Camden High School Turns 100

Posted: February 06, 1991

As Lillian Burns made her way to the podium, the auditorium full of Camden High School students exploded with shouts and applause.

Standing before them was the oldest known graduate of Camden High, who won't tell her age but probably is close to 90.

"I've never seen anyone that old really care enough to come back," whispered Tania Smith, 16, a junior, as she watched the program with 1,000 other students.

Yesterday, the school known to some in Camden as the "castle on the hill"

because of its fortresslike architecture, celebrated its 100th anniversary.

The event featured a slide show, singing, presentation of a time capsule and speeches by such alumni as Burns, Camden Mayor Aaron Thompson, Police Chief Bob Pugh, State Sens. Walter Rand and Lee B. Laskin, and educator Riletta Cream.

The school, once predominantly Jewish and Italian and now largely black and

Hispanic, has produced other well-known alumni: Superior Court Judges Isaiah Steinberg and Theodore Davis; former Camden Mayor Angelo J. Errichetti; record producer Leon Huff; former Camden County Prosecutor Samuel Asbell; former Supremes singer Cindy Birdsong; basketball player Billy Thompson of the Miami Heat, and physician and civic leader Charles Brim.

Burns, a teacher and principal in the Camden school system until her retirement in 1974, said she was skeptical of her title as the oldest survivor.

"I was very surprised to find that I was the oldest living graduate," the spry class of 1919 graduate told the students. "I think they must have meant the oldest living graduate who responded."

A younger former graduate, Laskin, class of 1954, described his years at Camden High School as "absolutely the greatest part of my life."

"I was not one of the brightest and best students," he said. "I used to sit in the (principal's) office most of the time. Bad kids had to sit in Dr. (Stanley) Koppenhaver's office. A lot of teachers said I wasn't going to amount to much. And I guess they were right, since you don't have to amount to much to be in politics."

Rand, who said most of his family, including his children, attended the school and who described himself as an active student involved in public speaking contests and plays, told the students, "Go for it, go for it, go for it."

Thompson, reading from a proclamation, described Camden High as the school that made Camden famous through academic achievements, state athletic championships, the whimsical ants-orbiting-in-space project in 1983, and the band's performance last year in the annual Lord Mayor of Westminster New Year's parade in London.

Thompson said later that he could remember his knees shaking more than 40 years ago when he gave a speech after the school's team won a basketball championship.

He said he never dreamed that he would one day return to the school and stand on stage as the mayor of Camden.

"I think the school has changed for the better," Burns told a reporter. ''. . . 'When I was here, blacks couldn't even participate in the class plays."

Said junior LaShonda Byrd, 16, "It makes me proud to see all the people who graduated and became successful, especially since now everyone seems to want to drop out, and since everyone seems to be working and having kids or selling or taking drugs."

Added junior Arlene Stephen, 16: "When you see all the successful people, it gets you motivated, because people look at Camden as a ghetto. When I see successful graduates, it encourages me to stay in school. It lets me know I can be successful coming out of a ghetto."

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