Central High class to hold 70th straight reunion

A page from the 1944 yearbook. Silk has taken on the role of notifying classmates of deaths.
A page from the 1944 yearbook. Silk has taken on the role of notifying classmates of deaths.
Posted: May 03, 2014

For years, they held the high school reunion in a large venue, like the Union League or Carpenters Hall. The next will be held at a lunch table, time and sickness having carved their numbers.

Still, the gathering promises to be celebratory. After all, how many people make it this far, to nearly 90, with faculties and friendships intact?

On Friday, the Central High School Class of January 1944 will hold its 70th annual reunion - that's 70 as in Seven-Oh, and annual as in every single year since graduation day.

"We're so proud of the fact that we've been able to stay together," said Sidney Klein, 87, a retired supermarket owner.

The 181st graduating class of what was then all-male Central consisted of 173 young men, most of whom were immediately drafted or enlisted to fight in World War II.

Two were lost in the war. The rest? They came home, went to college, fell in love, raised children. Some built businesses. Others excelled in academia.

Today, 59 class members are living. About 24 reside in the Philadelphia area, and 15 or so are expected to gather at McCormick & Schmick's restaurant in Center City.

They'll recall favorite classmates (like David Pincus, the art collector and humanitarian) and favorite classes (like Hygiene, where students learned about sex). As always, they'll close by singing the school song, a tradition born in an era when every school had an anthem and students knew the words by heart.

"It's remarkable," said Rick Adelman, the son of Class of '44 alumnus Harry Adelman. Few classes hold reunions every year, much less for seven decades straight, he noted.

Back in 1944, Central held two graduations a year. The school's 181st class was always close, some of the boys having been together since the day they entered grade school.

It was a different world. Hardly any families owned cars - the war had halted production. Students walked to school, or took the trolley or subway.

TV was new and rare. Nobody had heard of a credit card, a bikini, or an atomic bomb, all of which had yet to be created.

After graduation, wanting to maintain their friendships, classmates decided to gather annually, not just on landmark anniversaries. Always they met in the Philadelphia area, and for years people came in from around the country to see friends and catch up on the news.

At the 10th reunion, the all-male membership decided to allow wives and girlfriends to attend, a flirtation with gender equality that was quickly abandoned. After that, the reunions, like the school, remained all-male.

Today, many of the men have trouble seeing or walking, and need their wives to ferry them to the reunion. On Friday, the sexes will mingle for an hour before lunch, then move to separate tables.

"We talk about all the things that old men talk about," said Jules Silk, a tax lawyer and reunion organizer. "At 87, when you get together with your friends, the first half an hour is the medical report."

It's fallen to Silk, who has attended every reunion since 1959, to alert the living to news of the dead.

The class president is gone. The treasurer, too. Four weeks ago the class lost Darrell Gordon, 87, who ran the Gordon Buick dealership on North Broad Street.

This year, there's recognition of lengthening years.

"As we went along year by year, it never affected any of us - but 70 hits you right between the eyes," said Klein, 87, of Hatboro, who played fullback on the football team and was a top-ranked table tennis player.

But the memories are good ones, the men say, time having dulled the sharp edges of life for a generation that grew up in the Depression and then went to war.

Back then, the armory near Central was used to confine German POWs. The students would stand outside and shout insults at the soldiers, who would yell back at the kids.

Central was opened in 1838, and is among the oldest continuously operating public high schools in the nation. It draws high-achieving students from across Philadelphia, offering college-preparatory academics.

The school admitted its first girl in 1983. Today, half the 2,300 students are female. Almuni include the painter Thomas Eakins, the architect Louis Kahn, and Larry Fine, best known as one of the Three Stooges.

The Class of '44 had its own success stories.

Pincus, who died at 85 in 2011, was known both for his art collection and his devotion to helping children in places such as Sudan. Another classmate, D. Walter Cohen, became a world-class expert and educator in periodontics.

He still practices in Center City. A dental school in Israel bears his name.

"We were especially close," said Harry Adelman, 87, a retired pharmacist in Warrington who has attended at least 30 reunions. "That relationship is still valid."

In recent days, Adelman took out his yearbook, counting off the friends who went to war and to college, noting the people who are here and gone.

But even with fewer alumni, and all of them aged, it doesn't feel like an ending.

"Not yet," Adelman said. "That small group is still mobile and still healthy. It's not coming to an end, not yet."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906215-854-4906  @JeffGammage

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