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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

    Great Valley High School 50th Class Reunion Talk
               October 15, 2016

   Imagine glider flying into the past. Silently, gracefully, going from present time into the mist of past decades till finally we hover over a stretch of Chester County farmland… losing altitude till we hover over the mark: Great Valley High in September, 1962 or opening day….as below us hundreds of kids swarm into a building thick with the smell of new construction.

    Remember the aroma of new wood piled near the almost completed auditorium?
    In the coming weeks this space would serve as a study hall monitored by the stern Mr. Richard Ramsey, overlord extraordinaire, looking over the rim of his glasses at whisperers, gum crackers, mash note passers, or those induced to sleep or doodle or read B novels like William Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together or the revolutionary The Catcher in the Rye while class assignments like The Taming of the Shrew or Beowulf were shoved under three ring binders.  It was in this auditorium that we would hear why Cookies for Vietnam was such a great success; it’s also where we would watch William Francis, Deborah Stearns, Joan Cotter, Joann Haas and William Hammond in the senior class play, Molier’s The Imaginary Invalid.

       Who we were: We were popular & unpopular, loners, joiners, athletes, extraverts, poll vaulters, cheerleaders, football game cow bell ringers, marching band members, compulsive pie eaters, teachers pets & hoody boys in pointy shoes, bleached blond hair and tight white pants hitched up way above the belt line. We were kids with fresh outbreaks of acne figuring out where we belonged, trying out this group or that or becoming loners in the library in the dim light of winter afternoons.

     The Yearbook says we were the energetic students of Great Valley, always ready for action and innovation: the yearbook shows….
 Mike Searcy at a Singer sewing machine hemming a garment or two
            Karen Pyne in a wide legged scissor jump, the only gym class levitation in Chester County
             Loraine Hampton hamming it up with Dave Gallup
             The shirts on/ shirts off agonizing ritual of gym class team selection; the last one picked wore the Scarlet Letter
              Jeff Slabodian’s sweaky  shiny loafers
               Karen Armstrong crowned Miss Cross Country
               The happy days when basketball shorts didn’t hang like kitchen curtains way down below the knee caps.
              Craig Marshall dressed as a French existentialist bohemian making eyes at Connie Cunningham
                Bill O’Brien’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ dance band, the Senior Prom, not quite Led Zeppelin but not Lawrence Welk either
 And, of course---The collective sigh of relief from female grads when realizing they escaped having a quote by Wordsworth put next to their yearbook picture.
               How we dressed: we wore tennis sweaters, madras jackets, white socks, oki dokey farmer plaid shirts, short tight dress pants, conventional jackets and ties, hoop earrings, pearl necklaces and plenty of hair spray on a variety of bouffant hairdos, some shaped like Utah’s beehive, others teased in a variety of ways, blown out on top then hanging straight down against the head before evolving into two small cheerleader flips at the end.

      Joanne Polomski probably had the best bangs in the class although Anne Bernardian and Eleanor Rost rate a close second while Sandra Carr and Debbie Scott cultivated a Veronica Lake look. Ron Dill’s bangs were legendary; they nearly touched his eyebrows while Dan Sipe’s and Jeff Slobodian’s had the look of an expertly trimmed lawn in Haverford. For the high hair effect, we must defer to Dale Weber and Beverly Yorkey: they resembled gunslinger girls in a Gunsmoke episode. “You want water with that bourbon, sir?” Wink, wink. D. Kingston Owens’ cut was straight out of Brideshead Revisited while Bruce Maxfield’s smooth blond top mop had the look of a freshly minted coin.


   We hailed from General Wayne Junior High and before that Katherine D. Markley Elementary or from isolated parochial schools where the tyranny of the school uniform was king.    

     We lived in split level homes, ranch houses, trailer courts, Andrew Wyeth style old stone mini mansions or exotic zoo farms like the Daniel P Mannix Social Register homestead in Bacton Hill where Elizabeth Taylor once stayed while filming National Velvet. We brought with us certain influences from our private family life, the whims and biases of Mom and Dad (because that can’t be helped). You see, we weren’t quite complete human beings yet but we were on our way.

   That mayhem filled first week of school!

  Yours truly walked through a floor to ceiling glass panel window on a first floor staircase landing thinking it was an unfinished doorway. Shards of glass rained down on all sides of me but, miraculously, there was no injury. There was Homeroom and the Pledge of Allegiance and then each of us taking turns reading a passage from the bible. By sophomore year the bible readings would morph into a moment of silence: we bowed our heads and meditated on something philosophical—the cat and the hat, the Beatles, Snoopy let your hair out-- though most of the time we worried about upcoming quizzes, or untoward comments in the latest slam book.

 The slam book was the adolescent version of adult character assassination:  So and so is fink, stuck up, or even, God forbid, a skank, meaning I suppose a possum like creature running from woodshed to woodshed. Remember, we weren’t complete human beings yet, so these faults can be forgiven although in retrospect I must say that if a female student can be a skank then so can a male student—it goes together like Yin and Yang, North and South, Great and Valley and Candy Kane and Mr. Kane, GV’s Vice Principal, may they both rest in peace. 

  Remember the very Harry S. Truman look of Principal Mr. Mark Jacoby in his suit and tie although he was not as well dressed as the dapper Mr. Richard T. Brooksbank in his Brooks Brothers tweed, 5-tiered corded belt and 100 per cent calf skin leather loafers sans a tucked in penny.

 Great Valley as a big fashion runway:  Algebra teacher Mr. Edward Eill in his big suits and garish ties; or Louise Einoff, teacher of Spanish and French, meticulously dressed and topping it off with a  pair of stilettos, her beautifully sculpted eyebrows like Greta Garbo’s in an old Hollywood film.  Martha Shelita, queen of guidance counselors, sporting a feminist look before there was a feminist look (some say she even wore sneakers). The sleepy eyed, rumbled looking Harvard educated Mr. Peter Erskine, the original bed hair hipster, so soft spoken and totally non threatening as an authority figure but outdone in personal theatrics by that Hungarian tornado, Mr. George Dobash, who once turned over a trash can in his Problems of Democracy class to illustrate a political point or two…

   Okay, so let’s talk about Dobash. I met him years after graduation while sitting nursing a draft in a Center City bar. I heard a voice that had POD written all over it. “Excuse me, is your name George Dobash?” I said. He raised his cocktail in a toast, blinked twice then commented, “Oh God, your class was one of the best. How’s your sister, what was her name?” “Susan,” I offered, “How could you forget?” He went on to tell me a variety of things-- inside stories about GV teachers, stuff we were not privy to as kids. These soap opera tales increased the temperature in the bar so that I had to open my shirt collar.

    GV’s two science gurus, Mr. Rocco and Mrs. Bravo introduced us to the joys of dead frogs--- no, not as Kentucky dish delicacies but as cold specimens for sophomore biology dissection. This project caused a slight panic, especially when laying the frog on its back, spreading out its limbs and then pinning it to the tray. The unseemliness of it all caused Sue Whitcomb to faint before she could extract anything, alerting Mr. Rocco to the fact that there might be a collective student reaction, as in students fainting en masse and being taken out on stretchers to the football field where they’d be resuscitated by cheerleaders and Band Majorettes.
     High School Biology frog dissection was a classic rite of passage but it’s not done much these days. It takes too much time and there are just too many horror stories of frogs coming back to life.

    Mention trays and the needle points to GV’s venerable cafeteria ladies and their hot serving spoons.  I remember some of them wearing white hair nets which gave them a grandmotherly appeal although they were much younger than we are now.

  And what about those GV hallways… alive with the sound of students and teachers going from class to class…  

   There’s Mr. Kessler. Remember when he took his art classes to the Barnes Foundation? Mr. Kesslser was the quietest of men, the virtual opposite of gym teacher Al Como, and brother of the famous singer Perry. Al loved to line up the boys who had bleached their hair blond, the daring fashion of the day, and giving them a swift swat from a paddle as punishment… something that in today’s world would be seen quite differently with Al probably being put on some kind of list. In many ways, yes, the old days trump the insanity of the present. 

  There’s Mr. Procopio whose name comes dangerously close to Pinocchio’s. Or poker face Social Studies teacher Mr. Sapone. Look, its Mr. Brooksbank again, this time walking with Alger C. Whitcraft, the Business Education teacher. Richard is preparing to tell his English classes another joke:  “Why did the couple get married in the bathtub-- because they wanted a double ring ceremony.” Forget I said that. Other faces are surfacing: the benign Janet Baldwin, GV librarian; Mr. Hennessey, as tall as Frankenstein who taught Driver Ed (what school today has Driver Ed?); Mr. Kadyk, the leader of the band; Mr. Molnar; Miss Smith; and the erudite “Have you read your Beowulf?” Mr. Hickman. But all this is old school. Students today don’t call their teachers Mister anymore and they don’t use Miss or Mrs. either.  Today everything is ground down in an equal playing field.  Yes, we lost something there…
   Time to head out to a Saturday football game as Deena Jordan, Doris Kraus and Sandra Carr work the crowds with pom poms, megaphones, jumps and double hooks, …not quite a human pyramid but still daring for its time as Don Broome (What man dare, I dare) and Mike Searcy (There is nothing like fun, is there?) score yet another touchdown …a real Vitalis, Jade East moment or better yet Canoe because with a canoe we can row over to see the other sports, namely cross country where Ed Zacarais is leading the pack again, running, running, running straight into the stopwatch arms of Mr. Kellerman who taught math when he wasn’t noting times in his blue sweats. It was Kellerman who told yours truly after a horrible cross country fall onto a shard of glass (I still bear the scar) that it’s time to shower up, another thing I hear they don’t do in high schools anymore.

     GV was classy. We had Arnold Palmer golf, Dave Steinback Wimbledon-style tennis, folksy Sue Hess Lacrosse, gymnastics (Terry Donnelly and the formidable Mike Talley) and Greco Roman wrestling where Ed Conaway and Dan Rossi (Thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye) almost always pinned their opponents.  Basketball got a 4 page spread in the yearbook (remember Randy Cummins?), while baseball (Gary Brag and Ed Jackman) held its own but without all the chewing tobacco and spitting. 

   Oh no, how did this happen?!  Now we’re smack in the middle of a hallway without a hall pass and the hall monitor is gunning for us. We’ve run out of excuses but the good thing is Dave Pieri has just been elected class president so the atmosphere is hardly like Stalinist Russia.

    We’re allowed to go on our way and look for lost or forgotten classmates, and there are many of them, yes, too many. Where did they go? Richard Henry, Toni Holman, Roger Harris, Michael Mark, Christine Koehler, Charles Kern, Denise Miller, Barbara Darling, Pam Perugi, Roger Peterson,  Howard McCall, Marion Pulls, John Tate, Walter Smith (rest in peace), Bob Terry (rest in peace), Harriet Thomas, Mark Washburn, and Robert Thompson.  I’ve only touched the surface, of course. A few I’ve encountered through the years:  I met Kingston Owens in Boston when he was going to MIT. I ran into Daniel Norris several years ago at a trade show in Center City. Norris was a classmate of mine in parochial school and he used to chase me around the schoolyard in comic bully fashion. We laughed about the chase over trade show coffee. The last time I saw Ed Conaway was two summers after graduation. He was crossing Lancaster Pike in Paoli holding hands with Joan Mitchell. Candy Kane and I became friends in the 1970s. I was introduced to her husband, a likeable guy; we hung out, told stories, then Candy fell ill and I didn’t see her for a very long time. Rest in peace. 

   After graduation I would revisit the GV campus and drive around and relive old memories.  I’d visit to the little creek oasis near Rt 29 where Mr. Kessler used to take his art classes. I’d ponder the track, recall where we held Cross Country practice, and remember all the walks home from school past Memorial Park cemetery as wind gusts opened our books and scattered our papers.

  Uh oh. I’m hearing a call, class. It’s a call to return to that glider and take up our lives again…up, up and away… in the spirit of hope and confidence of course because the passage of time and a 50th reunion doesn’t have to be a scary time…it can be, as the yearbook suggests,  both an end and a beginning     



Social Justice Warriors on American Campuses

        I was talking with an ex university professor recently who told me that he was very happy to be retired. He said that he was glad to be out of hornet’s nest and away from a world filled with so much political correctness it was hard to get through the day. Life on campus, he said, is rife   with so many non-issue “issues” that life there is like walking bare foot on a sidewalk littered with broken glass. 
       He told me a story about how he once told a fellow professor that she “looked very nice today,” meaning of course that she had selected a particularly nice outfit. Rather than thank him for the gracious human compliment, the female professor took him to task for being a sexist and going out of his way to objectify her as an object (a piece of meat) to be admired.
         “You wouldn’t say the same thing to a male colleague,” she scolded. The male professor was taken aback and told her that she was wrong. “I do say the same thing to male colleagues,” he responded, “I do it all the time.” The male professor also happened to be gay, so in no way was he even thinking about the objectification (or meat quality) of the female body when he said what he said.
      Welcome to university life in 2016, where every word out of your mouth has to be filtered and censored for risk of offending someone, and where even paying a colleague a compliment can get you into hot water.
       The ex-professor told me another story.
        He mentioned the time when his university invited a well known, beloved woman speaker to lecture to students. While the speaker’s presentation was flawless and even held the audience spellbound, during the Q and A a well dressed young man stood up and said that the speaker had disparaged African Americans.

      “I compliment you on a good talk, however you made one gross mistake that is offensive to the African American community,” he began. The speaker asked in a soft voice what the offensive remark was. 
            “In your introduction, you described yourself as being the black sheep of your family,” he said. “The use of the word black in this instance conotates negativity and undesirability and as such it casts a poor light on African American students. It is racist. “
             He was calling the nice woman speaker a racist.

       The speaker swallowed hard, not quite sure what she should say when another woman professor in the audience stood up and complimented her on a stellar lecture and added that she was certainly entitled to express her views anyway she wanted to, including using any word she    felt was appropriate to the lecture.  Common sense won out in this instance because the easily  triggered student who called the speaker a racist became so unpopular on campus that he   eventually transferred to a school outside the United States. But this is a rare scenario. Generally, the triggered student is not reprimanded but is joined by other triggered allies in the audience.
           Milo Yiannopoulos, the gay conservative Senior Editor at Breitbart and self proclaimed Internet troll, was scheduled to speak at Villanova University but his talk was cancelled after protests from left leaning students even though the event was arranged months in advance by campus Republicans.

               Milo’s multi- campus “Dangerous Faggot Tourhas sent many colleges and universities into cosmic tailspins, with left of center students who disagree with him engaging in many forms of protest. Some protesting students have stormed the stage, such as when Black Lives Matter interrupted Milo’s talk at DePaul University. Many of the protests occur outside the auditorium or lecture hall where Milo is scheduled to speak. In these gatherings one can find students with signs and banners, many in full scream mode while others attempt to block students from entering the lecture hall to hear Milo speak.  Some of the more impassioned anti-free speech advocates will block doorways and wedge their bodies between security and the lines of students eager to enter. 
       People attending Milo’s lectures are taunted with epithets like racist, homophobe, Islamophobe, misogynist, xenophobe, fascist and bigot. The words come off student tongues like machine gun bullets. Sometimes the ruckus is so uncontrolled security guards have to escort Milo to the podium. Some protesting students wear face masks, an odd if somewhat adolescent theatrical touch which is supposed invoke revolutionary fervor but which instead raises questions of cowardice, i.e., why are you hiding your face behind a mask?   
        Milo’s fans are generally right of center politically although large numbers of politically progressive students agree with some of his views. Milo’s liberal fans may not like Donald Trump (Milo supports Trump) but they are avid free speech advocates and want to hear what he has to say. Most of Milo’s fans are heterosexual students, especially fraternity types: the male jocks even cheer when Milo makes a “gay pass” at a male in the audience, or when a sexy African American student stands up and asks Milo out for a date. This kind of gay liberation dynamic in a predominately macho male straight audience is about as rare as a moon landing or ice floes in the Delaware. After all, tradition tells us that it is from this generic pool of straight macho types where many gaybashers come from, but instead we find them cheering the faggot and even passing him mash notes. It’s a curious once in a lifetime phenomenon.   

       Milo is not popular with the LGBTQ community because his views don’t match the official slate of beliefs that every good gay man or lesbian is supposed to hold. Since it was the political Left that gave birth (or aided) the modern gay movement, the Left continues to hold the bulk of LGBTQ loyalty. This is understandable even if the Left is changing.   
      We can see that the Left is changing because of the effects of the (left leaning) word policing as described in the first paragraphs of this column. There was a time not so long ago when only the right wing was crazy over censorship. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was conservatives who banned books and movies and even speakers (Communists, etc.) from college campuses. Today it is the Left. That’s why the term regressive left has come into vogue. A regressive leftist can be described as someone who has an inability to listen to contrary, uncomfortable viewpoints without throwing out accusations of bigotry, racism and white supremacy. All too frequently these words—racism, bigot-- are thrown out without any accompanying dialogue. Use of the word alone is supposed to shut down all debate. It’s what philosophy professor Christina Hoff means when she says, “In their war against intolerance, they take on the extremes of intolerance.”
      Hoff also adds, “It’s going to be hard for future historians to understand what happened on American campuses in this decade.” This is true because freedom of expression on campus is being replaced by the right to feel comfortable.    
         It is true that sometimes Milo’s narcissism and showmanship can be off putting. It also doesn’t help that he is not always a nice person. He’s unnecessarily hard on fat people but he makes sense when he comes out against the body positivity movement. The body positivity movement teaches that you should love your body type no matter what size it is. Yes, being 300 pounds is beautiful and you don’t have to change a thing, even if weight that high puts you at risk of death. 
             Milo says there’s no such thing as a lesbian because so many lesbians have had affairs with men and seem to be able to move easily from one gender to the other.  This view, I might add, is not that far reaching because I once heard a former editor of the Philadelphia Gay News say the same thing.
               Milo does not believe in gay marriage and says that homosexuality is caused by a mix of nature and nurture. Born that way is crap, he says; it’s a political line invented by the gay lobby.  He has little respect for so called third wave feminism (which seems to obsess on trivial issues like man spreading (when a man sits in a bus or subway with his legs spread far apart) or when a man tells a woman that she “looks nice today.”
            He views Islam as the greatest threat to Western civilization and says that as a gay man he cannot live in any “moderate” Islamic country because he would be subject to the death penalty.
                   Milo has no respect for Black Lives Matter and calls the organization “a bunch of black supremacists.” (Milos’ sexual preference, by the way, is for African American men).
         It’s my belief that Black Lives Matter would be greatly improved if they had a change in leadership.
      Overall, Milo isn’t the issue here, it’s the contagion known as political correctness. The chronic emphasis on political correctness in society has helped create Milo, just as it has propelled so many people to support Donald Trump. The fact is, people do not want to be told what to think or what they can and cannot say.   
            Take the word racist, for instance. ‘Racist’ is so overused that it is beginning to lose its effectiveness. The word should be reserved for true racists, not for polite women speakers who talk about being the black sheep of the family.