Former Central Elementary students, staff celebrate new beginnings at bittersweet reunion

Former students and staff members at Central Elementary School in Waynesville, North Carolina, meet for a reunion on May 16, 2018. Central Elementary closed down two years ago in the face of state funding cutbacks. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

The school campus at 62 Joy Lane in Waynesville is revered as a happy place, but since Central Elementary closed two years ago, the place feels painfully empty.

"I'm still best friends with everyone here," Sara DelBene, a former Central student who will soon graduate from Tuscola High, said.

Every year in Haywood County, it has become tradition to let graduating seniors visit their former elementary school. The current seniors who went to Central will never get that chance.

The reunion last Wednesday gave the close-knit group a chance to reflect on where they've been and where they're going.

"That might be her," DelBene said at what felt like a family gathering. "That's her!"

It is a reminder of great years and a sad moment frozen in time. In 2016, the district closed the school to save money on the heels of state funding cutbacks. Many in the community tried to fight the decision to no avail.

"And for us who went to Central who can no longer walk the halls because the school shut down was kind of bittersweet," DelBene said.

She leafed through an old book from kindergarten, where Central classmates scrawled down reports of class misbehavior.

"Liam took my block," DelBene wrote. "I think I liked to tattle a lot."

Read between the lines and it is clear they have come a long way together.

DelBene's mom Susan was a teacher at Central for 14 years. "A very special connection that we had with each other and the kids," she said.

"These guys will always be special because they were my first, my first kindergarten class," said teacher Sharon Ryan (formerly Ms. Fish).

They can't change the abrupt end of an era. Instead, they have returned to celebrate new beginnings.

"The relationships that we built, it is very tight knit. I don't know, it's going to make me cry," DelBene said.

"I mean it hasn't really set in that we're graduating yet," she said.

She and her sister Sophia are going to East Tennessee State University.

The other former Central students in attendance included Olivia Johnson (NC State), Mariah Husky (University of Tennessee), Lynnae Queen and Ashley Young (Haywood Community College), Isley McClure (Oglethorpe University), Marina Battenfeld, (UNC Greensboro), Collier Williams (University of Alabama), and Craig Gibson (A-B Tech). Zebb Sanford (U.S. Army), Joey Dillenno (U.S. Marines) and Myra Rios (U.S. Air Force) will join the military.

The future of that Central Elementary site is still up in the air. Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte said that decision is in the hands of the school board.

No matter where everyone ends up in life, the school's enduring legacy is friendship. That is what made that central location so special.

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