ABOVE: Former William Taft High classmates from a variety of years in the 1950s and ‘60s gathered last month for a reunion at Pavilion Grille. About 180 attended, some of whom now live in Palm Beach County. INSET BELOW: A ball cap with science class buttons from Taft High, 1950. Photos by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By John Pacenti
In the Catskills in the 1950s, Margaret Haymin and Marsha Levine forged the kind of friendship that tattoos the young soul.
They were preteen girls at a summer Jewish bungalow colony — and then they went back home to the Bronx but never forgot each other.
A high school reunion brought them together 69 years later. That reunion for William Taft High School graduates has been held in South Florida at various locations for the last 15 years.
There have been 10 Taft reunions in total, and there hadn’t been one held since 2020 just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the nation. This year 180 graduates from the high school came together on Feb. 2 at Pavilion Grille in Boca Raton.
Haymin and Levine — both 77 — only learned of each other again this past year. They met at the reunion for the first time since those summer camp days.
“She stuck with me all these years,” said Haymin, Class of 1963, a retired photographer who flew in from Pennsylvania. “She just was so special. And I remembered her name. We played with dolls together. She always had beautiful blue eyes.”
Levine, a retired special education teacher who graduated in 1962, then pulled out black-and-white photos on her phone of the girls around a picnic table among more than a dozen girls at the bungalow colony camp.
Two women who came to the reunion last met as girls in the Catskills in the 1950s: Marsha Levine (back row, second from left) and Margaret Haymin (back row, fourth from left). BELOW RIGHT: Levine and Haymin today. Photo provided and by Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
The reunion’s origin
The Taft reunions are the masterstroke of event planner Roberta Lookatzer Silver and retired jockey Jeff “Mousey” Heller — classes of ’63 and ’62 respectively.
The first reunion was in New Jersey but it quickly migrated to warmer climes in south Palm Beach County. Some of the graduates make Palm Beach County their home now.
“But you know, it’s so comforting to be able to hug somebody that you know, for 70 years,” said Silver, who lives at Seagate Towers in Delray Beach.
Silver, 77, explained that in the 1950s and ’60s in the Bronx, there were very close-knit communities. Most families lived in tenements and people walked or met friends to take the bus. A number of junior high schools fed into Taft.
Heller, 78, was a live wire when he walked into the reunion. Everybody wanted to talk to Mr. Jeff Heller. Before he was a jockey, he was a teenage musician playing drums and piano for a doo-wop group called Mousey and The Four Cats.
He also met a budding musician and star basketball player at Taft named Chuck Negron. Negron went on to be the lead singer for Three Dog Night and though he did not travel for this reunion, his presence loomed large as his name was constantly brought up in conversation.
“They called us Mutt and Jeff,” said Heller, who now lives in Boynton Beach. “I recorded his first demo record.”
The pandemic ended the reunions for three years, so the 2023 party was one anticipated by many. The reunion played out like a movie, a bit of American Graffiti, When Harry Met Sally and Peggy Sue Got Married.
“During the pandemic, as you know, everybody was isolated. It wasn’t a healthy time,” Silver said.
Bernice and Ed
Sitting at one table were Ed Wenger and his wife, Bernice Nierenberg Wenger. They both went to Taft and even worked together on the school newspaper, The Taft Review.
But they were like ships passing in the night.
“So, she knew me by sight and I knew her by sight,” said Ed Wenger, Class of ’59.
They would again pass by each other at City College of New York, where they sometimes had the same class in the same building.
They met again at John F. Kennedy International Airport when both were escaping the winter and heading to Puerto Rico for vacation. But it wasn’t until they landed in San Juan that Cupid finally landed an arrow.
“When we got to Puerto Rico, and I was about to get into the taxi with my two friends, I heard the taxi driver say to some man, ‘Come on, we’re gonna take these girls for a ride,’” said Bernice, Class of ’61.
“Well, I speak Spanish fluently. So, I got scared. So, I went over to Ed and I said, ‘Come in our taxi with us so that they can take us anyplace.’”
Ed adds, “And we spent most of the vacation together.”
The couple now lives in Boca Raton, married since 1967.
These reunions can be an emotional tonic to those who attend, Silver said.
“There was one guy who came, I remember, one year and he walked in with his dog and he said, ‘You know, I’m not going to know anybody and my wife just died,’” she said.
“He stood with me for 15 minutes and then two women walked in and started screaming. ‘You lived on the sixth floor. We lived on the fourth floor.’ And it made his night.”
And true enough there was a lot of chatter last month that started, “I lived on 167th.” “Oh, I was on 176th.”
Stuart Szpicek, class of ’65, was looking at the Taft pins on display. “I designed one in 1965 myself,” he recalled.
Joyce Geiger Rosenbaum, Class of ’63, laughed when asked about the reunion and started singing December 1963 (Oh, What A Night), a hit by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.
“It warms the heart to see all these people,” she said.
Bernice Nierenberg Wenger put it this way, “Have you ever read the book Look Homeward, Angel? To look back and remember what a fine education we had and how everyone was so hardworking and motivated to better themselves — it’s just nice.”