix of shirt sizes we managed to pay back the $4,000 loan, publish a post reunion "memory book" about the event and still have approximately $8,000 left over. The surplus came from the souvenirs and represents less than eight percent of out total budget. When the last reunion was over, Paul Harris argued that the surplus should be put aside as seed money for the next Great Reunion. Some on the committee suspected that Paul, living in California, may not have fully comprehend all the work we had done organizing the event. I certainly had no idea how much work the book had been for Paul. At any rate there was burn out and enough doubt about a second Great Reunion that the money was used to endow The Paul Harris Great Reunion Award. Since 1987 the award has meant a $500 check to a student of Chatham High in recognition of their school and community spirit. When the Great Reunion, Inc., disbanded in 1985 the award was entrusted to the Chatham Rotary Club for Administration.
Notice I said Great Reunion, Inc., this time we are The Great Reunion of 1997, Inc. We also have a tax ID number, letters of incorporation and what ever else our Counsel advises. It's a reflection of the times and our litigious society that we can not have a reunion without all these concerns. For both the 1985 and 1997 reunions D.B. Ross, Jr., Esq., '66 has volunteered to watch out for all our legal and insurance needs. We don't ask him to attend all the meetings, he's just there when we need him. Thanks D.B.
Years passed, and about three or four years ago Mayor Hall started inquiring if we could do another Great Reunion in 1997 as part of the Centennial Celebration. I'm still not totally sure why I said yes again, except it's fun. Maybe not all the time, but I really get a kick out of the fellowship of the meetings, out of doing something worthwhile, out of seeing all the pleasure it brings to others. I also thought that maybe it would be easier the second time around. It was still a lot. Others from the first time said yes too, Jim Pappas, John Hadley, Sabin Segal, D.B. Ross, Rich Bradley, but others said "once" was enough. Dave and Connie Collin, Charlie Salin, Paul Harris Tanya Lynn Bennett, Patty Collins Montifusco, all passed. Still others had moved away like Linda Zelley Winterberg and Marilyn Lum Light.
Our success would depend on us assembling a sufficient nucleus to adequately address all the key elements of the event. Rich Bradley agreed to be in charge of the All Class Party. We recruited Keith Wilcox, Patricia Motamed and Richard Gerdau, a writer/producer with ABC News to anchor the book. Jim Pappas brought in Arnie Goetchius and Doris Lissaman. Arnie has done a masterful job keeping the data base and organizing the mailings. Doris has worked on the art show, music, helped the Treasurer and organized the class coordinators meeting. Carol Coons Foster joined and was asked to find class coordinators. Eventually she was assisted by another new comer, Patty Lehman Byrne, who also worked on souvenirs and hosted several meetings at her house. Bob Langford joined and assisted Arnie. Dean Wilson became our Treasurer, Marcia Hall did publicity, Carol Brown Dibley was secretary, Greg Henrich worked on the parade and picnic, Helen Harchar Bryant worked with Patty Lehman Byrne to distribute the mail, and Doug McGregor joined to work on class coordinators for the "Township Classes". And everyone pitched in to help on everything else when we needed it.
As if asking these people to volunteer their time and effort wasn't enough, we also asked them to put up seed money for the event. Instead of getting a bank loan, we figured it was just as easy to put up the money ourselves. Inflation being what it is, we needed about two times the $4,000 we had in 1985. A number of us put up $1,000 each, interest free, to the committee, knowing that if we don't break even we're out some money. For the record, our financial backers deserve some thanks, they were Rich Bradley, John Hadley, Doris Lissaman, Jim Pappas, Sabin Segal, Pete Steffens, and Dean Wilson.
Some things didn't change from the 1985 reunion. It was still a difficult task to get active class coordinators for each year. It was still difficult to track down missing people, and it was still a lot of work to plan all the events. Some things did change from 1985. With the addition of the graduating classes since 1985 and the addition of the Township classes for the years when the school systems were divided we now had a potential mailing list of over 10,000. That meant more data, more missing, more classes and larger mailings. Each mailing, and there were several, cost the committee thousands of dollars. Three mailings were so large we had to assemble enough people to fill the hall at the Fish & Game and have them stuff, stamp and label letters for hours. The postage for a full mailing is around $3,000 with 32 cent stamps. Add to that the printing costs, labels etc. and the cost of mailings is significant. The committee had to pay for two such mailings before we saw any return cash flow.
The other significant difference from 1985 is the cost for everything. Postage and printing is just one area where prices have gone up. In constructing the cost of the All Class Party, rising costs made it particularly difficult to hold costs down for alumni. As I discussed above, fixed costs combined with an uncertain number of participants make it very difficult to price events. This time the price for the tent, dance floor, back up generator and other miscellaneous expenses is over $20,000. If 1,000 people showed up that would have split the cost to $20 per person before food. If 1,500 people showed up it would have split the fixed costs to $13 per person. What do we charge, how many are coming? In an effort to avoid problems associated with the last minute surge we had in 1985 we staggered the price. Discounted to less than our projected cost if you sent in with the first mailing, more if you procrastinated. As of May 10th there are approximately 1,100 signed up for the dinner. We were sure to have a big party, but how many more might want to come? Would we break even? The fire department, fearing overcrowding has told us that we can not let people pay at the door. Would that preclude us from breaking even. Rich would have to give a final count to the caterer much earlier than our time frame in 1985. The caterer would allow only a nominal last minute adjustment. We finally determined on a seating arrangement that would accommodate 1,450 maximum. On Saturday, July 5, 1997, some time around mid afternoon, Arnie put together the last name badge and we were sold out. Rich's careful planning would eventually show an All-Classes Party that barely covered it's expenses, which is exactly what our objective was from the start.
The procrastination of alumni in sending back registration forms is the single most troublesome factor in organizing this event. It also raises the cost for everyone. Some people will have received four or five mailings before they finally return the registration form, some never bother. Multiply that by thousands of alumni and it represents a lot of money, tens of thousands. No one seems to be immune, even into April and May we still had committee members and class coordinators who hadn't registered. If there is a solution to this I'd like to know what it is. It increases our mailing costs, increases the registration fee, slows down writing for the book, makes planning the dinner difficult and creates significant fiscal problems. The most remarkable part is some of these procrastinators will complain the price is too high, while others will be upset if they can't pay at the door. I guess no good deed goes unpunished.
Perhaps the biggest difference between 1985 and 1997 was that we were writing the book here, within the steering committee. In 1985 Paul Harris had done both books on the west coast and shipped them east. For the 1985 committee that made it very clean and easy. This time many on the committee spent a significant amount of time on various aspects related to the book, even though the steering committee was approximately the same size as in 1985, about 20 members. Richard Gerdau, Patricia Gerdau and Keith Wilcox spent almost all of their time on the book. Several others also participated in significant ways. We learned that production of the book can be nearly as time consuming and perhaps more problematic than witting the book. Make sure you have adequate, knowledgeable volunteers, or pay professionals to do it. We also learned that it is important to have at least dual control on all contracts. Misunderstandings with the printer resulted in us having only enough copies delivered to cover registrants. We lost a lot of sales to people who wanted extra copies or had not registered, but wanted books anyway. A last minute rush to complete production increased expenses, as well giving several people all nighters. Many people helped see it through, but the book would not have been there for the Great Reunion without Richard Gerdau's professionalism.
I should also tell you that the Great Reunion did not end on July 6, 1997, not for the steering committee anyway. In 1985 meetings went on into December. This time it may be worse. In 1985 we offered to the alumni a video and a Memory Book. In 1985 Paul Harris wrote the Memory Book in California and we hired a video company to do the video. Neither enterprise impacted the committee very much. This year, the job of putting the Memory Book together has fallen on Arnie Goetchius and yours truly, the job of completing the video has fallen on Richard Gerdau. We all have lives we would like to get back to, lives that demand a little more attention than we have been giving them, and frankly, after two and a half years we feel a little burned out. The lesson - don't commit to too much post event activities as the troops begin to scatter and enthusiasm is never what it was prior to the event.
There was one other difference this time, the 4th of July fell on Friday, not Thursday. This required us to squeeze our schedule and eliminate some of the less popular aspects of the first reunion. We were also aware that this Great Reunion was part of the Centennial Celebration. We hope it still was everything people expected. I also hope there will be a third Great Reunion, I'd like to just attend one. I apologize if this rambling on got too tedious, but if there is a third Great Reunion there is no reason for that steering committee to have to reinvent the wheel. I also hope I've remembered all the facts accurately enough and haven't misspelled or left out names. It's been my pleasure to work with the greatest group of people during these two reunions.
The saying goes that if you want something done, ask a busy person. It seems to be true. I don't know if that's because busy people don't know how to say no or because they are organized. But all the people on this committee are like that. They balance work, family, civic, charity work and recreation. And they still managed to get the Great Reunion of 1997 done!