'Whatever happened to …?'

Winter break grants Ashlanders — young and old — a chance to catch up with former classmates and ask the ever-curious question, "Whatever happened to "…?"

When Travis Bingaman visited his family here during the holidays, he knew he would run into old friends.

"Ashland is a close-knit community and when I come home, I arrive with the idealized notion that I will see friends I've known since middle school," says the Seattle resident. "In bigger cities, there are allegiances based on neighborhoods and private and public schools. You don't have that here."

Bingaman, who graduated from Ashland High School in 2003, told friends at a Plaza restaurant that he was working at the Experience Music Project, teaching teenagers how to play the guitar, banjo and even the saw. Afterward, he noted that if someone asked him what he was doing, "It was sincere."

A mini-reunion occurred on the high school campus, too. On the first day back from winter break, AHS principal Michelle Zundel saw former students trickle into her office to describe summer plans to work in Prague and Costa Rica.

Later in the hallway, she talked to the current student body president about Rachel Zaslow (class of 1999), executive director of Mother Health International, a group that trains midwives in Northern Uganda. In the afternoon, Zundel told others that she had just returned from seeing Steffanie Garrard Leigh (class of 2006) star in the Broadway musical "Mary Poppins."

What is it about the high school experience that keeps people together or at least interested?

"High school is a powerful place of self-discovery," Zundel says, when young people make decisions about their future and the adults they want to become. Staying connected is so important that she would like to have an alumni office on campus and a yearly magazine profiling graduates' accomplishments, she says.

To help, she probably will turn to Gary Bowles (class of 1962). As the chairman of the alumni association, he corresponds with thousands of AHS grads via emails, Facebook postings and old-fashioned mail.

Bowles, who attended Ashland schools for 12 years, says students in a small town grow up together and become "a family with thousands of siblings."

Another powerful pull back to high school friends: "People didn't realize how much fun they had in high school until they left," he says.

At reunions, he has noticed that there is not a lot of bragging about what graduates have done in life. "They like to talk about what they did in high school and what they didn't do," he says.

He has a database of AHS graduates since 1891, a year after the school opened. It's a difficult job to keep the list current, even for Bowles, who is retired after working 30 years for the CIA. "Students move and change their email addresses about as often as they change their underwear," he says.

Somehow, however, they keep in touch, catching up by coming home for the holidays or reading about each other in the news.

For a small school, Ashland can boast lots of graduates who have distinguished themselves. Director David Fincher graduated in 1980. His latest film, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," is playing at the Varsity Theatre. Ann Curry, a member of the class of 1974, is seen weekdays on the NBC "Today Show," and Jeremy Guthrie (class of 1997) pitches for the Baltimore Orioles.

Bowles spends most of his time planning the annual all-years reunion in July. But he also volunteers to send out queries to 1,500 current email addresses, maintain the Ashland High School Alumni Association Facebook page for 700 fans and help debunk untruths.

He says Ty Burrell of ABC's "Modern Family" attended Grants Pass High School, not AHS. "Spiderman" Tobey Maguire dropped out of high school, but it wasn't here, and actress Valerie Harper attended Ashland Middle School from 1951 to 1953, but moved from Ashland before her high school years.

Still, there are some mysteries that linger. According to AHS librarians, actor and composer Wade McCollum was a sophomore here in 1994, but he wasn't mentioned in the yearbook for his senior year. Winona LaDuke, a vice presidential candidate, activist, environmentalist and writer who graduated in 1976 or 1977, can't be found in any of the yearbooks from that era.

Librarians also couldn't put their fingers on photos of Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Rex Young, "Big Love" actor Matt Schwartz or TV news reporter Adam Sexton (class of 1999). But maybe they just needed more time to wade through a century worth of yearbooks or run into a former classmate.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.

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