Listening to Gary D. Beene talk is like listening to popcorn pop.
At first you can easily keep up with the words, but soon, they come at you all at once, rat-a-tat-tat.
Beene, a retired salesman and resident of Signal Mountain, was in the news earlier this spring as the lead organizer of a homecoming celebration at the former Signal Mountain Elementary School.
An exuberant conversationalist and former junior high cheerleader, Beene was the right man for the job.
The school — originally called Signal Mountain Grammar School — operated from 1926 to 1999; for context, that's Calvin Coolidge to Bill Clinton. Now, the stone building is home of the Mountain Arts Community Center, which hosts concerts, classes and camps.
Beene, who attended Signal Mountain Elementary in the 1950s, said he expected a few old-timers to attend the April event.
Well, that might have been the understatement of the year.
"We were going to open the doors at 1 o'clock," Beene recalled in an interview. "But by 11:30 or 12, they were trying to get in the windows. They were trying to get in the side doors. I kid you not."
Beene said there were probably 300 to 400 attendees at the reunion April 29. It's hard to know the exact number because the school was so crowded some were never able to sign the guest registry, he said.
"It far exceeded any expectation I had," said Beene. "They came from literally all over the country."
A Facebook page set up to publicise the event has attracted 418 "members" and has become filled with old pictures of the school on Kentucky Avenue.
Many of the streets on Signal Mountain are named after states: Texas, Georgia, Florida, Carolina. Virtually all the Southern states were represented at the homecoming, Beene said. The fact that people would travel hundreds of miles to spend a single afternoon at an old school hints at a deep longing.
"Everybody said, 'We're just going to make this a family vacation,'" Beene explained.
One of the more interesting "guests" was 101-year-old Lorene Collins, a former Signal Elementary teacher now living in Manchester, Tennessee, who was unable to attend in person but sent a video.
"Kids, you have a good time," she exhorted the attendees, some of whom were in their 70s and 80s.
The organizers of the homecoming arranged door prizes — like box seats to a Chattanooga Lookouts baseball game and gift baskets from mountain merchants — but had a hard time quieting the din enough to award the gifts.
There is talk of a centennial celebration in 2026, and the success of this year's event makes this seem like a slam dunk. Also, the former students are raising money to help with improvements at the Mountain Arts Community Center.
After the events at the school on the last Saturday in April, some of the attendees drifted over to the Signal Mountain Town Hall for a bluegrass and gospel music concert. The day ended with everyone singing "Amazing Grace."
One line from the hymn seemed to capture the day: "... 'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home."