Buchanan alumni reunite for 63rd annual Buckteen Reunion

Published 9:16 am Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Buchanan High School auxiliary gym was packed tightly Sunday afternoon.

Filling the room was about 520 former Buchanan High School students from various generations, gathering on the hot June day to celebrate the 63rd annual Buckteen Reunion.

Buckteens is an annual high school reunion that is open to any former Buchanan alumni who have been graduated for 40 years or more. This year, the class of 1977 was greeted to its first reunion.

Traveling from Ionia was Joe Benak, a World War II veteran and a former Buchanan student. Benak brought along the Congressional Gold Medal he was recently awarded, and he was excited to share his story.

“At one point in ‘43, there was a DC-3 that crashed between Gobles and Dowagiac, and our airplane — I was flying a Piper Cub — our airplane, we spotted the DC-3 in the woods,” he said. “That was one of the reasons for this award.”

Before he was 18, Benak served in the Civil Air Patrol in Michigan — aiding the military with spotting — and then enlisted in the U.S. Army in December 1943. By the summer of 1944, he found himself smack dab in the middle of the Mariana Islands aiding in the Second Battle of Guam as a bazooka gunner in the 307th Regimental Combat Team in the 77th Infantry Division.

“Uncle Sam said, ‘Dear Joe, we need you in the Pacific,’” he said. And off he went.

After the war, however, he did not immediately go back to school. Benak was bitten by a mosquito and spent nearly a year in the hospital recovering from malaria.

“It almost killed me. The Japanese couldn’t do it, but malaria almost did. From a darn mosquito!” he said with a laugh. “That’s not good. To have medals on your uniform, ya know, and take care of your enemy, then almost get killed by a mosquito?! That’s not the way to go!”

But Benak recovered, and he has attended nearly every Buckteen Reunion since.

Along with Benak, several other World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and other veterans were honored at the ceremony.

“It’s amazing to see the amount of veterans each year,” said Jerry Flenar, a member of the Buckteen planning committee. “In a town the size of Buchanan, to see that many vets is just impressive.”

Former students spent time reminiscing with one another, perusing old yearbooks and chowing down.

“If [alumni] only go to their own reunion they only see the kids they graduated with,” Flenar said. “Most of the time you hang around with kids three years older and three years younger. Some of us that have lived here our whole lives get to see our parents’ friends [from high school]!”

Each year, the class that is celebrating its 50th reunion raises money to give in scholarships to members of the current graduating class. This year, the class of 1967 raised $11,500.

“That program started with the class of 1957. They raised $1,000, and those guys thought it would never be topped!” Flenar said. “It’s been building momentum, and every [new] class is taking it on as a challenge.”

This year, four graduates were selected to receive the scholarships.

The classes have given away $52,000 in total awards in 11 years, according to Flenar.

The Buckteen planning committee is currently looking for someone to manage the group’s Facebook page and do data entry. Interested parties should contact Jerry Flenar at (269) 695-6096 or email buchananbuckteensreunion@gmail.com.

“We’re always in need of people on the committee,” Flenar said. “We’re always looking for those who want to help out.”