Next month, parade and baton corps Chris’ Twirlettes will hold a huge reunion in Johnson City’s Rotary Park. The woman of honor at the center will be Chris McInturff Woods, who led the group for more than 40 years.
“The best thing about it for me was the people,” Woods said by phone Wednesday from her daughter’s home in South Carolina. “I had such a wonderful group of girls, from 2 and 3 years old all the way through college. It made for just really good bonding friendships, and maybe that’s why so many want to come to the reunion.”
Woods’ love for twirling developed early. When she was in the third grade, she started taking lessons each summer in Erwin and at the baton camp hosted at East Tennessee State College.
At age 13, she gave lessons to her neighbors on Saturday mornings, charging them a quarter dropped into a cigar box. Her classes practiced in her front yard and marched around the neighborhood.
That first twirling group she named the Unicoi Pirates, using the mascot from her elementary school. The 15 Pirates marched in football game parades, Christmas parades and at elementary school events in Erwin.
When Woods graduated from Unicoi County High School in 1964 and started at East Tennessee State, she was already teaching baton classes in Erwin, but she wanted to branch out.
She tracked Johnson City Parks and Recreation Director Howard Johnson to his home and convinced him to let her teach classes in Johnson City.
They practiced at Kiwanis Park, across from Henry Johnson School.
Harriet Whitaker Miller, one of the first girls in Woods’ group, started twirling at 7 years old because her mother saw an advertisement for the Twirlettes in the Johnson City Press-Chronicle. The park was close to their house.
“A lot of our neighbors in the area took lessons,” Miller recalled. “In that first group, all of us were new to baton twirling, so you had young children and teenagers all learning the same thing.”
Miller continued taking lessons for years and was a majorette in high school and at East Tennessee State. One of the first in her family to graduate from college, Miller credits twirling, and the work-study grant it helped her get in college for being a majorette, for many of her successes in life.
“I want people to understand how much of an influence it was on me,” she said. “It gave me such a head-start in so many ways, and was a big part of me getting an advanced education. It was a big deal for my family and me.”
Woods led the group by example, Miller said, teaching them to treat each other with kindness, generosity and graciousness. Miller said the lessons she learned from the Twirlettes gave her confidence in the classroom and grace under fire.
Miller is just one of the success stories to emerge from the group.
Shortly after establishing the Johnson City classes, Woods grew her courses to students in Washington County’s schools, Greeneville, Kingsport, Bristol, Elizabethton and beyond. She eventually taught 500 students each week.
Over the 40-year span, Chris’ Twirlettes performed at countless parades and events. They twirled at the World’s Fair in Knoxville in 1982 and welcomed presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy to the Tri-City Airport in 1980.
Now former members are teachers, lawyers, architects, mothers and grandmothers.
Woods, now connected with many of her former students through a Twirlettes Facebook page, said she’s proud to peek into their lives and see what they’ve become.
When she announced the reunion, Woods said she expected maybe 50 people to attend. She was delighted when more than 160 marked they planned to be there.
“I could not believe it when I saw that number,” she said.
The large response shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. The Twirlettes have always stuck together.
When Wood’s husband, Buzz, died two years ago, she said her heart was overwhelmed by the showing of support from her former students who filled the funeral home for the visitation and services.
“My love was always the group,” she said. “A lot of lifelong friendships were developed over the years.”
The reunion will be held from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on June 22 at Johnson City’s Rotary Park. All former members are welcome.