A stranger observing them in the back room of the Country Club Diner on a recent evening might wonder: Was this a family gathering? A neighborhood party? An office party?
Actually, none of the above.
The gathering is a monthly event that reunites members of the Class of 1960 at Northeast High School — now decades beyond those days. The group gathers on pre-determined Tuesday nights to keep the bonds alive.
Yes, it’s rare thing. And it grew out of a 25th class reunion at which this core group, ironically not close friends back in those high school years, realized that despite that, they had bonds that are marrow deep.
“These are the people we shared our high school years with, the people who knew us when,” explained Marilyn Sacks DeLeon.
DeLeon, a paralegal, is an avid member of the reunion group and one of its founders, along with four other classmates. The other co-founders are Andie Blitz Klein, Nikki Kauffman Rosen, Roz Barish Mazur and the late Madge Rosenberg.
“It doesn’t matter that we weren’t all one big group — what matters is that because of the past we shared, we’re close now. We’re like family,” said DeLeon, who is a stellar organizer.
But even a few minutes in their presence can convince any skeptic that reconnecting over all these post-high school years has made this a kind of honor guard watching out for one another — caring, sharing, remembering and most of all, keeping in touch.
“You have to have a really good reason for missing a Tuesday night dinner,” said Dave Barish, a self-described cut-up in high school, and now the owner of a furniture business who is a fiercely loyal member of the monthly group.
“This is where you can be yourself — you don’t have to impress anyone about how important you are. These are the people who remember the same things you do, and who cherish the same past.”
This group of about 16 loyalists doesn’t need holidays to get together. Or birthdays.
Nor are spouses invited — by mutual consent. That might change the vibe, all agree. So husbands and wives stay home.
And invariably, reminiscences bubble to the surface among these men and women, now all in their early 70s.
Most of them are grandparents, some of them are retired — but their memory banks are definitely not retired. And all but one still live in the Greater Northeast. DeLeon resides in Plymouth Meeting.
Among the places and things they still love to remember:
• The Cottman Bowling Alley
• The Max Myers Playground
• HoJo’s (Howard Johnson’s)
• The Hot Shoppes
• Linton’s on Castor Avenue
• Seashore summers at Chelsea Beach, Atlantic City
• The Route 59 Trackless Trolley
• The Neighborhood Center where teenage dances were held (once located at Bustleton and Magee)
As each landmark place was mentioned, there were delighted smiles of recognition and reminiscence. Those were wonderful years, the members of Class of 1960 at Northeast High insist. Simpler times. And yes, happy times.
There were mostly one-car families. Women typically stayed home and reared children. And at Northeast High, despite class sizes that were in the hundreds, there was a familiarity among most classmates.
And those ties became binding, witness the Country Club Diner’s happy dinner group.
Art Lerner, the newest member of the group even after 10 years, feels “privileged” to be in it. This Realtor has felt a sense of renewal and delight at reconnecting with his high school classmates, and like them, recalls wonderful times at Northeast High, and happy that in a complicated world, there is the comfort of old classmates and friends to ease the journey.
“We all had been given a strong work ethic,” said Lerner, who jokes that his “exit strategy” from work will be death. “Why would I retire when my work is what I love? Most of the men in this group do what I do — work hard — and still enjoy it.”
In this group, as in life itself, there inevitably have been struggles, passages and sometimes, heartbreak.
Founder Madge Rosenberg passed away several years ago, and is missed.
And proud and loyal member Carol Stein Sokolow, who lost her husband just after the recent meeting, spoke emotionally that night at the recent Country Club get-together about how the group had been there for her, and how deeply appreciated that support has been.
Andie Blitz Klein echoed that sentiment.
“To have reconnected with these people is a gift I’m so fortunate to have. It’s so comforting to know that around me are people who care. Sharing old memories makes me feel 18 but getting older also makes me appreciate the value of old friends.”
Yes, this crew has been challenged by a world that now has faced assassinations, wars, 9-11 and school killings.
“It’s such a far cry from growing up in Northeast Philly, in row homes with one bathroom but lots of love,” says Dave Barish. “The generation after ours may think they had it better — they have all the technology we never dreamed of, and bigger homes and better cars.
“But,” said Barish, “what we had was something precious. We had roots, we had wonderful times and simpler times. And we had — and have again — each other!” ••