Tomorrow afternoon, 483 Staples seniors graduate. For them, the high school’s 129th commencement ceremony is a time to look ahead.
The other day, Mary Schmerker looked back. She thought about her own graduation, in 1958. That was the first one held in the auditorium of the brand new North Avenue campus.
But Mary was thinking much further back. She found a graduation program from 1937. Her mother, Ramona Otis, was in that class — and her grandmother, Mrs. Arthur Otis, was the musical accompanist.
That long-ago event — when President Roosevelt was just beginning his 2nd term, the Golden Gate Bridge opened and the Hindenburg crashed — took place at Bedford Junior High School (now Kings Highway Elementary). Staples (the current Saugatuck El) had no auditorium of its own.
The graduating class of 88 students was divided into 3 groups: college course, general course and commercial course.
There were just 14 teachers. Among them: Staples legends Eli Berton, Gladys Mansir, Rhoda Merritt (later Rhoda Harvey), Walter Stevenson and Roland Wachob.
The graduation ceremony included several awards. The PTA gave one for highest 4-year average in English. The honoree (not listed) received $5.
The printed program was highlighted by a letter from Connecticut governor Wilbur Cross. It was more than a formality.
Governor Cross wrote:
I shall never forget the pleasant year I spent in Westport as the second principal of Staples High School. It was the academic year 1885-86. During that time I was very closely associated with Mr. Horace Staples who was then 85 years old.
Cross was not just the 22-year-old principal. He also taught Latin, Greek, English literature and geometry. One student memorized the entire first book of “Paradise Lost.”
“I still have a warm heart for the Staples High School,” Governor Cross concluded.
Cross did not preside over a graduation ceremony. That was still a year away. The school had opened a year earlier, so the 1st 4-year graduates did not receive diplomas until 1887.
There were only 6.
So — as Staples prepares for its 129th commencement ceremony — let’s give a shout-out to its 1st-ever class of graduates: Nellie Elwood, Florence Fyfe, Hope Lewis, Bessie Marvin, Lena Morehouse and Josephine West.
Yes, that 1st graduating class was all girls. The boys had left school, to work on Westport’s farms.
A mere 33 years later, those 6 graduates won the right to vote.
Ten years after that, they might have voted for their former principal, in his race for governor of Connecticut.