Staples High School’s Class of 1943 had a less than joyful year.
In the midst of World War II, students with last period free left school early. Some worked for local industries, making items needed for the war effort. Others harvested crops on local farms, replacing older men who had been called up to serve.
Bill Torno’s shop classes built rifle racks, each holding 32 guns, for the Westport Defense Training Unit. He also taught welding. Miss Ossi’s home economics students made nearly 100 cotton hospital bags.
Boys headed to the YMCA every Tuesday for mandatory Commando training. Instruction included diving from the side of a burning ship, and swimming underwater while oil burned on the surface.
When they graduated in June, 10 students — exactly 10 percent of the entire class of 100 — were not there. Stars next to their names meant they had already left school, for the armed forces. The yearbook was dedicated to them.
Amid all the grim news, one announcement stood out. Valedictorian David Hughes received several awards: a DAR citizenship medal, the RPI math prize and a $10 English prize.
He also earned a $100 scholarship from the Staples PTA. That was the very first gift from the organization now known as Staples Tuition Grants.
Hughes made the most of his award. He went to Harvard; married Janet Brandon of Staples’ Class of 1944, and became Mason Professor of Music at his alma mater. He traveled widely, and retired to coastal Maine.
In the more than 7 decades since Hughes’ scholarship, STG has grown into one of Westport’s most important community groups. Today they award college and trade school tuition grants of up to $6,000 a year, to Staples seniors. Scholarships — which are strictly need-based — can be renewed each year during college.
Last year, STG provided $300,000 to 115 deserving Staples seniors and alumni.
Staples Tuition Grants has provided literally tens of millions of dollars in scholarships. That’s been life-changing for thousands of students.
The men and women who make up the STG committee perform some of the most important volunteer jobs in town. They scrutinize applications. They interview applicants. And they raise all those funds.
It’s not easy to ask Westporters — and Staples alums — to contribute to Staples Tuition Grants. The perception is that everyone here can afford college.
That’s certainly not the case. The thank-you notes — and heartfelt speeches during the awards ceremony every June — testify to the value of what STG does.
The holiday season — with so many competing demands on time and money — is also not the easiest time to ask for money. But STG believes that now is when donors will realize how far their funds will go.
Many awards honor specific individuals (click here for that list). A newly named award — the Westport Families Scholarship — is a great way to honor favorite teachers.
STG is reaching out to former awardees for donations. The board also wants to hear stories of how their scholarships have helped. If you received a grant — any time from the 1940s to today — email firstname.lastname@example.org, and let them know what it meant.
Meanwhile, David Hughes’ legacy lives on. The first Staples Tuition Grants honoree died last year. But his daughter lives in Queens. She has been invited to the annual ceremony next spring.
There, she will see the magic that began 74 years ago — in some of America’s darkest days — continues brightly.
(Click here to contribute to Staples Tuition Grants. You can also mail a check to Staples Tuition Grants, PO Box 5159, Westport, CT 06881-5159. On Christmas Eve, STG members and recipients will wrap gifts at Barnes & Noble, in exchange for tips. For more information on STG, click here. Hat tip: Fred Cantor.)