For many former students of The University of Texas-Pan American and its previous incarnations, seeing their alma mater grow from a brick building that was part of the Edinburg school district to a 285-acre campus that continues to expand was a total surprise.
"Like the old cigarette ads used to say, 'We've come a long way, baby,'" said Norma De la Garza Woolsey, a 1961 graduate of then-Pan American College.
Woolsey was one of several dozen alumni who attended a luncheon Saturday, Feb. 19 honoring those who graduated from or attended the higher education institutions that later became UTPA.
The Saturday luncheon was one of a few events of Homecoming 2011. The celebrations kicked off with a gala Friday night that included a silent auction featuring items from jewelry to a new pair of boots, an awards ceremony honoring distinguished alumni, faculty and friends of the University, dinner and dancing.
UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen welcomed the guests and thanked them for traveling near and far to attend and for supporting the University over the years. Representatives from UTPA's Alumni chapters in Austin, Houston and San Antonio also came to enjoy the party and celebrate their alma mater.
"Pan Am is the 'magic' in the Valley and it is because of you, our distinguished alumni," Nelsen said.
Alumni Awards were given to Sonia A. Falcon, Class of 1991, Distinguished Alumna; James "Jim" M. Board, Class of 1970, Distinguished Alumnus; Aaron A. Acuna, Class of 2003, Outstanding Young Alumnus; Carmen Guerra, Class of 1976, Distinguished Service to the University; Rene O. Farias, Class of 1975, Distinguished Service to the Community; Dr. Karen Lozano, Julia Beecherl Professor in Engineering, Distinguished Faculty; and Dr. Peter Dabrowski, associate dean, College of Arts and Humanities and professor of music, Distinguished Faculty. Gateway Printing and Jones & Cook Stationers received an award for Distinguished Friend of the Alumni Association.
"Education has made a big difference in my life," Falcon said during her acceptance speech. " I am here today because of UTPA."
Click here to view pictures of the gala.
The festivities continued Saturday with the luncheon at the Health and Physical Education II building and a tailgate party in the parking lot outside the UTPA Fieldhouse.
Attendees had the opportunity to peruse old yearbooks, reminisce about their time in school and reconnect with friends and fellow classmates.
At the luncheon, one attendee just about everyone remembered and was thrilled to see was Ruth Dean Morris, who served as the institution's music teacher from 1945 to 1980.
Morris, whom students called "Mama Morris" because of her and her late husband's (Homer Morris, former principal of Edinburg High School) dedication to the students, said she educated students from junior high through college when she first started and taught them everything from music theory to singing.
"I taught so many people no telling how many thousands. I was very attached to them," Morris said.
This year the University began its 50-year Club for alumni who graduated at least a half century ago. Approximately 40 alumni were inducted, said Debby Grant, director of the Office of Alumni Relations.
"We are trying to connect and engage with our alumni. We started this year with the 50-plus club and next year we will have a reunion for the class of 1962, then 1963 ... we want this to be an annual event," Grant said. "There is interest out there among our alumni. Some asked 'why haven't we done this before,'" Grant said. "They love it and many want to come back next year."
Grant said in these hard economic times, particularly with the University facing extreme cuts in funding from the state, it is important to cultivate support from alumni. She said it is not only monetary support that is needed from alumni, but the University also wants them to volunteer.
"We need the alumni's help and the only way to do that is to find them. They need to know how important they are to the University. They are the backbone of the University. The University can't continue growing unless we get their support," she said.
This is the first year the University has hosted a 50-year reunion for its former students, and it hopes to make it an annual event, said Janice Odom, vice president of University Advancement.
"Alumni are the foundation for support we need for the University," Odom said. "If we go to major funding foundations, they want to know how your alums help your institution. They want to know that our own are investing in the University. If they are not investing, they say 'that is not a good investment for us either.' So we need more and more alums who are participating in the University.
The kind of alumni and extent of their support are important to not only foundations but also to government agencies that provide funding to the University, Odom added.
Those agencies often ask institutions what their alumni participation rates are, she said.
"The alumni participation rate is really important because that shows that alumni believe in the University," she said. "If they don't believe in the University, why should anyone else? We are trying to build that kind of support in bringing them back and making them feel connected."
More photos of the luncheon can be viewed here.
The tailgate party open to the whole community followed the luncheon and included free food, drinks and gifts including tiny basketballs and pom-poms. Also featured were more than 30 classic cars owned locally and a number of vintage motorcycles from the collection of over 75 - all operable - at the South Texas Motorcycle Museum located in Edinburg.
Several people who attended said they enjoyed how UTPA offered the opportunity for the community, current students and alumni to come together and celebrate the University and its success.
"It's a good tradition to start. I've noticed there is a lot more outreach for alumni in the area, via e-mail, via posting on the homepage of the University; those are very good media to use in outreach for the top higher education institution in the area, " said Raul Cabrera, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics from UTPA in 2004.
After the tailgate party, many went on to cheer the Broncs and Lady Broncs - men's and women's basketball teams - as they played the New Jersey Institute of Technology at the UTPA Fieldhouse.
See more of the tailgate party here.
For more information about alumni events or how to reconnect with UTPA, call (956) 665-2500 or visit the Office of Alumni Relations website.