So I was given this enormous honor; having been named as a "Distinguished Graduate" by my high school. There was much pomp and circumstance about the event connected to the distinction. The morning included a walk through the school I hadn't been inside for 35 years. This trip was accompanied by a student host who had been assigned to me for the day and he escorted my wife and me all around the building. The memories just dripped from the walls as I turned each corner. The cafeteria where we laughed every day and held our dances every year; the gymnasium where we roared through pep rallies and basketball and wrestling championships; the old pool where we all had to pass lifesaving classes to graduate; and the band room where I spent much time in the jazz band, marching band, concert band, symphonic band and orchestra banging away at my drum set, kettle drums and congas. I could still smell the heavy mothball scent of those weathered tuxedos we wore and the aging marching band uniforms we stitched back together each fall. Some things never change. Ever notice what a strong signaler of memory the scent is? One sniff of that cloak room and it took me right back.
There were three of us being honored on this day and I was the youngest. I say that only because if my day was steeped in the melancholy of memories I can only imagine what it meant to those who were decades older than I. We were next escorted to the principal's conference room where we shared a casual cup of coffee and the day's itinerary was reviewed. We were told about the changes in the school system and the shrinking population that forced many of the schools in our area to close over the years. Clearly our baby boomer, “high water mark” numbers had been diminishing for some time now. The high school had actually combined with the neighboring high school that was once our rival as that agreement had been the only viable deal that kept that shrinking demographic large enough to justify maintaining it. It was all very well handled but a bit depressing as it became clear that the future survival pinned hopes on a new wave of a cyclical population increase that may never come.
Facts and history aside we were escorted to the local college dining facility for a hearty lunch and faculty and students mixed with us honorees tracing bloodlines and relationships from years past. "And Ronnie how has your mother been?" "So sorry to have heard about your dad passing." "I've kept up with both your sisters and what beautiful nieces and nephews you have." All that stuff--the hometown Mayberry stuff that I just treasure so much--it was all there and truly part of the "award;" maybe more "reward" than "award." The time there just flew.
We returned to the school and addressed the student body with speeches we prepared and as we spoke you could feel the mutual love of our old city, our fond school memories pouring through our words. Each of us credited much of what we had become to the small town neighborliness we all had been raised with and we each seemed to feel it was important to remind our protégés that they too must grasp that sense of love and pride in their lives if they ever hoped to succeed.
I looked out among the young faces and saw similar visions of my youth. Some students were very attentive and some were half-asleep. I recognized the characters; those that would move on and make a new life and those that would stay where they were put and maintain their family life as it had always been. Viva la difference! Thank God there are both kinds in this world so the balance can be sustained.
As the afternoon passed we were given an hour to ourselves before departing for the day’s final event; a dinner and presentation of plaques. My wife and I stopped in a little diner for a cup of coffee and a Danish and I can honestly tell you I was truly swept up in the emotion of the forthcoming evening. It had already been an incredibly emotional and rewarding day. We got to the next location for the dinner and I was sent to a video studio where I was interviewed for posterity and again had to pause when I realized that my contribution to the school's “time capsule” had now gone full circle; I was contributing evidence that the gifts they once gave me were now being paid back and with interest!
My children, friends and family began to arrive and we filled two tables with invited guests. Among them were people with whom I had grown to be a man in this town and the sight of them arriving to support me found me simply swelled with emotion. Following dinner there were presentations and speeches and I did my best to wax poetic about the trials and challenges in my life as well as how equipped I had become given the suit of armor I'd formed within the constraints of this city that I always loved so much.
The city where my grandfather had delivered coal, ice and milk. Where my uncles had cut hair in a barber shop of their own and my parents had both gone to college and met and married before they even graduated. A place where summer days were easy and front porches were still dominant as folks sat and chatted and beat the summer heat with a cool lemonade and tall tale told by an old timer.
A place that has a high school that now held a plaque with my face and list of accomplishments for people to pass by and probably ignore but maybe see. And if I am lucky and the building still stands years from now, that little space that edifies my existence and participation in making my hometown a better place may be seen by one of my grandchildren or even great grandchildren. And having seen that image that child may come home and say to their parents, "Was that Papa on that plaque in the showcase at school?" And the circle will be complete if that parent smiles and proudly says, "It sure was."
Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a BS in Business from Bowling Green State University and an MBA from Baldwin Wallace University and has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990.