When David Wells, a 1989 graduate of Windham High School, celebrated his 50th birthday last August, he purchased a gag gift for himself - a rather large t-shirt with the words and an image entailed: “49 to 50 odometer.”
He admits to being a ‘big guy’ but, as a friend pointed out, the comfortable ‘five times’ extra-large t-shirt was big enough to be worn as a dress by most people.
“I saw the real estate on that thing and thought ‘Holy Moly, I could do something fun with this t-shirt,’” Wells said, giving the reason why he purchased this unusual gift.
Fun is what Wells, who turned 50 in the midst of the COVID pandemic, wanted to experience. Prior to his birthday, he had a double pulmonary embolism and in 2018, was involved in a serious car accident that required many surgeries and left him disabled.
Although he truly loved receiving the ‘real’ gift of an outdoor grill from Amy, the love of his life, Wells wanted to do something to celebrate his personal ‘Golden Jubilee” since the pandemic limited social contact.
“I love to grill but it wasn’t like I could have a crowd of people over to help me celebrate,” he said.
That’s when Wells decided that he wouldn’t let the social isolation and personal hardships get him down. It was from there that his creative idea and focus went into overdrive.
“I knew I wasn’t the only one turning 50 during COVID,” he said. “This made me think of all my classmates and I began to wonder what they have been up to during the past 30 years. I was curious about their marriages, kids, grandkids, work, hobbies, accomplishments. That’s when I when I knew what I was going to do with that silly t-shirt.”
Wells decided he would mail the extra-large shirt to his former classmates on their birthdays. They would be asked to sign it, take a picture with it, and return it. But since Wells did not keep in contact with all 190 graduates from 1989, this took some time and research on his part.
“This is where I fell down the rabbit hole in finding classmates, using every resource I could think of,” he said. “Most of my classmates are on Facebook, so I started there, reaching out to as many of them as possible. I also got help from classmates who stayed connected with those I didn’t. From there I was busy finding out email addresses, home addresses and when everyone was turning 50. I would do my best to send the t-shirt a month in advance of their big day so they could sign it, take a photo, and then return it back to me or to the next person in line. I used UPS to mail the shirt, and if I asked someone to mail it on to someone else, I would already have a mailing label prepared – which I emailed to them. Before I knew it, I became fluid in logistics. You should have seen all the post-it notes I used to make sure the t-shirt would arrive everywhere on time…or at least near their birthdays. I even had an app on my phone, so I always knew where the t-shirt was.”
At the time of this writing, 120 signatures, which include classmates who were a part of the class but graduated at other schools like Cheverus, now mark Well’s birthday t-shirt – which has travelled across the U.S. from Indiana, Florida, Connecticut, New York to Alabama. It will also soon be leaving Maine again to visit Texas, Nevada, Colorado and the Netherlands.
The traveling t-shirt has been photographed in the Smoky Mountains as well as on a fishing excursion in Massabesic Lake in New Hampshire. Many others also shared photos from their happy places with the t-shirt in tow. It has even received a special signature.
“The wife of one of our fellow graduates is a professional seamstress and she embroidered the words, ‘Windham High School Class of 1989 and Friends’ to give it an extra special edge,” Wells said.
He is quick to recognize that he has had some help in the traveling t-shirt success.
“My friend Terri Lawlor who also graduated with me in 1989 was a huge help. She would meet former graduates who live out of town but were traveling through the area so they could add their signatures. I really could not have done this without her help.”
He also gives a big thanks to Michelle Kinney, another former classmate. She was the first to recognize the costs involved with shipping the t-shirt and contributed a $100 gift card. Other classmates soon followed with financial donations of their own.
Perhaps the best part of the traveling t-shirt is it was never lost in transition. However, the unique and profound personal experiences that resulted from this t-shirt adventure were the deep bonds that were created through long-distance connections.
“The experience has been better than any in-person reunion I have attended,” Kinney said.
“Although it was all on social media – which I would have
never preferred originally, the challenge of the pandemic made us think outside
the box. And since we did, I felt like I got to know my classmates on a much
Classmate Diane Maurais shared her experience.
"What I'm proud of, about this shirt, is that it's all inclusive. There were some of us, myself included, who were unable to graduate with our friends and class. This doesn't matter in this case. I really appreciated that, and it makes me proud to be a part of it. David and Terri didn't have to do this … but they did. I’m also proud that David is an Army veteran and Terri's son is on Active Duty. Their service continues!”
What started out as a simple but funny gag gift morphed into close bonds long lost – all done in a creative and innovative way. Which goes to show that personal challenges and the pandemic never stopped Wells. He shares his own deep level of reflection and connection.
this experience because all this
work was a great outlet for me to take up the free time created by the pandemic
and my disabilities - and I became productive. Also, I recognized that
we were all kids being kids back then. I wasn’t the popular one and I got
teased a lot. I got past that -
recognizing that we all were taking things from our individual life experiences
and expressing ourselves in the only ways we knew how then – and sometimes it
came across as bullying, etc. This experience has created clarity and closure
for me toward those things of the past. It has been a great way to turn 50
Perhaps an actress from the silent screen era, Marie Dressler, captures the overall experiences and connections of the 1989 classmates and WHS graduates the best when she said: “By the time we hit 50, we have learned our hardest lessons. We have found out that only a few things are really important. We have learned to take life seriously, but never ourselves.”<