This Temple Daily Telegram story was picked up by the Associated Press
By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
Their photo album seems like it could belong to anybody.
It's full with pictures of friends enjoying themselves on vacation - rafting, hiking, sightseeing, chatting and laughing. But then come the bathing suit pictures.
There's picture after picture of six women in bathing suits, posing in the middle of Times Square or on a pirate ship in Cancun, Mexico.
It's tradition for the album's owners: Janette Kornegay of Amarillo, Pat Parker of Belton, Nita Pate of Temple, Edna Drake of Arlington, Janice Wright of Temple and Patricia Gray of Crisfield, Md.
Patricia is the youngest at 691/2, Edna's the oldest at 71 - and the rest are 70. The close friends - who say they're more like sisters - have been taking bathing suit pictures for 19 years. "It started in 1988," Janette said.
"Edna's husband died in 1987," Janette said, not acknowledging her friend's teases. "We wanted to be of comfort to Edna, so we decided to have a sort of mini-reunion - all of us together."
The six women have known each other since childhood. All are graduates of Belton High School, five of six in the class of 1955. Patricia, a year younger, graduated in 1956.
"We were the Belton Bunch," Janette said. "That's what people called us."
Redirecting the conversation to why they take bathing suit photos, Janette recaptured the attention of her crew.
"They came to see me in Amarillo," Janette said. "I live on a lake, so naturally we were wearing bathing suits."
"I suggested we meet once a year every year to do it again," Janette said. "And we have. Next year will be our 20th anniversary."
A photograph of the six women slathered in mud is from the friends' cruise to Cancun.
"I had brought the girls back some mud from the Dead Sea in Israel," Janette said, explaining the voyage was part of a mission trip she took with her minister husband.
The mud had some kind of purifying quality, Janette said.
In 1992, the women traveled to Bandera - the Texas Hill Country city that was the destination of their senior class trip almost 40 years ago.
The next year's venture took them to Washington, D.C.
"We went to visit Patricia on Chesapeake Bay," Janette said.
A photo shows the six friends with Larry Combest, then a U.S. congressman from Lubbock, on the steps of the Capitol.
They have an official proclamation from Combest that changed their collective name from the Belton Bunch to the Belton Belles.
The Belles parasailed in 1996 on the shore of South Padre Island.
"I prayed all the way down," Pat said. "I said, 'God if you get me back down, I'll never do it again.'"
October of 1998 found the girls in New York. That trip's bathing suit photo was taken in Times Square.
"It was so cold," Pat said.
"And there we were in our bathing suits," Nita said.
"We had asked a stranger to take our picture," Janette said as all of the women started laughing. "I do believe it made his day."
This year's vacation was a much-needed bit of rest and relaxation, Nita said. They all stayed at Janice's home in Temple.
They drove to Fredericksburg, and they visited the graves of friends and family at area cemeteries.
"We went to the old high school," Nita said. "And our childhood houses."
Group participation is one of the group's rules.
"If one of us does it, we all do it," Patricia said. "The bathing suit photo, the parasailing, the mud bath everything." An advantage to that, Pat said, is that it keeps them in shape and young - always prepared for the next adventure.
There's no specific plans for 2008 their 20th anniversary of traveling the world together.
"We always have a big dinner," Nita said. "The presents we give are usually things we like ourselves. We each get one of whatever it is."
One year Nita gave perpetual calendars, ones she made with needle and thread.
"On my calendar, there's material from the dress I wore to my dad's funeral," Janice said. "The angel on it has blond hair just like I did when I was little, and Pat's has Texas bluebonnets on it because she loves bluebonnets and Patricia's calendar - Well, it makes all us cry to tell that story."
The tiny charms that decorate Patricia's calendar are the same charms that Patricia gave Nita almost 60 years ago on the night a fire destroyed Nita's childhood home.
Janette said Patricia had wanted Nita to have some toys.
"Patricia's mother stayed up that entire night to make Nita a dress for her to wear to school the next day," Janice said, adding that material from that dress was on Patricia's calendar as well.
Janette's 2001 Christmas gift to the Belles was a collage calendar of all their adventures together.
And in 2005, after watching the movie "Calendar Girls," Nita prompted her friends to put together a "tastefully seductive" calendar as Christmas gifts for their husbands.
Each woman had two months for two scenes and two poses.
"Let's just say our husbands' jaws dropped when they opened the calendars Christmas morning," Janette said.