Meet the women who made me

My class reunion brought influential women back into my life, including the ones I feared the most.

I’m back from my 20th high school reunion, still swirling with emotions and thoughts about what it means to go home.

Many of you know I’ve been working on a podcast this year about the experience of reconnecting with classmates and asking them about how growing up in such a tight knit community shaped the rest of our lives.

After 10 months of interviewing classmates, it was a surreal experience to have many of the people from those episodes in one room together.

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I still have a handful of episodes to release (and lots of new material from the event), but before I dive into podcast production, I wanted to write something here about what happens when you see so many women who shaped you in such a short period of time. (Not here is my mom, who is obviously at the top of the list. We had fun being twinsies all weekend — people would mistake me for her multiple times a day.)

I saw Abby Byers, Lindsey Brogden, Liz Mooneyham, Kelly Sumners and Nicole Fitzpatrick (Class of 2001), five girlfriends from various stages of my childhood whom I spent countless weekends and sleepovers as a kid or teen but whom I hadn’t seen in at least a decade.

Abby is my guest on this week’s episode of “Class Reunion: The Podcast,” where you can hear both sides of this whole story, from first impressions to what caused the break-up and what we’ve missed when we’ve been out of each other’s lives. It was one of the most healing experiences I could have imagined.

I saw Jackie Schutte (Class of 1972), Nicole’s mom, who managed this beautiful curly mane of mine until I left for college. She taught me how to wield my own scissors and my own life. (She was divorced single mom with a boyfriend and her own business.)

Suretta Rector, back left, was one of my coaches during a spring softball league. This photo was a few weeks before I took a hardball to the face and Coach Rector saved my life. (Practically)

I saw Suretta Rector (Class of 1978), a registered nurse who was also the softball mom who practically saved my life when I was in fifth grade. (OK, maybe it getting slammed in the face with a line-drive softball wasn’t life-threatening, but it felt like it in the moment.) She was the person who rushed to the field when I took that hit and fell to the ground, glasses smashed with a gash under my right eye. She looked at me and told me I’d be OK. Looking at her face last weekend at the All School Reunion made my cheek wince with the memory. It still bears the scar.

I saw Marla Calico (Class of 1975), the president and CEO of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, a woman whose name in my house as a kid was synonymous with “a badass who wields her power well.” She ran the Ozark Empire Fair back then, and now she oversees an organization that serves thousands of county fairs and expos. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing her in my work capacity several times over the years, and her badassery — which I can now see means leading with creativity, passion and compassion — continues to amaze me. (She has a podcast about the fair/expo industry called Marla By The Numbers, BTW.)

I saw Kim McCully-Mobley (Class of 1979), my first boss, who hired me as a student staffwriter at the Aurora Advertiser between my sophomore and junior year. After working as the editor of the local paper for more than a decade, she’s back in the classroom, where she weaves storytelling and local history for her English students.

She founded the Houn’ Dawg Alumni and Outreach Center, a burgeoning museum housed in the armory that features photos, newspapers, mementos and memorabilia from the 150-year history of the town. (Many of them are also displayed inside First Independent Bank, thanks to president Jack Muench’s shared love of Aurora history.)

While my mom and I were at the reunion, we flipped through some of the old newspaper files from 1997, the year before I started working at the paper. I saw one of Kim’s columns, which she called Cards on the Table. I skimmed a few of the paragraphs and felt an intense memory and recognition.

I’ve always reflected on what I learned from Kim about being able to pick up the phone and talk to anyone about anything, but now I can see that this is where I learned how to write a column.

Kim taught me how to weave a story, one paragraph at a time, about anything. No encounter was too small for her to find meaning. No historical detail went unappreciated. This is how she connected with her community, and it’s how I connect with mine.

I saw Dara White, the wife of our family doctor who died last year, just before the pandemic started. I remembered her as one of the few well-traveled and independent women I knew as a kid. She and her husband hosted an annual Christmas party with passed hor d'oeuvres that made it feel like we were in a Lifetime movie.

Dara and Russell didn’t have any kids who went to Aurora High School (more on that in a second), but she went to the All School Reunion anyway.

“They told us we couldn’t adopt because we both had health issues and wouldn’t live that long,” she told me, somewhat unexpectedly when I first walked up to the armory gym on Saturday. “The year before Russell died, we celebrated our 50th anniversary,” the statement filled with irony. That fifty years wouldn’t have been enough time to raise a child.

The pain of not having children was still so fresh in her words, and I suddenly saw her bravery.

To come to a celebration as a recent widow who never had children and who didn’t graduate with any of the attendees, which eliminates 95 percent of what people talk about at reunions. We ended up spending some time together at the event, looking over the Aurora-themed Monopoly game she found at Walmart recently and talking about good memories, including the five international exchange students that she hosted over the years.

And lastly…

I saw Ilene Washam (Class of 1975), a woman who in another timeline might have become my mother-in-law. She’s the mom of my high school boyfriend, and, to be honest, we did not get along very well.

I was 15 and 16 years old when I was dating Dustin, who was a few years older than me. He is her first born, and I think she was probably going through her own issues watching him graduate from high school and start college with a serious girlfriend.

Dustin and I always had a great relationship, even though Ilene and I had several arguments and confrontational moments, the memories of which make me shake in my farm boots today.

She was a rancher’s wife and a postal worker and a tough cookie who didn’t mince words when she was displeased.

I was a rebellious kid who didn’t like being told what to do, especially when I felt like people didn’t understand my ambition and my ideas.

Well, it turns out, she did understand.

When I saw her across the gym at the reunion on Saturday, the same old fight or flight feelings came up. I tried to avoid her for as long as I could, but eventually, she walked up to me, with a big smile on her face, and told me how much her other son, Nathan, my former classmate, has been loving my podcast.

She also shared that she was in the midst of finalizing her own divorce to the high school boyfriend’s dad.

Compliments break the ice, but honesty thaws it.

Something beautiful shifted between us. I heard her describe this same awakening that I had: that my life was mine and nobody else’s, and if I don’t start living it, who else will?

We dove straight into the ins and outs of leaving a marriage and starting a new life, building trust with each shared insight. It felt like a genuine spark of friendship between us that made me grateful for the long, slow healing that comes with time and experience.

She had to leave the reunion early so she could get to Henry, her grandson, who is the first kid for my classmates Nathan and Tierany Washam. With grandma as their babysitter, the Washams came out in full force, joining us all the way until the bonfire that closed out the night.