by Michael G. Maness
Rep. Dr. Brian Babin, U.S. Dist. 36, keynoted the auspicious Kirby HS reunion Saturday, noon, May 2, to a full room of over 250 in the Woodville ISD elementary cafeteria.
Perhaps unique in the nation, to be an official guest one has to have been fifty years out of high school to get the first invitation. A patriotic theme set the tone with flags everywhere. The program had a shield inscribed with the words "Home of the Free, Because of the Brave" encircling an eagle. An M-16 rifle protruded up from a combat boot, topped with a combat helmet and dog tags.
All sung the national anthem and pledged allegiance to the U.S. flag. All veterans were recognized. A prayer was said for the meal, a scrumptious entre of chicken cordon bleu on rice pilaf, with seasoned veggies, strawberry shortcake and more.
Mary Alice Nagypal introduced her friend, and friend of so many, Rep. Dr. Babin, well-known Woodville dentist who was recently elected to Texas District 36 of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Babin expressed his thanks, recalling how he was the first representative elected from Tyler County since Samuel Bronson Cooper in 1892. Babin was proud that he had lived in Southeast Texas all of his life.
"Love it here," he said with gusto. He bragged on his substantial family, fond that several children had come back to Woodville to live. His oldest son, Leif, recently had a son. Babin noted, "Unfortunately" Leif has "got to live in Manhattan, New York City. He wants to get back to east Texas in a bad way." A round of applause appreciated that.
"I want to say how proud I am to be a native of this wonderful town and ... county," said Babin. "There's nothing closer to being the epitome of being an American than being someone from a small town. And I am so thankful we were able to raise every one of our children right here."
Babin reflected upon his move to Tyler County in 1979, and he became mayor in two years later. He pointed out Walt Davis, who was Woodville's city manager back then. Babin reflected how after Hurricane Katrina there was so much hollering about what the government did and did not do in Louisiana. Then several days later, Hurricane Rita came, a storm just as bad. "We weren't screaming and raising our hands," he said, "we were holding hands. We got together and we worked. We helped each other. We had each other's back. That's what makes me proud to be an East Texan, and I've been one all my life."
Looking out over the crowd, Babin noted how he has known many for the last 35 years, and he thanked them for their patriotism, which was followed with another round of applause.
Babin reflected on his time in the military and his activism in the Republican Party in East Texas, which was new to the solidly Democratic Tyler County then. Having served in the military under Jimmy Carter, and watching so much of Carter "wringing his hands," it was too much for Babin, so he decided to help Reagan.
There were perhaps three known Republicans. Babin tactfully called his organization "Conservative Voters of Tyler County," and landed Michael Reagan to speak in the ballroom of the Woodville Inn, which would fill with Democrats. Ronald Reagan took Tyler County by a very large margin, and took nearly every other county in Southeast Texas in 1980.
Having practiced dentistry for 35 years, Babin quipped, "I only took Tyler County by 87 percent, and perhaps I did not give enough deadening to the others."
"You're probably wondering, 'Why do we need a dentist up there in D.C.?' ... because we know how to get to the root of a problem. And sometimes you have to take a tooth out." More laughter and applause.
Babin thanked Mary Alice, Fred Sullivan, Sybil Mitchel and Bertis Best who were on the platform with him and then took a few questions.
First was, "What are the plans to put a good man in the White House?" To which Babin said he was impressed with most of the Republicans running.
"Each year," Babin said with definition in his voice, "I keep hearing, 'This is the most important election of our life time.' But you know what? It gets more and more serious with each cycle. I think this IS the most important election of our lifetime ... this 2016 election." Babin emphasized, "We've got a lot of problems in this country. We have an open uncontrolled southern border.... We need to make sure we get a handle on that southern border.... I was briefed on this just a couple of days ago. We've got some bad folks coming across that border.... That's another reason ... our military continues to be second to none, the best in the world! We're working extremely hard to make sure that happens." Another big round of applause with a few "Amens."
Cecile Lazenby, whose son was there and a Vietnam veteran, asked Babin if he was in Vietnam.
"I was not," Babin replied. "I was sent to Germany." He thanked her son for his service. Reflecting on his son, Babin noted that Leif had commanded Navy SEALs in Afghanistan, including famed SEAL Chris Kyle who wrote the best seller American Sniper.
Fred Sullivan returned to the podium, thankful for his recent recovery from a five-by-pass heart surgery, the result of preparations for a knee surgery. Always helping in these reunions, he fondly recalled several stories of days gone by. He felt this unique, because, "You have to be about 68 years old to get your first invitation." Laughter rippled through, subdued and somber. And one gets an invitation forever after.
Sullivan recalled how the first Kirby school was built with $30,000 donated by lumberman John Henry Kirby in 1928 and burned down in August of 1943. Most of them there had attended the second Kirby HS which was built on the foundations of the first.
Sullivan highlighted a large book put together by Mary Ferguson Neal on the history of the school.
Two were present that graduated from Kirby HS before 1940. Ms. Mildred Parker graduated in 1936 and was nearing her 99th birthday, and Jesse Lazenby graduated in the class of 1938.
Their reunion tradition was to celebrate the class of each decade of the class being recognized, this year being 1965. No one was there from 1945, so Sullivan gave a short recap. For 1955, John Allen Evans gave a history.
These cultural vignettes and date-stamped data helped recall the unique cultures of those decades.
This year, the new honored guests were the class of 1965, noted as the largest class to have graduated from Kirby HS with 75 – 52 still living – and as remarkable were the 30 present at their distinguished table. The '65 class representative was George Jarrott, who gave a short recap of the '60s and "their" time together.
When asked about her role as "class agent" to track her class, Beverly Sue Shaw gibed, "Bunch of heathens," and laughed a bit, joking, with love and affection bubbling as she recalled their senior class trip and much more.
Sybil Mitchell gave a scholarship of $1,000 to Vicki Sheffield, a middle school English teacher working on her doctoral dissertation. Mitchell instilled that this scholarship was from the students of famed English teacher Francis "Ab" Abernethy's four classes of 1952, '53, '54 and '55. Such was their affection for that teacher, that Mitchell and Mary Lee attended Abernathy's memorial service in April 2015 at Banita Creek Hall in Nacogdoches. He cared for his students and kept in touch with many decades after he left, and the students have not forgotten to this day. Three years ago, his donations have secured a sound system that is used exclusively for this reunion and kept at Mary Lee's home, who herself has been one of the reunion's "go to" persons and social grappler.
Musician Walter Plant played for two-hour social time before the meal, and though blind, one would hardly know, given his huge repertoire of classic hit songs.
Food was prepared by the Woodville Food Service Association, an affiliate of the Texas School Food Service Association, led by Linda Johnson, the WFSA president. Their crew donated their time. All profits from this go the WFSA's fund for Woodville HS scholarships. They give $4,000 in scholarships every year, and to date they have given over $80,000 to help Woodville graduates in their college pursuits.
Unlike any big city school, even impossible there, from start to finish this remarkably unique reunion was built from a precious fellowship of former students over many decades of devotion to their school and precious memories.
Indeed, as Congressman Babin noted and all present there that day affirmed – and outsiders envy – "There's nothing closer to being the epitome of being an American than being someone from a small town."