At St. Joe's 70th reunion, a final farewell
"To St. Joseph's High we bid a fond adieu," it began, "You have been our Alma Mater tried and true."
That fond adieu is now a true farewell.
Come June 15, intrepid members of the Class of 1947 will be on hand in Pittsfield a week after the Catholic school confers its last diplomas.
"It will be a really small group, but a dedicated group," said William Grady, 88, who used Christmas cards last year to rally fellow students for what he expects will be a final hurrah. "We'll just do that and ease on down the road."
Seventy years on, this class still holds a first: Its roughly 112 members were the first to go all the way through junior and senior high school in what was then the new St. Joe's building on Maplewood Avenue.
When St. Joe's lets out June 12, a tradition comes to an end, following the Springfield Diocese's decision to close Berkshire County's last remaining Catholic secondary school.
"We opened up the place and we'll close it," said Grady. "It just was a marvelous six years that we had. I think every classmate would attest to that."
To be sure, St. Joe's graduates from all years since will continue to celebrate their connection to the school. On June 24, for instance, members of the Class of 1967 will gather to mark their 50th reunion, just as Grady's classmates did in 1997.
But considering their age, and the trouble they now face traveling, four members of the Class of 1947 told The Eagle that a lunch gathering in Pittsfield June 15 may be the last for this first class.
"There's some people I'd like to see again," said Robert B. Dillon, 87. "I always felt they were part of the building blocks of my life. I don't think we'll have another reunion. I didn't think we'd have a 70th."
Once a month, Dillon holds a mini-reunion with two classmates, Edward A. Flynn, 87, and Tony Plantier, 86. They take a back table at Panera, as they did this past week, tuck into coffee and pastries and enjoy being together.
"I'm looking forward to it," Plantier said Thursday of the June reunion, a grilled muffin in front of him, a rolling chair behind. "We're survivors."
The same can't be said of the school, and that annoys them.
Flynn said he believes diocesan officials should not complain about the high cost of building repairs at St. Joe's, since they were the ones responsible for the structure that opened in 1942.
"They didn't pay any attention to what was happening on Maplewood Avenue," he said.
Dillon says he foresaw the school's end, but says he didn't like the way it was handled from Springfield. He thinks Berkshire County has too often been an afterthought for the diocese.
Dillon, Flynn and Plantier still live in the area. They say Pittsfield today bears little resemblance to the city that buzzed about them during their years at St. Joe's.
Back then, the city pulsed with opportunity, even for high school graduates. Their yearbook, the "Josephite," was thick with ads from local businesses, including one full-page that doubled as a recruitment notice: "With the growth of the General Electric Company through its program of post-war expansion, opportunities for the high school graduate are ever increasing."
An accompanying illustration in the GE ad showed a dewy-eyed male graduate, still wearing his mortarboard and tassel, gazing across an open gate at a GE building.
Sure enough, Dillon, a St. Joe's football player and actor in class plays, signed up with GE and worked for 40 years with the company, in Pittsfield as well as Huntsville, Ala., and Lynn.
His Panera buddies were lifers as well — Flynn with The Eagle for 43 years (in the pressroom and as a photographer) and Plantier with three tool-and-die companies, along with a stint with GE. Plantier went on to become a shop steward and president of Local 225 of the electrical workers' union, then known as the IUE.
Grady, the classmate who this year took over Dillon's usual duty as reunion chief, went on to earn degrees in education and serve with the Army during the Korean War. He taught school on Long Island, ran a jobs program during the 1960s and later worked as a school superintendent in New Jersey, retiring in 1985.
"It was a good place to bring up your kids," Dillon said of Pittsfield. "You hadn't died and gone to heaven, but it was a good place. GE was the great savior of jobs in those days. You knew there was a future."
The county oozed jobs and apprenticeships at the time, the men say. "There were all kinds of opportunities. [Companies] were doing quite a bit of business," said Flynn.
That prosperity had been earned, many thought. Times were lean through World War II, and even more punishing through the 1930s. The men recall sneaking snacks into St. Joe's that smacked of hard times: Crumbs from a nearby potato chip factory that could be bought for one penny a bag.
"When we were in elementary school, it was the Great Depression and things were kind of tough," Plantier said.
By high school, as they worked odd jobs, these guys suddenly had money in their pockets. Flynn says that with so many men off fighting the war, young guys were gobbled up by local employers. He used to walk a few blocks to the The Eagle after school let out and put in two hours daily, pulling down $5 a week. Plantier signed on as a paperboy for The Eagle.
Grady helped his father at the Rochford Hat Shop not far from St. Joe's. "That's when North Street was an unbelievable thriving center for the entire county," Grady said.
To this day, members of the Class of 1947 credit St. Joe's with making them who they are as men. The essence of that, they said, lies in how to treat others.
"The way you relate to people," Plantier said. "I learned that at St. Joe's and it helped me all my life."
"You learned to be obedient in Catholic school," he added. "You learned to obey an order, listen to the sister and be attentive. By the way, it helped when you got married, too."
While his pals Flynn and Plantier had come up through the parochial system their entire lives, Dillon arrived at St. Joe's from public school in his sophomore year. He admits he struggled with the authority laid down by the nuns, but found a path.
"If you carried your end of the load, they carried theirs," Dillon said of Catholic discipline. "To me, a deal was a deal."
He recalls a conflict with a nun who once came up on his blind side and slapped him on the head. "I said, 'Sister, don't ever do that again.'"
Another time, something he said received this reply from his teacher, etched now in his memory: "You bold boy, you will never step foot in my class again."
That earned him a trip to see Sister Agatha, the principal. The teacher demanded he get on his knees and apologize to her in front of the whole class. Dillon said he managed to get the apology — and that part wasn't negotiable — moved to the less humiliating setting of the principal's office.
Grady, who lives in Fogelsville, Penn., believes that the school's days were numbered when the parish took down the convent and shifted to lay teachers. "That for me was the end of St. Joe's as far as I could see."
But another factor, in his view, was Pittsfield's economic slide, particularly with GE's withdrawal.
"I think the end of the Catholic parishes and the end of Catholic education in Pittsfield must be co-written with the demise of GE. When GE left, you know, all of that employment and all of that promise and that constituency just withered. The Pittsfield that I knew as a kid sadly no longer exists," Grady said.
TALES OF THE YEARBOOK
Dillon still travels with his 1947 yearbook. Tucked into the back are photos from the 50th reunion and even some of his old St. Joe's report cards, complete with his mother and father's signatures.
The day the yearbook came out, members of this class were already looking back, and bidding adieu.
In the "Our Treasure Trove" section, members of the yearbook staff bequeathed qualities of class members to others. For Grady, it was his "willingness to lend a helping hand."
Plantier was made to will his "hot sax" to another student — he was a member of the orchestra — with "complete instruction." Dillon's theme song, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Had," found a new owner.
Mercifully, they'd all escaped the sharpest of the class attributes — being neither smallest, shortest or, yes, "fattest."
Plantier won "most energetic" and Flynn "most studious."
As a whole, the boys in the class liked actor Robert Mitchum the best; the girls admired June Alyson.
The boys liked the Benny Goodman orchestra. On that, girls seemed to have no opinion.
A yearbook feature called "Just Supposin' That" imagined what life would be like if Plantier lived in the city, if Flynn had no science period, if Dillon liked to take notes and if Grady "could move his desk when he felt like it."
And beside their senior photos, these personal mottoes: "Well, gee —" (Dillon); "Here I go again" (Flynn); and "What a character" (Plantier).
Grady had won mention as the "best eater."
He says he'd grown at St. Joe's to his full height, 6-foot-4, and weighed around 265.
That gave rise, naturally, to his nickname: "Tiny."
Grady says he looks forward to seeing everyone June 15. "It will be an enormous joy, yes," he said. "It's always good to connect with your past and see how people change — or don't change — over the years."
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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