OLEAN — The 136th annual Olean High School Alumni Reunion is undergoing some changes that organizers say will help make sure the reunion goes on for another 136 years.
The OHS Alumni Association plans to scale down the Friday night opening dinner currently slated for June 14. Instead of a full, sit-down dinner like past years, organizers plan to have a more casual event with hors d'oeuvres, drinks and music at the William O. Smith Recreation Center. The Alumni Association also plans to send out just one invitation letter this year as opposed to the usual two.
Alumni Association members hope the measures can cut down on the $15-20,000 the weekend typically costs to put on.
“We want everybody to know about the changes that we’re making because we’re trying to be forward thinking on this,” said Judy Duggan Yorke, a member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors.
While the reunion weekend brought more than 1,000 alumni into town this past June, the Friday night dinner at St. Bonaventure University's Hickey Dining Hall was only attended by roughly a quarter of them, about 250. Alumni Association members said 20 years ago the dinner attracted about 500 people.
An additional few hundred alumni often avoid the $35 dinner ticket, and instead just pay about $10 to show up after the dinner to dance.
“People complain about the price. … We’re hoping we’ll be able to knock $5 off a ticket, maybe even more,” said Alumni Association Vice President Linda Edstrom. She and other members noted that while they charged $35 last year, each dinner cost the Alumni Association $42.
The hope is that a cheaper dinner ticket will attract more of the younger classes, like the honorary 10-year Class of 2009.
“Our class coordinators are going through their lists and saying, ‘He’s deceased, she’s deceased,’ and so unfortunately that’s what we’re seeing with the older classes: A lot of people have passed away,” said Alumni Association President Lori Anastasia. “So we’re hoping to bring on some young blood and keep it going.”
As for the change in venue, Edstrom said the Alumni Association was happy with St. Bonaventure, but “it’s just not Olean.” The recreation center has hosted the dinner before — members said it was last held there about 15 years ago.
This also isn't the first time the dinner format has changed. It used to be held on Saturday night, but that was changed in 2015 because alumni expressed a desire to do their own individual class events Saturday night.
The traditional Saturday events — the alumni memorial service, the building tours and the Red and Gold Golf Scramble — will remain unchanged this year.
As for the reduced letters, Alumni Association members said sending out letters alone costs roughly $3,000. Traditionally, a save-the-date letter is sent in January and a follow-up letter is sent in March. This year, only the March letter will be sent.
“We’ve got to cut the costs down,” Edstrom said. “A lot of the classes have their own Facebook pages and they’re connecting that way.”
In addition to keeping the event viable, Alumni Association members also hope the cost-cutting will help them put money aside for scholarships. The Alumni Association typically offers three $1,000 scholarships to OHS graduates every year.
Members also acknowledged facing an uphill battle when it comes to keeping the reunion at its current scale simply because OHS graduating classes are getting smaller.
“My class had 356 kids in it,” said Edstrom, a member of the Class of 1965. “Last year they graduated (138).”
They said the reunion is a crucial part of keeping OHS’ tradition and camaraderie strong, and is often alumni’s only chance to reconnect with their friends.
It’s also an opportunity to remember the friends who are no longer with them. The names of honorary classes’ deceased members are read aloud at the Saturday memorial service.
“The Mexican lore is you die three deaths. The first one is when you physically die, the second one is when you go into the grave, and the third one is when no one speaks your name ever again,” Edstrom said. “So this is a way to keep all of these alums alive by saying their names out loud.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)