816 North

High school homecomings: Traditions of autumn fun

Liberty High School senior Mary Mwaura was crowned homecoming queen at a football game last month at Greene Stadium on the William Jewell College campus. “If you’d told me at the end of junior year that I would have gotten this, I would have told you you were crazy,” she said.
Liberty High School senior Mary Mwaura was crowned homecoming queen at a football game last month at Greene Stadium on the William Jewell College campus. “If you’d told me at the end of junior year that I would have gotten this, I would have told you you were crazy,” she said. Special to the Star

Although the cars they drive are different and their music calls for new dance steps, high school students still dance and still paint the town red — or whatever the school colors might be — when homecoming weekend arrives.

Alumni revisiting the Northland this fall have found the traditions largely intact. Some are shared with other schools, and others are unique to them.

The football games will be the place to be. Homecoming queens will be crowned. Students will muster the courage to ask for dates to the homecoming dances, some devising elaborate invitations for those special someones.

It’s an important cultural moment for the school and the community.

But some traditions, such as homecoming royalty, have been updated for today’s diverse world. You remember how it used to be: The students who would be named homecoming queens seemed inevitable. The crowning of the beautiful and the popular seemed an exercise of an unstoppable will.

But now, schools crown kings as well as queens. A wider spotlight falls on both royalty crowned and royalty considered — winners now may come from special-education classrooms or identify with the LGBT community.

Many queens and kings today would never have dreamed of becoming homecoming royalty.

For instance, Mary Mwaura at Liberty High School.

“If you’d told me at the end of junior year that I would have gotten this, I would have told you you were crazy,” she said.

A Canadian who arrived in the area via New Hampshire, the Liberty High senior strode elegantly across the football field last month at her school’s homecoming game under the pale wash of stadium lights and almost outshone them when she was crowned.

Mwaura wore an elegant violet gown that was woefully inadequate for the game played during a cold snap. Though ecstatic, she beat a hasty retreat from the turf and gave an interview wrapped in a blanket.

Mwaura has been in the district just 10 years, but it’s hard to imagine that the vivacious, affable queen ever spent time as the much-stigmatized “new kid.” She carries a gracious manner in describing her commitments — Kansas City Youth Symphony, the Breakfast Club and so many others — along with her ambitions: Politics, perhaps. Or maybe economics. If she doesn’t pursue finance.

She’s equally effusive describing her family’s story: Two Kenyans fell in love, came to the United Sates and raised a regal young woman.

“It’s a cool story,” Mwaura said.

And it’s one she’s always excited to retell when people ask, saying, “I see it as a good way to start conversations.”

Though Mwaura wore the crown, she took every chance she got to direct the conversation to her parents, her “awesome little brother” and her school.

“I’m just so blessed to just be here in Liberty,” she said.

Asked what makes a good queen candidate, Mwaura didn’t pretend to be an authority but offered that she tries to help everyone and has tried to be a friend to all her peers.

“Do I have a story for you,” said Jackie Gosney, an Oak Park High School graduate from 2003.

Gosney, now a staffer with her alma mater, was at Oak Park’s 50th homecoming celebration in September. She remembered when she was back in high school and being sent to the principal’s office.

She remembers the principal calling her in under the guise of “looking at something on his computer.”

“He said, ‘Now, I want you to look at this,’” gesturing to a document on the screen.

It turned out to be a typed invitation from someone to take her to homecoming.

Then there was the invitation that was worn rather than spoken or written.

As the appointed chant leader, Liberty High School senior T.J. Stansbury led his class as a male counterpart to cheerleader. He stepped down from the bleachers to show off iPhone photos that told his story.

In one picture, Stansbury is running toward the camera with his hand on his jersey after scoring a goal at a recent soccer match. In the next, he’s facing the stands and lifting his shirt, revealing an undershirt with the word “Homecoming?” written on it in magic marker. It was his invitation to the girl he wanted to take to the dance.

He got the date.

“Dude, it was like a movie,” Stansbury recounted.

The invitation devised this year by Chris Rick, a Smithville High School senior who is the school’s student body president, required a lot of people.

“Those guys — good friends of mine — but they seemed pretty ticked to be dragged out after football practice all tired and dirty,” Rick said with a laugh.

His date-to-be drove by the high school after football practice and noticed 10 players in a row, each chest bearing a painted letter spelling “HOMECOMING.”

Rick stood on the end as a question mark.

Someone once brought in a Royals player to help pop the question, Rick said, and someone else painted a car with the query.

Brad Kincheloe, Park Hill High School’s principal, said he tries to keep the showboating invitations to a minimum.

“That ‘one-upsmanship’ is distractful,” he said.

Kincheloe, a 1972 graduate of Park Hill High, said he grew up in the time of singing telegrams and boys picking up girls in cars full of balloons.

Kincheloe said that definitely wasn’t his style. He described himself as a trombone player, “not a very good catch for homecoming.”

“The trombone wasn’t the problem. The problem was a very shy attitude,” he said. “I might have gotten a date in my sophomore and junior year, had I just asked.”

However, let the record show Kincheloe did snag a date his senior year.

“There’s still a shy Brad Kincheloe out there. A shy guy putting off asking a girl to the very last minutes. That sort of emotion is timeless,” he said. “Sure, the dress is different. We’ve updated the (football) player’s uniforms and helmets, but under all that is the excitement of being a high schooler.

“Whoever writes this article 50 years from now, they’ll want to tap into that energy.”

The reverse applies, too. The same energy drove homecomings 50 years ago.

Shirley Henion, a 1953 North Kansas City High School graduate, recalled her homecoming as if it were just a few heartbeats ago.

Henion was attending a gathering of Northland alumni on the Liberty square, wrapped in a heavy coat and seated a short distance from risers where classes were gathering alumni for photos. She recalled snaring a quarterback for a homecoming date, saying it was “a very big deal.”

Asked how she talked him into going to homecoming with her, Henion asserted gamely that this generation did not invent flirting. She later married that quarterback.

As far as homecoming itself goes, her peers would have gone to the dance in the same clothing they brought to the game, not in the opulent gowns of today.

“It would have been pretty much unheard of to have a gown and jewelry and all that,” she said. “Maybe for prom, but not for homecoming.”

Kincheloe traced the stylistic differences to longer homecoming weekends. Once, dances immediately followed the game, but now they don’t share the same evening.

But Henion said some homecomings have been scaled back in some ways. Homecoming parades are no longer standard. Liberty High discontinued its parade in 2011 because of traffic concerns.

“We’d stop right here and crown there on the steps,” said Bill Weber, of Liberty High’s class of 1953, pointing to the Clay County Courthouse’s sand-colored steps rosy under the impending dusk in Liberty.

Weber was a football player, which his wife joked won him a group of women who all agreed to be his girlfriend at the same time. Weber said it mainly won him bad knees.

The day before homecoming would include a schoolwide pep rally and bonfire, he said. On game day, the students were released from classes at noon and came marching down Kansas Street, delivering the festivities into the square.

Although some schools have opted for an abbreviated homecoming experience, North Kansas City High School and some others have retained the parade.

An early release kicked off homecoming weekend. Students poured onto the sidewalks where people anticipated the procession. Nearly all were dressed in the school colors, forming streams of purple and gold.

The marching band in full dress stepped in time to a cover of the Black Keys’ “Gold on the Ceiling.” The royalty floated by, perched atop classic cars. Themed floats, each its own bubble of energy, rolled past.

Tammi Cawthon, a North Kansas City resident, has seen a fair share of parades. For her, the most noteworthy change of the homecoming tradition is the just the sheer size.

“One thing’s for sure: The parades have definitely gotten bigger,” Cawthon said.

She called to her husband, Rick Cawthon — and fellow North Kansas City High School alumnus — a short distance away.

“Rick, did we have floats? I didn’t think we had those when we were growing up.”

Rick Cawthon agreed that homecomings had definitely evolved into something with more flourish, what with the formal attire. Overall, he describes modern homecoming events as “more drummed up.”

It’s a far cry from when he and Tammi were going to school. The moment probably more closely matched their courting, which was a simple maturation of a friendship to romance.

The two go back and forth for a moment, trying to recall exactly how they ended up attending homecoming together.

Rick said he remembers it just, you know, being understood she would go with him.

“No, you asked me,” Tammi corrected. “You were carrying my books, remember?”

So it can be happily ever after if you get to go. But some underclassmen who don’t feel they’ve earned the keys to the kingdom sat out their respective homecomings.

Kyle Gaines and Emily Rooks, North Kansas City High freshmen, say they’re both big fans of their school turning into a weeklong party. But as far as the homecoming dance itself, the freshmen decided to skip it.

“The upperclassman are like, ‘You’ve got to wait your turn,’” Gaines said.

Cooling down after a successful halftime show, Wyatt Barry, an Oak Park High School freshman who plays saxophone in the marching band, reiterated the unspoken rule cutting underclassmen out of the action, which was freshly laid out for him by his older brother.

“‘You’re only a freshman,’ he keeps telling me,” Barry said.

Not one to be ordered around by anyone — even if it is the sophomore he shares a home with — Barry said he would be bucking the orders from on high and attending the homecoming dance that evening.

Just not his own.

With a girlfriend in North Kansas City, Barry would be safely out of his brother’s purview one town over.

All things considered, said Smithville High School senior Rick, homecoming is more about reducing the student body’s divisions — be they class or cool or otherwise — rather than aggravating them.

True, not everyone’s going to be excited about decorating the halls in the Smithville Warriors’ forest green.

That said, there are usually a ton of people who reliably are juiced up.

“From each clique, you’ll see about half of them dress up,” Rick said. “Some people who I never talk to, I see them just go all out. Even if you don’t know someone, seeing them go all out and crazy is just such a great thing. It unifies everyone.”

Why? Because when people look wacky together, it’s an associating element, Rick explained. The class president added that homecoming cultivates a coherence, a phenomenon he ventured doesn’t stop with Smithville.

“I don’t want to be general about high schools, but I think there’s significantly less clique drama now,” he said.

When they were in school, Gosney and other Oak Park High School alumni would have watched their homecoming games from the stands at either Staley High School or North Kansas City High.

“I mean, now thinking about it, it’s a little weird,” she said. “But, growing up, we didn’t know any different.”

That all changed this year for the school’s 50th anniversary, when Oak Park High brought homecoming home.

Starting in spring 2013, efforts began to transform the practice fields behind the school building into a stadium, said Chris Sartain, an assistant principal at Oak Park.

Sartain said it was a smooth transition that involved primarily bringing out bleachers, tents and other temporary shelters for vendors.

An Oak Park High logo was emblazoned at the 50-yard-line and, presto, the home field was ready for action.

It was the first time the homecoming game was played at home, ever.

Sartain said the Staley High School’s stadium has always been a great host for homecoming celebrations.

“But we just thought ... we should do something special,” he said, adding the alumni and his staff — including Athletics Director Casey Vocolek — deserve most of the credit.

Moving forward, Sartain said he would seek guidance from the community on whether to preserve the space as a game venue —and whether homecoming would stay home.