From Vietnam to the Kennedy Assassination: Alumni Memories of the 1960s

Stuyvesant alumni reflect on their memories attending Stuyvesant in the 1960s.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By the beginning of the 1960s, an all-male Stuyvesant was renowned for its academic rigor. By the end of the decade, the composition of the student body had been fundamentally altered. Social upheavals on a national level were beginning to bring about a tide of change, one that would eventually result in the introduction of girls to the institution. For the Stuyvesant students experiencing the decade first-hand, however, these social movements often felt less relevant than the ups and downs of everyday high school life. 

As is constant in every decade of its history, Stuyvesant’s students of the ‘60s were academically talented, and the pressure of going to good colleges motivated them to succeed in their classes. The pressure was palpable; many students forwent social and extracurricular lives in order to succeed. “I went to Stuyvesant and went home and tried to do my homework,” Stuyvesant alumnus Len Berman (‘64) said. 

Other students, like alumnus Frank Maas (‘67), spent much of their high school careers working part-time to earn money and support their families. However, these commitments limited students’ ability to explore extracurriculars. “Well, the truth is I worked after school. I think my sophomore year I worked at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and I worked at a jewelry company. I worked at an insurance company in the mail room, and frankly, I needed the money,” Maas said. 

Compounding the stress of maintaining a job in high school, many students were burdened by constant external pressure to succeed. Berman shared a particularly memorable example of this pressure: “A chemistry teacher yelled at a kid [...] and said, ‘Why are you talking to that kid next to you?’ And the guy said, ‘Well, that's my friend.’ He said, ‘He's not your friend. He's the competition. He's trying to take your spot in college.’” Though the college admissions process has evolved significantly in the last 60 years, Stuyvesant’s competitive culture surrounding it has clearly not. 

While colleges were much less selective at the time—even Harvard had an acceptance rate of over 30 percent—admissions quotas discriminating against Stuyvesant’s majority-Jewish population and students’ lack of money and connections made getting into college a difficult task. The fact that much of the Stuyvesant population was made up of low-income, first- and second-generation Americans, and students’ desire to succeed scholastically and financially, were the driving factors of this competition. 

Another aspect of Stuyvesant culture—the school's low emphasis on sports—has remained constant. “There wasn't a huge sports culture at Stuyvesant, though we had many teams,” Berman recounted. “The big team was the fencing team; oh my God those kids were great. They went on and fenced at Columbia [tournaments].” Even today, Stuyvesant struggles to garner attention for the star-studded fencing team and its other championship-winning teams, with sports falling into the background at such an academics-oriented school.

Some ‘60s Stuyvesant traditions have not carried over to today. For instance, students then referred to each other by last name, a practice that earned them strange looks when they left the Stuyvesant bubble. “When we got to college, we greeted each other in the hallways just with last names, and the other people were looking at us like ‘These people are really weird,’” Maas said. 

The ‘60s were also a tumultuous political period. With military drafts looming for students as they left high school, the Cuban Missile Crisis igniting the fear of nuclear war, and the Kennedy Assassination bringing instability to the United States’ most central office, current events were impossible for Stuyvesant students to ignore. However, there was only “a fairly small percentage of the students who considered themselves politically active,” Maas noted. Though students were involved in some anti-war demonstrations, the Vietnam War was not the largest focus within the school building. 

At the same time, some historical events—the Kennedy assassination in particular—defined students’ memories of the decade. “The most memorable moment was when Kennedy got shot. It was a Friday afternoon and they went on the public address and said, ‘Everyone go home,’ and they didn't tell us why,” Berman recalled. “We thought it had something to do with the big rivalry football game the next day with Clinton and they were afraid of a riot.” Berman still harshly reprimands the Stuyvesant administration’s lack of transparency towards students regarding Kennedy’s assassination. “To this day, I've always wondered why a school that prides itself in learning and science and math and intelligence […] wouldn't tell the students what had happened. They never told us,” Berman said. To some extent, Berman’s criticisms are still prevalent today, as many current Stuyvesant students frequently claim that the administration, even in its best efforts, can falter at initiating proper communication between students and faculty.

When Stuyvesant students graduated from Stuyvesant’s all-boys environment, they were often unprepared to interact with girls in college. “I wish [Stuyvesant] would have been co-ed,” Berman said. “I felt that socially, it held me back. […] I wasn't mature enough to handle [being around girls].” Maas recalled one instance in which Stuyvesant partnered with the then all-girls Hunter College High School to host a semi-formal dance. Maas felt uncomfortable with dressing up in front of attractive girls. “[I] had to wear a tie, a white shirt, and sneakers because it was in the gym, like we weren't dorky-enough-looking to begin with,” Maas described. The Hunter girls had forgotten to bring records for music, and so songs were played off a radio. “It was an excruciating afternoon—enjoyable, but by the end of it, not so much,” Maas chuckled. 

Though Berman and Maas have their fair share of regrets about their time at Stuyvesant, they expressed gratitude for the lifelong friendships they made along the way. “One of my classmates and a friend of mine, [Sam Rosen (‘64)], is the current announcer for the New York Rangers,” Berman said. “He swears that I wrote in his yearbook [in] 1964, ‘The Mets will win the World Series in five years.’ If I was correct, it was the only sports prediction I ever made in my career that was accurate. [...] It was unbelievable that we both kind of gravitated towards sports.” 

Maas emphasized the importance and unique quality of the connections that can be made in just four years at Stuyvesant. “One of the important things is the connections you make to other people. [...] Those are connections you carry with you,” Maas explained. “Because kids come from everywhere in the city, you're probably not going to develop the same sort of friendships that you would if you went to a local high school.” Like Berman and Maas, today’s students should seek out connections that will introduce them to new life experiences and perspectives. High school is a formative period academically, but it is also a prime time to develop the friendships that will last even after careers have passed and memories of academia have faded.