ReuKNIGHTed and It Feels So Good

SHS Class of 1949 gathers for 65th reunion.

Photo by Brianna Samaranayake
Mildred Rehoric and her high school sweetheart pose for the camera.

Rebecca Rakowitz, Features Editor

(Editor’s Note: All of the women mentioned in this article are referred to by their maiden name, as was on their name tag, and as they were in 1949).

In light of recent events, it is hard to imagine a time when Stamford High School wasn’t filled with controversy, much less what it was like sixty-five years ago.  While we can’t, the SHS Class of 1949 can. They fondly remember what “the school on the hill” was like.

The Class of 1949, graduates of which lovingly refer to themselves as the “49ers,” had their 65th reunion  Sunday, October 5, at the Italian Center in Stamford. In attendance were close to 76 people, 56 of whom were from the Class of 1949.

1949 was quite a year to graduate. President Harry S. Truman was inaugurated and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established. Joe DiMaggio became the first baseball player to be paid $100,000 a year and  “All I want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” was a number one hit single.The first Emmy Awards were held and actor Humphrey Bogart was in the Top Ten Money Making Stars. It was also a busy year in which to be born; just ask John Belushi, Archie Manning, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springstein. A lot was going on in the world, and a lot was going on at Stamford High: a lot to be celebrated and a lot to be remembered.

Welcoming you into the Italian Center’s Rose Room was their class banner along with the smiling faces of the 49ers, all of whom wore name tags that featured their name and 1949 yearbook picture. They spread themselves among nine tables (although they didn’t stay seated long, often getting up and switching tables to mingle) that were set up cozily, making sure everyone was close to one another and able to take advantage of the proximity that many of the 49ers don’t have with each other on a daily basis. Some tables, like Patricia McCloskey’s, were filled with people who knew each other from “grammar or junior  high school.”

Chairman of the Planning Committee, Paul Brown, who has been planning reunions and events for the class for a long time, noted that “every year we lose a few snow bunnies,” and while that may be true, lots of people were willing to travel far to reunite with old classmates. One year someone came all the way from the Guernsey, Great Britain, and this year 49ers came from South Carolina, Florida, and even Arizona.

With people so widespread, reunion planning does not seem too easy. Brown was sure to advise me that my class should be sure to “set up a rolodex with everyone’s addresses” to help with reunion planning and staying in touch.

Brown was the junior class president, and said that his presidency is one of the reasons why he is so involved with the reunions, because “other officers are gone” (just like much of the class, unfortunately).  He claims, with a laugh, that he got this job “by default.” I don’t know how true that is, but I do know that the 49ers are lucky to have Brown “by default.” He was so personable and quick on his feet. Whenever he stood up to speak he captured the attention of everyone in the room. Even the bartender wanted a copy of the “speech” that Brown had given, which turned out to be a spur-of-the-moment thing.

After about 30 seconds of being at the reunion, photographer and fellow interviewer Brianna Samaranayake said, “Wow, these people seem like more fun than the people in our class.” It was not long before I was in agreement. I will try my best to do them justice, but no words on paper may ever capture the essence of Stamford High and the students who roamed its halls in 1949.

Stamford High, and Stamford itself, was much different in 1949. One thing that 90 percent of the 49ers reminded me of, and with great pride, was that SHS was the only high school. John Nelson noted that since it was the only school, and the only source, it had the best athletes. As a result, Brown said that “if you didn’t get to Boyle Stadium early enough on a Saturday, you didn’t get a seat.” Nelson said that between “7,000 and 8,000 people” would come to the games and that people would “be in trees watching the game.” Even with temporary stands in the end zone for big games like homecoming, the place was still packed.

The Class of 49’s sense of school pride is not the only thing that sets them apart from us. Their classes were also very different. You could either take “prep” courses if you wanted to go to college, “commercial” courses if you wanted to be a secretary or go into business, or “general” courses if you had no idea what you wanted to do. Lots of SHS teachers were on the G.I. Bill, and the student-teacher relationship was somewhat different.

Frances DeMasi, who some SHS students may have met at the annual Veteran’s Day presentation, said that “the respect for teachers was a lot better [back then].” He said that students really respected teachers, and classmate Angelo Lucia quickly jumped in saying that “if you didn’t, you got your ass kicked.” Of course, there is always the exception. 49er Eugene Connolly was not afraid of the possibility of getting his “ass kicked.” He claims to have “had fun with the teachers.” He used to go out for a smoke, come back to Spanish class, get yelled at for being late, and go on to kiss his teacher on her forehead.

Spanish class certainly seemed like the time to goof off. Henry Crutchley, who was voted “Best Looking” in the yearbook, remembers putting a person into the air ducts during Spanish class. Recalling that incident opened a can of worms where everyone at his table began spitting out stories of funny happenings, pranks, and things they used to get away with. Brown remembered hanging out on the roof, and at points someone would start to tell a story before Jane DeAngelis would say “they shouldn’t hear that story” with a mischievous grin on her face. The Class of 1949 may have been wilder than we thought!

Even with “troublemakers” like Connolly and Crutchley, though, the Class of 1949 was, arguably, much more eager to learn than us. People like Emanuel Blosio remember SHS as a “place of pleasure.” He said he “never missed a day of school because he enjoyed [the kids and teachers] so much.” Carmine Vaccaro (who you may have also met at a Veteran’s Day presentation and who came proudly sporting an orange jacket, an SHS baseball cap, and his class ring) said he “only missed two or three days of school in three years.” Even then, he only missed those days because he was sick and his mom forced him to stay home.

One thing that Ben Malozzi “really enjoyed” about SHS was the girls; “just look at my table,” he said, surrounded by women. We certainly have ladies’ men like Malozzi at SHS, but one thing we don’t have as many of are high school sweethearts. Now, that’s assuming that the couples in our school won’t last, but there are very few, so the odds are slim. That was not the case for the Class of 1949, though. There were many high school sweethearts. In high school Doug Lamb drove a black Ford with wheels that he painted yellow because he “liked contrast” and “wanted to stand out.” He certainly stood out to Jean Cantrell, whom he once gave a ride home. Once turned into twice, and twice turned into marriage. “And we’re still having fun,” Cantrell says as Doug mimics her talking with his hand and mouths “she keeps talking!” There were several other sets of high school sweethearts at the reunion, along with several sets of sisters-in-law, like Nancy Ann Cuminsky and Marilyn Fredrickson, who didn’t even know each other when they were at SHS together.

The fashion trends that walked the halls of SHS were also much different in 1949. Girls wore nice skirts, sweaters, and pearls, and the boys would dress up too: sometimes wearing a shirt and tie. Mildred Rehoric says you “learn differently when you are in play clothes versus dressed nicely.” A group of 49ers also made claims that there was one teacher who wouldn’t let girls wear patent leather shoes because it would allow boys to see up their skirts. Today we worry about girls wearing skirts that leave little to the imagination, and back then they were worried about girls wearing reflective shoes.

A final difference, and one that is near and dear to us at The Round Table, is the 49ers’ newspaper. The Round Table dates back to the 70s, but in 1949 there was a different paper. It was called “The Siren,” and it was run by a teacher named Mr. Daily. Ann Marie Polestra remembers being interviewed for “The Siren.”  They asked her who her best friends were, and the two she listed are still her best friends. Josephine Cloeta, whose brother Vincent is the namesake for the current Career Center at SHS, was the gossip columnist for The Siren. Cloeta’s column was never vicious; rather, she would keep her classmates informed on relationship updates and report on things like who had been seen holding hands in the hallway.

One thing that Cloeta said, that was clearly not gossip, was “I loved Stamford High,” and that seemed to be the class consensus. Mildred Rehoric explained that they were the first class to go through SHS after WWII. “We were fortunate,” she said, “we had the benefit of better times.” And better times they did have. “We had a great three years” said Brown (at that time high school was 10th-12th grade). Brown said that “lots of Stamford Public Schools have changed. Stamford is a strange place to us now,” and Frances DeMasi finds that “it’s a whole new ball game.” Brown is the father of former SHS Principal Suzanne Brown Koroshetz, so one year for their reunion the Class of 49 took a tour of SHS. Brown was among the masses that are not fans of our wacky floor order and said “It’s not like it used to be. I hope kids have as good a time as we did.”

The pride that these people have for Stamford High, especially for how it was during their three years is incomparable. In a very Mean Girls-esque moment, one woman said “It was better back then,” which Ann Marie Burns questioned immediately, saying, “she didn’t even go there.”

For those who did go to SHS, they went on to do great things. After passing through these halls, 49ers went on to lead successful and fulfilling lives. Merrill Burchard went to UConn on the G.I. Bill, and then became a salesman, and later sales manager. Henry Crutchley also attended UConn, where he played football on a scholarship. Sam Cingari owns 10 Shop Rites in Connecticut, Thomas Bechert was a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and there are 150 years of teaching in Stamford Public Schools split among Carmine Vacarro and three of his siblings.

Marilyn Fredrickson said “Stamford High gave me the intuition to keep dancing. Oh, it was the best school.” Fredrickson tried out for the Rockettes after high school, but she did not meet the height requirement. NBC was a block away, though, so she went on to do human resources there. Burchard said that at SHS “you could be a dope if you wanted,” or that it could give you a “darn good education…if you took hold of it.” He said that “people can sit on their heinies and do nothing, but that doesn’t make it happen. Stamford High made it happen for me.”

The 49ers have reached the prime age of 83 years old, and Thomas Bechert said that “it’s funny, everybody looks a lot older…it’s hard to recognize people” and that at the 50th reunion he and his wife walked in and she said “we went to the wrong place – [this room] is full of old people.” I don’t know if “old” is the right word, though. Merrill Burchard hit the nail on the head when he said “we are old, but not in here (points to heart) and up here (points to head).” Their collective memory of 65 years ago is so amazingly detailed. The second they started talking about their school on the hill, it was like they shed their “old” exterior and were once again the seniors pictured on their name tags.

As the event came to a close, Brown took the floor once again. He led a fun activity where everyone raised their hand for their respective grammar and junior high schools as he called them out, and let me just say, they had a lot of pride for those schools too. After the competitive energy died off, and before everyone stood up to sing their fight song (Here’s to Old SHS) one last time, Brown said “this is not a promise, this is not a threat” and then went on to discuss the possibility of having a class wide 85th birthday in two years. Eight years ago they had a similar event at Cove Island Park for when they all turned 75, and it seems as though the Class of ’49 is a proactive one, always planning ahead. This won’t be the last that Stamford sees of the Class of ’49.

But what do you expect? Like Nancy Ann Cuminsky said, “old people like to talk,” Brown said that every reunion and/or birthday party is the same in that they are “repeating the same lies they have told each other every year and exaggerating the successes of their grandchildren.” Brown said it is the “same as always,” and that it is “always fun.”

Someone who didn’t get the “old people like to talk” memo was Clifford Butler. He sat at his table silently while Brianna and I asked them questions. As we were preparing to move to the next table, I said “enjoy your day” to the group, and he said “because of you [I will].”

Because of Butler, and because of all those present at the 65th reunion, I will always enjoy the Stamford High Class of 1949 and appreciate what it truly means to be a Black Knight. Here’s to old SHS.