Class of 1964 celebrates our 50th Reunion at St. Francis High, Athol Springs NY

After 50 years, one-third of the class of 1964 found their way back to St. Francis. Twenty two of 66 graduates and Coach Bob Torgalski attended one of the many celebrations held between Thursday and Saturday. We tried hard to recognize faces; to recall places and their stories; and to participate with dignity in the commencement. Reunions are about renewing and re-connecting with the friendships that shaped you. This one was a tremendous success and truly demonstrated the unique spirit of our class.

My own reunion experience started early Thursday when I ran into Bill Mackiewicz and Chester Salacinski and his wife Tong. After graduation, Bill, Chet and I attended the Franciscan seminary for a few years. As would happen many times during those first encounters, age and time briefly challenged memory. Smiles, handshakes and hugs quickly erased hesitation and doubt. While wandering around the kitchen and reminiscing, the staff invited me to join them as summer camp help. Muddy fields prevented our walk on the other prop.

Linda and Ron Michnik generously invited me to stay with them in nearby West Seneca. It was Ron’s idea to have an informal get together at Duff’s, one of Buffalo’s famous wing joints. How many would respond to the email invitation? Would their wives also attend? At first the side room looked pretty empty with the three of us. Then they started coming. John Przybylowicz from Chicopee, with his cousin Gene Nowack from the class of ’66, Fr. Vinnie Busch from the Phillipines, local guys Ray Pulinski, Dan Galluch, Larry Cieslica, Bill Graser, Tom Wrzosek, Chet Salacinski from Texas, Barry Recame from Annapolis, Bob Dassel from Pittsburgh. When a new person joined, we started a game of ‘who can recognize this classmate?’. There would always be one pretty quick correct answer. An observer could never tell that some of these men had not seen each other in 50 years. Warmth and laughter melted wrinkles and time. The five wives started their own circle which would expand and get closer throughout the reunion.

Friday morning twenty one grads and a dozen wives gathered outside the chapel. What might have been a subdued initial gathering before Mass quickly became an extension of the previous evening’s joyful celebration with newcomers quickly joining in. One of our own classmates, Fr. Vincent Busch a Colomban missionary, joined school President Fr. Michael Sajda, class of 1969 in concelebrating Mass. Choir voices filled space and spirit. The songs brought back old memories of countless masses as a student and more recent ones of attendance at the annual Alumni Memorial Mass.

While awaiting the arrival of brunch under the watchful eye of Fr. Justin Figas in the foyer of the auditorium, we passed around some Crown Royal to toast our veterans, ourselves and our departed classmates. Ray Pulinski, a past commander of VFW Post 898 in Lackawanna led the toast honoring veterans this Memorial Day weekend, including our own Mike Morgan who gave his life in Vietnam. Ed Curran shared a deeply moving account of bringing home Mike’s body from Vietnam. In addition to Mike, we also honored Donald Stone, John Eberhardt, Richard Schultheis, and Arnold Wolanczyk.

Men often express respect through playful insults. There were several rounds of these among those with service in different branches of the armed forces. Laughter everywhere.

As each classmate gave a brief summary of their past 50 years, stories of service, accomplishments and personal loss emerged. Our history includes many who served in the military and who were involved in Vietnam. Chester Salacinski rose to the highest NCO rank of Sargeant Major in the Army. Barry Recame is a retired Navy Commander. Mike Guy, Bob Dassel, Gerry McEneaney, Bill Mackiewicz and others in our class became teachers, probation officers and mental health counsellors. Roger Palczewski and Sam Santarosa became company leaders creating jobs, products and services. Bill Graser, Ed Curran and Ron Michnik became banking and finance professionals. Tom Wrzosek and Joe Granica enjoy distant travels. Tom still teaches English in Poland while Joe had many of us considering Belize for retirement. We heard to of illness, troubled relationships and personal loss. Our current Junior class guides listened intently to the lifelong lessons learned at St. Francis — respect, caring, discipline, focus, self-motivation, recovery, and adaptability.

After the group photo, we broke up into small groups to tour the school. Today’s students are involved in activities which did not exist in our time. While the tradition of academic and athletic excellence continues, the creative arts are equally prominent. Among these are TV and internet media production, the Jazz Messengers, and a school orchestra. Today’s students enjoy high quality facilities including a new 800 seat auditorium with stage and orchestra pit, a very well equipped weight and exercise room, and an additional double size gym. The basketball practice in the gym brought back memories after school athletics, the first dance, the never-happened prom, and various escapes and escapades. Going through the tunnel we remembered fallout shelter signs and stacks of packaged food. These were to sustain survivors in the event of nuclear attack during the Cuban missile crises of the Cold War. Much of Justin Hall is converted from dormitories to classrooms. Our tour tried hard to remember where everyone lived and the location of prefects’ rooms. The resident program closed in 1988 and re-opened a few years ago. We were unable to view the third floor living areas where approximately 30, largely international, students now reside.

Tour groups interrupted and were warmly welcomed in several classrooms and labs in both the old and new building. Where our class had almost entirely Franciscan teachers and the first lay teacher, Mr. Cuviello, now there are a handful of friars and forty-five lay teachers. The tour moment I will never forget is someone quieting the packed dining hall and asking everyone to ‘stand and welcome the class of 1964′ – noise as deafening as ever. It felt great to be back.

In the evening, together with the class of 2014, we gathered in the basement of Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna. As the school orchestra filled the space with the traditional Pomp and Circumstance we processed along with graduates and faculty into the assembly of family and friends. Every name of the class of ’64 was published in the 84th Commencement booklet. Fr. Mike mentioned our class several time and nicely linked the challenges and accomplishments of the 60′s with the challenges and opportunities facing current grads. The second never forget, lump in the throat moment came when the grads and the congregation gave a standing ovation to the class of 1964.

Immediately after we were invited to join the congratulatory receiving line. The graduates shook hands with each of us and conveyed an genuine gratitude for our presence. Sam Santarosa and I were alongside Gerry McEneany who loudly and enthusiastically welcomed each graduate to the alumni.

After the ceremonies we gathered at the nearby Ilio DiPaolo’s where we were joined by Ron Hartman. Our bartender, Ilio, the grandson of the founder, was an All Catholic athlete and St. Francis graduate of 2008. Drinks, laughter and stories went on into the evening. On returning to his home, Ron and I stayed up late solving the world’s problems.

The surprise guest of Saturday’s going away lunch at Hoak’s was Coach Bob Torgalski. Bob still coaches at Nichols School in Buffalo. He has an uncanny memory of the great and not-so-great athletes he worked with over the years. Bob is the only staff person from the 60′s who attended both our 25th and now our 50th reunion. Ed Curran caught us up on the lives of 60′s graduates who attend the Montauk, Long Island Reunions every even year. They fly up Fr. Christopher from his Florida home. More jokes especially from Sam and Ray and personal revelations about Sam, Larry, and Ron from the attending wives kept us laughing.

As we were getting ready to leave, Roger Palczewski asked the right question at the perfect moment. That skill has certainly contributed to his successful business career. “When will we meet again?” Someone replied, “How about five years?”; Roger, “Too late; we’re all getting older. How about doing something on the odd years to avoid competing with the Long Island event?” And so, the seed is set for more frequent future gatherings while we still can.

Bob Dassel got on his Triumph motorcycle to return to Pittsburgh. Next time he comes to Toronto for Dragon Boat racing we will get together. Who would have expected him to become the life long, wirey athlete? After some hand surgery in Rhode Island, Fr. Vince Busch is heading back to Mindanao in the Philippines into an area on the State Department travel advisory After Thursday night’s welcome event we had about $60 left over from the food and drinks kitty. That amount kept growing into the hundreds after a brunch collection and more were added after the Friday evening at DiPaolos and Saturday’s lunch at Hoak’s. We gave it all to Fr. Vinnie who will use it to support the self-sustainability efforts of the Subanen people. Ed was staying for another day and this September will carry back our stories to the gathering in Long Island. Several of us closer to the Western New York area lamented that we should have stayed in touch better. Throughout the reunion there were arrangements for getting together. Tom Wroszek invited me to his lakeside home. I promised to return with Sue so she can meet Ron and Linda. Sam and I will get together in Youngstown when my son Simon races his sail boat there. Later this summer Jim Reynolds, Ron Dabelle and I have plans for getting together in Massachusetts. Of course, Toronto visitors have a personal guide available on short notice.

Before driving back I had to give the other prop another try. When visiting St. Francis, I try to take a short walk to see the pond, the long abandoned tram station, and the cinder road along which track athletes trained and the garbage crew drove tractor loads to our dump. Lot’s of memories and the site of future archaeological digs to uncover early SFHS history. Walking across the rail tracks through the fields and woods to Little Niagara are some of my personal best memories. The ground wasn’t as mushy as two days earlier. Standing by the pond I remembered building dams so we could play hockey in the Winter.

Thank you to each reunion classmate for renewing and reconnecting. Fifteen years ago in 1999 Frank Prusak and I were at the 35th homecoming. We tagged along with the class of 1949 then celebrating their 50th. Some of you may have noticed the mounted jersey with the number 49 in the foyer at brunch. It was a gift to Joe Golba of that class who organized that reunion and contributed many years to the St. Francis Alumni. I thoroughly enjoyed their comments and conversations. Everything except the original main building was new to them. Joe and his classmates remain an inspiration me. Thank you to all who share St. Francis with me then and now.

For those who’d like to see the pictures –


About mielniczuk

Community, systems, design, collaboration, change, evidence, Intelligent Accountability(c)
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