Downshifting Back In Time

They’re in their 70s now. But the men and women of Staples’ Class of 1960 who gathered today retain the youthful spirit — and rebelliously optimistic nature — of their heady, wonderful high school days.

The setting was the Westport Library. That seems a bit incongruous, for this was a reunion of Downshifters. That’s the hot rod club that flourished here in the 1950s and ’60s.


But the Downshifters were not hoodlums. One was president of his class; another became a liberal political activist.

The Downshifters had a court system. Anyone caught peeling out of the Staples parking lot had to deal with the club’s discipline. Cops who nabbed members for speeding let the group handle it.

They offered public service safety checks at Famous Artists School — founder Albert Dorne was a big Downshifters supporter — and had a car show in the police station parking lot.

The YMCA provided meeting space. At one banquet, a clergyman gave an invocation.

Parents Magazine named the Downshifters one of the 14 outstanding youth groups in the country. (“There must have been a father in town who worked for them,” someone quipped.)

Still, they were high school kids. Which is to say: no angels.

Mike James, with part of his video presentation.

Mike James, with part of his video presentation.

Mike James and Charlie Taylor led today’s event. It drew 30 or so former Downshifters, girlfriends and others (including Gordon Hall, a social studies teacher at the time who still lives in town).

Mike interspersed a history of the club with some social observations. “We were way ahead in both cool and cars,” he said. “But we built our cars. They weren’t given to us, like the rich kids.”

He described the role that music — especially jazz and rock ‘n’ roll — played in his and his friends’ teenage lives.

And what lives they were. Mike Katz sold tickets to anyone who wanted to watch him drive his 1948 Chevy off a cliff. (Principal Stan Lorenzen put a quick stop to that.)

They haunted La Joie’s junkyard in Norwalk, and another in Danbury. They traveled to drag strips in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine.

One member skipped school to attend a car show in New Jersey. When he forged an excuse note, vice principal Tommy Thompson nailed him: He’d spelled his mother’s name wrong.

A magazine story on the Downshifters.

A magazine story on the Downshifters. The “radical rod” shown was Eliot Willauer’s. It was a ’32 Ford.

The Downshifters made growing up in Westport memorable — and those memories remain, 55 years later. Soon after Charlie Taylor moved to Westport from rural Kentucky, he went hunting. A state policeman saw him sauntering down the Sherwood Island with a rifle, and put a quick end to that.

Charlie’s introduction to Staples as a sophomore might have been rough. He fancied himself James Dean, in a non-James Dean town. But Lance Gurney took Charlie under his wing, and introduced him to the Downshifters. His life here was forever changed.

The Downshifters and their friends sifted through all those memories today. It was a wonderful morning.

xxx former Downshifters gathered at the Westport Library today.

11 former Downshifters gathered at the Westport Library today. Mike James is 2nd from left; Charlie Taylor is on the far right.

When it was over, a former hot rodder asked if all the stories would be on “06880.” “I don’t want my grandchildren to know all this,” he half-joked.

Don’t worry. His grandkids don’t want him to know everything they’re up to as teenagers today either.

Then again, let’s hope they’re making their own adolescent, funny-then-and-funnier now, life-on-the-edge memories. Which — if they’re lucky — they’ll share with their still-good friends at their own 55th reunion, which comes up sooner than they’ll realize in 2070.


16 responses to “Downshifting Back In Time

  1. mary schmerker

    This brought so many smiles for me and memories. My brother Corky Cookman was one of the original Downshifters. One of the first newspaper articles was taken in our back yard in my brother’s model A roadster.
    I have a copy of the letter sent out by the YMCA to the parents telling them that Parent’s Magazine would be featuring them. I have fond memories of many of the group gathering in our garage to work on their cars. Thank you for the memories.

  2. Oh, if you missed this program, you really missed a part of Westport’s fascinating history! The enthusiasm some 55 years later was palpable in the packed to capacity Seminar room at the library. Thanks, Michael and Charlie and all the other ten former Downshifters, for a great presentation!

  3. Dan – Do you have the names of the other guys in the picture?

    • Sorry – I don’t. Can anyone else help out? THANKS!

      • Loretta Hallock sends along these IDs:

        Peter Hannan – black shirt
        Bob Swift – orange shirt
        Sam Arciola – third from right (Class of ’62)
        Chip Platow – second from right (Class of ’62)

        She adds, “I guess Michael Douglas didn’t show!”

        • Here are the ones I recognize: from left: Tayler Bingham (`59), Michael James, Lance Gurney, Tom Stoddard, Peter Hannan, someone hiding behind that I can see in a photo I snapped (but don’t recognize), Dave Lovell, orange shirt isn’t Bob Swift because he didn’t come to reunion, Beau James in black shirt in back, Sam Arciola (`62), Chip Platow (`62) and Charlie Taylor (`61).

          • Linda Gramatky Smith

            My mistake. It was George Swift from class of ’60 who didn’t come to the reunion. Guy in orange shirt IS Bob Swift, a Downshifter from another class. And the guy hidden in the back row is Ronnie Schlack, now living in Norwalk. Excuse my goof.

  4. What a great event for a great group of guys. The Downshifters were a vital part of the Westport scene in the 50’s and 60’s it’s true. I love the fact that the police would let the group deal with any member who peeled out of the Staples parking lot. They did many good deeds but they did peel out in a few other locations here and there – boys will be boys – keeping things lively. Would love to know the names of the members in the photo. I recognize Mike James of course – is Bob Swift there?(miss Robert Roll ,Mike Youngman and John Ward class of 1960). Mr. Hall? One of my favorite teachers-(he introduced us to beautiful classical music and American/European History).. where is he? Now what about the DeMolay Club? Where are those fellas?

    • Gordon Hall and his wife still live in Westport. Hard to believe they taught these guys (and girls)!

      • AND “Mr. Hall” and his wife (Dorothy/Dot) came to our dinner last night and it was wonderful to be able to talk with them. They are in their early 80s and seem much, much younger!

    • Hey Linda….
      Sorry to tell you that Robert Roll (we all called him Charlie) died quite a while ago. In addition to Staples class of “60 graduates, he and I were roommates at the U.S. Army Language school in Monterey, California in 1961. We learned Chinese Mandarin! He was in the Air Force and I was in the Navy.
      I talked with his widow Ginger Aiken, also our classmate, at our 50th reunion.
      I also found out that John Ward died at a very early age as well.
      Other Hi-Y members that I know we’ve lost are Doug Jansen, Roger Matthews, and Dick Samose.
      I’ve lost touch with Mike Youngman, but I believe he’s in Vermont.

  5. Oh, I just remembered the of the fellows I mentioned :Robert Roll, Mike Youngman and John Ward – I think they were Hi-Y .
    Hi-Y… anyone remember that club?
    Hope the 55th Reunion is going strong and I do wish I was there.

  6. A. David Wunsch

    I was at Staples before the Downshifters days, graduating in 1956. I want to point out that there was a simplicity and transparency to automobiles the students owned that allowed us to work on them. Quite a few of us owned Model A Fords.which had been made from 1928-31. Mine cost 75 dollars (it was 25 years old) and I was able to replace the carburetor myself, buying a new one at Western Auto (in Westport) for less than 10 dollars. The engine was a straightforward flat head four cylinder design.You could pop the top off the distributor in a second and it would be obvious how it worked. Changing the points was no big deal. . There was no fuel pump. Gravity and the natural suction of the engine did the trick.
    The Model A was popular with several female students. .I remember that Ellen Miles and Joan Weiss each had one although I don’t recall their working on them.

    Automobiles today lack this kind of simplicity. The garages have computers for repairs and I suspect most students don’t know much about what’s going on under the hood. .

    • Great points, David. I’d add that driver’s ed is no longer taught as part of the Staples curriculum (it’s all after school, mostly private), and there is no longer an auto shop (or a metal shop). There is a “wood shop,” but it’s now called “technology education” — computer-based designing of wooden structures.

  7. Loretta Santella Hallock

    That is definitely Bob Swift in the orange shirt!!