Friday, June 7, 2019

Before the memory fades: A history of Windham High School's Alumni Banquet

By Walter Lunt

It was an early evening in June of 1945 – Windham High School sophomore Elsie Cram and a group of mostly female friends were standing near the entrance to the school gymnasium (today’s town hall). They had gathered purposely to admire the couples who were arriving to attend one of the most gala town events of the year, the annual Windham High School Alumni Banquet.
“We couldn’t wait to see the pretty gowns; they were so colorful, and some had shawls. The men were dressed in suits and ties.”

Bob Miele, Carol McDonald (both from class of 1942) and Michelle
Murch(class of 1995) represents the oldest and most recent
attendees at the Windham High School Alumni Banquet
Elsie and her friends lingered, peeking through the tall gymnasium windows, admiring the activities and festivities that were part of the banquet, almost 75 years ago. “We couldn’t wait to (be part of it),” said Elsie.

She would not wait long. In those days, the senior class was invited to the banquet. Elsie attended in June of 1947 with the man who would become her husband, Harold Haskell. And, at age 90, she still remembers details of that evening.

It began, much as it does today, with lots of socializing. “There were compliments on each other’s gowns, reminiscing and getting caught up with each other’s lives. Then came dinner: ham, mashed potato, peas and home-made pies. After that, the (Alumni) Association members, who sat at the head table, held their annual meeting – election of officers, treasury report and other business. Members of all class years were called upon to stand for applause. The oldest alumnus would receive a pinned corsage or flower for the lapel. Finally, the tables were folded up, moved out of the way and (a local band) played while we danced. It was amazing!”

In attendance that night, and many times the recipient of that celebratory corsage, was Edith Elliot Pride, valedictorian of the first graduating class of Windham High School in 1897 (then located in the red brick building, now Windham Historical Society). Pride attended every alumni banquet from its inception in 1911 to the early 1970s.

The late Windham historian Kay Soldier reported that, in 1911, one year after the first Windham high school building was constructed, “the graduating class of 1910 met to establish an Alumni Association. They were determined to have graduates gather every year and even set up an Alumni award, a scholarship that would be given to one senior each year at an Alumni Banquet.”

Some sources have claimed that the event was canceled during the World War II years because so many graduates were “overseas.” Perhaps this was so during the early war years, but Elsie Haskell says she recalls the event during all her years of high school (1944 – 1947). There is no question, however, that interest flagged in 1975. No banquet was held for the following 15 years.

In 1991, the late Harold Haskell (Elsie’s husband) was notified by school officials that the Alumni Association still had an outstanding bank balance. Haskell called fellow W.H.S. schoolmates in an effort re-ignite interest in an annual banquet. He found not only interest, but enthusiasm. Haskell became president of the Association and the Alumni Banquet, reborn that year, has been sustained ever since.

The 2019 banquet, with alumni representing classes from 1942 to 1995, was held recently with over 200 in attendance. Gone is the banquet night Association meeting, the band and the dancing. Substituted in more recent years are live and silent auctions and power-point and slide shows of alumni graduation pictures. Extensive socializing and the “call of classes” remain.

One long-time tradition is official recognition of the class celebrating its 50th year. Peter Fiske, speaking for the class of 1969, drew laughter as he reminisced about the long hair of the 60s (and the lack of it today).  Norman Forbes recalled playing in a stage band during basketball warm-ups, particularly the tune Sweet Georgia Brown and Pat Rossi’s drum solo that “brought the house down.”
The Alumni Association continues to award an annual scholarship to a deserving Windham High School senior. They also administer the (now defunct) Grange scholarship to a senior planning a career in the agricultural or environmental field.

The Alumni Association’s newest president is Gary Plummer, class of ’64. He brings a measure of tradition to the role as his father was once the recipient of the Alumni Association scholarship.
Plummer hopes attendance at the annual banquet, held in May, will grow. It’s about tradition, memories and reconnections.

As Kay Soldier once wrote, “Windham’s annual high school alumni banquet is unique; few towns can boast such an event, which brings so many people together, all with a common bond. This is how a community thrives.”    <

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