COUNCIL BLUFFS — It was a lousy way to hold a class reunion.
Most of the 21 graduates of the Farragut High School Class of 1998 gathered Friday in an unfamiliar Council Bluffs hallway.
Katy Mavel, the class president, handed out packets of Kleenex she had bought for everyone at the Family Dollar.
Niclas Dreyer, who had driven five hours from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, stood with his thumbs hitched in his pockets and stared into space.
Renee Hammons hugged classmates as they wandered in, in singles and in pairs, some with fiancees and some with spouses and young children.
She started to tell a story about Brent Maher, 31, whom everyone in this cluster of old classmates knew and loved when he was a pudgy teenager, waving at them as he cruised by in his old beat-up pickup truck.
Renee started to tell the story, and then she stopped, because she couldn't finish the first sentence without crying.
“We used to get together at weddings,” Mavel said.
Eventually the Class of ‘98 took their seats in the 10th row of folding chairs inside the Thomas Jefferson High School gymnasium.
They watched as Maher's flag-draped coffin was wheeled past, and they listened as two white-robed ministers preached and the loudspeakers played a country song that their old classmate loved.
Most of the women dabbed their eyes with the Kleenex. Most of the men chomped hard on the gum that Katy had handed out.
“There's no place else we'd be today,” said Jodi Johnson.
The boy they remember joined Future Farmers of America, played offensive lineman on the football team and wrestled in the heavyweight class. He hunted and fished. He chewed tobacco.
But there was something else beneath the country-boy exterior. He cried when a favorite teacher left. He cried the day they graduated from high school.
Most of the time he smiled, and that made them smile. His grin brought everyone a little closer together.
“He was just a big ol' teddy bear,” Mavel said.
On the weekends, Brent would drive over to Shenandoah in his pickup.
He cruised with Mark Miller, a classmate. They hung out in the Hy-Vee parking lot until police shooed them away.
“We'd come back in a half-hour and they would shoo us away again,” Miller said, before excusing himself from the group of classmates. He needed to perform his duties as a pallbearer.
B.J. Dreyer, Niclas' cousin, had another story about Maher and the police.
The night they graduated, a bunch of the Farragut Class of ‘98 decided to throw a keg into the back of a pickup and hang out in the high school parking lot.
It wasn't the best idea they ever had because, within minutes, a sheriff's deputy showed up.
“See you guys are having a party tonight,” the deputy said.
“Yes, sir,” Maher said.
His classmates could have strangled him.
But then Maher told the deputy that it was a going-away gathering of sorts. He had just joined the Navy.
Turns out the deputy was a Navy man himself.
“He let us go,” B.J. Dreyer says, and the classmates gathered around him all smiled at the memory.
After high school, the class gathered for a five-year reunion, they attended each other's weddings and they tried to stay in touch.
But most of them moved — to Red Oak, Treynor, Kansas City, Des Moines — and they drifted slowly apart, especially Maher, who was busy with the Navy and then, later, the Iowa Army National Guard.
They drifted apart until last week, when Mark Miller heard the grim news about Maher's death in Afghanistan. Miller texted another classmate, who texted another, and another. They reminisced on Facebook, they posted photos of Maher, they made plans to travel to Council Bluffs.
And Friday morning, they stood in a gym hallway. They made fun of Jodi Johnson for a 46-minute speech she'd given on Princess Diana in high school. They laughed about the spelling of Niclas Dreyer's name.
Mostly they swapped stories about Brent — stories that made them laugh when they weren't crying. One last time, he'd brought them a little closer together.
“There are only 21 of us,” Mavel said. “We were always in the same classroom, all day long.
“We're a family.''
Video: Bluffs says farewell