By Carol South
Special to the Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — Local Catholic schools faced closure in 1983, but the first Gladhander event provided them a key financial boost and launched a community institution.
The annual fundraising extravaganza for Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools system quickly took root as a much-anticipated gala.
Since it began 30 years ago, the gathering — which features gourmet dining, entertainment, an upscale raffle and live and silent auctions — has generated nearly $9 million for the system.
This year's iconic Gladhander will be held on Oct. 27 with a free public preview party the night before.
Money raised by Gladhander supports teacher salaries and benefits, as well as tuition scholarships disbursed within the system, which features just under 1,000 students in four schools.
"A third of students rely on our assistance," said Wayne Mueller, development director for Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools. "Our teachers get paid 80 percent of regional wage of teachers; even to get to that 80 percent, we rely on Gladhander."
The inaugural Gladhander drew about 350 attendees and raised $81,000. This amount easily covered the $40,000 shortfall that threatened the system's future.
"The bishop said we had to clear up the deficit or close the school," said Ken Kleinrichert, Sr., a school board member at the time.
From the first, Gladhander also forged bonds across generations and parishes.
"But more than the money we made, it brought together all the people at all the churches," Kleinrichert said. "It really was the greatest thing for that."
Mueller added that over the years Gladhander's reach and support has extended into the community at large. The Saturday festivities usually sell out with 600 attendees while the Friday preview party draws another 700.
"It is much broader than the parishes and schools, probably a third of our crowd is not directly school-related," he said. "I hope they view (GTACS) as an important asset of our town, regardless of whether they have a child here or not."
The 1983 event, which had a circus theme, launched the tradition of vibrant, engaging themes. The 30th annual event has an 80s Rewind theme and volunteers and decorations committee members worked for months to plan, create and recycle.
Next week they will transform the St. Francis High School gym and the Holy Angels Elementary School lunchroom and classrooms.
"It takes four days to put it up and four hours to take it down," said Kathy Britten, Gladhander coordinator.
In all, more than 450 volunteers pitch in over many months: from high school students to parents, parish members without children in the school to community helpers. Saturday night's main event requires 200 volunteers to pull off.
A cornucopia of 1,000 items has been gathered for the upscale live and silent auctions. In addition, this year's big ticket raffle item is a choice between a 2013 BMW 328xi, a 2013 Cadillac SRX or $32,000 cash.
"The generosity of the community just continues to amaze me," Britten said.