Once upon a time, back when the class of 1962 were sophomores, debating had fallen on hard times. There were a couple of older fellows who thought of themselves as “the debating team,” but there was no public school league. And the older fellows couldn’t really practice very much because there weren’t enough of them to try switching
sides on the national topic. How we Stuyvesantians rekindled debating in the New York City public schools is another story, but first we had to fan the debating embers at SHS. To do so, we began to learn the rules, practice as best we could, and determined to travel to debate tournaments where we could find them.
In those days, the New York City Catholic schools did have a debating league. So even if you traveled to Long Island or Westchester to contend against public school opponents, the odds were good that the officials in the room were from Catholic schools. Our very first tournament was at Farmington High School. So we few, we proud, all met at the train station in Manhattan and, at our own expense, wearing our sport coats and ties, took the Long Island Railroad out to foreign territory.
The way the tournament worked was simple. The organizers created a schedule that matched teams randomly, assigned pro and con randomly, and sent teams from one classroom to another. You walked into the room— being a suburban one, quite nice—and wrote the name of your school on the blackboard on the left or right of the front of the room. Then you sat until both teams and the official were settled.
Our first opponent was something like St. Francis of Assisi High School of somewhere. Whatever is was, it was written on the blackboard over the heads of our opponents. Over our heads, of course, was the name of our school. We sat. We settled. And then the official—a nun—came to the front of the room, facing the audience of six more-or-less interested onlookers. This was Stuyvesant’s very first tournament appearance since before living memory of then-current Stuyvesantians. The wait was excruciating.
“Today,” the nun announced solemnly, hands clasped at pocket level, “we debate euthanasia. For the affirmative we have St. Francis.” Pause. Glance at the blackboard. “And for the negative, we have”—another glance—“St. Uyvesant.”
Clearly we were not very well known. However, we did win. — Eric Rabkin
When you think of the 1960’s you probably think of college students rebelling against authority. Well, we did our rebelling while still in high school, and we did it by arguing with our teachers about what real mathematics was, and how it should be taught. One focus of our rebellion was the math squad meetings that were held early in the morning, during what I think was called ‘zero period’. At one point my friend Ackerman was captain of the math
team and I was co-captain. We were supposed to drill the other students on the squad about solving problems of the kind that might appear at math meets. Instead, we decided to spend the time lecturing on how to deduce basic properties of the natural numbers from the Peano axioms.
After a couple of sessions of this, Mr. Schwartz, who was coach to the math team, explained to us that although he enjoyed this kind of thing, it had nothing to do with what the squad was supposed to be doing. So we started holding our lectures in a park across the street from the school—even earlier in the morning, before the math squad met (‘minus one period’, I guess). This went on for several weeks, I believe, with a small cluster of diehards coming to listen to us hold forth. Anyway, the down side of this was that I didn’t get very good at solving problems of the kind that were given at math meets, and I got bounced off the team once or twice for various periods. — Peter Shalen
We got fame and we got flack…and we deserved both. We had embellished Stuyvesant’s rich tradition in fencing by winning the City Championship back-to-back (1960-61 and 1961-62) and we flaunted our team success by parading around with two letters on our varsity sweaters. We also promoted our personal achievements and good fortune by modeling sweatshirts of the ivy league colleges we had gained admittance to thanks—in large measure—to our fencing prowess.
Looking back at such boastful behavior from the perspective of fifty years of added maturity we could defend it as youthful enthusiasm. But we were pretty damn good. All the passing years have not cooled the warm memories of the admiration and support we received from friends, classmates and faculty who shared in the pride our success brought to Stuyvesant.
Our team was a microcosm of the Stuyvesant student body. Each of us embodied traits and virtues that others could identify with and root for.
Bruno Santonocito…grace, speed and athleticism…He provided the “Wow” factor
Tom Kalfa…tenacity and work ethic…The “I’ll figure out how” factor
Mark Berger…thoughtfulness and planning… His matches were physical debates
Charley Wertheimer…an engaging combination of energy and awkwardness
Alfred Liotta…”attitude” and edgy humor
Ronnie Wallenfels…perseverance and humility
After winning the previous year’s championship by defeating Brooklyn Tech in a near empty auditorium on their campus, we fondly recall the intimidating presence of a huge turnout that filled the quaint Stuyvesant gymnasium and carried us to the 1962 city championship with a stirring “home” victory over Forest Hills.
Thanks for the support. Thanks for the memories. A lifetime later, they are still amongst the sweetest.
— Tom Kalfa