Reflections on My 30 Year High School Reunion

my story Aug 14, 2023
Photo of Charis Santillie and childhood friend, Amy Lichfield Bowman, at their high school graduation in 1993 and together with Charis' Dad in 2023
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🎧 👉 Prefer audio? You can also listen to me share about this in podcast episode #070 here.

A few weeks ago, I attended my 30-year high school reunion, which turned out to be a fun and nostalgic experience. I grew up in an area called the Tri-Cities in southeastern Washington State. Often, people associate Washington with Seattle's rainy and lush climate, but the southeastern part of the state is quite the opposite; it's actually a flat, vast desert, with various shades of brown and a lot of sagebrush. I came to appreciate this landscape over the years, especially when I returned home from college. I attended the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, near Seattle. And when I would drive back home to visit my family, I enjoyed seeing the gradual transition from trees to desert as I neared the Tri-Cities. Seeing the change of landscape always brought a sense of familiarity and comfort.

Pictured above: me receiving my high school diploma, my senior photos, and our announcement card

The Tri-Cities is a grouping of three neighboring cities: Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick. My hometown is Richland. Before delving into my high school reunion experience, let me share some of the community's history that directly relates to my high school days and the impactful project that was our senior class gift. This story revolves around the Hanford site, an area developed in 1943 to produce plutonium for the atomic bomb that marked the conclusion of World War II.

The town of Richland was established by the government next to the Hanford site to serve as a residential base for the government and contractor workforce. While workers understood they were doing work for the war effort, the specific details remained classified for most of them. On D-Day, a group of laborers and truck drivers sparked the idea of providing additional support by donating a day's pay in order to contribute something else to the war. This small but significant act of giving snowballed, ultimately involving 51,000 Hanford workers and resulting in the donation of an entire B-17 airplane to the war effort. This plane was named the "Day's Pay," and it successfully completed over 50 missions during the latter part of World War II.

In 1993, the year of my graduation, the Hanford site celebrated its 50th anniversary. Mr. Qualheim, a faculty member at the time, suggested that we commemorate the "Day's Pay" at our school for our senior class gift. This idea inspired us to create a 3,200-square-foot mural on the exterior of our gymnasium. To fund this project, we raised $21,000 through a combination of fundraising activities, community support, and contributions from local businesses and organizations.

Pictured above right: Brooke Gerton (senior class vice president who led the project with me), Charles "Archie" Purcell (member of the original Day's Pay crew), me, Pablo Soto (artist), and Jim Qualheim (faculty advisor)

As senior class president, I led this project, which included my first experiences with public speaking and fundraising. The mural involved an enormous amount of effort, from priming huge wooden panels to prepare them for the artist, to figuring out how to mount each panel to the side of the building.

Random side note and a confession: Our grades for determining our class ranking as well as college admittance were finalized at the end of our 3rd quarter, so the 4th quarter grades didn't count in regards to either of those things. Since I had achieved my goal of being co-valedictorian as well as getting into the University of Puget Sound, (and, of course, after also confirming that the grades technically wouldn't affect me), I wrapped up my senior year devoted to the mural to ensure it was completed by I actually didn't show up to all of my classes. I think I even got a C+ in my math class — which actually came easy to me and was one of my favorite classes (alongside art class) — yet, I prioritized the mural those final few months. I remember running into my math teacher in the hall, and he would smirk and say, "Hey, Santillie, how's that mural going?" 

Pictured above left: mounting each panel on the side of the gymnasium. Pictured above right, me with my Mom, Diane, and Dad, Paul

The project also held a special connection to the history of our school. Originally known as Columbia High School with a mascot of beavers, the school adopted the mascot of bombers to honor the "Day's Pay" contribution. Later the school was renamed Richland High School. At some point post-WWII, the image associated with the Bombers was changed to an R with a mushroom cloud coming out of it, due to the atomic bomb's significance and its connection to the Hanford site. As you can imagine, over the years, that symbol has been controversial. The mural aimed to educate and raise awareness about the initial legacy of the mascot in connection with the Day's Pay, while also reminding the community of the sacrifice and dedication of the people who worked on the site that birthed our community 50 years before.

The mural was painted by a talented artist, Pablo Soto, and the painting itself was based on concepts from famous aviation artist, Keith Ferris, with his permission. The mural was composed of separate panels that were fastened to the outside of the gymnasium. Pablo's involvement was particularly meaningful, as he was the brother of one of our high school art teachers.

One of the original Day's Pay flight crew members, Charles "Archie" Purcell, the ball turret gunner, was still alive at the time we unveiled the mural. Archie and his wife flew in from North Carolina to attend the special dedication ceremony that took place a few days before our graduation.

Pictured above: Charles "Archie" Purcell, the ball turret gunner of the original Day's Pay WWII flight crew, speaking at our dedication ceremony. Pictured right: a note sent with flowers from Archie and his wife, Joyce.

This unique project left a notable mark on our school and community. There have been numerous other ways that the Day's Pay has been honored over the years since our graduation. And just this year, the Richland Police Department added an emblem of the Day's Pay airplane to their uniforms.

Now, let's circle back to the topic of reunions. 

At my 10-year reunion in 2003, I remember feeling a strong sense that many of us were still striving to prove something. It had only been 10 years since we graduated, and as I think back to that time now, I can even remember the frenzied energy that was a common feeling in my life during my 20s.

My 20-year reunion in 2013 came during a challenging period during my Mom's final year of life. If you've been following my journey, you might already be familiar with this part of my story. My Mom battled alcoholism, and in 2012, she attempted suicide while highly intoxicated. Her last year was very rough, and she passed away on Thanksgiving of 2013. I also remember feeling an overwhelming sense of disappointment about my life overall. I didn't feel like I was living up to the expectations of what a valedictorian's life should feel or look like, let alone also being voted "most likely to succeed." It was a time of inner turmoil and personal growth and the beginning of a journey into deep self-discovery.

Given these circumstances, I chose not to attend the 20-year reunion. Instead, I sought support from various sources, engaging with Al-Anon and undergoing personal coaching. This period marked a pivotal chapter of introspection and growth.

Now, let's fast forward to the 30-year reunion earlier this year. I received a direct message on Facebook from a classmate sharing that they were organizing a reunion, including an evening meetup at a local bar on a Friday night and a family picnic on Saturday. I felt immediate excitement about attending this time. Emotionally, I was in a better place, ready to reconnect with old classmates. Over the past decade, I've engaged in substantial personal development, processing various aspects of my life that have helped me to reconcile with the past.

A dear friend of mine, Amy, who I've known since we were 13, picked me up to attend the picnic on Saturday.

Pictured above left: Amy and I at our high school graduation. Pictured above right: me, my Dad, and Amy when she picked me up to go to the reunion

The picnic took place at a beautiful winery located next to the Columbia River. It was mid-Summer, with a high of 103 degrees that day.

On our way to the picnic, we stopped at a local store, Fred Meyer, a place that holds nostalgic memories from our high school years. I couldn't help but recall our PE (Physical Education) classes that required an infamous "Freddie Fun Run" every Friday. For me, those runs were far from fun! The only highlight was when I would see Amy, who was a talented cross-country runner, joyfully bounce by and encourage me when she was on her way back from Fred Meyer and I was still on my way there.

I wore a simple sundress and a straw hat that belonged to my Mom. Wearing that hat felt like carrying a piece of her with me. She always wanted to be around me and my friends, so I thought this was perfect. With Heidi, my dog, by my side and a cup of ice water to keep her cool, we navigated the sweltering heat as best we could. We were all a sweaty mess, and yet it didn't matter.

What struck me the most during this reunion was how authentic the conversations felt. The 30-year mark seemed to offer more openness, where pretenses were dropped. I can only speak for my own experiences, but it seemed that many attendees were eager to share the raw truth of their lives with vulnerability.

My own willingness to share my journey through my podcast, posts, and emails over the past year and a half might have played a role in creating a level of comfort so that others did the same. It was refreshing to go beyond the typical small talk. The more you can embrace telling the truth and being vulnerable, the more people around you will respond likewise. 

A fellow classmate came up to me and quickly admitted that he recognized me but couldn't remember my name. Rather than dance around the issue, he just said it like it was. I appreciated that so much! Especially since I didn't remember his name either!

Some of the most poignant conversations of the reunion were with people I didn't actually know well in high school. One classmate, who has been following my podcast and journey, expressed the impact my work has had on her. Hearing how my efforts resonated with her really touched me.

Another special interaction was with someone who I had been friends with from kindergarten to second grade. Although that was a short time at a very young age, we had a strong connection with sweet memories. There's such a distinctive bond formed with people who knew you during your formative years. It's such a unique type of connection that can't quite be replicated later in life.

One thing I quickly noticed is that I had a tendency to deflect some compliments about how well I had aged. My knee-jerk reaction was to counter with a humorous remark about gray hair that was hidden underneath the hair color. One of the things I teach my clients to do is to accept compliments without any counter comments. Yet, this was proof that I still have my moments, and I'm still learning too.

As the sun set, we were swatting away bugs that I didn't recognize from my childhood. I remembered mosquitoes, but these were different; Amy thinks they were biting midges (a type of biting fly). I have an allergic reaction to mosquito bites and couldn't help but wonder how I was going to start swelling up in welts all over. However, that night and the following day, I showed no sign of bug bites. Then unexpectedly, that next evening, a full 24 hours after the reunion, red bumps started appearing mostly on my feet and legs. I found myself covered in over 60 itchy red bites. I still don't understand the delayed reaction, but I know it happened the same way for Amy. We texted each other often that week to commiserate over the massive itching. She labeled us "reunion warriors!"

It's been a month since then, and my bites haven't completely gone away! Oh well...they were worth it. Although at the next reunion, I will definitely remember to put on bug spray. Next time I only want to attract more great conversations.

Pictured above: the beautiful setting of our 30-year reunion, at the Broken Antler Winery on the Columbia River

“We’re so awesome, can’t you see? We’re the Class of ‘93!” 

– Richland High School Class of 1993 (Richland, WA)

🎧 👉 Prefer audio? You can also listen to me share about this in podcast episode #070 here.

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