The Overbrook High class of 1947 still thriving

Cecil Mosenson and his friend since kindergarten Toby Schwartman Hirsh enjoy Overbrook High’s 65th reunion at Bala Country Club. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Cecil Mosenson and his friend since kindergarten Toby Schwartman Hirsh enjoy Overbrook High’s 65th reunion at Bala Country Club. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 10, 2012

By noon on a recent Sunday afternoon, the entrance to a Bala Country Club banquet room was choked with Overbrook High School alums — Class of 1947.

There were the predictable hugs and handshakes and the discreet study of those name tags that save so many social occasions. And like every reunion, this one involved a reckoning with the past and a glimpse of the present, and of how these 37 former classmates, men and women now all about 82, were faring.

But 65th reunions are pretty special; certainly, the act of showing up means more than just clearing your calendar.

“I’m extremely happy just to be here,” said Marty Childs of Bala Cynwyd, one of an original 350 classmates. “Just look at all these beautiful people. We’re alive, and we’re together again.”

And this was an energetic bunch. No walkers in sight, and even the attendees from Olney High’s 50th reunion next door marveled at how young the Overbrook folks looked.

Childs, called the class “deli man” — as former owner of Childs Delicatessen, for years a Philadelphia institution near Thomas Jefferson University Hospital — recalled their formative years.

“We were the post-World War II generation, and we knew about sacrifice and love of country. Life was good.”

Childs is sure the world was a better, happier place back in 1947. And while you can’t turn the clock back, he concedes that he would sometimes like to do that. His deli has become a bar, people aren’t connected the way they used to be, and “the world is an angrier place,” he said.

Certainly, any high school experience, in hindsight, can be viewed with nostalgia. But for Cecil Mosenson, perhaps the most famous 1947 grad, those glorious high school days stretched into a career, starting with a request at age 22 that he become the basketball coach at Overbrook. He got the offer at the eleventh hour — and there was a player named Wilt Chamberlain who was to be part of the squad.

“I could never have known I’d be coaching the greatest basketball player of all time,” said Mosenson, who would go on, after Chamberlain’s graduation, to teach and coach in other settings for five decades, including 15 years at Upper Moreland High School and 15 years at Tredyffrin/Easttown Middle School.

But it is for Overbrook that he remains a bit wistful.

“Overbrook High School obviously represents a major part of my life,” Mosenson said. “It’s hard to explain what it all means … and how many lives that high school affected.”

There were sentiments like that from other members of the class, many the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe who were first-generation Americans.

Frances Orkin of Melrose Park, the tireless organizer of the class’ 50th, 55th, 60th, and 65th reunions, recalled how her parents would come to her for advice, cues, and clues about this country.

“They wanted better lives for their children, but they depended on us to show them the way,” said Orkin, who moved around the room, seeing to the endless details of the sound system, the brunch buffet, and the all-important gathering for the 2012 class-reunion photo.

Like so many women of the Class of 1947, Orkin married young, had children young, and regarded home and family as the holy grail. Later in life, she would work with her husband in the family pharmacy.

“I do have one regret: I wish I had gone to college,” said Orkin. “But there was no one to guide me in those matters. ‘Ask Frances because she goes to school in America,’?” her parents would say. “How could they direct me?”

OHS, then affectionately known as “The Castle on the Hill,” on Lancaster Avenue and 57th Street, was populated largely by youngsters from Wynnefield, then an almost entirely Jewish enclave on the Philadelphia side of City Avenue, and Overbrook, with a small percentage of Italian kids, and an even smaller percentage of African Americans.

Today, Overbrook High’s population is predominantly black; the 1924 Gothic Revival style building is plagued with maintenance problems.

But for the alumni, there are sweet memories of a place where, cornering the 1947 market, four of the six competitive academic college scholarships offered annually to all city high schools were given to their classmates.

“Let’s lift our glasses to what was,” said 1947 OHS school president Richard Weisberg of Bala Cynwyd, still chair emeritus at a packaging company. He asked classmates to remember those who were no longer with them.

Scattered around the room, which was decorated in Overbrook’s orange and black, were clusters of classmates whose friendships have endured hippies, yippies, yuppies, assassinations, and the computer age.

“We talk on the phone every day, several times a day,” said Toby Schwartzman Hirsch of Glen Mills, seated with her high school best friend, Selma Fleisher Gekoski of Penn Valley.

The women, both widows now, had followed the “commercial course” in high school, which prepared them for the working world. Both married at 19 and reared children.

Gekoski recalled a familiar scenario, back when working papers were not yet required for young employees. “At 14, I was employed after school in the hat department at Gimbels, and in the next couple of years, I worked in the toy department and then in a furniture store.”

Working was a part of life for many high school students of that era. “I was lucky — my grandmother had wheeled a pushcart through the streets of South Philadelphia,” said Gekoski, “so I felt that I had a much better life than that.”

Elias Packman, a pharmacology professor who still teaches at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, has spent his long career researching pain management. Packman still harks back to his immigrant father’s advice: “Always give back, and remember where you came from.”

Giving back also has motivated Norman Fryman of East Hampton, N.Y. His career in the menswear industry included serving as chairman and CEO of the American Apparel Manufacturers Association and as vice president of the board for the Clothing Manufacturers Association of the U.S.A.

“I was bored after I retired in 2001, so I began teaching marketing and business courses at Parsons School of Design. The apparel industry was good to me, and I’m at the stage of life where I want to pay back that debt.”

As the afternoon wound down, no one wanted to leave. It had been a day of memories and connection, one that mattered, many agreed, far more than a “mere” 25th reunion or even a 50th.

“I’m so proud to be part of this generation,” said Phyllis Pokras Hait of Haddonfield. “We’ve lived through a lot, but here we are, together, at the best time and in the best place to be alive. And that’s worth celebrating.”

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