For one graduate of , it took teaching at another school in another state to really appreciate the education he got back in New Jersey.
“For the last two years, following my retirement, I have been doing some substitute teaching in the local high schools in North Carolina,” said Cliff Brown, a graduate of the BRHS Class of 1962. “The experience has really shocked me into realizing how great BRHS was compared to schools now.”
Brown is one of many students celebrating 50 years since graduating with the first senior class to come out of Bridgewater-Raritan High School, which officially opened its doors in 1960.
The Class of 1962 is celebrating its 50th reunion with events Friday and Saturday throughout Bridgewater and Raritan, culminating in a special dinner Saturday at the .
“Being the first class, we were the ‘seniors’ as sophomores, juniors and finally real seniors,” Brown said. “We picked the school colors and mascot, wrote the school song, published the first yearbook and started athletic traditions, taking our lumps at first in the process.”
Class of 1962 graduate Melissa Smith, who is helping organize the reunion, said she never realized the important role her class played in determining the future of the high school, which changed as it split into Bridgewater-Raritan High School East and West in the later years, before rejoining as one again.
“To this day, I still remember those songs and the kids that served on the committees that wrote them, selected the school colors,” she said.
Those colors, Smith said, started out as gold and white, with the original mascot begin the Golden Falcon.
But on another positive note, Smith said, the students never had to compete with those who were older.
“Not having to compete with upperclassmen was a true advantage and confidence builder,” she said. “I probably would not have gotten to be a varsity cheerleader for three years, a class officer, on Student Council and many more activities if I had to compete with upperclassmen.”
When the school first opened, Smith said, there was a dress code with no jeans allowed, and everyone was afraid of getting detention. At the time, she said, 90 percent of the students took a bus to school, and they had to walk about a half mile to the bus stop every day.
“The bus never waited, if you missed it, you had to try to find a ride because most parents had already left for work,” she said.
And of course, Smith said, with the campus-style high school the students always had to walk outside between classes.
“We carried our winter coats and umbrellas with us all day since we moved from building to building, and it was freezing in the winter and you got soaked in the rain,” she said. “You had to carry your books for the entire day, since your locker was in a building that you seldom had classes in.”
Aside from that fact, which is still pretty much the case at the high school today, Smith said the teachers and the principal knew all the 230 students by name, and they took a personal interest in each teen.
“I knew the name of everyone in my class,” she said. “You wanted to go to school every day because something new and exciting was going to happen.”
For retired Col. Joe Ryan, also a member of the Class of 1962, he had just moved to Martinsville the year before the school opened, so he started at Bound Brook High School before moving to BRHS.
“So it was ‘new guy’ all over again,” he said. “Fortunately, there was a degree of that for everyone in a new school.”
Still, for Ryan, some of his most vivid memories of his time at the high school include a hydrogen sulfide incident in chemistry class that required an evacuation of the building, the smell of fluid in the blue print machine in the shop building and county track and field relays during his senior year.
“I cannot distinguish one class from another as giving me the best preparation for college and a career,” he said. “They all played a role, even Latin, which continues to help me with vocabulary and which gave me a huge boost in learning French and Spanish, a language I used more than English for several years while working in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.”
Plus, Ryan said, he had a cadre of amazing teachers, so many it was hard to pick just one.
One of her most exciting memories, Smith said, was being part of the school’s time capsule. She said there was a ceremony in front of the office, which was the main entrance in building No. 1 at the time.
The principal, Smith said, told the class that in 50 years it would be dug up so they could all read the papers they had left behind.
“Unfortunately, when the expansion took place after it became West, then East, then back to BRHS, the capsule was destroyed along with all the trophies and memorabilia we had created,” she said. “The politics took over and the school suffered because of it.”
In the 1970s, because of increasing enrollment, the original high school became Bridgewater-Raritan High School West, and a newly built school was Bridgewater-Raritan High School East. They consolidated back again in the original location, what had become West, in 1995.
And another of Smith’s classmates, Bob Strauss, wrote a book when there was a chance the original high school would be torn down.
“It was going to be torn down and East was to be the group school,” she said. “However, a group of individuals in Bridgewater fought it and won. The book is entitled ‘Referendum.’”
Many of the students found success after high school, including Ryan, who headed to Rutgers University after graduation.
“I felt well prepared for everything except the 300-man lecture halls and lousy food,” he said. “I struggled with choosing between physics and nuclear engineering, and architecture. I was good at both thanks to BRHS.”
But Ryan pursued a dream to fly when he went to USAF Academy and graduated with a degree in Astronautical Engineering, later becoming a combat rescue pilot in Southeast Asia.
Ryan said he then became a principal rescue crew commander for launch and recovery of the last two Apollo missions and all three manned SKYLAB missions through the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service.
“I spent my subsequent career alternating between rescue and training assignments,” he said. “I returned to USAFA as an instructor, commanded the USAF Pararescue School, was director of military strategy at the Air War College and completed a 32-year active duty career as dean of the Joint Military Attaché School and chief of training for the Defense HUMINT Service. I continue to work as a senior policy and training consultant.”
With accomplishments galore since their graduation, the students of the Class of 1962 are proud of the community they created in a new high school.
“BRHS was a stepping stone toward our lives,” Brown said. “We have so many successful graduates in so many varied fields. And, then, sadly, we have lost members of our class, 32 by best count. We still remember those friends at every reunion and wish they were still with us.”
And Ryan said BRHS was a unique school.
“Its campus layout, ‘home room buildings’ and close interaction with the faculty and other students opened up a whole new world for this Catholic school refugee,” he said. “I can say for sure that my life would not have been the same if I had gone anywhere else.”
For more information on the reunion, visit br1962.com.