Staples Class of ’61 Zooms Between Yesterday And Today

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.

The “new” Staples, circa 1959. The auditorium (center left) and gym (largest building in the rear) are the only original structures that remain today.

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.

A small part of the attendees at the Class of 1961 Zoom reunion.

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 outside 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.

Junior prom, 1960.

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.

(Want to see what members of the Class of 1961 have accomplished, and are up to today? Click here. For the website homepage, click here.)

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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 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.

Pat Ferrone’s 5th grade class, Coleytown Elementary School.

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.”’

The Bedford Junior High School Class of 1958.

Then Staples…

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.

The cover of the 1961 graduation program.

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!

 

16 responses to “Staples Class of ’61 Zooms Between Yesterday And Today

  1. Hi Pat! I’m Tuchy’s sister. It was so nice to see him remembered by his close friend! He was also inspired by the “You’re not college material” crap told to him probably by the same counselor who told you. He graduated Summa Cum Laude with his BS degree from UB and had a stellar business career, as I’m sure you know. The Italian thing was still around during my school career. If I am not mistaken, my kind was left off the invitation lists of many of the formal dances. And you’re right, Three of my brothers were known as Palmer during school in an attempt to make them seem more waspy. Nice to finally “meet” you.

  2. Charles Taylor

    Dan
    You’ve done it again! What a wonderful tribute to our class of 1961 and to our Diversity! Thank you!

  3. Great post, Dan! Everyone there is four years older than me, but I do recognize many of them. Mike Borchetta looks like his father. If I had two dollars for every time I went in to his parents’ store to get a ham sandwich on a hard roll, I’d be richer than Bill Gates! Joe Valiente, the former fireman, looks exactly the same. The guy doesn’t age. So many I’d like to comment on. Some knew my cousin, Mike, too.

  4. As I read Pat Ferrone Land’s story I am mindful of how some things changed and how some things likely never will. Growing up in Westport (Staples ’74) I was totally unaware of the ethnic segregation in town. That Saugatuck was the Italian neighborhood never occurred to me. That the Saugatuck kids were expected to be low achievers never occurred to me. Sure I was aware of the “greasers” who hung around the breezeway between the gym and the shop building but other than that being where they hung out, not much occurred to me. We all had places at school where we hung out.

    With regard to bullying – yeah, nothing changed. I doubt it ever will. I was bullied all through school. Not much support from faculty and staff. Not much understanding for a kid with ADHD who lived on the edge of the spectrum.

    I suppose the good thing was that there was very little overt antisemitism by the time I was in high school.

    I do, most certainly, feel for you, Pat. That shit stays with us forever.

  5. I couldn’t have said it any better. I moved to Westport in 1960 and began school at Bedford Junior High.what an eye opener for a 12 year old- talk about blatant cast and class system..

  6. As someone who loves reading about local history, I am practically mesmerized not only by the stories and photos in this post, but also by those contained in the links to the ‘61 website. Two thumbs up for the class of ‘61 organizers!

    Among the things that struck me here: I can’t get over how “old-looking” the kids are in the junior prom photo. Maybe it’s the hairstyle and dress but they look so much more mature than high school juniors.

    I found Pat’s story quite moving; I think the overall situation had changed significantly by the time of our graduation 10 years later—at least I never experienced or witnessed that, but then again maybe I was oblivious.

    One of my friends, Andy Lewis (who didn’t come out until he was in his 40s and, like me, was a bit of a geek), commented at our 25th or 30th reunion that one of the things he really liked about our class was that he felt it was not characterized or dominated by traditional cliques.

    Coming back to all of the vintage pics contained within the ‘61 website: if any of the alums of Saugatuck El have any photos taken inside the school in the auditorium or the library, I would love to see them. Thanks.

  7. Lucy Weberling

    I was a ‘61 graduate. Moved to Westport right before 8 th grade.of course, bring a “ commuter kid”, I felt “ out of it”- BUT a lot of that is just bring a screwed up adolescent- unsure of one’s place in the particular society. I was one who kind of “ ran with everyone.” Not really in one group. And I still am that way. Frankly , I loved hanging with the car guys, the music folks, the arts, and just plain old loved it. Frankly also, I NEVER saw the Jewish kids as “ lesser.” In fact, I believed them to kind of run the school along with the student council types. I guess I was oblivious to that- I was too busy worrying about my own part in westport society, as we all were.

  8. By the way..those years until I graduated from Staples in 1966 are my very best years as a youth. My choice was to be one of the “Greasers” because it was the most honest, enriching and fun place to be. I stay in touch with many of my friends even though I moved to the west coast many years ago.

  9. Danna Marie Gaynor

    I was so moved and honestly shocked to read about the caste system and the treatment Pat and others experienced even from shopkeepers.. I graduated in ’62 and knew many of those in ’61. I moved to Westport the summer before 6th grade, My first year very difficult. I went to Greens Farms, was young for my class, actually still liked to play with dolls! The social sophistication was challenging. I remember specifically being literally kicked in the chest by a girl with curly red hair because her “boyfriend” asked me to dance. I believe there were chaperones, but no one seemed to notice. I too was told by my guidance counselor that I was not college material, I can picture him, but can’t think of his name. I refused ever to meet with him again and managed the college application process successfully without his help. All in all, I wound up quite happy and glad to have been raised in Westport.

  10. Laura Lawhon-Butler

    Hey Uncle Mike nice to see you and Aunt Martha participated… Grandpa’s Borchetta’s deli was a part of Westport for decades and an indelible part of us. I went to Saugatuck El as a little kid until we moved to California and I was surprised we didn’t get the holiest Jewish holidays off at school in our new home. .As a child of The Church of The Assumption this was an added plus in those early days in Westport . I only attended one year of Staples(as Class of 68) and had a great time.. I chose to be part of The Crest and not The Big Top for my Junior year there. One night I came in from a date (with my forever close to my heart Donnie DePalma). My dad (Peter Horelick) and his pals for a joke went to the Big Top and left their softdrink containers on the coffee table… Crest/Big Top was the only deliniation I saw in that year. I heard more Italian slang from my friends “Hey Paisano” and that sort than I ever heard in California….glad I missed the insults some experienced although I remember mom (Rose Borchetta) telling me how my dad’s siblings were all told not to marry Italians in the 1940’s and every last one of them did.

  11. Mary Schmerker

    This post brings up so many memories. Let’s start by saying my maiden name was Cookman. I was Staples Class of 1958, the last to graduate from Riverside Ave. My brother Corky Cookman, would have been class of 1961.However, at that time many of the boys were sent off to Private School to finish their High School years and Corky was one of them. I enjoyed seeing so many names of people I knew either as his classmates or siblings of my classmates and sad to see his name in the deceased column. It was nice to see him recognized however. I have several pictures I would be happy to share with the class of 1961 that were not included. One is of a Football team. No year or names but I am sure that someone would know who they are. I also have several pictures of the Little League JETS team with names and newspaper articles. Also, no surprize to anyoine who knew Corky, several pictures and newspaper articles about the Downshifters. If someone from the class is interested perhaps you could e-mail Dan and he could put me in touch with you or I could send copies to Dan. About “You Are Not College Material.” Sadly there were lots of negative opinions about Saugatuck and Italians. It was there before the 1950’s building boom and influx of people from New York but I think it must have become more overt.
    It is horrifying to hear that a teacher or teachers actually called someone out about their skin color. Even as someone who was a native of Westport and who had parents who graduated from Staples I was told: “You are not college material. Take the general courses.” I guess because my Dad worked at Sikorsky and was not in a managerial position I was pegged as not college material. I won’t bore you with how I got around that but I did. I was determined. When I applied for a scholarship I was told I was not a good candidate and turned down. Well, I got accepted at Russell Sage, I worked on campus and I graduated with a double major and have done just fine in life. Westport, sometime in the mid 1950’s had hired a new Supertindent of Schools who was determined to put Westport Schools “on the map” and he succeeded. There was a deep concern to have the percentage of applclants who applied to colleges and were accepted to be high. It was successful. Some of us just saw ourselves differently and succeeded despite being discouraged and by so doing helped to boost the percentage. Congratulations Class of 1961. Carry on! One final note, I need new glasses and Covid has kept me from getting them. I have reread this post twice and made corrections. Please forgiive the ones I missed!

  12. A. David Wunsch

    I am grateful to Pat Ferrone and Peter Kelman for bringing up the social stratification of our high school era. I graduated in 1956, a 16 year old science nerd who had emigrated from Brooklyn in 1953. I haven’t forgotten the anti-Semitism of my classmates : the boy who referred to me as “a Hebe,” the one who said (not realizing I am a Jew) that he didn’t like the city of Bridgeport because it contained “too many kikes.” Oy veh, I could go on.
    I only recall two Blacks in my Staples days: Charles Bradley and Herman Smith. Am sorry to confess I’m unsure of their first names. What is distressing to me now is that no one questioned how small this number was.

    One delightful teacher of that era was Anthony Arciola whom I had for English. He was of Italian and Saugatuck origin, a perfect gentlemen, a Yale graduate who wore three piece suits. And, best of all, he was a fine teacher.
    He helped break a stereotype.
    ADW Staples 1956

  13. A. David Wunsch

    One thing I should have added: the homophobia present in the high school in that era is shameful. I hope it doesn’t persist.
    ADW

  14. Westport classrooms were also divided by intelligence, which no doubt did have an ethnic correlation. My class at Burr Farms only had 2 sections, and I remember during a class discussion when students casually referred to the other section as the “dumb class” that our teacher seemed genuinely shocked that we all knew which was the smart class and which was the dumb class. That division probably produced for those of us in the “smart class” more contempt towards the students in the other section than ethnicity and religion did.

    • Mary Schmerker

      I was also aware of the class division by Jr. High anyway. Yes, we did know who was who…..Sad!

    • There was some form of tracking that started in, I think, math classes at Coleytown El and there was definitely an Honor Society at Coleytown Jr High. But I don’t recall any ethnic correlation—or people even thinking about ethnic correlation—and I have no recollection whatsoever of the kids in the Honor Society looking down on others. Believe me, I would have gladly traded a couple of A’s at the very least for knowing how to play guitar well and being part of a band.

      My older brother did not do nearly as well as I did on report cards, etc. I certainly never looked down on him—in fact, I always looked up to him the way Beav did to Wally.

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