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Reuniting the Class of 19. . .

In the 10 years since she graduated from high school, Kirsten Taylor has changed addresses a few times. First, she was in Tampa. Then there were a few years in North Carolina for college. Then Atlanta. Finally, she and her husband settled in Portland.

That's why Taylor was more than a little surprised to receive a notice about her 10-year high school reunion.

"I can't believe anybody would find me," said Taylor, a member of the Leto High School 1983 graduating class, now a medical researcher. "I've moved around a lot, and I haven't kept in touch hardly at all."

In the past few months, high school graduates all around the country _ in fact, all around the planet _ have received notices for their 10-year or 20-year reunions. Few of them have any idea how they were found.

The answer is a team of private investigators who use public records, phone books, rumors and sketchy leads to catch up with people and invite them to a party. In Tampa and in dozens of cities around the nation are businesses devoted specifically to organizing reunions. The companies arrange for everything from the food and accommodations to the goofy yearbook photos on the name tags.

The biggest part of the job, though, is finding the hundreds of far-flung graduates.

"We've found folks all around the country, in Europe, Japan, China," said Sunny McGinnis, owner of Reunion Celebrations in Tampa. "We located one guy in Yugoslavia who said he'd like to attend, but he couldn't because of sanctions."

"No one has the time'

It's impossible to say exactly when some entrepreneur decided to charge a fee for organizing a reunion, but the industry appears to have gotten its start about 11 years ago in Chicago.

A man named Sheldon Norris almost missed his 30-year reunion for Roosevelt High School in Chicago. The institutional food salesman and his wife, Judy, decided to see if they could do a better job of finding people.

They started a small business called Class Reunions in Skokie, Ill., and handled jobs all over the Chicago area. After it proved successful and other entrepreneurs began asking them how they got started, the Norrises put on training seminars and organized a national association.

The National Association of Reunion Planners has about 60 members in 26 states, according to NARP president Connie Suggs, owner of Reunion Classics in Jacksonville.

In Tampa, Sunny McGinnis got started in the business after she tried to do the job as an amateur. The Brandon High School graduate (Class of 1976) was on the committee to organize her own 10-year reunion.

"We didn't do a good job of locating people. Most don't," McGinnis said. "We figured we would get 800 people there. The turnout was more like 250 people.

"We got reunion burnout. We got tired of it. All our prospective spouses got tired of it."

At first, McGinnis thought she might write a book about her experiences, warning people about some of the problems. Then, she read a story about the Norrises in Chicago.

McGinnis learned what she could from the Norrises, quit her job in computer sales and sank $5,000 into her business venture.

In the summer of 1987, McGinnis' Reunion Celebrations did seven reunions for schools in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The next year, she did 14 reunions. This year, she has 60 reunions to plan for schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Pasco, Polk and Sarasota counties.

"It's not a tough sell because no one has the time to do it," McGinnis said. "People's schedules are crazy. Women who used to have time for reunion committees and things like that don't have time now because they're working."

A matter of research

In her six years in the reunion business, McGinnis and her assistant Kim Musser have learned a thing or two.

They generally expect to locate about 75 percent to 80 percent of a graduating class. Attendance at the reunion generally is in the 25 percent range.

"Some people, no matter how far away they are, they're going to make it," Musser said. "The others, you could hold it in their back yard and serve free beer and barbecue, and they wouldn't even come outside."

McGinnis hires 20 to 25 research associates _ the investigators who find the graduates. They generally work from their homes, though McGinnis' office on Columbus Avenue is well stocked with out-of-town telephone books and cross-reference directories, which are books that list the names and addresses of nearly everyone living in the county or city.

The researchers use marriage license records so they can learn the married names of female graduates. They find addresses through drivers' license records. They frequently find graduates' parents and track the graduates that way. And, of course, they ask around to see if the graduates know how to find their classmates.

"We find a lot of people in jail," McGinnis said. "Once you find out they're in jail, it's easy to trace them. We send them invitations. They usually can't make it."

Occasionally, the reunion planners run across some notorious graduates. For instance, McGinnis handled reunions for a couple of graduating classes that included convicted firebomber Billy Ferry and convicted mass murderer Bobby Joe Long.

Generally, McGinnis shies away from some reunions _ 5-year and 15-year reunions, for instance. The 10-year increments and, of course, 25-year reunions tend to have the larger turnouts.

They also tend not to work with all-boys schools.

"They don't have the turnout," Musser said. "The biggest thing with reunions is you get to see your old sweetheart. At an all-boy school, you don't have that to get people to attend."

McGinnis has developed rough profiles of reunion participants.

On 10-year reunions: "People are very apprehensive. They're curious about people's financial standing. There's a lot more glitz _ semiformal, the best hotel."

On 20-year reunions: "At that point, people are a little more at ease. They know what to expect. They're at a time in life when they're their own person. They're there to see friends. It's less showing off, more nostalgia."

This weekend, the Dunedin High School Class of 1983 held its reunion in Clearwater.

Just moments before she went to the cocktail party Friday night to see her classmates for the first time in a decade, Dunedin graduate Wendy Mann talked about the magic of reconnecting at a reunion.

"I have lost track of a lot of people," said Mann, who lives in Inverness in Citrus County. "I'm dying to see these people.

"I've been looking forward to this for about 10 years. I'm one of those people who has very, very fond memories of high school. Nothing compares to it. Nothing."

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