Stuyvesant Boys, the 1960 Graduation and the 50th Reunion

by Norman Berdichevsky (October 2010)


Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2004 and is regarded as one of the finest secondary schools in the United States with an outstanding reputation for the academic and professional achievements of those who have been its students. A 1957 survey found that Stuyvesant High School alumni accounted for more Ph.D.s earned in the United States than any other high school. Among its alumni are the current Attorney General Eric Holder (1969), Democratic strategist, David Axelrod (1972), Dick Morris (1964), author and former close advisor to President Bill Clinton, and myself (1960). Another graduate who will be recognized by the general American public was Hollywood actor Jimmy Cagney (1918). There have also been four Nobel Prize Winners and outstanding engineers, scientists, mathematicians, businessmen, CEOs, union leaders, teachers, writers, lawyers, doctors and judges, astronauts, and musicians yet, the country's most prominent African-American (if we except Barak Obama), a distinguished economist, philosopher and historian whose record  of achievements and lasting impact on the country will undoubtedly surpass all of the above named alumni, is given just the shortest mention as a "columnist for the New York Post" in the luxurious 100th anniversary volume 'Stuyvesant High School - The First 100 Years' (Susan E. Meyer; Preface by Frank McCourt; Published by The Campaign for Stuyvesant Alumni(ae) & Friends Endowment, Inc).

I refer to Thomas Sowell, undoubtedly also the most prominent black critic of the policies of Barak Obama, of affirmative action and the whole range of welfare and educational policies designed by the Democratic Party during the last fifty years. He has been a senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University since 1990 and is the recipient of the highest awards including the National Humanities Medal for prolific scholarship in history, economics and political science and the Bradley Prize for intellectual achievement.  

The luxurious glossy One Hundredth Anniversary Album was designed with an obvious liberal political bias that runs through the entire book. Why should it be otherwise when two of the most powerful men in the government and advisors to the President (Attorney General Eric Holder and "strategist" David Axelrod) are held up to today's students as examples of great Stuyvesant achievers? Many of the hundreds of interviews with alumni in the album expound upon how the school was a hotbed of Liberal-Left ideology and why the 1960 Graduation Ceremony which ended in chaos (see page 1 Feature story of the  June 30, 1960 New York Times: Principal Hissed by Students- He Halts Graduation Exercises") was the "harbinger" of the radical 1960s that transformed American society.

Typical of the many remarks in the book casting Stuyvesant in the "vanguard role" of young people whose revolt against a disciplinarian principal, Dr. Leonard J. Fliedner, was an epoch event that deserves national recognition is my classmate Richard Ben-Veniste, who served in the role of Watergate prosecutor, Democratic counsel on the Whitewater Committee and a member of the U.S. Commission on Terrorism.  He is pictured together with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holding a Stuyvesant tee-shirt on page 211. The editors obviously thought this was insufficient and gave Mr. Ben-Veniste an entire page (134) to reminisce with charges that "Dr. Fleidner was paranoiac, a veritable Captain Queeg-like principal who helped me develop a healthy willingness to question authority. This "healthy willingness to question authority" was never used however to question liberal orthodoxy and conventional wisdom or his now hallowed view of the cancelled graduation ceremony after 50 years. The Anniversary Album of course would have considered it remiss if they hadn't reproduced (p.118) the front page of the New York weekly "downtown express" of July 1, 2002 with a photo of former president and serial lecher Bill Clinton at a Stuyvesant graduation ceremony above the headline "Clinton charms Stuy parents and grads." I wondered after reading this, how many parents of Stuyvesant girls would have been charmed if "cool" Bill had been the Principal of a coeducational school in 1960 instead of the "square" Fliedner.

The downplaying of Sowell as a "columnist" is particularly glaring and the reason is not difficult to find when one sees the generous amount of text and photographs allotted in the album to Teachers' Union President Albert Shanker (Stuyvesant graduate of 1946, an iconic union figure, leader of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, and President of the American Federation of Teachers, a favorite target of Sowell). Ostensibly, since Thomas Sowell did not graduate, he technically cannot be considered an "alumnus", yet the same reason was not sufficient grounds to skip prominent mention of another "drop out" among those who spent several years at Stuyvesant but, like Sowell, had to resign to go out and earn a living - the great Jazz Musician, Thelonius Monk who attended Stuyvesant in 1935-37, a decade before Sowell. Monk's Stuyvesant past is accorded recognition by the photo of the U.S. postage stamp issued in his honor and a fragment of a magazine article about his life and work but the book is almost silent on Sowell.

Sowell, who was born in Gastonia, North Carolina moved to Harlem in the care of his aunt and had to support himself at odd jobs in a machine shop, and as a delivery man for Western Union. He dropped out of Stuyvesant at age seventeen. After his discharge from the Marines, Sowell passed the GED examination and enrolled at Howard University, transferring later to Harvard where he graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. degree in economics in 1958. He went on to get a M.A. in Economics from Columbia University in 1959, and a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Chicago. Sowell has a nationally syndicated column distributed that appears in various newspapers, as well as online websites such as the conservative Townhall.com and The Jewish World Review.

Sowell has used impeccable scholarship to demonstrate what all liberals refuse to acknowledge or even contemplate. Many of them including colleagues and former classmates of mine and later Stuyvesant graduates whom I have had conversations over the years have not only not known that Sowell attended Stuyvesant, they have admitted to me that they do not know who he is. This did not surprise me in the least, because as a former Stuyvesant boy from a Jewish-ultra-liberal background who shared many of the same beliefs in my early twenties, I have, unlike them, changed my mind on variety of issues that I once believed I knew everything about.

Contrary to the reigning liberal philosophy of "progressive education" as interpreted by the last fifty years of Democratic Party activists, Dr. Sowell has conclusively demonstrated that the stodgy, backward looking (i.e. conservative both politically and socially) period of Eisenhower and Nixon actually saw more measured improvement and progress for blacks than the JFK-Johnson-Clinton Great Society/Camelot version of transforming American society.

Sowell argues that his examination of the historical record undermines claims about hopelessly deficient black family patterns due to the alleged "heritage of slavery," and maintains that the dependency induced by the welfare state destroyed much that was stable and commendable about previous black family and community life. In the decades immediately following the Civil War, blacks achieved higher employment rates and lower divorce rates than whites. Sowell's bestseller, "Black Rednecks and White Liberals" makes the point that much of lower class black behavior and culture was directly borrowed from poor whites in the pre-Civil War South.

Sowell does have this in common with a large majority of the politically active 1960 grads including me in that he has stated that he was a Marxist during "the decade of my 20s." However, his experience working as a federal government intern during the summer of 1960 caused him to reject Marxism in favor of the free market. He has done research in many different areas and come to the same conclusion time after time that government employees who administer the minimum wage laws care not that they may be causing higher unemployment of the poor by enforcing that law; their primary concern has always been keeping their own jobs secure. In his 1986 "Education: Assumptions versus History", Sowell discusses several all-black public and private schools that  achieved high performance standards and actually outperformed many white schools but declined after the Brown desegregation Supreme Court decision.

What is most salient about Sowell's view in general is his approval of strong discipline (a la Fliedner) and academic excellence as the key to success in overcoming all the environmental barriers of poverty, racial segregation and environment (which he certainly experienced), a view that Jews certainly should/would be expected to endorse. Indeed, a majority of those grads of Jewish background giving their opinion in the 100th Anniversary Album on what made Stuyvesant a great experience for them for which they even had made the sacrifice of giving up female company (the school remained an all boys institution until 1969), was the quality of its faculty, and the "elite character" of the school determined by its admission policy of entrance by examination.
 
 
 
 

I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment at Stuyvesant. It was an expansion of my universe to meet boys from all over the city. I reveled in the knowledge that few if any schools offered courses that excited my interest, grabbed my attention and made me feel that I was upward bound - courses in surveying, telescope building and Russian, even though I soon realized that my principal interests lay in the social sciences and humanities. Russian was offered by a tutor in an after school hours Russian Club although not introduced as a formal subject until a few years later when Stuyvesant became one of the first high schools in the city to offer it.
 

Nevertheless, the prevailing Liberal-Democratic-Jewish ethos of many Stuyvesant  alumni has been reflected in their continued allegiance to the Democratic Party, and support for "affirmative action." These views have been expressed to me by fellow alumni and appear in the pages of the 100th anniversary album. At least a dozen of the reminiscences recorded in the album by alumni (including the girls) describe the "heritage" and ethos of "Stuy" (nobody referred to the school by this idiotic nickname when I attended) as radical, non-conformist, "tolerant" (as if this tolerance had not existed in the past) and multi-cultural, certainly more true today with a large percentage of Asian students and no longer so overwhelmingly Jewish as it was back in the 1960s).

One such female graduate, Susan Jane Gilman (1982), author of "Kiss My Tiara" waxes ecstatic on page 159 that "As precocious, hippier-than-thou children born in the 60s, my classmates and I thumbed our noses at anything mainstream, authoritarian, or parochial. We took pride in the fact that our cheerleading team was all-black and supremely cool - and perversely that our football team had never won a game.....Since proms were considered insipid and fascistic, members of the senior class hosted "anti-proms" at the end of the year---New Wave bacchanalias that might be best described as degenerate."

Apparently, she imagines that her image of what makes/made Stuyvesant "cool" has always been universally shared. It is likely that she never read any of the comments by the many male alumni who had attended Stuyvesant throughout the first fifty years of the school's life, such as the memoirs of the school's most famous graduate, actor Jimmy Cagney, who praised his time at Stuyvesant as the place where he learned to use his fists. In the early years of the school into well into the 1930s, many graduates (as verified by the Anniversary Album and the student guide I received when I entered Stuyvesant in 1957) were intensely proud of their Stuyvesant experience as a preparation for military service. They voiced their enthusiasm for the school's athletic teams and many city-wide championships and achievements in sports in spite of the fact that the school had never had its own grid iron, baseball diamond, basketball court or fencing and rifle gallery. Oh well, that's just as well, they might have liked to go to a degenerate "anti-prom."

A few alumni still retain their deep seated convictions expressed as fact that the 1950s was an era of "witch hunting" by Senator Joe McCarthy and a belief in the innocence of the Rosenbergs as if nothing has emerged over the past sixty years to uncover the full truth revealed in the Venona Files, a long-running secret collaboration of the US and UK intelligence agencies involving cryptanalysis of messages sent by their Soviet counterparts, mostly during World War II. 

It apparently still irks some of my fellow classmates that two other Stuyvesant graduates were involved in what they believe was the "wrong side" of the case. The Jewish judge, Irving Kaufman, class of 1923 and Max Elitcher, class of 1934,  undoubtedly the most injurious witness for the prosecution are not regarded as "notable" in the Album but Morton Sobell (1934), a friend of Julius Rosenberg, is cited in its list of "Notables" at the end of the book as "codefendant in A-bomb trial."

One page appears in the Anniversary Album of the concerted attack by ACORN upon Stuyvesant, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Tech (the  three New York City schools that admit pupils as a result of test scores achieved on a special admissions exam). While ACORN's initial criticism of the admissions policy occurred when the school body was preponderantly Jewish, the most recent 2010 New York City Board of Education statistics show that today the student body is 69.7% Asian,  26.7% Caucasian, 1.7 % African-American and 2.9% Hispanic. As early as the tenure of ultra-Liberal "Republican" Mayor John Lindsay (1966-1973) the assault began on Stuyvesant as an "elite" school. Lindsay argued that the test was culturally biased against Black and Hispanic students and sought to implement an a program of affirmative action. However, protests by parents forced the plan to be scrapped and led to the passage of the "Hecht-Calandra Act" to preserve admissions by examination only. A small number of students "judged" to be "economically disadvantaged" and who were within a few points of the cut-off score were given an extra chance to pass the test.

ACORN published two reports on the city's select schools and their admission tests titled Secret Apartheid and Secret Apartheid II, calling the admission tests a "product of an institutional racism," and claiming that black and Hispanic students did not have access to proper test preparation materials. They proposed initiatives for more DIVERSITY (sacred cow) in the city's gifted and specialized schools demanding that since only a few city districts provide the majority of these schools' students, the admission tests be suspended altogether until the Board of Education show that the students of every school in the system have had access to curricula and instruction to sufficiently prepare them for the test. These proposals have been rejected by the City but continue to make themselves heard. As recently as August 10, 2010, Thomas Sowell wrote a blistering attack "Cheering Immaturity", on all those who would do away with the admission tests to the city's select high schools (FrontPageMag.com)


At my 40th reunion of Stuyvesant graduates, in 2000, the chairman of the gathering in the old auditorium spoke as if he were a wounded and scarred veteran of the Spanish Civil War recalling the graduation ceremony that ended in chaos. One of the first speakers at a gathering in the auditorium began with the words...."I have just one thing to tell you all now after 40 years.....Fxxk Fliedner!" This adolescent remark elicited a great cheer and ovation from the alumni of the Class of 1960 present but left me saddened and even angry that so many guys after 40 years, so highly celebrated the maligning of a man long dead, who was put into a most difficult situation, one whose dilemma I believe, those who had gone into the teaching profession, would surely appreciate. On the contrary, they were still reliving this moment of the graduation debacle as nostalgia, much as most of us would over reruns of Fonzie from "Happy Days." I know that my parents had looked forward to the graduation ceremony in anticipation in what would have been an extremely rare event of family congeniality and were profoundly disappointed. My father died a few months later and I regret that we did not have this opportunity to share.  

Cancelling the ceremony took place before the anticipated high point for which almost all parents attended - the distribution of each student's diploma. Close to two thousands parents had no idea what provoked the students' behavior. The initial inclination of many was undoubtedly to support the principal's wish not to be openly humiliated. Dr. Fliedner however caused maximum displeasure by postponing the awarding of our high school diplomas to give us a "lesson in manners."

I feel in the light of the many years that have passed with all the turmoil of the sixties, and all that followed the revolution in social mores, the moral and political scene in America, the unanticipated increase in violent crime, broken families, cult fanaticism, the infantilism of much popular culture, gratuitous blood and guts drenched movies and the lack of simple civility in our present culture and the catastrophic decline in educational standards across most of the country, that Thomas Sowell would probably agree that Dr. Fliedner had done the right thing by cancelling the ceremony.

Much comment and space were given to finding a political motivation for the demonstration - booing and hissing in the anonymity of a darkened theater at the mention of an award to a student from The American Legion, although a few such outcries could be heard above the general din of applause and cheering earlier in the ceremony. Dr. Fliedner was known as a disciplinarian, but hardly exceptional for 1960 and his decision was supported by the Superintendent of Schools.

Even the President of the school's Alumni Association had noticed the hissing of Dr. Fliedner's name both before and after the American Legion Award and tried to signal to the disruptive individuals in the audience to cut it out. Dr. Fliedner did indeed bring ruin upon himself by his inability to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and blurted out ....I will now present you diplomas which some of you deserve"  (or perhaps it was... "which some of you don't deserve" with the "don't " very muffled). There is still a difference of opinion among us ear-witnesses which version is the accurate one. Of course in either version, the implication was that some of us didn't deserve to graduate. Later, he rationalized that this was not meant to be literally taken but only a "facetious remark."

No, I won't be going to the 50th reunion on November 6th. I enjoyed the 40th but to my surprise and disappointment, no more than 135 of the more than 700 graduates of the 1960 graduating class showed up, and none of those with whom I had lost all touch. I have the premonition that those who stayed away then didn't necessarily share in the predominant views, opinions and recollections of a majority of those who appear in the pages of the 100th Anniversary Album. We spent a few hours in the old school building on 15th Street and then got a tour of the fabulous new building and its state-of-the-art facilities on Chambers Street, not far from where the twin towers of the World Trade Center had stood, (the new Stuyvesant was used as a first aid station in the days immediately following Sept. 11, 2001 and nine Stuyvesant grads were among those killed). It was also a thrill to walk again along streets I had known and loved from Union Square to Washington Square and historic Cooper Union where Lincoln delivered his great address that ensured his nomination for the 1860 election.

I still enjoy friendships with several of the 1960 grads with whom I disagree on politics and other matters. They like to tease me, reminding me that I was an enthusiastic supporter of Castro and the Cuban Revolution. I was also a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates (worst National League team throughout the early 1950s) as a sort of "revolutionary radical rejection" of the colossally wealthy New York Yankees (I always rooted for the underdog then) but had my last laugh when they won the 1960 World Series in seven games although they were outscored in runs by the Yankees by 55 to 27, and were shutout twice. No doubt, 1960 was a great year for underdogs.

In preparation for the 50th reunion in November, there has been a website to coordinate correspondence between all alumni whether or not they plan to attend the reunion in New York and it has helped bring grads together after these fifty years. It has been a marvelous tool to reunite friendships and to make us aware of the somber reality of our mortality. I won't be going this time but I will be with the alumni in spirit above and beyond any differences in politics, careers and life styles.......Our school hymn goes....

Our Strong band can ne'er be broken
Formed in Stuyv'sant High.
Far surpassing wealth unspoken
Sealed by friendship's tie
 
Chorus:
Stuyvesant High School now and ever
Deep graven on each heart.
Shall be found unwavering true
When we from life shall part.
 
High School Life at best is passing
Gliding swiftly by,
Then let us pledge in word and deed
Our love for Stuyvesant High
 
 
 



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