A tale of two eras at City

May 30, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

He is a child of the Depression, they of 9/11. He was part of the first freshman class at the newly built "Castle"; in their junior year, they would see it declared a historic landmark. At his home, Gershwin sheet music is propped up on the piano; at their senior farewell this week, they exited to the music of Aaliyah.

And yet, tomorrow, when Herbert Matz takes the stage as their commencement speaker, the 76 years that separate their respective graduations will fade in the face of what unites them.

"The City he went to is different from the City we went to," said Zach Wiener, a graduating senior, "but it's the same school."

City is, of course, City College High School, not only one of the top public high schools in Baltimore but one with a particularly devoted alumni network. When it came time for Wiener, 18, and other seniors in charge of planning their graduation ceremony to pick a speaker, they decided to choose one of their own. Matz, a retired lawyer and an eternal raconteur, caught their eye last fall when he was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame and gave a speech that they found both wise and witty.

"I told a little joke, a little schtick," Matz says modestly. "And so forth and so on."

At 94, Matz is bent over from arthritis and, temporarily, hobbled by a knee fracture, so you wouldn't necessarily guess that he was, in his day, the captain of City's basketball team and given the nickname "Hunky." And yet, his memories of City remain clear, and cherished.

"It's still with me," he says.

At 17, 18 and 19, the graduation organizers, largely the top academic achievers in the school, are over on the other end of life's arc, soon to scatter to their various colleges but not quite ready to cut the tie to City.

"Best four years of my life," says Dezeray Zephas, 17, who is headed to Johns Hopkins this fall. "I'm extremely worried: How is my college experience going to live up to this?"

They all had stories of the City connection in action - of strangers on the street who see their class ring and start talking to them, of store personnel who will tuck a freebie into their bag, even of a cop who picked up a couple of City kids who had skipped school one day but drove them back to his alma mater rather than busting them for truancy.

"You always stick together," Zephas says.

As a class, things started a bit tenuously for them - they had three different principals their freshman year - and they say they got a reputation as the class of turmoil. Still, they grew into a close-knit group, they say, and one that didn't even stage the traditional senior prank. (Previous ones involved balloons filled with strange liquids, goats and crabs left throughout the school to scamper about.)

They are in that familiar end-of-high-school daze - "a blur," Zephas calls it - from waiting to hear their final class standings (their averages are taken to three decimal points), to participating in the traditional and emotional "senior farewell" in which they say goodbye to the school, to anticipating tomorrow's ceremony.

Throughout their time at City, they've come to see their role in a larger tradition. Wiener's calculus text, according to the log in the front of the book, was once used by a student who became a teacher there.

"We have had teachers who wear their [City] rings," Robin Atkinson, 17, says. "Some teachers were taught by other teachers who are still here."

There's something comforting to them about knowing that the line will continue, even after they move on.

"I never fear City won't be here in a number of years," says Celia Neustadt, 18, the class valedictorian. "My dad's middle school is no longer here. City is always going to be here."

Meanwhile, back in his home in Northwest Baltimore, Matz has been working on his speech, his kitchen table a mess of papers and Roget's Thesaurus. Which perhaps explains why he describes what he's going to say as "a potpourri, a plethora."

He is charming company, and can spin tales of just about anything: His World War II service at Wendover Air Force Base in Utah, where the Enola Gay atomic bomb crew was training under such secret circumstances that even he, a legal officer, didn't know what their mission was. His large family - so large, they hold their Passover Seder at Martin's West - that includes son Ron, a WJZ-TV reporter, and nephew Stan "the Fan" Charles.

And, of course, his City days. He remembers games against archrival Poly, including one basketball game in which the score was 10 to 8.

"Can you imagine that today? It was a different game in those days," he said, remembering how you could "freeze" the action by simply holding the ball to prevent the other team from scoring.

His basketball skills won him a scholarship to the University of Baltimore law school, after which he worked for the first Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro and served in the city solicitor's office and on the Maryland Parole Board.

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