Summertime in Kentucky means family reunion time. The traditions and styles of those reunions are as different, and as familiar, as all the families in Kentucky. Here are stories of two family reunions.
In early June of 1974 Burt Dean finalized plans for the July 4 gathering he had long envisioned: a double family reunion of his family-the Deans- and his wife's, the Creeches.
But on June 18 of that year, Dean died of a heart attack. Mourning relatives waited until the next year to hold the first annual Dean-Creech reunion.
This year on the Sunday before Labor Day, descendants of James and Nancy Fields Dean of Olive Hill and James and Rebecca Wynn Creech of Rowan and Elliott counties will gather in Morehead to celebrate their 25th annual reunion.
I attended the gathering last summer and was impressed at how typical this celebration was of the old-fashioned family reunions I remember from my youth. Adherence to tradition, a sense of family worth, the need to know and honor one's roots-all were exemplified. At the same time, the Dean-Creech gathering typifies the modernization of the traditional reunion.
Reunions used to be held outside in some patriarch's yard or at the family church-with far too much food, swatting of flies, and gobbling of potato salad before the mayonnaise became lethal.
The Dean-Creech reunion is held in the air-conditioned Carl Perkins Community Center.
Family members-okay, the women-prepared every morsel of food served at those picnics of yore. You always knew which aunt would bring the creamiest corn pudding and whose coconut pie would have the highest meringue.
The Deans and Creeches keep up the tradition of delectable excess. Last year's 150 or so attendees from 10 states brought great quantities of food. Serving tables fairly groaned with multiple dishes of corn pudding, sliced tomatoes, green beans, fried chicken, meat loaf, lasagna, chicken and dumplings, pot roast, dressed eggs, pickled eggs, coleslaw, and potato salad. I counted 28 desserts.
A purist might have noticed that scattered among the home-cooked dishes were occasional boxes of Lee's Famous Recipe. And, yes, potato salad containers bore telltale deli stickers.
Was anybody complaining? Not at all. The Deans and Creeches demonstrate a practical appreciation for the role of convenience foods in preserving a busy homemaker's sanity.
Progress is good.
Tradition prevailed in other ways. On Saturday before the reunion, folks from out of state began to arrive. Juanita Eden, whose mother was a Dean, fed them pinto beans, cornbread, fried potatoes, macaroni salad, and coleslaw.
"Twenty-eight ate with me yesterday and close to 40 will come tonight after the re-union," Eden told me at the community center that Sunday. "My mother did it for years. After she died, since I was the oldest daughter, I seemed like the right one to carry on the tradition."
Tradition is good.
At old-time reunions, out-of-state kin would double or triple up in spare beds and on quilt pallets in local families' homes. Today, reunion coordinator Lloyd Dean, son of founder Burt Dean, sends a list of local motels along with his annual announcement. While some families still stay with close relatives, many prefer the privacy of a Holiday Inn.
The Deans and Creeches are profoundly interested in their roots. Last year, family memorabilia filled the cafeteria tables along two walls of the community center. Various hands had written names on the backs of photocopied pictures of groups of ancestors. But gaps exist. A hand-lettered sign read, "If you know any more names, please add them."
Dean, a Pentecostal minister in Morehead, has researched the two families for years and has published five volumes of Dean and Creech and Related Families History.
At last summer's reunion Annie Dean Morrison proudly displayed her "memory quilt," pointing out the names of each deceased family member who ever attended the reunion. Morrison also stitched the Dean crest wall hanging, which family researchers believe is the crest of their English ancestors.
Heritage is important.
The group photo is a ritual. First, Dean descendants pose, then Creeches, and finally those whose predecessors were Creeches married to Deans. Last year's participants teased and bantered with each other as 91-year-old Florence Binion, the oldest Creech present, slowly made her way to the front row. They good-naturedly rearranged themselves in tiered rows until the photographer was satisfied.
The identities of these faces will not be lost in time. Lloyd Dean will see that they are labeled and preserved for posterity.
Family is everything.
When a Reunion is Like a Convention
First they book a hotel to serve as headquarters for three days.
They plan a Friday night Hawaiian luau around the hotel pool and a Saturday night banquet for nearly 300 people. They schedule educational and recreational group tours of the host city and arrange for elaborate evening entertainment.
No, it's not the Kiwanis Club organizing a national convention. It's members of the Kennedy family of Kentucky-descendants of former slaves Jim and Mary Jane Kennedy- gearing up for their family's 53rd annual reunion this month at Louisville's Galt House East.
Jim and Mary Jane Kennedy of Lancaster, Kentucky, settled in Tennessee, but their descendants are scattered across the U.S. In 1946 the 17 children of Dave Kennedy, son of Jim and Mary Jane, gathered along with their spouses in Cleveland, Ohio, for what would become an annual reunion.
The Kennedys of Kentucky first hosted the get-together in Louisville in 1949 at the home of Dave's son, Edward, and his wife, Macie. Those early reunions were simple affairs where families gathered in homes. Local hostesses cooked all the food, and out-of-towners were overnight guests.
As genealogical studies turned up relatives in several states and the gatherings expanded to include more generations, the nature of the reunion changed. Soon the event was moving annually from state to state. As more and more Kennedys showed up, the family gathering relocated to hotels in host cities. Now caterers fed the crowd.
In recent years, host families have used the reunion to show off their cities. Kennedys in each state consider it a matter of pride to outdo the previous year's hosts.
"Oh, we're a competitive family," admits Kathryn Kennedy Wallace of Louisville, "but competitive in a positive way."
This August when the Kentuckians welcome their kin to Louisville for the seventh time, surpassing recent family reunions will be a challenge. In Texas in 1994, Kennedys donned western apparel and twirled their partners at a hoedown. At the 50th reunion in Cleveland in 1996, attendees took day trips to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Cleveland Zoo and dressed formally for the "Black and Gold" dance.
Kennedys at the 1997 Oklahoma gathering attended an all African-American rodeo and a Native American powwow, as well as an African "rite of passage" ceremony for a 12-year-old relative. When the family met in Michigan in 1998, they toured local Underground Railroad sites and wore traditional African attire to a dinner in the banquet room overlooking the Detroit Lions Silverdome.
Planning for this year's reunion has been intense. The Kentucky Kennedys-Mrs. Macie Kennedy of Louisville and her eight children and their families-have met in a different sibling's home once a month for a year. The sessions are, themselves, mini-reunions with printed agendas, committee reports, and dinner for sometimes 20 relatives.
Co-chaired this year by Mickey Kennedy and Jim Green, the planners have outdone themselves. Besides attending the luau and banquet, relatives will dress in '70s attire, groove to the music of that decade, and attend a family-style (play money only) casino night.
Over the long weekend, they will choose from a variety of activities. Some may attend a tea and crumpets affair to which ladies are invited to wear Sunday dresses, white gloves, and fancy hats. Others could opt for playing in the family golf scramble. City tours will feature the Louisville Science Center and the Louisville Slugger Museum and Bat Factory. Shoppers can visit a local mall.
Kennedy youngsters will have their own agenda with everything from a picnic in the park with sack races and relays for the small children, to a basketball tournament and trip to Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom for the older set.
At least one deserving Kennedy youth will receive the James Mitchell Sr. Scholarship, given in honor of a deceased family member who was a lifelong advocate of higher education. The hefty financial reward will go to an essay contest winner who has at least a 2.5 grade point average.
Host family members will serve as babysitters and as security personnel.
"That's right," says Lexingtonian Bill Wilson, husband of Margie Kennedy Wilson, and one of this year's enforcers. "We want to make sure our kids are behaving themselves-not running up and down the halls pulling fire alarms.
"Quite frankly," laughs Wilson, "the host family members don't have that much fun. We're too busy making sure things run smoothly for everybody