Chattanooga, Tennessee was the site of our 32nd Annual Reunion, and what a wonderful time we had! Our three days together were packed with plenty of socializing, sightseeing, dining, meeting, and learning. President Mack Gaither, our local member/hostess Deb Cates, Reunion Committee members Rebecca Gaither, Linda Beardslee, and Arleen McGinn, and Rita Allison really know how to have a Reunion!
Family Picnic Dinner
We kicked-off the Reunion with a Family Picnic Dinner at a lovely pavilion on the banks of the beautiful Tennessee River. We were delighted to reacquaint ourselves and meet new cousins for the first time.
Delicious barbeque with all the fixin’s was the only thing that could pause the mile-a-minute chatter of Gaithers meeting and greeting one another. And only a fast-moving thunderstorm, as dinner ended, could pry the party out of the park and back to the Gaither’s Hospitality Suite for more discussion over a table loaded with delicious desserts.
Getting to Know Chattanooga
The next day, led by a very informative local guide, we toured the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Historic Battlefields, as well as the scenic city of Chattanooga. Lunch at the landmark Mount Vernon Restaurant, at the foot of Lookout Mountain, provided another opportunity for delicious southern fare. Sated and “talked-out” - - for the moment, we had a chance to rest before happy hour brought us back together for more fun and revelry.
At this year’s reunion, the organizers developed a very special Saturday program, which included a half-day Education Session open to both current members and to those in the region interested in learning more about the Society and our family's history. The Education Session was comprised of five interesting presentations.
First up was Catherine Allison to discuss “The First Five John Gaiters”. Our earliest Gaithers in America were very fond of repeating family names with “John” being the most popular. Catherine provided a helpful overview of the first five generations, including difficult to find genealogical facts on births, marriages, deaths, and names of associated family members. We extend our thanks to Catherine for unraveling the “Johns” for us!
And, just as we were feeling confident about our knowledge of the early “Johns”, Larry Campbell’s presentation came along to shake things up. Leave it to Larry! In “The Genealogist’s Challenge,” he shared records we hadn’t seen before of “Gater” baptisms in England in the early 1600s, which we will now examine and compare to our information on our “first John”. Welcome to the wonderful world of genealogy and the challenges from which a passion is born. This sort of research and debate is exactly what keeps we genealogists going and what keeps us coming back for more!
We then heard a wonderful presentation from J.D. Gaither on the Gaither coat of arms. Armed (pun intended) with three beautiful versions of Gaither heraldry, J.D. explained that any one of them may be taken as the rightful arms of the Gater family. However, family historian George Riggs Gaither (1858-1921) identified the coat of arms used by The Society of John Gaither Descendants today, as the most appropriate because it derives from the Wiltshire and Sussex regions of England from whence we believe our ancestors in America may be descended.
J.D. was followed by Nancy Jones who shared her recent research into John Gater’s 1636, 800-acre Royal Land Patent in Virginia. That patent is today the city of Norfolk. So why, after settling this prime land, did he make the daunting decision to move his family to Maryland? The answer lies in the English Civil War, Gater’s affiliation with other Puritan supporters of Oliver Cromwell in Virginia, and Virginia Governor Berkeley’s persecution and banishment of that entire community from Virginia in 1649. As a result, John Gater was among 300 Virginians who relocated to Maryland along the South and Severn Rivers. And, the rest, as they say, is history . . . our history!
The closing Educational Session was a joint presentation by Mack Gaither, J.D. Gaither, Larry Campbell, Arleen McGinn, and Nancy Jones on their enthusiasm for the Society, its benefits, and the opportunities for camaraderie and genealogical information sharing that it provides!
After a free afternoon to relax poolside or explore Chattanooga on our own, we gathered again for complimentary cocktails, followed by an outstanding Family Dinner catered by Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. At this year's dinner we presented the very first John Gaither Distinguished Service Awards to honor three of our members for their outstanding leadership, support for Gaither family history, and dedication to serving the Society.
It was fitting, that the Society bestowed its first honorary awards on three Gaither Descendants who were instrumental in the earliest years of The Society’s formation. They are: James Melford (Mel) Gaither, Sr.; Eva Gaither Thornberry; and, John (Jack) S. Gaither.
Mel Gaither was one of the three Founders of the Society. His award was presented posthumously, and we heard a very touching phone message from Mel’s widow, Peggy, about his love for searching-out Gaithers and connecting them to one another through the Society. Mel was the kind of person who never met a man or woman he didn’t like - - and, that was particularly true about any Gaither! His charisma was a key force in the creation of our Society, and the powerful team of Mel, his wife Peggy, and Eva Thornberry was something to behold. The Society is the beneficiary of Mel and Peggy’s extensive genealogical research, which was captured electronically by Larry Campbell and is available to Society members.
The second award recognized Eva Gaither Thornberry who, as a founding member, served as the creator and long-time Editor of the “Gaither Connection” Newsletter, served as Society Treasurer, and ultimately served as the Society’s Historian/Genealogist - - the ‘go-to’ source of Gaither lineages and history. Eva’s husband Charlie, daughter Kelly, and grandson Landon accepted Eva’s posthumous award. Then, in an exciting turnabout, they presented the Society with Eva’s five file drawers of genealogical research. What a treasure for the Society’s members and legacy for Eva’s commitment to genealogical research!
Our third recipient, Jack Gaither, personally accepted our thanks and appreciation for his significant contributions to the Society. Jack was the Society’s first President who was not a Founder and understood the special responsibility of proving that the Society had depth of commitment beyond the original organizers and set a clear course for membership growth and involvement. After his Presidency, he served as Board member and as the Society’s Secretary/Treasurer for many years. We were delighted that his son John Gaither, and wife Chris, joined us for this year’s Annual Meeting.
We closed our dinner with a huge, heart-felt “thank you!” to Mel, Eva, Jack and other early founders and members who had the vision, energy and commitment to form our Society, which today remains committed to keeping alive our remarkable history as a “First” American family.
Annual Meeting and Closing
The last morning of our Reunion was devoted to our Annual Membership Meeting followed by our Farewell Lunch and long-standing tradition of a small Gift Exchange before we scattered until next year to our homes as far away as Seattle and Vancouver, Washington and as close as Chattanooga!
One can’t imagine a more productive or fun Reunion and we owe it all to the creativity and active participation of our President, Reunion Committee, and membership. Thanks to all for a simply wonderful time! I, for one, can’t wait until next year!