The Staples High School Class of 1961 was the first to spend all 3 years at the “new” campus on North Avenue.
Some students were the first at Coleytown Elementary or Long Lots Junior High, when those schools opened.
Some of their parents were part of the baby boom families flooding Westport in the 1950s. Others had parents who had been here for a few generations — either as blue-blood Yankees or Italian immigrants.
Like many classes, they held reunions, every 5 or 10 years. As expected, numbers dwindled.
The 50th, in 2011, was a big one. Hard work and internet sleuthing drew 108 classmates (including some who had moved away after elementary school or junior high, graduated late or quit school). It might have been their last hurrah.
But the passage of time does something. Two years later, a group gathered to celebrate their 70th birthdays. In 2015 they had a year-early 55th celebration.
Plans for a 60th reunion were derailed by COVID. But if a global pandemic reminded classmates of their vulnerability — and kept them from traveling getting together, even if they wanted to — it also provided an opportunity.
Peter Kelman had been a reluctant reunion-goer. But he got roped into helping with the 50th reunion, however. And as the 60th loomed, he saw a chance to “break through the cliques”: athletes, hoods, nerds, popular crowd, artsy crowd, student council types, top students and more.
Kelman wanted to “expose” those cliques, and “encourage empathy and understanding that most in the class never had.”
Like so much else, the Class of 1961’s reunion would be on Zoom. But this would not be an awkward video event, where half the people talked at once, and the other half tried to but were on mute.
A hundred or so classmates joined the session, a few days ago. Twenty-five volunteered to speak, for 5 minutes each. I was honored to be invited to listen in.
Kelman chose carefully. He wanted people with stories to tell — ones that would “explicitly or implicitly cut through people’s superficial ideas of their classmates.”
For example, Jerry Melillo — part of an old-time Italian family — has become one of the world’s pre-eminent climate change researches.
Kelman cast a wide net. Don Law produced some of Boston’s biggest concerts; he’s now president of Live Nation New England. Thea Vierling has a second career as a beekeeper. Morgan Smith flew planes in Vietnam. Deborah Fortson relied on music to help her care for her mother during her battle with dementia. Joe Valiante volunteered at Ground Zero for several months after 9/11, and gave President Bush a firefighter’s badge that’s now displayed at the presidential library.
The stories were wide-ranging, intriguing, and full of the real-life details that show the many paths that unfold after high school. Taken together, they showed too the power that a Staples education provided for a very diverse group of young — and today, much older — people.
But the most powerful presentations came from a pair of speakers in the middle of the program.
Kelman himself talked about the “Westport Caste System.” Moving to Westport in 1956, he made friends with a wide group of classmates. But it was also clear, he said, that even as an assimilated, non-observant Jew he was in the middle of that caste system.
WASPs were at the top, Kelman said. At the bottom were some of his Italian friends, stereotyped academically and socially.
Many Jewish kids “strove for the top” group, he said. “And we looked down on the others.”
Kelman then read a story from Pat Ferrone Land, who was unable to attend. She wrote about her guidance counselor who told her not to take college courses, and how she was excluded from many activities.
Those experiences, she said, fueled her desire to prove the doubters wrong. They helped shape the rest of her life. (See below for her story.)
It was a reunion unlike any other that Class of ’61 has had — and unlike anyone else’s. There were no worries about booking venues and motel rooms, making small talk or looking great.
All anyone had to do was listen to everyone else. And they did. More than 2 1/2 hours after they logged on, nearly 100 people were still on the screen.
So what’s next?
“I’m going to do everything I can to tighten these new bonds,” Kelman says.
He’s looking too to pull in classmates who did not attend — and find those they don’t have contact information for.
After all, the 65th reunion is not far away.
Here is Pat Ferrone Land’s story for the Staples High School Class of 1961 reunion:
I was the youngest of a large Italian family in Brooklyn. My father and his siblings owned and lived in an apartment building above the family bakery.
The family purchased land on Newtown Turnpike in Westport as a summer retreat, much to the outrage of local Yankees. Italians did not belong on that side of town!
Summers were spent at Compo Beach, and with friends made through Assumption Church.
In Brooklyn, I attended a Catholic school that reflected the diversity of our neighborhood: multiracial, multi-nationalities and culturally diverse.
I thrived in school, consistently being at the head of my class. By 4th grade we were writing cursive, multiplying and dividing fractions, and reading for knowledge and pleasure.
Due to a change in city planning, my family chose to make Westport our home. I was enrolled at Bedford Elementary. From my first day there, I was met with condescension and indifference by the primarily WASP class. I was rebuffed as I attempted to make friends. I was blessed to be seated next to Mindy Pollack, who was welcoming and kind.
The exclusion by fellow classmates was painful. The message was clear: “stick to your own kind.” I did, with the good fortune of meeting Louie DeLallo, Jack Jackson, and Petey and Carlo Tucci Palmer. They took me under their protective wings and we remained lifelong friends.
By 5th grade, due to Westport’s population increase, I and my Italian guardian angels were transferred to the new Coleytown Elementary school. While studying countries of the world, my teacher said, “Pat stand up. This is what an olive-skinned person with kinky hair looks like.” I was mortified and embarrassed.
In 6th grade, my best friend at school was a WASP. One day she invited me to her home to play. But when we got there, I was not permitted to enter the house. Message received.
Then came junior high. Sadly, many of my Coleytown friends were assigned to Long Lots. I was sent to Bedford Junior High, where I found myself enrolled in the lower-tier classes.
I approached former acquaintances from Bedford Elementary, only to be rebuffed. I became invisible to my former best friend.
During my elementary and junior high years I would go downtown to my family’s laundromat, visiting the library and shops along Main Street. Most owners welcomed the skinny girl with the Brooklyn accent — with the exception of the lady in the Map and Book Store: “Dear, your kind does not belong in this shop.”
9th grade was the year of the Royal Knights. The Italian girls paraded around in the boys’ jackets. One day some of the WASP girls began wearing them as well. I thought, “Finally, we’re being accepted and coming together.”’
My guidance counselor told me, “Your kind is not college material. You should take the secretarial program.” My Brooklyn moxie kicked in. I told her I would take college prep and secretarial.
The summer of junior year, Lorrie Tremonte drove a group of us to the Duchess. A carload of boys from school parked alongside and began calling us “whores.” They didn’t see Johnny Izzo in the car. He jumped out and confronted them. They said they were joking and didn’t mean it.
There was a clear delineation of social groups at Staples. By choice, the Italians parked in the lot by the industrial arts building. At Compo we sat by the brick lockers. “Stick to your own kind” was embedded in our psyche.
Graduation arrived and my new life began. It’s amazing how even negative experiences in our younger years can end up impacting our lives positively.
My Coleytown teacher made me an avid non-sun worshiper. My skin became the paler tone of my mother. I’ve never had a positive test for skin cancer.
My guidance counselor’s comment made me the “I’ll show you” kid.
At 18, I became the secretary to the administrator at Norwalk Hospital. I took night classes to improve my grades in order to enter nursing school.
I became an ER nurse, and was chosen to be on Governor Grasso’s task force to designate specialty hospitals in the state.
I went on to become a school nurse. I was named School Nurse of the Year by the town of Fairfield in 1997.
And I was inducted into an International Honor Society at Fairfield University.
The years of exclusion in Westport served me well in my later life and profession. I learned to accept those who were different from me, to celebrate diversity, to show compassion and empathy for the less fortunate, and to reach out to the underdog.
I don’t mean to say that my years in Westport were all darkness. I was embraced by many kind and sensitive students and faculty.
Let me end with a line from a Frank Sinatra song: “But now the days are short, I’m in the autumn of my years.”
It has been said that in the fall, the leaves on the trees blossom and become their true colors.
I wish you all a time of blossoming, rebirth and joy!