I remember the day mom walked me to my first day of school.
It was Kindergarten and I remember the walk as if it were yesterday; it was September, 1960. There was a lot of confusion, so many children and they were all lined up against the building, some quiet, some teary eyed. I was quiet. So began my first day at St. Mary’s School (SMS). I did not know it, but I would spend the next nine years of my impressionable years there before graduating on June 13, 1969.
During those years at St. Mary’s I made quite a few friends. Some would continue on with me to Nutley High School while others would disperse to other schools, not to be seen again, well not quite. I never forgot those classmates despite all the years that came and went. I was always hoping that there would be a class reunion that someone would host, but no, nothing to my knowledge came. Then one day two years ago while scrolling the internet I came across the St. Mary’s Grammar School site which hosted dozens of photos of its members. Scrolling down through all the photos I came across a photo of four of my classmates from what was described as the All Classes St. Mary’s Reunion. I was blown away. There they were, four of my former classmates looking terrific. I further learned that there had been two such All Classes Reunions, 2009 and 2011. I was both elated and disappointed. Somehow felt cheated. How is it that I had not heard of these reunions? Well, they had come and gone and there was nothing to be done with that, so life continued on. But that photo was never forgotten. It would resurface to the for front of my mind from time to time.
Fast forward to September 8, 2018, evening of my 45th Nutley High School (NHS) Class Reunion. Six of my former SMS classmates were there and we had a great time reminiscing about our former schools, particularly the grammar school days at SMS. Toward the end of the evening and during a conversation I had with one of the SMS classmates I said to her, “why don’t you start up a class reunion for SMS, after all, next year would mark our 50th anniversary since graduating from that institution”. I did not use the word institution. Her response was, “Nick, just do it.” I had a lot to think about on the ride home that night. A 50th year reunion would be a great event, but was I the one to “just do it”? Me? I was one of the quiet ones in school, certainly there were others that could, would, should just do it. Later I raised the interest I had in a 50th reunion with my wife. Her response was that, “it would require a lot of commitment.” My response was, “How hard could it be, you send out invitations wait for those interested to respond and then find a place to hold it at.” She said “Fifty years is a long time, finding people would be hard, how would you find them?” Not to be discouraged, I decided to contact the individual who ran the two All Classes Reunions back in 2019 and 2011 for his input.
I emailed him that night and to my surprise he emailed me right back. Rather than continue our banter back and forth via written text he suggested we talk on the phone as we would have back in our day, before cell phones reduced us to a society of non-speaking individuals. We were on the phone for two hours that night and rather bore you with all the details I will summarize it into just a few sentences.
When I told him of my idea of running a 50th SMS reunion for my graduating class, his response was, “It’s going to involve a lot of commitment”! Gee I said, “you sound like my wife.” He then proceeded to tell me about his experiences of running his two events and it sounded like “a big commitment.” But in the end, I asked him, “given the opportunity to do it all over, would you?” His response, without hesitation was “of course.” So, the very next day I began what would become the long road to enlightenment.
I figured the very first task I should endeavor to complete would be to see how many former classmates I could find. There were three eighth grades that year. Two of them made crude yearbooks using craft paper for covers and mimeograph sheets for the content pages. They both contained the students in each class. I still had my classrooms year book with everyone’s name in it. Fortunately, one of the other classmates had their yearbook from Sister Alice Joseph’s class. So, we now had two thirds of our classmates.
How would we find out who was in the other class, Sister Anastasia’s? Fortunately, I also kept my Class of 1969’s Closing Ceremony Pamphlet that had all of the graduating names in it. All 111 of us were listed in the program. I was off to a great start. With that list in hand I was able to fill in the missing classmates. I started with social media. I just started typing in everyone’s names. Some were found quickly, but the well ran dry fast. My next avenue was to use one of those people finder sites you always see advertised on the internet these days offering to provide anyone’s information. Just type in a name, so that’s what I started doing. A lot more classmates started turning up. Then began the arduous task of emailing everyone. The waiting was the hardest part. Not knowing if the emails were still valid or if after fifty years there was any interest other than my own. Could it be that only I felt this connection to the school and former classmates? No, others had to feel the same I thought. They just had too. My answer to this question came in the form of a phone call from one of my former classmates. She was the first to call me after receiving my email. We spent over an hour on the phone that night talking about SMS, our journey there and so much more. By the end of that call, it became clear to me that it was my calling to reach as many of our former classmates that was physically possible using all the tools at my disposal. I would leave no stone unturned, no lead not followed. When emails failed to reach some individuals, I began making phone calls, asking found classmates for leads on other classmates.
One classmate in particular became an invaluable asset in that she helped with leads on ten other classmates. Of course, there were other leads received from other classmates as well. No matter how small the lead was I was determined to follow it to the end. On one occasion I came across a person on the internet with the same last name as the classmate I was trying to reach so on a whim I emailed him that same day. Turned out to be the brother of this classmate. And through several attempts with outdated phone numbers I finally reached him. Later I would learn that the two brothers had not spoken in over 12 years, but because of my reaching out prompted them to talk. I knew that divine intervention had a hand in this. I was filled with renewed vigor to make this reunion happen. It took five months and many other stories too long to tell for this article, but I had a list of some 60 interested classmates.
We learned of the passing of ten of us, since graduation. So, with a sixty percent following I looked for a venue to hold our 50th reunion for our graduating class of 1969. From the start I thought no place would be better suited than the place where it all began. We were lucky that the school was still there. Although no longer active as a Catholic School, it houses the Phoenix School for Special Needs. I was not sure if I could get the gym as our venue. But not to be deterred I contacted St. Mary’s and learned that they would speak to the Phoenix School on our behalf.
Imagine how I felt when Mr. Ole Oleson emailed me back telling me we could have the gym. We had the classmates and we had the venue; this reunion was going to happen. So, over the next several months I put together a reunion committee to help with all the remaining tasks to be dealt with. There was the caterer, the invitations, hotel accommodations for the out-of-towners, the music affair, decorations, ID tags, table placements, the menu, the attire, and theme to name a few. But I was lucky in that I had the right committee and Mr. Oleson and Father Rich working along with us to make it all. Imagine our surprise as the invitation responses started coming in to learn that classmates from around the country were going to come to the reunion. Fifty years, half a century later and they were coming.
They would be flying and driving in from California, Florida, Maine, Wisconsin, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, New York, Connecticut and of course New Jersey. We were also surprised to learn that many had remained local, still residing in NJ. But the highlight of the event would be our special guest. Of course, all of our classmates were special. But one in particular, Sister Alice Joseph, took center stage. We learned that she was still alive and working at St. Josephs Hospital in Paterson, NJ.
When I reached out to her, she was ecstatic about coming to a reunion of her former students. We asked her if we could send her a ride, but no, that she would drive herself to SMS. She still remembered the way. We told her to bring a guest. To our surprise and excitement, we later learned that the guest she invited was Sister Charitina, a former principal at SMS starting the year after our class had graduated. The graduating class of 1969 honored Sister Alice with a Certificate of Appreciation signed by all of her students. There would be other excitements to see and share at our 50th reunion beyond just seeing former classmates and educators. There was a memorial table for those of our classmates no longer with us.
A Nostalgia table cram packed of all memorabilia from the sixties; there were hoola-hoops, rock’em sock’em robots, silly putty, the game operation, playdoh to name a few. There was a candy table, why candy, because that was a big thing at SMS. Everyone remembered candy selling at lunch hour in the playground. So, what better way to commemorate that memory than to have an assortment of every type of candy available in the sixties. There were goodnplenty, terrible tasting waxed juices in the shape of soda bottles, candy dots, powdered sugar straws and more. Everyone was encouraged to take whatever candy they wanted; bags were provided. We had posters from the sixties plastered all over the gym walls recounting the Beatles, classmate achievements, the moon landing and Woodstock. Ours was the graduating class of 1969, a year full of major and world changing events symbolizing hope for the future. One of the more impressive decorations were posters lining the entrance walls to the gym and depicting events starting from present day (just inside the school entrance) to 1969 (at the entrance to the gym). These were 3’x4’ posters depicting the events of our class’s generation, seven decades in all.
Entering the gym was like going back in time, fifty years and nine days after our graduating date of June 13, 1969. A school tour was provided by our knowledgeable and patient Mr. Oleson. We walked the halls and entered our 8th grade class rooms in awe of how little they had changed. Seeing these halls and classrooms rekindled memories, a half century old or earlier, to be shared once again in present day conversations. None of us wanted to move on, content with spending the rest of the reunion in what now seemed to be cramped hallways and tiny classrooms. So many events transpired in these spaces that shaped who we would become. SMS gave us a great education and foundation for our future lives. We learned that those memories of this special place were still there, maybe put away from every day living, but not forgotten; waiting for an event such as this to reawaken them, to our pleasant surprise. A 50/50 raffle was held during the reunion. Proceeds went to support St. Mary’s Church and the Nutley Food Pantry Services. As is custom at these events, there were favors to be had, trinkets to take home, to inspire memories of this special event. But the most endearing and hopefully enjoyable was the Memory Book put together with love, to identify who we were and who we became.
The inspiration for the contents would come from questionnaires sent out in advance of the reunion. Of the 96 questionnaires sent out to our classmates, a resounding 48 were returned filled with fun facts and interesting stories and memories of the days at SMS. Fun facts and classmate photos helped us remember who we were and what we looked like back then. A pain staking task finding photos produced stories in themselves. In the end the Class of 1969’s 50th Reunion was a great success. A total of approximately 70 SMS1969© classmates and their spouses, significant others and son attended the event; six hours filled with great excitement, fun and memories about the early days where it all began.
This reunion brought the Class of 1969 closer together and wanting more. Is there another gathering of the SMS1969© members in the near future? All I can say is to state what a fellow classmate recently told me, “we are a family.” Families stay together. Photos of the event can be found on the SMS1969© Facebook page under St. Mary’s School – Class of 1969.