55 years later, Western class of '36 recalls school days 170 fondly reminisce about coming of age during the Depression.

June 21, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

On June 16, 1936, 450 members of the graduating class of Western High School -- the largest Western class ever -- stood on a stage in the old Poly high school on North Avenue. The young women wore flowing white gowns and carried roses. Electric fans were set up to prevent fainting in the sweltering night.

Shirley Silver Selis remembers playing the castanets that night while singing "The Habanera" from the opera "Carmen." When she received her diploma, Selis, a free spirit in a most proper institution, got a peck on a cheek from principal Ernest J. Becker, and this farewell: "I adore you, but I'm glad to be rid of you."

Fifty-five years later, Selis, who went on to teach dance in New York and Washington, recalled Becker as "a divine, gorgeous gentleman."

The 170 members of Western's class of 1936 who gathered for their reunion yesterday at Bonnie View Country Club remembered much about their high school years that was divine.

Because it was all-female, there were no boys to interfere with academic and extracurricular pursuits, and the students were expected to conduct themselves as young ladies. That meant no running in the halls, no cigarettes, no painted finger nails. "It was a great school, with very high standards," said Shirley Silverberg Handelsman.

"We all did our homework," said Handelsman's friend, Ruth Benjamin Siegel.

The girls also "used to walk home from Western and hang around the drug store" waiting for City College boys to happen along, Siegel admitted.

The women, most of them now in their early 70s, hugged and kissed and greeted one another joyously. Many did not need the name tag adorned with yearbook photos to recognize their old chums.

Although the class of '36 has held a reunion every five years since their 25th, there was still a lot of catching up to do.

"I'm not doing any volunteer work, just enjoying life," said one woman to another.

"I'll never forget you," said another to an old friend, as they sipped wine and cocktails from a cash bar and reminisced.

The reunion sparked memories of coming of age during the Depression. Lillian Lee Kim remembered asking her mother every year if she could continue school rather than drop out to help with the family laundry business. When she secured a regular ride to school, Kim was able to save the nickel streetcar fare, an added incentive for staying on.

Back then, Western High -- now one of only two all-female public high schools in the country -- was located on Gwynn Falls Parkway, where Frederick Douglass high school is today. "Oh, it was a beautiful school," Kim said. On Arbor Day, each class would plant shrubbery and trees on their special plot of land.

Then, "We used to sing 'America the Beautiful,' " Selis said.

Over lunch, and in between class songs, the womeremembered teachers, including Sara Janet Bassett, a "fantastic history teacher," and a typing teacher who was "stunning, gorgeous and built . . .drove up in the morning in this gorgeous convertible" and was rumored to keep company with a well-known man about town.

There was the senior prom, kicked off with dinner at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, (Seven girls wore identical dresses), and the senior boat ride that never happened because the Bay Belle never showed up at the downtown docks.

"We waited and waited and waited and our ship never came in," said Rose Cohen Frank.

And, it was a day to take stock of the years and to admire one another's beauty and pluck, enhanced by age. "The reunions get better each time," said Frank, dressed boldly in purple. "I think we've all mellowed with age. Some of us look so much better than we did in the yearbook."

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