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Out & About: Aging populations, social media put strain on alumni events

  • Activities in Hartford's Alumni Day got off promptly at 2 p.m. in White River Junction, Vt., on June 22, 1968, and gained in momentum through the day until the closing moments of the evening dance. Hartford's first effort was rated as a complete success by committee and volunteers with many classes displaying an array of colorful floats and costumes. Hartford's Alumni Day is apparently here to stay. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Barbara Hale, Hartford Class of 1963 alumna, talks to a friend after the Hartford Alumni Happening parade near Lyman Point Park in White River Junction, Vt. on Saturday, June 29, 2013. (Valley News - Libby March) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Calendar Editor
Saturday, May 18, 2019

The group sat around tables in the library at Hartford High School, busily stuffing envelopes and adding address labels and stamps.

The 3,200 Hartford Alumni Association newsletters (in addition to 2,000 emailed) were meant to tell alumni about the upcoming parade and celebration — including a picnic and dance — taking place on June 22.

Like other high school alumni organizations in the Upper Valley, the Hartford nonprofit’s active members are aging, and there are few members of the younger classes stepping up to take on those responsibilities. Insurance costs have risen faster than fundraising dollars, creating an additional financial strain.

“There’re still people who care about this,” said Tess Wood, class of 1982, and president of the Hartford Alumni Association

Since joining the association’s leadership team, Wood has been working to reframe the event as a celebration for the whole community. In addition to using social media, Wood frequently goes out in public to sell raffle tickets and to encourage alumni who live nearby to stay involved.

“I love my school,” Wood said. “My best memories are from here.”

The people who are the most involved are typically retired, and they’re seldom joined by people who graduated in the new millennium.

“I think they really don’t know what it’s all about,” Wood said. “We are the glue that keeps classmates together.”

Donna Williamson, class of 1977, and Gail Billings, class of 1973, both got involved about two years ago and handle advertising for the newsletter.

“I believe in the organization,” said Billings, of Randolph. “I think you should support your school, whether it’s a college or high school.”

Billings received scholarships while a senior at Hartford High, and she sees membership in the organization as giving back as “part of a duty.”

Each year, parade floats are contributed by classes who have reached a five-year milestone — it could be a five-year anniversary or a 40-year. The parade always draws a crowd, and the picnic with family activities that follow are open to all.

“It took my class a couple of five-year cycles” before more people got involved, said Williamson, of Bridgewater.

It’s important to start involvement early, which is something Wood also is being more proactive about. This year, graduating seniors will receive a letter inviting them to join the alumni organization.

“I think unless they start out participating that first year, they don’t know what it’s about,” Billings said. “I’m as busy an anyone. It doesn’t take a lot out of your schedule.”

Annie Greenwood, class of 1990, became involved in planning her class’ 25-year reunion and stayed involved with the alumni organization afterward. She works full time and helps out the organization when she can.

Greenwood cites increasingly busier family schedules and social media as one of the reasons fewer people are interested in alumni activities.

“It’s like you see each other all the time now because you can connect on social media,” said Greenwood, of Lebanon. “Twenty-five years ago we didn’t have that. The only way you’d see people is if you met up at the reunion.”

It’s different for younger classes who came of age with technology and social media.

“This is what they’ve known growing up,” Greenwood said. “They don’t know what it’s like to go 25 years without seeing their classmates.”

Greenwood still enjoys interacting with her classmates.

“It’s a different feeling to make a connection in person than on social media,” she said. “That’s a time where you’ll reflect back and share stories.”

Hartford is far from the only alumni association facing these challenges. The West Lebanon High School parade disbanded after last year because there weren’t enough people able or willing to continue to organize it. The Lebanon High School Alumni Association also has faced a rise in insurance costs and a lack of younger members stepping up to take organizational roles.

The Stevens High School Alumni Association — which arguably has the largest alumni parade in the Upper Valley and is the oldest active high school alumni organization in the U.S. — will have participants from the Class of 1949 and every five years after in this year’s event. which takes place at 10:30 a.m. on June 8. While parade involvement remains high, the nonprofit organization is considering doing away with the annual banquet.

“There is no interest in the banquet at all except for the older membership,” said Carolyn LeBlanc, class of 1962. “Two-thirds of the attendants are because of the scholarships we give to the seniors.”

Last year, $101,000 in scholarship money was given out to 75 recipients, who are required to attend the banquet. The graduating class of 2019 also will have a float in the parade. LeBlanc said that out of the alumni association members who attend regularly, only three people are in their 20s and 30s.

“I think part of the reason is not because they don’t want to but because the lifestyle has changed,” she said. In many families, both parents work full time and are busy with children’s activities. “They don’t have enough time for a lot of outside organizational work.”

Like other alumni groups, those who are the most involved with Stevens are retired. The alumni organization’s 150th anniversary is in 2021.

“We have big plans for 2021,” LeBlanc said.

After that milestone, there’s a question of whether or not there will be enough active members to continue organizing the event.

“The ones that are holding it together can’t do it much longer,” she lamented.

Alumni Day parades

Stevens High: June 8 at 10:30 a.m.

Lebanon High: June 8 at noon.

Windsor High: June 8 at 10 a.m.

Woodstock High: June 15 at 2 p.m.

Hartford High: June 22 at 11 a.m.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.