Social media sweetening the experience

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PITTSFIELD he captain of the football team's parents were out of town for the weekend, so after a night of rabblerousing, a group swelling with Pittsfield High School pride headed to his house to cap the evening with a keg to celebrate a win over Taconic.

It perhaps would have been just another night of teenage revelry, except that the football captain was a cardiologist who flew to Pittsfield from Oregon; he and his peers graduated 25 years ago, and they organized the entire event on Facebook.

The PHS Class of 1985's 25th reunion last summer - three days of charitable events, flag football and parties that drew more than 200 classmates out of a class of about 400 - is a sign of how middle- agers are reinventing their high school reunions in the digital age.

Because social media offers an instant answer to the question "What is Mary Sue up to these days?" reunions are forced to assert new meaning or face extinction.

"It totally was because of Facebook that we got together," said Stephen Merriam, a California entertainer who organized the PHS Class of 1985 reunion, held last July. "Someone threw me a snowball, and I rolled it down the hill."

Merriam, who said he hadn't been connected with Pittsfield at all since graduation, got on Facebook to promote his wedding officiation business and found hoards of former classmates. After a "mini" reunion, he began a Facebook group named for the class.

In the end, the class raised money for several scholarships and a PHS garden, made donations to the Christian Center, and is supporting fixing the dome atop the high school. The class also held a golf tournament, a flag football game against their old Taconic rivals, and a redcarpet, Hollywood-themed night of dinner and dancing at Berkshire Hills Country Club.

Erika von Hoyer, a 1985 PHS graduate who now works for a social media marketing firm in Pennsylvania, said her class reunion was a success because, largely through social media, the event had new meaning.

"The event was about more than 'us' - it was about giving back," she said in an email. "Classmates understood that their participation was going to mean something to the community."

Social media also helps to reduce the anxiety of the unknown, von Hoyer said. In reunions nowadays, former classmates already know before you arrive that you've lost hair, are overweight, or are on your own.

But don't worry - they are, too.

"Anxiety is minimized - [it's] not a big deal that you're bald, gained weight, divorced, working in a cubicle," von Hoyer said. "Life happens.

Thanks to Facebook, you know that 'you are not the only one.' " Details of one's personal life, visible on Facebook, act as icebreakers at the reunion - both for light topics such as who's in graduate school, and more sensitive subjects like whose children have special needs, von Hoyer said.

Mary Jo Murphy, an administrator at Miss Hall's School who manages the school's Facebook page and reunions, said she frequently sees connections begin between classmates online. "There have been classmates who haven't talked in 30, 40 years, and all of a sudden ... they're able to connect a bit on Facebook and then really connect when they come back here to the reunion."

On the PHS 1985 Facebook page, Merriam frequently posted updates about him and his partner, Rich De Leon, and sensed that the high turnout of gay couples at the reunion was due to his own openness about his life on the Web.

Kim Garner Graham, an organizer of the Pittsfield High School Class of 1977 reunion in October 2012, said social media has sparked a lot of interest in the upcoming 35- year event. As of Thursday, 106 people already had signed up on their reunion web page, out of a class of 421.

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At a mini-reunion last summer, about 30 folks gathered at the East Side Cafe and the Dalton VFW, where the big reunion plans began. But not everyone is giddy about reliving the past. Social media or not, old grudges die hard.

On the 1977 class Facebook page, several people have posted messages about the hurt they suffered in high school, Graham said.

"Thirty-five years later, that bullying was still an issue," said Graham, director of the Lenox Community Center, who does anti-bullying training and was shocked to see how those negative feelings had endured.

"Words hurt, and people will always remember those."

But for some, Facebook is a comfortable way of staying in touch without having to confront high school awkwardness all over again.

Julie Ulmer, of Chatham, N.Y., chose not to attend her 25th reunion last week because she had a tough time there as a transfer student at age 15. She said she stays connected online to old acquaintances, but didn't feel the need to meet up with people she never felt connected to in the first place.

"Maybe I'm not friends with 25 people from high school; maybe I'm only friends with five - but it's more meaningful," Ulmer said. "We just weren't in that group."

For intense longings - the desire to prove everyone wrong or to rekindle a lost love - Facebook might not work, according to Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"There are certain things social media can't do. In the end, it's the torrid embrace under the moonlight that just doesn't work [there]," he said.

For the oldest generations, however, social media still denotes letters and telephone calls, and reunions are a central focus for socializing.

Arlene Zappone, reunion organizer for the Drury High School Class of 1951, said she's always wanted to create a website for the class, but hasn't gotten around to it.

In any case, she does just fine without one - about 30 people from within a several- hour radius come for the class's monthly luncheons, and about 80 for the annual three- day events. Numbers are dwindling because classmates or their spouses have increasing medical issues, Zappone said, but they still do their best to get together as often as possible.

"We have a very, very unique class," she said.

As for the constant calls and paper- pushing surrounding these events, Zappone said, " I get the satisfaction of everybody having a good time."

Laurie Doyle Stumpek, a member of the PHS Class of 1977 who now lives in Danvers, has connected with old classmates via Facebook, but her reason to get together face-to-face is to forget social media entirely for one evening.

"I think the whole point of the reunion is to bring it back to where you were in high school. And when we were in high school, there were no social medias," she said.

To reach Amanda Korman: akorman@berkshireeagle.com (413) 496-6243


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