When the Baylor School Class of 1978 gathered for its 35-year reunion last weekend, several dozen classmates spent time catching up with each other and reliving the past.
One person connected to the group also gathered with them, but his goal was simply to learn about the past.
Austin Royal, the son of the late class member Ken Royal, decided to come to honor and learn more about his father, a Marine captain and helicopter pilot who had died along with nine others on Oct. 25, 1988, in a collision crash near Yuma, Az.
The accident during a training exercise had come just days after his Baylor class had gathered for its 10-year reunion.
Some authorities at the time questioned if the then-controversial night vision goggles the unit was using might have played a role in the crash.
But for the younger Mr. Royal, he could see clearly that coming to the 35-year reunion was a worthwhile experience.
“It was an absolute honor to be there to see my dad’s classmates and hear stories about him and his personality,” said Mr. Royal, who was born to former Chattanoogan Ebbie Rowe Royal three months to the day after his father’s death.
“Everyone was really great and it helped me in trying to understand him a lot better and understanding why things happened and getting past it.”
His visit had come about after a class member suggested inviting the younger Mr. Royal and his mother, now Ebbie Cruddas, to the reunion to let all the class members meet him.
A similar situation had occurred when the group held its 30th reunion in 2008, and family members of the late classmate Rob McRae attended.
Class reunion planners Mark Hudson and Doug Dyer sent out an invitation, but Mr. Royal and Mrs. Cruddas had actually already been thinking as well that coming to a reunion might be good for him.
“I had already thought that this might be a time to do it, and that cemented it,” said Mrs. Cruddas about the invitation.
The two not only came from their hometown of Jacksonville, N.C., but Mr. Royal also wore in the stands his father’s No. 58 football jersey during the Baylor-McCallie game, won by Baylor, 38-14, in a slight surprise.
The grandson of Mrs. James Royal and Dr. and Mrs. Bill Rowe of Chattanooga said he always heard a lot of stories from his extended family about his father, and his paternal grandmother has given him a number of his father’s childhood belongings.
But attending the class’ Friday pregame tailgate reunion and a gathering Saturday night at Jefferson’s downtown for members of the Baylor, McCallie and Girl Preparatory Schools’ classes of 1978 gave him new insight into his father, he said.
“There is always so much you can learn from the family, but when it comes to friends and those around him, you get a different side of him,” he said.
Mrs. Cruddas, who later remarried and works in the health insurance business in the Camp LeJeune/New River Air Station area of Eastern North Carolina where Mr. Royal was stationed at the time of his death, said her son was overcome with emotion toward the end of the Saturday night gathering.
“He is real emotional about Ken, and I think it caught him off guard,” she said.
But just as his father used to protect Baylor ball carriers physically on the football field, his father’s classmate, Larry “Buddy” Fogo, soon offered some emotional support as well by consoling and comforting him afterward, according to observers who were there.
Part of the reason for the emotion is that the younger Mr. Royal has recently started a family with the birth of a daughter, and he knows the situation will be different from what he experienced as a child without his natural father.
“I am trying to give my daughter something I grew up without,” he said.
While at Baylor as a six-year day student in the 1970s, the older Mr. Royal was known for his freckly face, sandy and reddish hair, and smiling, friendly and outgoing personality.
Although not an overly large player, he used his bulging forearms and slightly muscular frame to become an effective center as Baylor finished second in the state in football his senior year – when public and private schools were in the same division.
Among his good friends was classmate and teammate Doug Dyer, who was later a Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity big brother at UTC after the older Mr. Royal transferred from Marion Institute in Alabama. After college, the two stayed in close contact until Mr. Royal’s unfortunate death.
Mr. Dyer’s wife, Kate, is also longtime close friend of Mrs. Cruddas dating back to their days at Bright School and GPS, so the Dyers have kept up with the younger Mr. Royal, who attended summer camp at both Baylor and McCallie in his younger years.
Mr. Dyer also spent a lot of time with the younger Mr. Royal over the weekend and thinks the time was meaningful for the class as well as for Mr. Royal.
“The first thing I noticed about Austin was the pride he carried in himself and his father while carrying around his dad’s old football jersey,” he said. “He seemed right at home visiting with Ken’s old friends. And it was obvious he was enjoying the visit, and our classmates were enjoying having part of their old classmate back with us.
“The exclamation point came when he wore his father’s old jersey to the game.”
Mr. Royal attended The Citadel for a period after high school, and said he has done landscaping and restaurant work, and recently started working at a GNC store. He has also pondered joining the Marines like his father, and has talked off and on to a recruiter, he said.
Like many 24 year olds, he is admittedly still looking for the working career he wants to pursue for life.
But what is for sure is that, this past weekend, he found a part of his father.
“It definitely helped out,” he said. “I saw different sides of him from his friends’ standpoint. What I kept hearing was that, if you had known him, you would have liked him.”
Mr. Royal apparently found a little of himself as well.
As Mr. Dyer observed, “My take on the whole weekend was that, for the very first time ever, Austin confronted his heritage, who he was and where he came from. I believe he enjoyed it, he embraced it and was proud of a father he never knew.”