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The Demise of a Birthday Party, Promotion Ceremony and Class Reunion

by on May 28, 2020 11:12 AM


This week was going to be fantastic until life got in the way of my plans. Three of my favorite events for the entire spring had somehow grouped themselves into the last seven days of May. And then they all vaporized.

Of course, that’s one of the side effects of COVID-19. I have decided to call it “Shredded Schedule Syndrome”—the ongoing process of cancellations, postponements and speculation that dominates news reports and individual conversations.   

I certainly wouldn’t say that my list of disrupted activities is any worse than what you may have faced.  Thus far, my wife and I haven’t had to deal with any postponed or altered weddings, graduations or funerals. But I might say that our list is unique. Consider these three events that got nixed:

  • The 100th birthday party for Dr. Leon Kneebone was scheduled for Saturday, May 23, and Kathy and I would have been delighted to attend this function in honor of a retired professor who I wrote about last year.  Sadly, this legendary mushroom researcher and community leader passed away on March 9.

  • Our oldest son, Matt, is being promoted to lieutenant colonel this afternoon (May 28) at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base. Of course, we wanted to be present to celebrate our son’s achievement, but not at the risk—no matter how slight—of contracting COVID-19 while flying west and then exposing him and his family to the virus. We canceled our flights in late April.

  • We had planned to return home from Utah for the 50-year reunion of State High’s Class of 1970, scheduled for Friday night and Saturday. But, of course, the COVID pandemic forced a postponement of those festivities, and our class will celebrate its 51st anniversary next May.

So there you have it: strike one, strike two, strike three.  And that’s how my great May turned into a not-so-great May.


Of course, our current society is not the first to be faced with manifold uncertainties. My dad, Marty Horlacher, graduated from Penn State on Saturday morning, June 9, 1941, and he married my mom, the former Mary Lou Lisse, that very afternoon. As odd as it may sound, that kind of thing was not so unusual during World War II. Everything was rush-rush with young couples getting married before the men put on military uniforms and the women went to serve the nation in various roles.

But have we ever really known the future enough to prevent last-minute changes? Of course not. That’s why the phrase, “the vicissitudes of life,” has been around for centuries. And that’s why the Bible’s book of James offers this advice: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” 

Indeed, there’s not much that’s certain in this life—only death, taxes and the need for repairs on North Atherton Street.


But the good news in all of this is that most folks are adapting to COVID chaos. And it also seems they are appreciating their small joys while claiming fewer entitlements. As I talked with key figures from my May events, I noted a pattern of wise responses.

Eileen Lang, a daughter of Leon Kneebone, mentioned that her father continually offered encouragement to others in the last days of his long life. Admitted to Hershey Medical Center on March 1, he shared his appreciation with everyone who served him there—both housekeeping staff and medical professionals. “Thanks for the compassion you show in your work,” he would say. “I thank you so much.” 

Kneebone had fallen three times in five days at the end of February—an interesting parallel to his World War II experience when he almost died three times in five days. Doctors attributed his falls to weakness in his legs, and they also detected a gangrenous gallbladder. After that infection was drained, he made a remarkable recovery—especially for an almost-centenarian. In fact, he was nearing the point of discharge on March 9 when he suddenly took a dramatic downturn to the point of death.  

“No doctor could explain the drastic changes,” says Eileen. “We sang a favorite hymn and recited the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. We reassured him that saying ‘Goodbye’ to us was saying ‘Hello’ to Mom and to Jesus.”

Although the parting was sweet, Eileen admits that some heartbreaking experiences followed.  “The birthday party would have been held at The Village at Penn State,” she says, “with decorations galore. And a dear friend was going to provide keyboard melodies and hymns representing Dad’s favorites. We were expecting his homecoming around March 10, plenty of time for rehab before his celebration on May 23. But every expectation of joy was dashed. We went from planning the 100th birthday to an unexpected funeral. We couldn’t gather for a reverent service or a meal. There was no hugging, no handshakes and 6-foot distancing. Experiencing this pandemic challenges the best in us.” 

Dr. Leon Kneebone, a legendary Penn State professor, passed away just a few months before his 100th birthday.


Imagine the scene in your own mind. It’s a formal promotion ceremony, but only a few people are present.  The 38-year-old Air Force officer stands before a handful of people as he is promoted to lieutenant colonel. There’s a presiding officer, Col. Erik Quigley, together with the new lieutenant colonel, Matthew Horlacher,  his lovely wife, Jenna, and their three children. But as small as the group may be, it’s nonetheless a charming one. Frankly, I’m not sure that Norman Rockwell could have done justice to the scene. The couple’s 3-year-old twins, Beau and June, struggle a bit to help pin on their daddy’s new rank while Jenna holds Reid, a chubby little 6-month old who constantly wears a happy grin. 

Of course, it wasn’t an easy decision for Kathy and me to forgo that ceremony and the rest of our Utah trip. Nothing could be sweeter than a chance to honor our son’s achievement and also spend four or five days with our grandchildren, our wonderful daughter-in-law, and her parents, Daryl and Diane Frueh from Fargo, North Dakota. We certainly had planned to visit Hill Air Force Base, but the qualifying phrase, “If the Lord wills,” makes sense in retrospect.

“I’m sad for you guys,” said Matt just a week ago, “because I know you really wanted to be here. It’s not an everyday event. We were really looking forward to the family coming. But everyone globally has had to learn to be flexible and modify their plans to stay safe.”

The promotion ceremony will be held outdoors, and no doubt, the snow-peaked mountains of Utah will be visible through Zoom. One big positive is that Matt’s two younger brothers expect to view the ceremony; their work schedules would have prohibited a trip to Hill Air Force Base. 

“A couple of our friends had to share their wedding over Zoom,” says Matt, a graduate of Texas A&M who also roots for Penn State’s athletic teams. “I think a lot of young people have found ways to make lemonade out of lemons, how to connect with family while making these events happen.” 

Newly promoted Lt. Col. Matt Horlacher holds his twin daughter, June, while his wife, Jenna, holds baby Reid and twin son Beau.


Maybe it’s unfair or inaccurate to say that “mature adults” don’t do well with change. Or perhaps the constant news of COVID-related cancellations throughout late March and early April prepared the minds of my classmates for the announcement that our 50th reunion would be postponed to May of 2021.  

At any rate, for a bunch of “kids” in their late 60s, I’d say State High’s Class of 1970 has done a good job of rolling with the punches. 

“Folks were disappointed because they had begun to look forward to reuniting with old friends,” says Ellen Herman Campbell, a co-chair of the reunion committee. “But I think our classmates completely understood and probably anticipated that the reunion was not going to happen as scheduled in May.”  

Adds co-chair Patti Wilson Spicer, “I think the hard part is making a decision like that. But now, I really do think it was the right call.”

“I logically felt it was the right decision to make, ” says Mary Lou Trufant McClain, a classmate who now lives in Georgia. “In spite of that, I was very disappointed. I was happy to hear we would have a 51st reunion, but it made me think about what would happen in the year to come. Like how many more wrinkles would I have and should I double up on my facial regimen? My thoughts then turned to praying that everyone stays healthy and happy until next May.” 

Perhaps the most disappointed classmate—and rightfully so—is Andrew Ramsey, our exchange student from Australia. When he first heard about the one-year postponement, Andy says, he felt “gutted.” As he explains, “A lot of work had gone into making my U.S. trip an extravaganza with my American bro, Paul Pilgram (also a ’70 graduate).” Not only were the two committed to the Class of ’70 reunion at the Nittany Lion Inn, but they were also planning a series of visits to multiple sites along the East Coast.

Enjoying a cookout during graduation weekend in 1970 were, from left, John Yost, Robert Gillespie and Dan Harrington.

If all goes according to plan, the reunion will begin with an informal social time on Friday evening, May 28 of next year. Classmates will eat brunch and tour the gleaming new high school on Saturday morning. Then the reunion will conclude with drinks and dinner on Saturday night along with music by Cone of Silence, a local band that plays many of the iconic songs of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

As for me, I certainly plan to attend and to bring Kathy with me. She might like to hear why all my old friends from State High still call me “Wheels.” And she might be able to help me glean vignettes for the column that I plan to write about the Class of 1970 and its reunion that got delayed for a year.

No, maybe I won’t “plan” anything. Let’s just say I hope to write such a column. Lord willing.


Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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