He was a quiet man, working hard to persuade his family to hold a reunion at Estes Park, Colo., against a backdrop of Rocky Mountains splendor.
"But he couldn't get enough family members for us to guarantee 20 rooms," recalls Jerry Donner, director of group sales at the YMCA of The Rockies, a conference center in Estes Park. "I gave him another 10 days because he really wanted it to happen."
Ten days passed. "He called me, all excited, and said he needed five more rooms in addition to 20," says Mr. Donner. "He wrote each family member a short letter and said the reunion would have to be canceled due to lack of interest. Then he added, 'I'll see you all at the next funeral.' "
To hold a successful family reunion, most organizers don't have to resort to such sobering tactics. But ironically, most family reunions do get started when people agree to meet again while they are attending a funeral, according to Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions magazine.
Whatever the genesis, "Family reunions have really taken off in the United States," says Donner, who books some 750 reunions a year. "We are booked into 2000." In fact, the YMCA of The Rockies says it hosts more family reunions in the summer months than does any other place in the United States. Other conference centers in the US report a similar spurt in reunions in the 1990s.
"A lot of families try to figure out how to do holidays and often can't get everybody together," says Ms. Wagner, explaining why family reunions, particularly in summer, are growing.
"There is just this basic need to get families together," she says. "And you can share and catch up on people in a way you can't do at a funeral or a wedding. And today, [baby] boomers are more prosperous and spread out, so they want to get together and meet each others husbands, wives, and kids."
America has long been a mobile society. But in an age when aunts, uncles, and grandparents are often not even in the same state, let alone the same house or town, a summer reunion offers an opportunity to restore the kind of intergenerational bonds, and a sense of belonging, that was once a part of everyday life.
Whether at a one-day picnic or during a three-day gathering, there's something intangible and indelible that comes from the shared laughter, old photos, new babies, and actually sitting at the knee of Great Uncle Toot from Topeka when he tells about meeting his lifelong love over an ice cream soda.
It's the kind of atmosphere where someone says, "Remember when so and so did ..." Everybody starts to laugh even before the tale is told. A youngster invariably asks, what's so funny, and a slice of family history gets told to a new generation.
While for some families a reunion is a relatively new event, the Dautreuil family of New Iberia, La., (descendants of Jean Baptise D'Autreuil who arrived in New Orleans in the 1700s) holds an annual family reunion that stretches back to 1946. "But the family met even before that on an irregular basis," says Lee Dautreuil.
One of the keys to the longevity of the Dautreuils' reunions is that they keep their gathering informal and simple. Each Easter Sunday, anywhere from 35 to 125 family members gather first at church, and then move on to a city park, each couple or person bringing a covered dish to share. "The younger kids ride their bikes over and stake out a place in the park," says Mr. Dautreuil. "I did that when I was a kid."
The essence of their day together is familial closeness. "It's so nice to see everyone," Dautreuil says. "You hate to see them go. Years ago we used to do a lot more with activities. Now we talk and reminisce and let the younger ones meet the older ones, and we pass around a lot of photos. I keep a genealogical tree up to date."
Other family reunions are more elaborate, highly organized, and change locations each year. "To have a successful family reunion, start planning early - at least eight months ahead," says Tom Ninkovich, author of the "Family Reunion Handbook," a guide for planning a reunion. (www.reuniontips.com)
"And the second key is to show the kids a good time," he says. "If they don't have fun, they'll whine next year and the family might not come back. Keep the kids interested because you know in 30 to 40 years you want them interested in planning the reunions. Also, find a way to document the event, video maybe, along with family history, like a table with family documents, or someone giving a talk that isn't boring about the family."
Boring is not on the agenda of the Seideman family reunion each year in Newburg, Wis. Celebrating their 65th reunion, the Seidemans have an annual talent show in front of 600 family members on a family farm.
"People start gathering an hour before the show," says Wagner. "Last year the 20-year-olds made cows' heads and did singing and dancing, truly goofy, wonderful stuff. And there are lots of activities for kids."
In researching reunions, Ninkovich found that most are organized by women over 40. "If there are a lot of kids coming," he says, "I recommend they hire someone from a local camp, or a college kid, to plan the kids activities so the parents can hang out and talk."
The Goodman/McFatridge/Stockton, et al., family in Paris, Texas, begins each reunion holding hands in a big prayer circle followed by a leaf- hanging ceremony. "Each family gets a paper leaf and puts their name, birthday, and father and mother's names on the leaf," says Ninkovich. "From the youngest to the oldest, one by one, they walk up and put their leaf on the tree."
In Morgantown, W. Va., the Sleeth family has a family tree, literally. "Some great, great, great, great uncles of mine," says Mary Sleeth Creamer, "came from Scotland and ended up living in an old, hollowed-out sycamore tree with a man named Pringle. So, we like to say we can trace our family tree back to when they lived in it."
Today, an off shoot of the original Pringle tree grows in the same spot, a place often visited by family members at the reunions. "And it's even developing a hollow," says Ms. Creamer, who is writing a book about the Sleeth family history.
As some families trace their histories back to the "old country," they make their gatherings international events. Setting up a reunion Web site on the Internet can help spread the word.
Sometimes the logistics of reuniting families divided by divorce can prove daunting. "I've been in planning meetings," says Donner, "where room assignments put former spouses at opposite ends of a long hall."
But more common, he says, is the successful reuniting of angry family members. "People have come to me, very emotional and crying," says Donner, "to say this is the greatest thing that has happened to them because the two family members haven't talked in years and [now] they are talking."
Mr. Ninkovich, who has interviewed thousands of planners of family reunions, says people who come, married or divorced, are usually on their best behavior. "Not so at class reunions where too much drinking is a constant problem," he says, "but ex-spouses at family reunions seem to have determined ahead of time to be quiet and have a good visit."
In the end, it is the spirit that counts at a reunion. In Salina, Kan., on the Fourth of July weekend, the George Washington Stockton family is hosting what could turn into a considerable gathering. The last line of their announcement says: "All descendants of any Stockton, or related families, or anyone at all for that matter, are very welcome!."
Don't forget to bring a covered dish.
TIPS ON HOLDING REUNIONS
* Set a date and reserve the site early - at least six months ahead to help vacation planning.
* First-time reunions are easy. All you need is a comfortable place for people to talk and children to play.
* Reunions every year can get boring. You can do them every 3 to 5 years. Or, make sure each year is well planned with plenty of activities.
* Appoint a reunion organizer and small committee - including a chairman for food, games, lodging, and cleanup.
* Use e-mail (or set up a Web page). It will cut postage and phone costs.
* As a general rule, the farther people travel, the longer the reunion. Small reunions may last one day, larger ones up to three days.
The Games Families Play
Divide into equal teams, each with an ice block. The team that melts the ice fastest, within a set time period, wins. No scraping or breaking it. No fire or water allowed. A bathroom scale may help determine the winner.
Minimum of eight participants - preferably everyone.
Cut up enough pieces of paper for the number of people playing. Mark an X on one. Put them in a hat and everyone draws. The one with the X is "it," but cannot tell anyone. The Gotcha Guy (or Gal) "tags" another player with a wink. When a person is winked at, he or she must "die," as melodramatically as possible. To win, the Gotcha Guy must wink at all players without anyone guessing his identity. The other players try to guess his identity first, but a wrong guess means they must "die." Another version: Marathon Gotcha!. The game continues through the entire reunion as people go about their activities.
Set up a walking course. Confiscate all watches. Contestants may walk as slow or as fast as they want but the winner is the one that crosses the finish line closest to the 60-second mark.
Pair up each contestant with one of the opposite sex and don't tell the participants what the game is. Position them four feet apart. Each is issued a squirt gun and a lit candle. The winner is the one that keeps the candle flame going longest.
Make a list of 15 questions, such as: Find two people who traveled more than 200 miles to the reunion. Find the mother with the most children. What country did great-grandfather Estey come from?
First person to find all the answers wins. Read off the answers, with family members raising their hands to identify themselves.
Sources: 'Fun & Games for Family Reunions,' by Andrienne Anderson and 'Family Reunion Handbook,' by Barbara Brown and Thomas Ninkovich. Both books are published by Reunion Research, 3145 Geary Boulevard, No. 14, San Francisco, CA. 94118.