More than 1,000 miles away from their hometown, Whitley County natives gathered for a reunion March 6 in Sebring, Fla.

The annual social luncheon began when a few Columbia City High School alumni who were living or wintering in Florida decided to get together for lunch. From there, the event snowballed to include all fellow CCHS alumni and eventually opened up to welcome all Whitley County natives.

This year, the CCHS class of 1961 held its 57th class reunion in conjunction with the county-wide social luncheon. This year’s event was hosted by Jerry Begue, CCHS class of 1961, and his wife, Pam, who live in Rotonda West on Florida’s west coast.

The luncheon is held at Homer’s Original Smorgasbord, a buffet restaurant in Sebring. The city’s central location makes it convenient for retirees who live or winter in surrounding communities.

“There are a lot of people from Whitley County who live around Sebring and Winter Haven and a few of those communities in the middle of the state,” Begue said.

This year’s event drew 47 guests who grew up in Columbia City, Churubusco, Larwill and South Whitley. Many are retirees who live in Florida year-round or winter there in the colder months, also known as “snowbirds,” Begue said. Guests also have been known to time vacations around the reunion.

“When you get to be my age, you have to have something to do,” Begue laughed.

At the luncheon, old classmates and neighbors socialize and enjoy a 30-minute history presentation on Whitley County. The focus of this year’s presentation was on the legends of Churubusco, including the “Beast of Busco.”

“More or less, you’re going back to school for a half hour,” Begue said.

He said it’s a good feeling to see and meet people he hasn’t seen in years.

“You may not have seen someone in 40 years. You don’t recognize them, but when you hear their name, [you remember them],” he said.

Ted Gruver, CCHS class of 1957 and founder of the Columbia City High School Alumni Association, started the reunion after he retired to Naples in 1988. After graduating from high school, he moved to Baltimore, Md., to study radiology at John Hopkins and ended up staying in the area for 60 years.

Gruver now lives in Phoenix, Md. Even though he never moved back to Whitley County, staying connected to his roots has remained important to him. He had such fond memories of his days at Camp Whitley, he sent his grandchildren there to gain the same experience.

In the early 1990s, a couple old classmates visited Gruver and they all met for lunch. Each year, the event grew and grew, eventually drawing as many as 80 attendees.

“You would be surprised by how many people from our little high school in Columbia City actually have left the area or have moved to Florida or are in Florida,” he said.

He later learned that Whitley County natives have organized get-togethers in Florida since at least the 1980s.

Whitley County isn’t the only community in northeast Indiana that reunites in the sunshine state; Steuben County natives hold their own luncheon at the very same restaurant.

For more information about the Columbia City High School Alumni Association, including alumni news, events and contact information, visit www.cchsaa.org. The site provides a forum for staying in touch with classmates and friends of CCHS. There are currently 18,345 alumni from 1881 to present day in the database.