'Survivors' celebrate 60 years Reunion: The latest gathering of the Western High School Class of 1935 attracts 81 women, who graduated in a different era but whose memories of those years remain fresh.

The Education Beat

November 12, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

They came together Thursday, as they do every five years. They sang their school song, exchanged pictures of grandchildren, ate Pikesville Hilton chicken and thanked Providence "for still being able to limp in here," as one of them said.

The reunion of the Western High School Class of 1935 attracted 81 women, about a fourth of the graduates who had walked across the commencement stage on North Avenue on a humid June evening 60 years ago.

There wasn't a lot of speechifying at this year's gathering. And there wasn't a whole lot of talk about health. The women are now in their upper 70s, "and many of us wake up with Mr. Arthur Itis," said Miriam Levin Glick.

"Arthur doesn't provide me the warmth I need," said Mrs. Glick, a widow. "But when women our age get together, they talk about their children and grandchildren. When men our age get together, they talk about their health."

They graduated in the depth of the Depression, 400 of them, about half of whom are still living. They were the cream of Baltimore's high school crop then, but didn't know it. Today, at 77 and 78, they're more aware of their longevity and accomplishments. They're self-assured. They speak of loving families. Several are working on 60-year marriages. Two came from Israel to visit family and attend the reunion.

Western, the second-oldest girls' high school in the country, celebrated its 150th anniversary last year. The school has turned out generations of bright young women. But in 1935, the Western graduate's route was not automatically into higher education. If there were brothers in the family, said one of those celebrating Thursday, they went to college. The sisters looked for a job and a husband.

"We're the survivors," said Isabelle Bloom Ribakow, chairwoman of the reunion, in brief remarks. She noted that the yearly income in the United States was $1,600 in 1935, and a car cost $600, "but who could afford that?"

Mrs. Glick's first office job earned her 25 cents a day.

Already, these women have outlived their grandmothers, on average, by 19 years. And a discouraging number are widows in a nation in which older women outnumber older men.

The life patterns of the Class of '35, noted Ruth Helman Solomon, have been such that "many of us accomplished more in later years than early on." The Depression made for slow starts, and women didn't begin striking out on their own until members of the Class of '35 were well into their middle ages. By that time, their husbands and employers were much better known in Baltimore than they ever would be.

Mrs. Ribakow decided to enter college at age 66. She enrolled at what was then the Community College of Baltimore. On June 12, 1988, "my 70th birthday, I earned a college degree. It was one of the most gorgeous days of my life."

The Hilton ballroom buzzed with stories of school days past. The Western principal in the '30s, Dr. Ernest J. Becker, was a stern ruler, said Mrs. Ribakow. "One look from him would turn you to stone."

"Nowadays, it's the other way around," observed Hilda Paul Rosenheim. "The principals are afraid of the students."

None of the 1935 teachers or administrators is still living, but the girls in the '30s had a role model: typing teacher and class adviser Lillian Rawlins. "She was the most glamorous creature most of us had ever seen," said Mrs. Rosenheim. "She would go off on trips to Europe. We just lost our minds over her."

Annabelle Peril Caplan remembered how hot it was at commencement, which was held at the old Poly. (Western then was on Gwynns Falls Parkway, one of its several homes over the years.) But she has put her academic record out of mind, perhaps for good reason. "I think I barely got through," she said. "Who the hell can remember?"

Rose Bookoff Kempler remembered losing the family grocery store in the 1968 Baltimore riots. "I was rescued by [Rep.] Kweisi Mfume's dad," she said. "He saved my life."

"There's been lots of sorrow along with the blessings," said Mrs. Glick, a trim woman who takes tap-dancing lessons. "Some of the women's husbands died in World War II. So many have gone in recent years!"

But there were no regrets Thursday. Mildred Smith, the hospitality chairwoman, led her classmates in a song she wrote for the occasion: "Those were the days, my friend/ Thank God there was an end/ To all the work and toil we had to do./ For 60 years we've prayed to reach this Happy Day,/ And now we'll try to make it 62!"

Library outreach

The nice thing about the new Albin O. Kuhn Library at the University of Maryland Baltimore County is that it is opened outward, to the public, not inward, to the scholarly community, as are so many college and university libraries.

UMBC proved this Friday in the first event of a two-day "Mind Fest" planned as the grand opening of the $20 million "AOK" -- a news conference and tour for high school journalists. Library director Larry Wilt invited the teens to come on over any time, use the library, tour the Internet's World Wide Web. No charge, he said, "and if you get addicted to our library, perhaps you'll enroll at UMBC."

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