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MUHS alumni group at a crossroads

BILL CUNNINGHAM, PAST president of the Middlebury Union High School Alumni Association, said the fate of the organization will likely be decided at its annual meeting on Sept. 25. Independent photo/John Flowers

“We need representation from many generations of alumni to be an impactful organization for future graduates. We can’t do it without participation.”
— Bill Cunningham

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury High School/Middlebury Union High School Alumni Association (MUHSAA) was born in 1985 over a couple of beers at the American Legion Post 27’s former meeting hall off Creek Road.

Things got off to a grand start.

At one point, the association counted more than 650 members, with an active board of directors that coordinated an alumni magazine, the annual homecoming celebration, the selection of inductees into the MUHS Hall of Fame, and a super-successful scholarship fund to assist new graduates headed for higher education.

But 36 years after its founding, MUHSAA finds itself on the brink of extinction — despite a base of more than 7,000 alumni who are eligible to participate in association activities aimed at keeping former Tigers connected and recognized for their achievements.

The problem: Not enough graduates willing and/or able to help coordinate alumni events. The MUHSAA board currently doesn’t have even half the 12 directors prescribed by its bylaws, according to Bill Cunningham, MUHS class of 1973 and a past president of the association.

Membership had shrunk to 500 members by 2019, but the vast majority of the folks on the roster were inactive. The few willing to help out are in their 50s, 60s and 70s, Cunningham noted.

“We need representation from many generations of alumni to be an impactful organization for future graduates,” he said during a recent interview.

“We can’t do it without participation.”

Cunningham and the few remaining MUHSAA stalwarts will take the latest pulse of alumni at the organization’s annual meeting, tentatively slated for Saturday, Sept. 25, at 10 a.m. at Doc Collins Field. It’ll be the association’s first annual gathering since 2019, and COVID-19 has played a big role in that hiatus.

There will be a lot riding on the meeting.

“We need new blood or we need to fold, one or the other,” said Martha Baldwin, MUHS class of 1960 and another past president of the MUHSAA board.

Baldwin, on the cusp of 80, has served on the panel for the past two decades and is now ready to step away.

“The membership, quite frankly, is dwindling,” she said, referring to active members.

Baldwin acknowledged people seem to have less spare time and more recreation options since MUHSAA’s founding. There are more dual-income families, more extracurricular activities and a ton of social media diversions, compared to how it was in 1985. Baldwin said none of her five children — all MUHS graduates — joined the MUHSAA board, mainly because they left the Middlebury area since graduating.

Leaving the area upon graduation seems to be the current trend, whereas it used to be more likely that students would stick around — or eventually return — after earing their high school diplomas, according to Baldwin and Cunningham.

SCHOLARSHIPS

While they aren’t game for taking a role at MUHSAA, alumni have shown a willingness to write a check, Cunningham said. The MUHSAA scholarship fund has grown to more than $140,000. The association uses interest from the fund — combined with some of its general fund money — to give out five, $2,000 scholarships each year to MUHS grads.

Should the MUHSAA disband, the Addison Central School District board would be asked to take over the scholarship fund. But unlike the MUHSAA, the ACSD board wouldn’t be able to fundraise to maintain a $10,000 giving level in years when the fund doesn’t generate enough interest, Cunningham said.

Aside from the scholarship fund, MUHSAA’s purpose is about fun and recognition. That includes organizing homecoming weekend festivities, with a highlight being the electing and honoring a slate of “MUHS Hall of Fame” inductees each year. These inductees are nominated by supporters based on accomplishments during and/or after their scholastic careers. The association hosts an annual hall of fame dinner that used to attract more than 250 people, according to Cunningham.

The last hall of fame dinner, in 2019, barely drew 50 to the Middlebury American Legion Hall, he said.

A dozen alums were inducted into the MUHS hall back in 1986. MUHSAA welcomed only one hall of famer in 2015 (Wayne D. Smith) and two in 2016 (Joseph A Degra and John Rouse), the last induction recorded on the ACSD alumni website.

“We’re not getting a lot of nominations,” Cunningham lamented.

Association members said they recognize MUHSAA, in its current form, might not be enticing to prospective board members. But they argued new generations of alumni can make the organization into something more exciting and contemporary, if they’d like.

“There are at least four generations that we’re talking about,” Cunningham said. “Every one has a different idea of what they’d like to see as the social aspect of it. There’s nothing we can’t do; we’re not constrained by anything, socially.”

He’s hoping for a good turnout on Sept. 25, to see if younger alumni are willing to be passed the baton.

Or whether the organization will become a memory.

“Hopefully, some people will stand up and say, ‘Yes, it’s important enough, and I’ll help,” Cunningham said. “That’s the ingredient we’ve been missing.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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