Gaff Parties

I count it a privilege to have been able to attend college only 10 minutes away from home. To some college bound students, getting far away is the goal, but not for me.

I loved being close to home. For those of you who don’t know, I grew up in the middle of the country. Our closest neighbors were about a half mile away, and those neighbors were my grandparents. I grew up next door to my grandparents farm, and as a kid I would run out and visit grandpa on the tractor. I grew up living in a gorgeous suburban home in the middle of 3 corn fields and a forest. It was like a little slice of the suburbs hidden in the middle of farm country.

What this meant in college was that I had the perfect retreat for college kids looking to get away from campus. My parents lived on 10 acres in the middle of nowhere, and when it came to getting away from campus life, this place was it.

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How It Started

During college, my goal was to gather a few friends, go bowling and then head out to the Gafford retreat for the rest of the evening. We’d watch movies, sit around a bonfire and mom would always make some kind of yummy treat to pass around.

In case you haven’t met my mom, she has an incredible gift for hospitality. If there are people coming over, she’s going to make something to help them feel welcome. That same gift is still in action today, and it’s a wonderful thing to behold. I’ve inherited that gift from mom, but that’s another post.

I would bring 8-10 friends home to my parents house, and mom would start searching through the fridge and freezer. We never knew what she’d whip up, but over the years she had become a master of appetizers and finger foods. We’d be an hour into watching Harrison Ford in the Fugitive, and suddenly a tray of pigs in a blanket and some queso dip and chips would magically appear.

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Scaling Up

What started as 8-10 friends quickly became 15-20 friends. A few months later we were carpooling about 35 people to the local bowling alley and had to call to reserve about 10 lanes each time. We had to start telling mom and dad before we would come since we were trying to cram 30+ college students into their family room. It was not something that happened without preparation.

After that first few months of getting people together, we started planning them less often. While they weren’t as frequent, they were certainly increasing in size. By the end of the first year, we were averaging about 100 college kids per party.

We quickly gained the nickname “Gaff Parties” and they began to gain campuswide recognition.

I came off of our summer tour that year and the first thing people wanted to know was when the next Gaff party was. I hadn’t even made it back to campus yet, and people I ran into were asking what we had planned.

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Year 2

We had outgrown the family room at my parents house, so we needed to improvise. What used to be a movie inside on the TV morphed into calling every non-profit we knew to see if we could borrow a video projector. We ran to Wal-Mart and bought a big white bedsheet, and it became a screen. Movies moved outside to the back yard.

The fireplace was warm and cozy, but now it was becoming a fire hazard. With nowhere to sit in the family room due to overcrowding, a fire only took out 5 valuable seats on the hearth. We decided to move the fire outside as well in a different area of the yard. We called some local farmers and asked if we could buy hay bales for people to sit on.

By the end of that second year, we had amassed about 200 college kids per party. My favorite game during those parties used to be walking up to kids I didn’t know and asking who invited them. I would also ask them if they had yet ran into the kid who lived here, and the answer was almost always no. I just told them that if they met him to introduce me later. Quite a few of them got a good laugh out of that later in the evening.

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Invitations

When it came to inviting people, there were generally only 3 or 4 people that I ever needed to personally invite, and this is where it gets fun for me.

Here’s the deal. I only ever invited about 10-20 kids to any party that I threw in college. I would always just tell the kids I invited to bring their friends, and people would show up in droves.

There were two guys that I credit with all the marketing that built Gaff Parties from the ground up. These guys were two of the most popular guys on campus, and for good reason. Brian Bradford and Nathan Kingsbury were two of the kings of campus, and they had and still have the ability to move groups of people. I would just casually tell these two guys that a party was on, and next thing you know half the campus would show up.

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Shoes

One of the memories that I have from this year was all of the shoes that littered the garage floor when people came into the house. There were shoes everywhere, and it was hard to get in the door without breaking an ankle. During one of our get togethers, a few pranksters decided it would be fun to take everyones shoes and tie them together into a long rope and hang them everywhere in the garage. It took people a good 20 minutes to find both of their shoes that evening, untie them and navigate their way out the door.

Mud

I also remember this year that we tried to get people together on a night when it was raining like crazy. While I thought it would be a fun idea to get everyone together and watch a movie indoors, we had outgrown that idea and I was about to prove it. What I didn’t account for was how soggy the yard was and how heavy cars were when they needed to park on grass. We had a blast getting people together, but when it came time to leave, it was a mud bowl. I am positive that this particular party went down as my dad’s least favorite. We had massive ruts in the yard, and even a car or two that didn’t make it home that night. We had a couple of guys that weren’t afraid of mud and just dove in to push people out, but it wasn’t enough. We had to call in trucks with tow ropes. I’m pretty sure the aftermath to the yard from that party took months to repair, but I’ll never forget seeing friends and people I didn’t even know having a great time rolling in the mud in my front yard.

Year 3

During the third year of the Gaff party, we hit a number that I never thought I would see gathered at my parents home. To start off my first senior year, (That’s right, I took a victory lap.) I credit Brian and Nathan for inviting most of the campus to our first party of the year. We had 350 kids join us that night, and I can honestly say that we completely cleaned out the fridge and freezer to try and keep kids fed.

That night we had kids in every possible nook and cranny of my parents house. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some people got stuck in a closet and nobody could hear their cries for help. It was a madhouse. The movie screen had doubled in size, the fire was about 4 times bigger than ever, marshmallows and smores were a huge hit and food was everywhere. This was the year that my mom had thrown the white flag and started calling in reinforcements.

My grandmother Marilyn was the hospitality matriarch of our family. When it came time to call in the big guns, we called Grandma. As the parties scaled in size, Grandma would just need about 3 days notice to make magic happen. Grandma would bake brownies, sheet cakes, cookies, pies, and just about everything else you could imagine coming out of grandma’s oven. She would come over a few hours before the party was set to start, and she’d back her van up to the garage. It would take about 8-10 trips to get everything into the house that Grandma had made. When I think back, I am pretty sure that Grandma had an industrial kitchen hidden somewhere in her home that she didn’t tell us about. That gal knew how to cook like it was her full time job. Her contribution to the Gaff Party legacy has been relatively unknown, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Now that Grandma has gone to a better place, I can tell this story without worrying about her shaking her index finger at me and giving me a talking to.

There were a few kids who knew about what Grandma and Mom were doing to help put these events together, and one night they decided to give back. Two girls named Melissa (who I would one day marry) and Kristen grabbed baseball hats and went around collecting money to help cover the costs that grandma and mom put out each time. They worked their way through the crowd without letting mom see, and at the end of the evening presented my parents with a couple of hats full of cash and clapped for them like crazy. It was a really fun moment for me. I got to see a bunch of college kids express their appreciation for a couple of people who always worked in the shadows but were vital to every event we had.

That year, we knew we had created a monster when about a month into the school year I received a call from the admissions department. A guy named Tom asked me if they could make future parties an official admissions event. He said that kids were telling them that it was a reason that they decided to choose IWU. Apparently the invites were going out from students to high school kids that were having college visit days, and they were also in the mix. That’s when we had a pretty good idea that things were completely out of control. What began as a trip to the bowling alley with friends had ended up a recruitment event for the university.

I think we ended up having 1 or 2 events after getting the call from admissions, but that was the party that I’ll never forget. What made it really stand out is the topic of my next post, but don’t worry. We’ll get there in a day or two.

What I Learned: Doing something that makes a difference for a large group of people doesn’t happen without the efforts of a dedicated few. There was a group of about 6 college students that helped me pull these off over the years, and without them it never would have worked. I learned that doing something amazing may come from a simple idea, but it won’t ever grow to its potential without gathering the right team. Even if you have the best idea ever, don’t go it alone. Find a group of like minded people and have them bring their talents to the table. If you’re going to set out to do something amazing, I recommend not doing it alone.

What You Can Do: Share a comment below of your favorite story, memory, food, person, or anything else you can remember about Gaff Parties. I know there are literally hundreds of you out there who will read this over time, so share your memories with everyone and see who else remembers with you. I’m sure there are many stories even I don’t remember from way back, so tell us your story.