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On November 30, 1964, “the most notorious liar in the country” came to speak at Stamford High School, and my aunt was among 2,000 to 2,500 people who came out to hear him.

From the sound of it, she found him pretty believable, and still does.

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November 30, 1964. The Yankees take outfielder Leon “Duke” Carmel from the Mets in the Rule 5 draft, the first direct transaction between the two teams.

There’s not much I need to say to introduce you to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (The “most notorious liar” smear was issued not long before this date by J. Edgar Hoover, who needs no introduction either.)

Instead, I’ll set the scene by noting where King was on Nov. 30, 1964.

At 35, he’d just become the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and was scheduled to go to Stockholm in about two weeks to formally receive it. (A film clip of his Nobel acceptance speech can be seen here, for anyone wanting an idea of what King looked and sounded like around the time he came to Stamford.)

In December 1964, King also began to join civil rights protestors in Selma, Alabama, culminating in the famous marches of March 1965.

Still in the future were King’s involvement in housing-related protests in Chicago; his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War; and his support for striking black public works employees in Memphis, which immediately preceded his assassination in April 1968.

As of late November 1964, King was also the author of four books, with his most recent, Why We Can’t Wait, being published in July of that year.

And — in an honor that was most certainly noticed at 1107 Hope St. — King had begun 1964 by being named Time magazine’s Man of the Year.

Two excellent retrospective stories by the Stamford Advocate fill in some of the specific historical blanks from Nov. 30, 1964.

King’s Stamford appearance was arranged by religious groups as a fundraiser for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When the high school auditorium filled with people, an overflow area was set up in the gym.

Before the event, King held a press conference at the city’s Jewish Center. This is the most likely source of a brief United Press International piece that ran on page 44 of the New York Times the following day, indicating that King intended to ask for a meeting with Hoover to discuss their disagreements. (Hoover had called King a liar after King claimed that FBI agents did not intervene on behalf of Southern civil rights demonstrators because the agents were themselves Southerners.)

A bomb threat was called in before the speech, and protesters standing in frigid temperatures outside the school branded King a Communist. But neither one stopped the event.

King’s speech was filmed by John Maher, a high school student from nearby Darien. Unfortunately, while copies of the film were circulated in Darien schools and also offered to King, no copy is known to survive.

The Advocate’s retrospective story does not capture King’s speech extensively either — simply indicating that he spoke on topics of civil rights, inequality and segregation.

“There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society where a segment of that society feels they have no stake in that society,” King is quoted as saying. “I am firmly convinced that if democracy is to live, then segregation must die.”

My aunt does not remember much in the way of specific phrases. But her other memories are still strong. So we’ll let her tell the story for a while:

Yes, I remember seeing Martin Luther King Jr.! It is one of those memories that is seared into one’s mind. I went with our MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship). I think I had seen a poster that MLK was going to speak at Stamford High School. Because I was interested in Civil Rights, as was our Minister, the info was passed on to the MYF. A small group of us decided to attend.

What a life changing event! I have heard others say that MLK spoke in poetry, and he really did! I quickly started scrawling down some of his poetic speech on the program I had of the event there. Somewhere in my closet, I still have the program.

Anyway, he spoke in a booming voice and looked 10 feet tall, so when he walked out in the aisle by me, I was surprised to see that he was actually shorter than I had thought.

Anyway, back to the stage upon which he stood to speak: he was surrounded by a close circle of black men in hats with arms folded. I wondered why this was, and later realized they were there to protect him. I believe one of those young thin men was Jesse Jackson.

(Editor’s note: Most online sources suggest that the not-yet-Rev. Jesse entered King’s orbit around the time of the Selma protests. If Jackson was in Stamford with King, that would have been at the very start of their connection. My aunt also remembers King leading the Stamford audience in a chant of “I Am Somebody,” a phrase that later became associated with Jackson but was used in multiple speeches by King.)

MLK was a minister, so there was a collection of the sort that is taken in church. I gave all of the money I had on me (probably not much) because I was so inspired. (Me again: A pile of collection baskets is visible in the photo that accompanies the Advocate story about King’s speech being filmed.)

Most of the audience was black, so our small mostly white MYF group was a minority–something that was new to me at the time, and the black people only looked at us curiously for a short minute.

I believe this experience helped to shape my career. I attended Southern Connecticut State College because they had a program in education for urban youth, and I student taught in the New Haven inner-city schools. I was student teaching at one of those schools when MLK was assassinated. Everyone was devastated. We all were instructed to go home that day, because the situation could become dangerous. After that time, the tone of the inner city neighborhoods changed from hopeful to angry. However, I did go on to get my MSSS (Masters Degree in the Science of Social Service) from Boston University.

At the time I made the decision to attend the MLK event, I had no idea that he would become so famous, or have such influence on myself and the world!

 

 

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This week, I feature a rare entry in which my grandfather’s kids seize control of his calendar, and the joyous cries of children are heard throughout the land.

June 20, 1961

I could try to get all heavy and analytical on this one. But really: A high school graduation and a last day of school, on the same day? Even after 50 years, nothing says it better than “WOPEE.”

(My aunt’s variation on “Whoopee” owes more to teenage exuberance than Merriam-Webster. But that’s OK. No one’s grading.)

Whatever the graduation speakers of the Stamford High Class of ’61 said that day is completely lost on my dad now. He doesn’t remember much about his graduation, except that he escorted a “very nice and popular” girl into the ceremony at her request, and then ditched her afterwards to spend time with his girlfriend. (What little I know about how to impress women was not learned from my father. Thankfully, the University of Barry White has a liberal enrollment policy.)

One of my dad’s fellow graduates, Eleanor Roberts (later Eleanor Lewis), would later become chief counsel for International Commerce at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Another, Charles Strauss, became CEO of Unilever United States. As for my dad, thirty-odd years in management at Eastman Kodak was waiting … not that he knew that at the time, of course.

In the fall of 1961, my father headed off to college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. History does not record whether my aunt’s “WOPEE” was motivated by the last day of school, or by the giddy prospect of getting her older brother out of the house.

My own high school graduation came almost exactly 30 years after my dad’s, and I don’t remember what my speakers said either, except that one of them held up actor-director Kevin Costner — then making interminable films like “Dances with Wolves” — as an example of the sort of individualist thinker we should all aspire to be. Hopefully my dad’s class got better advice than mine did.

(Actually, I think it would be mildly interesting to read a sampling of high school graduation speeches from 1961, 1991 and today, just to see how they differ — or if they differ — in tone and approach. I don’t know how actively I’ll pursue that thought, though.)

After my graduation, most likely I hung out with my girlfriend, which was the same thing my dad had done 30 years before. Some things never change, I suppose.

Unlike my dad, I am planning to skip my 20th reunion this year in favor of some splendid isolation in the Finger Lakes. My dad, having attended his 20th and 40th, is going this year to his 50th. Maybe if I make it that far, I’ll think about going.

It’s school’s-out season once again as I write this. As they break for summer — and sometimes forever — high school students across America are posting messages of triumph and celebration in their yearbooks, on their Facebook pages and even on their cars.

Do any of them capture the moment quite like “WOPEE”? Doubt it.

Next week: School’s out, from a different perspective. If that don’t suit’cha, that’s a drag.

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Another special edition of 5,478 Days.

When my grandfather stopped by the Stamford High-Norwalk High football game in October or November 1958, his main purpose was to take pictures of my father, then a skinny sophomore playing in the Stamford High marching band.

But when he saw one of pro football’s greatest defensive ends milling among the crowd, my grandpa couldn’t resist asking to take his picture.

And, just like any self-respecting local hero would do, Andy Robustelli obliged.

Andy Robustelli, autumn 1958

At the time my grandfather snapped this picture, the unprepossessing fellow in the gray cloth coat was at or near the peak of a remarkable, late-blooming football career.

Robustelli, a Stamford native, turned 16 the day before Pearl Harbor and enlisted in the U.S. Navy two years later. After his tour of duty, he came back to Connecticut and went to college in Bridgeport. He got drafted by an NFL team, but not by much — 19th round to the Rams, in 1951 — and was 25 by the time he went to his first pro training camp.

He defied the experts by not only staying with the Rams, but starring with them. And when he moved to the semi-hometown New York football Giants in 1956, he cemented his legend as a dangerous, durable pass rusher who used speed and intelligence to make up for what he lacked in pure size and strength. (The Football Hall of Fame lists Robustelli at 6’1″, 230.)

Only two months or so after this photo was taken, Robustelli would take part in the 1958 NFL championship game against the Baltimore Colts — a game celebrated in NFL legend as “the greatest game ever played.” Robustelli’s Giants lost in overtime to the Colts, but the game played a key role in popularizing the NFL and televised pro football to audiences nationwide.

Robustelli retired after the 1964 season, and was elected to the Football Hall of Fame seven years later.

In the only blot on his professional resume, he served as the Giants’ general manager during their fallow years of the Seventies, proving that he was less adept at drafting and managing talent than he was at being it. (This is a common shortcoming among star athletes in all professional sports, and is scarcely unique to Robustelli.)

Back home in Stamford, where Robustelli became a successful businessman, the poor fortunes of the mid-Seventies Giants put scarcely a dent in his reputation.

By all accounts, he embodied the old-school example of the local boy made good — humble, grounded, steady and clean-living. People spoke well of him, and meant it.

Decades after my grandfather took this picture, Robustelli was still attending Stamford High sporting events to cheer on his grandchildren, mixing unpretentiously with the crowd as he did in 1958.

He was not the sort to seek out a neighbor with a camera, but not the sort to shrug them off if they asked for a picture or two, either.  My other grandpa, a lifelong Giants fan, also lived in Stamford, and I’m fairly sure that among his effects is a picture of him with Andy Robustelli at one or another civic event. On the football field, Robustelli was an immortal; off the field, he was a quiet, distinguished, but accessible part of his community.

Andy Robustelli died Tuesday, May 31, in the city he called home all his life. He was 85.

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