33 Years Later, Grandchild of Safe Grad Founders Set to Enjoy West Hartford’s Tradition

Borden and Ann Painter in the backyard of their West Hartford home. Along with Linda and Don Berry, the Painters founded what is now Safe Grad as 'Graduation Celebration 1985.' Photo credit: Ronni Newton

It’s been 33 years since two West Hartford couples originated Conard’s post-graduation party, and now the granddaughter of one of the couples is about to graduate and enjoy a Safe Grad tradition that has remained largely unchanged.

Front of ‘Graduation Celebration 1985’ program. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

When Leah Dollar steps into the Conard High School lobby sometime after 10 p.m. on June 19, into a party with a theme that remains a closely-guarded secret until that night, she will be joining newly-minted graduates from the Class of 2018 for an all-night substance-free celebration, a 33-year tradition that has taken place every year for the past generation – ever since her grandparents and another then-West Hartford couple organized “Graduation Celebration 1985.”

When Ann Painter contacted Cyndi Brown about sending this flock of flamingos to their granddaughter, a member of Conard’s Class of 2018, the committee learned that she was one of the founders. Photo credit: Ellen Painter Dollar (courtesy photo)

Anne Carroll, co-chair of fundraising for this year’s Safe Grad celebration, was looking for information about the founders of the event, when they actually got in touch with fellow committee member Cyndi Brown. “I had been Googling to find the founders from 1985 and they presented themselves to Cyndi Brown to flock their granddaughter who is a senior this year,” Carroll said.

Ann Painter wanted to flock Dollar, the oldest child of her daughter Ellen. And she and her husband, Borden Painter, shared the story of how the year before Ellen graduated, when their older daughter Beth was a senior at Conard, they and another couple had thrown a party, and started a tradition which has remained largely unchanged to this day.

“Ann came up with the idea,” said Linda Berry in a recent interview at the West Hartford home the Painters have lived in since the late 1960s.

Ann and Borden Painter, together with Linda and Don Berry, planned “Conard Cruise of 1985,” which was held on June 20 0f that year.

“Our daughter Beth had a boyfriend who had graduated the year before,” Borden said, and she had remarked that there was nothing for them to do to celebrate. Linda had an older son who had graduated from Conard in 1983, and she had heard the same thing about graduation night.

Ann and Borden Painter had been high school sweethearts at Manhassett High School in Long Island, and oddly enough, Linda Berry had also gone to the same high school, although she moved away for her senior year. When they graduated, in 1954, Ann and Borden said their parents threw a big party called “Night on Mt. Olympus.”

Image from ‘Night on Mt. Olympus,’ courtesy of the Painters.

“It was right after graduation, a party the parents planned for us,” Ann said. “The idea was that it was a gift for us, the graduating seniors.”

In 1985, Beth Painter was class president, and Bob Berry was vice president of the class. Their parents asked them if they thought the kids would come if their parents threw them a really nice party, and the answer was a resounding “yes.”

“We had a meeting, and invited all the parents,” Linda said. “And after I spoke to them, Ann said she would co-chair it.”

At her home in Bloomfield, Linda still has a green folder that she has kept neatly organized since 1985, with all of the details of that night. The party began at 10 p.m. (in keeping with the cruise theme, the time was listed as 2200 hours), and lasted until 5 a.m. the next day.

A local band called “The Generics” provided music in the “Starlight Lounge,” there was a “Caribbean Casino” open for non-monetary gambling from 11 p.m. until 3 a.m., the “Island Food Hut” served tropical-themed food, there was a “Ship-Shape Exercise Room” featuring volleyball and ping pong, and there was a caricaturist, photographer, door prizes, and a drawing for a grand prize at 3:30 a.m.

All of the food was donated. Ann recalled running out to buy three 13-inch TVs that were on sale and were among the coveted prizes that students could win.

“The parents stayed the whole time, until 5 a.m.,” Ann said.

The format was remarkably identical to current Safe Grad celebrations, including that it was drug- and alcohol-free. Many of the students probably had older brothers or sisters who had been legal to drink when they graduated from high school, since it wasn’t too long after the drinking age had gradually risen in the Connecticut – from 18 to 19 in 1982, and to 20 in 1983. In August 1985, it increased to 21. Drinking on graduation night was still the norm.

“The main purpose was a special place for our kids to go, but having it alcohol- and substance-free was a side benefit,” Linda said.

Front of Graduation Celebration 1985 program. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Just like the event at Manhassett High School, which was a gift to the grads, the Painters and the Berrys didn’t want the grads to have to pay anything to attend, and wanted it open to everyone. To finance the party, Linda said that they started off sending a letter to all parents asking for $25, or whatever they could contribute. “We got $1,000 right away,” Ann said. By graduation night, they had raised a little more than $3,000.

Borden said that 85 percent, 230 out of 270 graduates, attended the inaugural Safe Grad party. One student, who arrived intoxicated, ended up being sent home.

“The only controversial thing was it was a cruise ship, and we had a casino, which the legislature later put a stop to,” Borden said. Even though the practice was outlawed, he confirmed that no money changed hands, even back in 1985.

Just like today’s Conard Safe Grad, the parents on the decorating committee worked on the decorations in secret, at St. Mark’s church on South Quaker Lane which generously donated their basement space back then and still does today.

“The kids are the ones who decided they wanted [the theme] to be secret, and that they didn’t want to take dates,” Linda said. Safe Grad was then, and is today, only open to members of that graduating class.

Safe Grad eventually caught on at West Hartford’s Hall High School. “Bob Dunn [Hall principal at the time] called and he said he wanted them to do it if it succeeded at Conard,” Linda said.

Mike Stephanian, Conard principal at the time, was also skeptical, and not in favor of the event at first, but was won over by the organizers.

Linda shared a copy of a letter that Stephanian wrote to then-Mayor Kevin Sullivan dated June 5, 1985. The letter was in response to a resolution approved by the Town Council on May 28, 1985, and detailed in a letter dated May 29 from then-Town Clerk Nan Glass, commending the parents and graduating seniors at Conard who “have joined in a special effort to provide an exciting but alcohol and drug free party for all the graduating seniors,” and noting that “‘Graduation Celebration 1985’ offers a positive alternative and a real model for the future.”

In his June 5, 1985, letter, Stephanian wrote in part: “Nothing really ever gets done unless there are advocates willing to put in the time and effort to put their zeal into results. When Linda Berry and Ann Painter first spoke to me about their post-graduation activity, my first thought was: Cripes, I don’t need this on graduation night! Do it, but keep me out of it. Well, I’m in it as professional consultant and keeper of the keys. Linda and Ann could have planned the D-Day Invasion and the war would have ended six months sooner because of their organizational abilities.”

The Painter’s younger daughter, Ellen, graduated in 1986. Ann said she chaired the decorations committee that year, and recalled the theme was “Back to the Future.” Linda said she had two more kids to graduate, and recalled “Mardi Gras” as one of the themes.

Safe Grad has been held every year since the Painters and Berrys founded it for the Class of 1985.

Tony Cashman, whose mother, Mary Ann Cashman, co-chaired the entertainment committee in 1985, wrote the following in article about the upcoming “dry graduation party” event in Conard’s newspaper, then called the POW WOW: “This party will provide an opportunity for students to dance, laugh and enjoy close companions, music and food. Beth Painter said, ‘It would be disappointing spending our last official night together as a class getting chased out of some parking lot; we want to go out with a bang!'”

Linda and Don moved to Bloomfield in 2009, and their kids live all over the country, she said. In addition to Ellen, the Painters have two other children, but Ellen is the only one who lives in West Hartford.

“Ellen made sure that Leah knew, and knew she would have to go to Safe Grad because it was cool,” Ann said.

Leah, who awoke to a flock of red flamingos on her lawn last week, will be the first grandchild of the founders to graduate from Conard, and enjoy the tradition her grandparents created a generation ago.

The event was fun for the parents in 1985, and the same is true today. “You meet a lot of the parents, discover their talents,” Borden said. Staying up all night is a rite of passage for all.

“It’s exciting. We’re proud to create something that lasted,” said Ann. “They look forward to it, we know the kids do.”

Information about some of the recent Safe Grad celebrations can be found through the below links:

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Donors to the Graduation Celebration 1985 party. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Interior of Graduation Celebration 1985 program. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Program cover from the Manhassett High School Class of 1954 post-graduation party. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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1 Comment

  • Wow!! What a great blast from the past! I had no idea that our class of 1985 had such a positive impact that continues until this day.

    Thanks to the Painters and Berry’s for initiating this awesome tradition. My mom Helga Vigurs was there all night as well as my brother Ray and so many fabulous parents to make that night sech a fantastic memory!! Ellen, love to your sweet parents!!!😘

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