WASHINGTON, W.Va. - Friends and families came together Sunday to honor all the Parkersburg High School Naval Junior ROTC program did for them.
Around 300 people, including many former cadets, their families and others involved in the program, gathered at DuPont Park in Washington Bottom to remember the good times they had, the importance of the program and share hopes the program will be able to continue in some form.
"It was to bring all of the years together," said Diedre Willis, president of the alumni reunion committee. "We have people here from each year of the program."
The alumni of the Parkersburg High School Naval Junior ROTC program gathered for a reunion at DuPont
The former cadets attending the reunion ranged from 1986 when the program started to the present year when the program recently had its funding cut by the the U.S. Navy and was looking like it would discontinue.
Local residents and supporters have been working hard to come up with around $28,000 to fund the program for another year. Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has pledged to match the local contribution dollar-for-dollar to purchase the Navy National Defense Cadet Corps program for the 2011-12 school year.
The Navy has agreed to allow PHS to keep its ROTC equipment, and if the NDCC program can meet all of its requirements in 2011-12, the ROTC program could be reinstated at the school the following year.
Photo by Brett Dunlap
The alumni of the Parkersburg High School Naval Junior ROTC program gathered for a reunion Sunday at DuPont Park.
Among the games and food throughout the day, the possible end of the program was a topic of discussion for many at the reunion on Sunday.
"I think there are enough alumni here aware of what is going on, they want to be involved and do everything they can to help get the unit back on track," Willis said. "I think this is just the first step to getting it there."
Alumni are still discussing their options, but having many of them at the reunion Sunday helped them begin to become organized and generating ideas on what they can do as a group, she said, adding word is also being put on out Facebook to reach more.
Many alumni said the program went a long way in helping to mold them into the people they are today and they want their own children to have that same opportunity.
"As alumni, we want to rally together to keep the program together and keep it because we want our kids to have something that taught them structure, discipline, honor and respect," said Amber Baileys, a 1997 PHS graduate who was in the program from 1994 to 1997. "There are so many little things that make a person.
"They took that and made us who we are today."
Baileys spoke about the time the cadets spent together going to contests and doing a lot of things together during their time in the program.
"We really were a family," she said.
Michelle Rolston, a 1995 PHS graduate who was in the program from 1993 to 1995, said she was not surprised by the turnout at Sunday's reunion.
"We were always a very close-knit group," she said. "It was like a second family for many of us."
It was that sense that brought many people to the program and kept them in it through high school, Rolston said of the motivation and guidance the NJROTC program at PHS provided to many students to do something with their lives.
Many people have been talking about the future of the program and their hope something can be done.
"The program changed lives," Rolston said. "It instilled a lot of values."
Lt. Commander Charles Combs, founder of the program and its teacher until 2000, was very happy with the turnout at Sunday's reunion.
"It is absolutely incredible," he said. "I never expected we would have this many former students here.
"I had more than 1,500 students who went through my classroom and a good percentage of them are here. It brings back a lot of good memories."
Many former students came up to Combs and hugged him, shook his hand and told them what they were doing.
"That is really the payday," he said. "Many of them have gone on and have really accomplished things in their lives. I am really proud."
Combs pointed out that a couple of former students were now getting ready to outrank him at the point he retired. Others went on to become Naval pilots, graduates of the Naval Academy and the Coast Guard Academy and many are becoming officers in the various branches of the service.
"They are a good bunch of kids," he said, even as he pointed out some were now in their 40s.
Combs is aware of the program's recent problems, through the Facebook updates and the media.
"I think it is a shame to see this happen to a program with so much to offer," he said. "I started the unit in 1986 and taught it for 15 years.
"Those were the best 15 years of my life. It really was."
He said the kids were motivated and worked hard at what they wanted to accomplish. Combs has hopes the program can be saved in some fashion, even through the NDCC program.
"They have 136 students enrolled for next year," he said. "I would like to see them do that for a couple of years and re-approach the Navy to reconsider it."