PALM HARBOR — Imagine attending a high school with no upperclassmen, no clubs or after-school activities and no school traditions.
Now imagine the possibility of being able to create all those things for your class and for generations of students to come.
That was the situation faced by the graduating class of 1999 at Palm Harbor University High School, when the school opened in fall 1996.
"Many of our brothers and sisters had gone to Dunedin High or Tarpon High. Those schools had traditions because they had been around for a long time," said Ashley Chapman Bayer, 28, senior class president of the Class of 1999. "We had nothing to fall back on and did it all through trial and error."
Through his many years of experience as a high school principal, Alec Liem knew how important extracurricular activities and school traditions were to students, their parents and the community.
So, before the school opened, the founding principal and his administrative team held community meetings for all the students zoned for the new school, which started with just freshman and sophomore classes. At those meetings, prospective students had the opportunity to vote on school colors (burgundy and blue) and the school mascot (Hurricanes).
"We had a strong sense of trying to create something special," Liem said. "And we knew to get them fired up we needed to talk about things beyond the classroom walls."
Liem also started a junior varsity football team, with no practice field and no stadium. The team practiced at Palm Harbor Middle School before the high school was completed.
"I believe we went undefeated that first season," he said.
When the sophomore class arrived on campus, Liem realized the students would not have juniors and senior as role models, so he and his staff worked with them to become leaders within the school.
"We were basically seniors for three years," said Greg Vahn, 28, a member of the first graduating class. "And we had the opportunity to form our own traditions."
Among those traditions is that the entire Class of 1999 wore medallions with their graduation robes. The medallion is still worn today.
"Mr. Liem really believed in unity among all the students of the school," Bayer said. "The medallion helped to unify the whole class."
Now the Class of 1999 has the opportunity to create a new tradition. The first 10-year reunion for the high school will be Saturday in Clearwater.
Organizers say it's a way to celebrate some of the traditions they helped create and a way to reconnect with old classmates.
"It's a great opportunity to rekindle old friendships and possibly meet some new friends who you didn't hang out with in high school but you have more in common with now," Vahn said.
He still stays in touch with many of his classmates and is on the reunion-organizing committee.
Liem, now director of school operations for Pinellas County Schools, says the Palm Harbor University High Class of 1999 was a unique group of kids that stood out above the many classes of students he's had the opportunity to work with over the years.
"We gave them the opportunity to experience leadership at an early age," he said. "I think that prepared them well for the world beyond graduation."