40 years after graduating, ‘Lunch Box 5’ friends reconnect
Back left, Karen Karowski of Williamsburg, Kath Emerson (in green) of Williamsburg, front left, Dale Lannon-Pierce of Easthampton, LeAnn Mason of Worthington, and Lynn Melling of Florence all gathered at Lannon-Pierce's home Saturday morning. Purchase photo reprints »
Back left, Karen Karowski of Williamsburg, Kath Emerson (in green) of Williamsburg, front left, Dale Lannon-Pierce of Easthampton, LeAnn Mason of Worthington, and Lynn Melling of Florence all gathered at Lannon-Pierce's home Saturday morning.
Purchase photo reprints »
back left, LeAnn Mason, of Worthington, Lynn Melling of Florence, Dale Lannon-Pierce of Easthampton, front left, Karen Karowski of Williamsburg and Kath Emerson of Williamsburg all gathered at Lannon-Pierce's home Saturday morning. Purchase photo reprints »
WILLIAMSBURG — When the Hampshire Regional High School Class of 1973 graduated 40 years ago this month, a group of five best friends celebrated the big day and then, as often happens after high school, went their separate ways.
Some married and started families. Others started working or going to college. Though they were still fond of each other, it seemed life just got in the way of their friendship and they lost touch.
Friday night, no fewer than six local high schools held their annual graduation ceremonies, including Hampshire Regional High School’s at J.M. Greene Hall in Northampton. There were tears and raucous celebrations at the ceremonies, and no doubt high school pals pledged to stay friends forever.
The five friends from the Class of ’73 — LeAnn Mason, Kathy Emerson, Dale Lannon-Pierce, Karen Karowski and Lynn Melling — all stayed in the area, so you’d think it would have been easy to stay close. But for 37 years after their graduation, they would catch up through occasional phone calls or chance meetings, but nothing more substantial.
“We’d say, ‘We should get the group together again,’ ” Mason said. “We said it for years, but it was always on the back burner.”
Three years ago, they made it happen. They found the reunion surprising. They met for lunch at the Brewmaster’s Tavern in Williamsburg one Saturday. “It was like we had never been apart. We just picked up where we left off,” Karowski said.
“When we graduated, we were talking about careers and getting married,” Lannon-Pierce said. “And then we got back together, and we were talking about retiring and our grandchildren. It’s been great.”
The group has been meeting regularly since that first reconnection in 2010, and Emerson said their friendship is even stronger than it was in high school.
They’re all 58 with the exception of Mason, who is 57. Karowski and Emerson live in Williamsburg, Mason lives in Worthington, Melling lives in Florence and Lannon-Pierce lives in Easthampton.
“We’ve all been through different things. Some are married and divorced, some stayed married, some had kids and some didn’t, some had health issues,” Emerson said. “But there was a thread that was so easy to pick up. It felt like coming home.”
They call themselves “The Lunch Box 5” because they spent so much of their high school years together at the Williamsburg diner that closed 10 years ago.
“Every single morning, we met at the Lunch Box for Coca-Cola and fries and we’d smoke cigarettes,” Lannon-Pierce said. “That was the thing to do back then.”
They’ve since quit smoking — except Karowski, the only one who didn’t take up the habit — and they all try to eat a little healthier now, Lannon-Pierce said. And though they can’t get together every day, their lunch dates every few months have the same feel as those Lunch Box breakfasts decades ago, she said.
The women said that they’re proof that it’s never too late to revive old friendships. And this time of year, as graduates everywhere receive their diplomas and head off for destinations unknown, Emerson said she hopes they keep that in mind.
“I remember when my youngest daughter graduated from high school. She was so sad to have that piece of her life end and say goodbye to friends. I imagine many people go through that.
“For me, it’s inspiring to think that it doesn’t have be the end,” Emerson said. “You can pick it back up anytime.”
The five friends all stayed local, which made it easier to keep track of each other and reunite, Emerson said. But with online tools like social media sites, it has never been simpler to track down old acquaintances.
Melling got choked up thinking of all the years she didn’t make more of an effort to rekindle the friendship. “It’s never too late to do it and the rewards are absolutely fantastic,” she said.
A long history
The group first came together at “Burgy High,” the former regional high school in Williamsburg that also educated teens from Goshen, Chesterfield and Westhampton. Melling and Emerson had grown up together in Williamsburg, Karowski joined them in fifth grade when the Williamsburg and Haydenville elementary schools merged, and Mason and Lannon-Pierce had been friends in Goshen, where they attended elementary school.
Hampshire Regional High School was built in Westhampton in 1970 and the girls attended two years of high school there. Those were the years when they learned to drive and skip school, played pitch in study hall and got part-time jobs and boyfriends, Karowski said.
“I was the oldest of the group, so I got my license first and I used to drive us all to school,” Karowski said. Many of their best adventures started in her packed, smoky Corvair, she said.
In interviews with the Gazette, the best friends remembered their teenage selves. They said Emerson was the smartest and the more responsible one, Mason was pretty and popular with the boys, while Karowski worked a lot and had a steady boyfriend through high school. Melling was “bubbly” and outgoing and Lannon-Pierce described herself as “everybody’s buddy.”
Emerson said that the friends were close, but each had an “independent streak,” so it wasn’t that surprising that they took different paths after graduating. They were quickly too busy doing grown-up things like advancing their careers and raising families. All five have been or are married, all except for Melling have raised children, and all have careers.
Mason co-owns the Red Bucket Sugar Shack with her husband Jeffrey Mason in Worthington. Karowski works at the Hampshire County Group Insurance Trust in Northampton. Lannon-Pierce is a purchasing manager for Pelican Products in Deerfield. Melling is an operations specialist for Philips Healthcare in Windsor, Conn., a company that does cardiac diagnostic testing. Emerson teaches yoga and works for Sinauer Associates Inc., a publishing company in Amherst.
Over the years, they chatted on the phone occasionally, ran into each other at the Cummington Fair and were happy to reunite at weddings and three class reunions. “But we didn’t try to pick up the old connection,” Emerson said.
That changed when Lannon-Pierce started making calls to arrange the Lunch Box 5 reunion three years ago.
“I honestly don’t think any of us expected much to come out of our mini-reunion beyond catching up on each other’s lives,” Emerson said. “We would establish a loose connection and then we would all be on our way.”
Melling said she hoped for more than that, and she was not disappointed. With their shared history and deep understanding of one another, their bonds were stronger than ever. “We were like 16-year-olds again,” she said.
“It was the same relationship, we were just older and hopefully wiser,” Lannon-Pierce said. As they recounted things they’d been through, good and bad, they were as unguarded and honest as they had been as teenage best friends. “We still had that trust, that bond.”
Whenever they get together, they share their “highs and lows” from the last few months, sometimes comforting those who have lost parents or congratulating new grandmothers.
Karowski said their gatherings are therapeutic. “It always feels like a burden is lifted off your shoulders every time we get together. We share stuff that’s happened or even just talking about something else totally unrelated, you feel better.”
Sometimes, if one of them is dealing with something tough, the rendezvous might be serious and sober, Mason said. But often, they are the same giggling girls from the Lunch Box.
“There’s a lot of silliness, a lot of laughter, a lot of loudness. I’m surprised we don’t get kicked out of places,” she said with a laugh.
It’s still not easy to find the time to have their gathering every few months, Mason said, but they are committed to making it a priority. As a rule, no one can leave a get-together until they have set a date for the next one, she said. Usually they go out to eat at area restaurants, but at their last meet-up in May, Lannon-Pierce hosted them at her home.
Melling said she can’t believe she wasted years without having her Lunch Box 5 “family” in her life, and she hopes others will hear their story and avoid having the same regrets.
“It doesn’t have to be a high school friend. It can be anyone who you wish you hadn’t lost touch with,” she said. “Don’t worry about how much time has passed, just pick up the phone, send an email, get on Facebook, whatever you have to do to reconnect.”
Rebecca Everett can be reached at email@example.com.