In the group that went to Bermuda, from left, is Pat Coolack Heller; Betty Buchanan Ferraiulo, John Radzewich, Audry Curlo Miller,Julie Mihalko Gawron, Linda Monica Laverso, Joseph Mihalko and Judy Bailey Beecher.
By Steve Sears
The first graduating class of Hanover Park High School (HPHS) is celebrating a 60th reunion this month. LaStrada Ristorante in Randolph is the place; Friday, Sept. 28 the date.
The reunion organizers, those focused on pulling the historic occasion together, are Class President Julie Gawron Mihalko, Treasurer Marie Rello Accetturo, Pat Coolack Heller, Betty Buchanan Ferraiuolo, and former Florham Park Borough Clerk and Councilwoman Judy Bailey Beecher.
Yes, a milestone it is, but backtracking in time, learning from some of the graduates their memories and where their lives have taken them, therein lies deepest reminiscence and a big part of the story.
“We walked in mud up to our ankles…”
Judy (Baily) Beecher recalls the oft travels of she and her classmates, never truly being settled until the senior year (1957-58). “Students from Florham Park, East Hanover, Cedar Knolls, Whippany (Hanover Township) travelled to Dover High for our freshman and sophomore years, and our junior year began with hours 4-8 pm at Ridgedale Middle School, Florham Park, and the old Madison High School. We were finally able to get into Hanover Park High School in November. The school was still not completed, and we walked in mud up to our ankles.”
Although attending a new school they could truly call their own, challenges of a new kind surfaced.
“In our school, which was designed as a campus school, built in the middle of a swamp, the students changed classes and went from building to building on open sided walkways, carrying their books and coats since there were no lockers. It might have been thought that having to walk from building to building was healthy being outdoors, but not when winter is coming on.”
Beecher recalls one day, when not yet a student long at the new school, when she received a call in one of her classes from school then-Principal Ketelaar, saying he had just received a call from the local newspaper wanting to know about a student strike.
“It turned out many of the students were frustrated with the amount of homework they were receiving, as well as their parents,” recalls Beecher. “Since we had such an abbreviated school year so far, the teachers were just trying to catch up with scheduled curriculum. It resulted in a meeting in the gym of all the parents and their students trying to work out a better system, and it actually was a positive meeting.”
Current students still head outside, traveling from building to building, but there are a few changes.
“As far as changes, the most significant ones I am aware of are the addition of another gym and the addition of the more professional sports fields,” she says. “The sizes of the classes have changed, and Hanover students from Cedar Knolls and Whippany no longer attend; they have their own high school, Whippany Park, which is still part of the Hanover Board of Education system.”
Beecher was the second woman to serve as president in the Florham Park Rotary and is still a member. She served as borough clerk of Florham Park until her 2005 retirement, and afterwards was appointed to the township council to serve the remainder of Councilman Joe Morano’s term.
“I was only the third woman to serve on the council,” she says. “I was then elected to a full term in 2007 and finally retired in August of 2010 and moved to Brigantine with my husband.”
She adds, “Pat [Coolack Heller], Betty [Buchanan Ferraiuolo] and I went through grammar school together in Cedar Knolls and we still see each other often for card games. That’s a lot of years together – 70.”
“I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but high school was probably the best time I ever had…”
Dick Pillion, who played fullback on the Hanover Park football team that shocked Madison, 13-12, currently resides in Calabash, N.C.
“Absolutely, it wasn’t just one building, you had to walk from building to building to go to your classes,” he says when asked about the difference between the new school complex and other schools the students had been attending. “We dealt with the experience of that (construction) being done while we were there. The walkways were , but of course the drainage wasn’t the best in the world, but I never heard a complaint about that at all.” He and his friends now had a school to call their own. “It was,” Pillion says fondly, “we named everything about it. It was Hanover Park, and we came up with the name of the Hornets, and different activities that are maybe still there today, I don’t know, but the name is still there.”
Pillion visits the school whenever in town and says there are indeed differences.
“The football field is a lot different, I can tell you that,” says Pillion. “There was mud and rock, whatever you had available at the time. And they’ve got carpeting now.”
His feelings when he visits? “Nothing could ever change that,” says Pillion. “It was the greatest time in my life, and I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but high school was probably the best time I ever had.” When asked to elaborate, he responds, “It’s very simple. All of the people got along. There wasn’t any groups or gangs or anything like that, we all worked together. We went to dances together, we went to parties together.”
Pillion and his mates were, in his words, thrown right into the varsity football situation. “Madison was to be the team of the area at the time, and we didn’t have anything but a bunch of guys that [Athletic Director and Coach] Barry Michaels put together and said, ‘Okay, you guys are a football team,’ and we said, ‘Okay,’ he says with a laugh. “He was able to put us together the first year and go out and be a competitive football team, beating some high-end teams in the area.”
Pillion was captain of the team that also had seniors Joseph Mihalko, Bill Dickinson, Joe Kurlo, Frank Ravo, Al Curran, and John “Speedy” Skurchak, Esq.
After high school, Pillion was awarded a college football scholarship, and he also played baseball, and tried to catch on with the Detroit Tigers minor league club. He has been married twice and has three children.
The 60th reunion for him is emotion-filled. “I have a photo of the 50th reunion. There was a lot of people there. As to how many are gone, I don’t know. The emotions are, ‘Wow! Where did it go? How fast can that be?”
“We won, and we marched up and down their streets…”
Pat (Coolack) Heller’s initial reaction to her new high school? “We had seen pictures and were informed quite regularly by the newspaper and whatever, so it was pretty much what I expected it to be, but it was so exciting because we were all so happy to have our new school. We waited so long; we waited two years for it. The first six to eight weeks we were going to night school, being bussed to Madison High, our group was to Madison High, it was something else, walking home in the pitch dark,” she laughs.
Heller and her classmates were really settled their senior year, when they enjoyed a full year inside Hanover Park High School walls. “It was great,” she says. “And we were a very close-knit school. And we’re still friends, a lot of us.”
Heller, who was the head of the twirling squad for two years, has fond recall of a special football Saturday when the Hanover Park High School faced powerhouse Madison. “We were the underdog, and we won the game, and we paraded through that town, I led the band and the twirlers, and we went up and down the streets. We won, and we marched up and down their streets.”
Heller also pays tribute to the band director, Rudolph Kreutcer. “He was from the Midwest, and out there they had all these…I don’t know how to describe it – we did a lot of of stuff in the field, as far as marching and doing all kinds of patterns. In this area they didn’t do much of that, but he brought that to the area, which was very unique. So, we were kind of unique in a lot if ways, where we had a lot of things that we did that other people hadn’t done yet. Good ole Kreutcer, Mr. Kreutcer; I remember his name well.”
The 60th reunion carries a cacophony of feelings for Heller, who was in charge of gathering her classmates for the September event. Of the 98 1958 grads, 30 are deceased, 10 she couldn’t locate.
“It was very depressing going though this, trying to get this organized,” she admits. “Two phone calls were answered by wives who husbands had passed away from my class; one passed away eight years ago, and the other one passed away 10 years ago. It was very depressing finding these people had passed away.”
“…we had teachers that cared…”
Joseph Mihalko is one of the 1958 grads who has remained near his roots. “Born and raised and still live in Whippany,” he proudly states. “I guess I’m just an old homebody. I love Hanover Township; I’ve been in the Whippany section of Hanover Township since I was born.”
“This first thing I think about [when thinking about HPHS] is that we were a class coming in at such a time in American history, and how fortunate we were to have the teachers that we did,” he says. “We were a young class of course in high school, and they seemed to be all young teachers. What those teachers gave to us of themselves for education, they were very progressive, way ahead of their time. Our teachers were not so much disciplinarians as much as they were humanitarians. They looked to students as students; their attitudes made us look further into the future. The lessons that I learned from them have been life altering.”
Mihalko recalls his shop teacher, Joe Kufka, who got him his first job at a tool store called Do It Yourself on Route 10. Many years later Mihalko bought the business and owned it for 30 years. “It was exciting for me to be part of that,” he says. Joe Kufka saw in me more than I saw in myself. I have to thank him, although he has passed, for that inspiration he gave me to be more than what I was.
“We had teachers that weren’t just there to elicit facts and figures and what not; we had teachers that cared,” he continues.
The first thing Mihalko recalls when first walking in the doors of his new school in November 1956 was the sight of contractors still on the job. “The sidewalks weren’t completed; we had to walk through mud,” he shares. “Our buildings were set up in a California style because there were separate buildings that you went to, and these covered walkways between the buildings for the inclement weather. But the only thing they hadn’t planned on was some of the covering of walkways were not angled properly and occasionally we had to walk through a downpour of rain because everything came off the edge of the covering. It was like you were walking through Niagara Falls to get to the next class.”
Mihalko, a right guard on the 1957 football team, thinks that the Madison game was the only victory for him and the Hornets. “We played Hunterdon, we lost to them,” he says. “We played Livingston, we lost to them. That is probably the only win we ever had.”
For Mihalko, who has been married for 53 years to his wife, Rosemarie, a HPHS girl three years his junior, and is a father of five children, it was so exciting for him personally to be part of something that was in 1957 just beginning.
“It was like we were Christopher Columbus discovering America or we were the first class that was going to be part of a dynamic institution, and we were going to be the first ones to graduate,” he says. “It was just so exciting.”
Was the HPHS class of 1958 pioneers? “Oh, that’s perfect, that’s right!” he says. “I love it. It was exciting to be a pioneer. We were breaking really new ground.”