When a trio of friends gathered for a college class reunion in 1988, they had no idea that a casual conversation would lead to a new iteration of their longtime bond.
At the time, Bunia S. Baxter, Lucille McCall and Thelma Arbor had been friends for more than four decades, having met in 1944 as freshmen at the Arkansas Agricultural Mechanical and Normal College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
All were nearing the end of or had retired from careers as educators — careers that had lasted almost as long as their friendship.
Reunion activities had wrapped, and the women were saying their goodbyes.
As they headed to their vehicles on the parking lot, a discussion ensued about what lay ahead in the next chapter of their lives.
“We had enjoyed getting together for the reunion, and we were talking about how we’re all retiring. We said, ‘What are we going to do now?’” Baxter explained.
Arbor, of Magnolia, suggested a trip.
Traveling would not only afford the three friends the opportunity to see each other more often, it would also spark a series of shared experiences and adventures that would take them to all 50 United States and six continents over the next 29 years.
The foundation was laid for the Traveling Friends in 1989 with their first trip, a Caribbean cruise.
“We really started it for fun, doing something we all liked to do,” Baxter said. “We never thought we would be traveling for this long or that this many people would be interested in what we’re doing.”
Eight members of the A&M Class of 1948 and eight of their friends embarked on that Caribbean island tour that included stops in St. Martin, St. Thomas, Barbados, Martinique and Puerto Rico.
adies at table: Members of The Traveling Friends discuss Christmas plans during the group’s regular monthly meeting in the El Dorado Conference Center. Pat Collins, second from left, is the daughter of Lois Meekins, the only member of Traveling Friends from El Dorado. Janice McIntyre/News-Times
The following year, the group, which had grown larger, decided that Hawaii would be the next island they would visit.
It was also the year that Lois Meekins of El Dorado, joined Traveling Friends.
Meekins was attending a relative’s funeral when she met Baxter.
“They had already been on a cruise, and we were talking about how they were planning to go to Hawaii next,” Meekins said. “My daughter (Pat Collins) said, ‘Mama, you should go.’”
Meekins readily complied.
Meekins — who graduated from Grambling (Louisiana) State University — had recently retired after 39 years as an educator in El Dorado and Smackover.
Following the Hawaiian trip, Baxter said the friends decided to formally organize a group.
With the majority of members being retired educators, the initial moniker, “Traveling Educators," seemed fitting.
However, as more members joined and the professions varied, a name change was in order, Baxter said.
“Traveling Friends” had a nicer ring to it, and it more aptly reflected the group’s inclusivity.
Decorations: A tray with artwork by acclaimed folk artist Clementine Hunter accentuates the fall motif that served as the centerpiece of each table during the Traveling Friends’ November meeting in the El Dorado Conference Center. Hunter was a self-taught artist from Natchitoches, Louisiana. Janice McIntyre/News-Times
“We decided that since we were going to travel, we decided that we’d better go ahead and start a group,” Baxter said. “We changed the name to Traveling Friends because a lot of people aren’t educators, and it’s open to anybody who wants to travel.”
The group now has 21 members, with a waiting list of three who have been advised to hold off until the first of the new year to join.
“That’s when we pay our dues,” Baxter said, adding that dues are $1 a month.
Most of the Traveling Friends are from Pine Bluff and Little Rock.
Meekins and Arbor are the only two members from the Golden Triangle.
They are also part of the quintet of living charter members — Baxter, Arbor, McCall, Meekins and Gladys Davis.
The group has maintained the same slate of officers since its inception, with Baxter as president, Davis as vice president and McCall as secretary.
The Traveling Friends meets monthly, using the alphabetical order of members’ names to select the hosts and host city.
Meekins and her daughter Collins hosted the November meeting.
Meekins said the friends usually convene in St. Mary’s Parish Hall when the meetings rotate to El Dorado, but this month, the meeting was held in the El Dorado Conference Center for the first time.
“I wanted to step it up a bit,” Meekins said.
Baxter often pulls double duty as president and designated trip coordinator.
Prior to the launch of Traveling Friends, Baxter had won a trip through an American Airlines promotional game while traveling to California to visit a relative.
Pat and Lois: Lois Meekins, left, and daughter Pat Collins, host The Traveling Friends’ November meeting in the El Dorado Conference Center. Meekins is the only member from El Dorado. The meeting was held Nov. 7 and marked the first time the group met in the conference center. Janice McIntyre/News-Times
“It was called ‘The Baseball Game.’ It was a scratch-off, and my scratch-off revealed that I would get to go anywhere American Airlines flew, and I had three stops,” she recalled.
Working with a travel agent in Pine Bluff, Baxter arranged a whirlwind trip that took her to Acapulco in Mexico, back to California, east to New York and then to Bermuda.
“I wanted to go the farthest that I could go,” she said.
It was because of that experience that Baxter said she believes Arbor and McCall entrusted her with the task of planning their first trip together.
“At the reunion in ‘88, they told me that if I plan it, they would go. They came back in ‘89 and said, ‘We’re waiting,’” she said.
Baxter said members offer a few suggestions on where they would like to go each year, and the suggestions are narrowed down.
Baxter then sets about planning the trip and booking hotels. Sometimes, the trips are arranged by travel companies, she said.
Starting with the Caribbean in 1989 and Hawaii in 1990, Traveling Friends have covered all 50 states and several countries in most corners of the globe.
The group has explored every continent, except one: Antarctica.
“And we won’t ever hit that one, and you know why,” McCall said with a laugh, referring to frigid temperatures in the place that is known to have the coldest climate on Earth.
For Baxter, jaunts to cities and rural areas in Australia and New Zealand are among her most memorable experiences with Traveling Friends.
She said she took a particular interest in the indigenous people and culture of New Zealand.
“Watching the people there in their native land and seeing how they lived, that was one of the things that I enjoyed,” Baxter said. “We went to a lot of different places and participated in a lot of different activities.”
Meekins described her time with Traveling Friends as a blessing.
“I enjoy the adventures of traveling, seeing things, experiencing things I have only read about,” she said.
“All of the trips we have taken have been memorable, a real joy. It all has been a learning experience,” Meekins said.
Meekins said her experience with the group in Jerusalem was “life-changing.”
While taking a guided tour, the Traveling Friends visited what is believed to be the site of Jesus’s tomb and Mount Moriah, where, according to scripture, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Meekins said the tour evoked vivid imagery and stirred powerful emotions.
“The Holy Land experience — to have walked the streets that Jesus walked, according to tradition, I thought I would never be the same after that,” she said, her voice trailing off to a whisper.
During their meeting in the conference center, the Traveling Friends worked to finalize plans for their annual holiday vacation.
A. Haley: The Traveling Friends stop at the Alex Haley Heritage Square in Knoxville, Tennessee. The landmark celebrating the “Roots” author is one of many cultural and historical sites the group has visited around the world. Collins and Meekins — second row, standing, fifth and sixth from right, respectively — were part of the trip. Contributed photo.
In December, the group will head to Tennessee with a stop in Cordova to see the Bellevue Baptist Church Singing Christmas Tree, a popular local attraction.
Then it’s off to Nashville for a “Country Christmas” at the Gaylord Opryland Resort.
According to the group’s itinerary, the four-day, three-night stay will be jam-packed with activities, including a Delta Riverboat tour that will circle the resort.
The Tennessee trip comes three months after the group visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Baxter said that once word spread about plans for the trip to the museum, which opened in September 2016, the number of Traveling Friends swelled from the average size of less than 30 per trip to 88.
Group members, family and friends from in and out of state signed up to journey to the nation’s capital with the Traveling Friends.
On the way back to Arkansas, the group’s two chartered busses detoured to the Alex Haley Heritage Square in Knoxville, Tennessee.
With such a large group on hand, Baxter said they had to take photos in front of a 13-foot bronze statue of the “Roots” author in shifts.
Caught by surprise
The year may be winding down, but the Traveling Friends are gearing up for adventures to come in 2018.
McCall said plans are already under way to celebrate her 70th college class reunion with Baxter, Arbor and classmates at UAPB.
Charter members, who are in their late 80s and early 90s, have said the growth and longevity of Traveling Friends caught them all by surprise.
“We have a lot of family members going with us now than when we first started — mothers and daughters, aunts and maybe their nieces,” she said.
“And quite often, we’ll have a husband and a wife to go. In the last five years, we’ve had more men to go. They didn’t want to go with us at first because they thought it was just for ladies,” Baxter continued.
While in El Dorado last week, the group had to cancel a tour of the Murphy Arts District, which opened in September across from the conference center, due to chilly, rainy weather.
Expressions of disappointment swept through the Loblolly Room of the conference center, but they didn’t last long.
Several of the approximately 15 members who attended the monthly meeting vowed to return when the weather was more cooperative.
That spirit and attitude lies at the core of the Traveling Friends.
“Most of us have said we never thought we’d travel to the extent that we have or that so many people would take an interest in what we were doing,” Baxter said, reiterating, “We started this for fun.”
Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or tlyons@eldoradonews.