By Leah S. Dunaief
Prom season has arrived. It’s that wonderful, fairy tale time when Cinderella goes to the ball. It’s when fathers suddenly realize that their daughters, beautifully gowned, have now grown up. And mothers are proud to see their tuxedo-wearing sons have become men. The hairstyles, manicures and pedicures are in place, the dress has been selected, the shoes to match, the dangling earrings, the special makeup and perfume—the scene has been set. The tuxes are rented, the flowers selected, the shoes polished, the cummerbunds and bow ties fastened, the haircuts fresh, and they pose for the cameras. Boys and girls, now ladies and gentlemen, go off in their borrowed or leased coaches for a night of celebratory fun to memories they will create for the rest of their lives. It is a coming-of-age moment.
It is the magical Senior Prom.
There can be a darker side to this brilliant affair. Decades ago, shortly after we started the first newspaper in 1976, prom nights ended with a string of terrible car accidents caused by drunken driving. It was a time when MADD was founded — Mothers Against Drunk Driving. This non-profit organization “seeks to stop drunk driving, support those affected by drunk driving, prevent underage drinking and strive for stricter impaired driving policy, whether that impairment is caused by alcohol or any other drug.” It was a movement founded out of grief by those who had lost their children to horrible accidents. Today, more than 40 years later, there is at least one MADD office in every state.
We, at the newspaper, responded to the crisis on a local level. We wrote a short paragraph pledging that the signer of this petition would think about safety on prom night and not drive drunk. We then placed those words at the top of a sheet of yellow lined paper, carried the pads up to Ward Melville High School toward the end of June, waited outside until an assembly involving the senior class had ended, and asked the seniors as they emerged from the hall to sign on the lines. In return, we promised to reprint that page in the newspaper with their signatures just as they wrote them.
We didn’t know how they would react, of course, whether they would laugh us off and continue to the exit or otherwise ignore us. But they didn’t do either of those. Instead, they lined up to sign. And we wound up, as I recall, with five legal pad pages of signatures. We printed the pages, just as we promised, each full page as a page in the newspaper. That year, there were no accidents.
Not long after, Dorothy Melville, widow of the late philanthropist, called our office and invited me to breakfast at her home in Old Field the next day. I appeared on her doorstep at the appointed time, not a little curious. She greeted me at the kitchen door with a big smile, showed me to a kitchen chair, asked me how I liked my eggs, donned an apron and proceeded to cook.
When we finished, she stood up, left the room, then returned with her checkbook. She explained how important it was to combat drunk driving, especially among young people who thought driving buzzed was “cool.” She then wrote out a check to The Village Times and smiled as she handed it to me.
“I want you to use the interest from this money to finance those signature pages of students pledging not to drive drunk every year at prom time.”
I looked at the check and was amazed. It was for the sum of $10,000. In today’s money, that would be somewhere between $60,000-$70,000. I stammered my thanks and said something idiotic like, “Can you really do this?” She smiled and nodded, and I left the kitchen.
For years after, we repeated the project. There were no more local car accidents on prom night. Some 45 years later, we ask the same.