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Published: Sunday, 9/1/2002

Reunions strengthen the ties that bind

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jerome Bryson, 11, of Decatur, Ill., tries to fit everyone into a group picture at the Clark family reunion. Jerome Bryson, 11, of Decatur, Ill., tries to fit everyone into a group picture at the Clark family reunion.
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As her extended family grew, Linda Bristow sensed it was drifting apart.

“When your parents die, nothing keeps the family together,” said Ms. Bristow of South Toledo. “I missed seeing my nieces and nephews. I thought, ‘It's time. Somebody's got to make a move and get everybody together.' ”

With 13 nieces and nephews grown and raising their own families, keeping in touch had become a monumental task. A family reunion was in order.

“I started out with a letter to my six brothers and sisters and said “I'd like to do this, and what's a good date,' ” she said.

Two weeks ago, about 40 members of the Everhardt family gathered at Loop Park in Walbridge. “We started reminiscing about the parties we used to have and some of the funny things that used to happen,” said Ms. Bristow.

Potluck was served in the air conditioned shelter house, and there were games and prizes for the children. Ms. Bristow gave out copies of the cookbook she made with favorite recipes. “I'd give my eye-teeth to have mom bake some of those sugar cookies now,” she said.

Nathan Morelock, 11, entertains relatives at the Everhardt reunion at Loop Park, Walbridge. Nathan Morelock, 11, entertains relatives at the Everhardt reunion at Loop Park, Walbridge.
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Whether it's seen as celebration or obligation, reunions are more popular than ever. They take as many forms as there are families - from Sunday potlucks like the Everhardts' to meticulously choreographed three-day events.

An estimated one in three U.S. adults went to a family reunion in the past three years, according to a poll of 1,300 people by the Travel Industry Association of America. Interest in connecting with family has been stronger since last year's terrorist attacks, an association spokesperson said.

Even the Hatfields and McCoys are gathering. The third annual reunion of those fabled 19th-century feuders was held in Pikeville, Ky., in June. Their motto: “No feudin', just fun.” The festival-sized event had corporate sponsors and dozens of activities.

Linda Bristow tries paddle ball at the Everhardt reunion. Linda Bristow tries paddle ball at the Everhardt reunion.
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Edith Wagner, editor and owner of Reunions Magazine, said reunions are lasting longer and attracting distant relatives who turn the occasion into a vacation. Gatherings may move from city to city, depending on where the hosting relatives live. For a visitor, such a movable fest can provide an insider's glimpse of their relative's home town entertainment.

A valuable tool for connecting with others and lining up resources (hotel rooms, T-shirts, excursions) is the Internet, she said.

“And family Web sites are proliferating like bunnies. Some are very extensive, with pictures and movies,” said Ms. Wagner. “And it's something for the kids in the family to do. Kids can communicate with cousins before the reunion.”

Sometimes, the results are astounding.

Researching her ancestry in preparation for a family reunion, Celestine Hollings of Detroit discovered that her grandfather fought in the war between the states.

Her finding led to the 82-year-old Ms. Hollings' recent election as the first African-American president of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War 1861-1865.

The first Clark-Cunningham family reunion in mid-August followed a classic African-American format. It began Friday with a spaghetti dinner, games, and live music provided by a relative.

Sheila Anderson and her siblings organized the event, which drew 160 people from 10 states. The adults didn't want their children growing up not knowing cousins, some of whom may live in the same state, she said.

After 9/11, they realized they didn't know how to contact family members in New York City.

“Hopefully, this will be the starting point of closing that gap,” said Ms. Anderson.

An emotional highlight was when the family matriarch, Florence Clark Anderson, 76, was reunited with her only surviving sibling - an older brother she hadn't seen for years, said Ms. Anderson of Toledo.

From left, Ruth Ings, Sheila Anderson, and Rebecca Clark join a moment of silence for family who have passed away. From left, Ruth Ings, Sheila Anderson, and Rebecca Clark join a moment of silence for family who have passed away.
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A Saturday barbecue at Pearson Metropark was followed by a formal banquet at a hall. The evening included presentations, a memorial service, talent and fashion shows, a teen skit, and drawings for door prizes.

The whirlwind left the Toledo planners, especially the cooks, exhilarated, exhausted, and relieved that the Milwaukee relatives are organizing next year's gathering, said Ms. Anderson.

In retrospect, she said she would have preferred more unstructured time for relaxed conversations.

And, she recommends that attendees pay their fee in advance of the event.

Ione Vargus had observed the positive impact reunions had on her relatives, especially the young men who had not excelled.

“They began to see they were very loved. And people loved them for themselves and not their academic achievement,” said Dr. Vargus.

In 1990, she established the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University, in Philadelphia, where she was dean of the school of social administration.

The institute's annual conference was initially called, “It's More than a Picnic.”

Reunions, she figured, were a tool that strengthened African-American families.

“Reunions help give you a sense of identity and belonging,” said Dr. Vargus, noting that such gatherings have become extremely popular among African-Americans.

“It really demonstrates that African-Americans truly love their family and they enjoy so much being with family,” she said.

She suggests that multi-day gatherings include beneficial workshops led by relatives or friends on topics such as what it means to belong to a black family, how to apply to college, genealogy, running for office, and even sensitive issues such as unwed motherhood.

When the Conner family gathers in Toledo over the long Fourth of July weekend, 2003, 18 months of planning will have gone into it. Branches of the family in other cities have hosted reunions, but Clara Conner Petty expects this to be larger and organized to a T.

Ms. Conner Petty, of West Toledo, and a cousin in Michigan are leading a 10-person team that has already become better friends by meeting monthly.

“What motivated us is, there's a lot of us who live in Toledo and hardly know each other. We wanted our children to connect,” said Ms. Conner Petty.

They expect to post photos, a newsletter, and games on a Web site. “We're trying to generate excitement,” she said. Seed money came from committee members who bought their $40 tickets in advance.

Events will include a Thursday fish fry, and a catered picnic on Friday followed by viewing public fireworks.

Saturday will begin with a pancake breakfast and an afternoon activity of choice: a casino trip to Detroit, shopping, or the zoo.

Saturday night, they'll take leftover food to a small bowling alley they have rented.

“I want my children to know that you can always depend on family,” said Ms. Conner Petty.

Sometimes a special occasion or a trip down memory lane spurs a homecoming.

The Blair family reunions are usually in Wauseon. But the opening of the Blair Museum of Lithophanes at Toledo Botanical Garden inspired a Toledo gathering, and the East Coast relatives to visit northwest Ohio a few weeks ago.

We have wonderful memories,” said Robin Blair. “And as parents we want to create good memories.”

Her uncle, the late Laurel Blair, bequeathed his collection of 2,400 lithophanes to the city of Toledo. Laurel's brother, George Blair, 87, George's four daughters, their children, and grandchildren, made it a vacation.

They visited the graves of relatives and the Old West End mansion once owned by Georgia and Roy Robert Blair, George and Laurel's parents.

As children, George's daughters spent summers in the Victorian home. They remember secret places, dark corners, and a call-button under the dining room rug that summoned the maid.

This year, they stayed at a downtown hotel. One night, dinner was at Heatherdowns Country Club, which their grandfather developed. They met up with extended family for a Saturday potluck at the TBG conference center where they toured the lithophane museum. They visited the Main Branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library and the Toledo Museum of Art.

“We always went to the museum with our grandmother,” said Donna Blair.

The events of last September gave them a nudge.

“I think it emphasized the need to connect and not put off to tomorrow what you can do today,” she said. “You don't realize this when you're younger. It's when you're older you value it more.”

Added her sister, Georgia Blair: “And we want our children to spend time with their grandfather, and with each other.”

Sisters Kay Lynne and Jan Schaller volunteered to plan the 2004 reunion for their large family that traces its lineage to a pair of Swiss immigrants in 1851.

They meet every other summer for a potluck at a park that has an air-conditioned shelter house, especially appreciated by the elders.

Kay Lynne Schaller, of Perrysburg, has learned of a local 1817-vintage cabin that was occupied for 100 years by the descendents of Benedict II and Rosina Schaller. She hopes to charter a local train that chugs past the cabin for a reunion excursion.

Another highlight: they plan to invite relatives from the ancestral town of Diessbach, Swizerland.


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