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School spirit thrives for the 1960 class of Camden High, where integration spurred friendships

  • PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER / TNS PHOTO
                                A. Dolores Rozier, center, looks through her 1960 Camden High School yearbook along with Delia Ford Brown, left, Ron Venella and Dolores Firth Bailey.

    PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER / TNS PHOTO

    A. Dolores Rozier, center, looks through her 1960 Camden High School yearbook along with Delia Ford Brown, left, Ron Venella and Dolores Firth Bailey.

  • PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER / TNS PHOTO
                                A page from the 1960 yearbook.

    PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER / TNS PHOTO

    A page from the 1960 yearbook.

  • PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER / TNS PHOTO
                                Barbara Fisher Richardson, left, Delia Ford Brown, Ira Back, A. Dolores Rozier, Ron Venella, Dolores Firth Bailey and Shirley Edwards Tompkins, all of the Camden High School class of 1960, pose for a photo in front of New Jersey’s Camden High School.

    PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER / TNS PHOTO

    Barbara Fisher Richardson, left, Delia Ford Brown, Ira Back, A. Dolores Rozier, Ron Venella, Dolores Firth Bailey and Shirley Edwards Tompkins, all of the Camden High School class of 1960, pose for a photo in front of New Jersey’s Camden High School.

CAMDEN, N.J. >> They became friends at an unlikely time in Camden’s history, Black and white students from segregated neighborhoods across the city who attended the Castle on the Hill.

Six decades later a group that has dubbed itself “The Legacy,” Camden High School’s class of 1960, came together again in October to celebrate friendships, reminisce and mourn those they have lost. The anniversary commemoration was delayed by the pandemic, so it has become “the 60th plus one.”

The accomplished class includes professionals, athletes and music legend Leon Huff, co-founder of Philadelphia International Records, plus many others who went on to successful careers. The class had 404 members, and about 100 have died.

In its senior year the class selected Huff as the best-dressed male. He wore a suit, shirt and tie to school every day, classmates said. Huff grew up in Camden and developed a love of music from his mother, who played the piano and organ for her church.

“He liked to be classy and he was,” recalled Dolores Firth Bailey, 79, who was homecoming queen.

For years, classmate Ron Venella has been organizing meetings for the group twice annually. Those gatherings were halted by the pandemic, and the reunion was the first time the group has been together since 2020.

“We keep losing people. We want to try to have as many as we can,” said Venella, 79, a retired research and development helicopter mechanic at Boeing.

During a meetup at a sprawling new Camden High School complex, the committee pored over a copy of their yearbook, “The Purple and Gold.” They chuckled at black-and-white photographs and recalled memories like the band parade down Broad Street.

“We don’t look like we’ve been out of school 60 years,” quipped A. Dolores Rozier, 79. She eventually became a secretary at their alma mater.

They proudly pointed out graduates like Frank Stephens, who played for the Harlem Globetrotters; Charles “Buster” Williams, a bassist for Quincy Jones and Nancy Wilson; Thomas Ashley, a prominent lawyer in North Jersey; former city Comptroller Richard Cinaglia; and Ronald “Itchy” Smith, a point guard who scored 1,276 points in three seasons and who, along with Sonny “Golden” Sunkett, led the basketball team to two straight state Group IV championships in 1959 and 1960. A street near Camden High will be named in Smith’s honor later this month.

“Everybody has a story,” said reunion chairwoman Delia Ford Brown, 79, who spent nearly 30 years in the district as a teacher and supervisor, and retired as an administrator in 2005. “I’m proud I came from Camden.”

The ’60 alumni spent three years at the old Camden High, a Gothic school that enrolled students in grades 10 to 12. That original structure, built in 1916, was recently replaced with a $133 million, state-of-the-art school constructed on the same site.

The former students say their years at “The High” played an important role in shaping their lives and careers. The school was one of the few places in the city where Blacks and whites mingled and became longtime friends. Students from all walks of life attended Camden High from around the 9-square-mile city.

“We all got along. It was beautiful,” said Brown.

Brown said academics was important, but athletics, especially the basketball team, was the glue that kept everyone together. The team, which once had a 47-game winning streak, was well known around New Jersey.

Ira Back, 78, a retired lawyer, said his wrestling coach offered his teammates tickets to the basketball games — a hot commodity — if they won their matches.

The group was looking forward to sharing stories and memories at a reunion that was to take place Oct. 23, with 75 people, including classmates from as far away as California, expected to attend.

“They were some of the best days of my life,” said Brown. “I loved Camden High.”

The plan, they said, was to don sparkly “60” glasses, sing their alma mater — “Hurrah, hurrah Camden High School. Hurrah for the purple and the gold!” — and hold a raffle fundraiser for a scholarship for a Camden High graduate.

They also planned to light candles in tribute to former classmates who have died.

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