By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette
---- — Mike Conway was one terrific football player for the Hillies in his day.
He and his two brothers — Pat and Danny — comprised one of the more formidable family trios in Haverhill gridiron history.
Norman Shepherd became one of the top oral surgeons in the world while Ralph Grasso still maintains a prominent psychiatry practice in Boulder, Colorado.
Don White proceeded to Notre Dame after carving his niche in three Haverhill High sports and is often mentioned as the greatest Haverhill High athlete of all time after that 1955 undefeated football season. Two of his children graduated Harvard, another from Holy Cross and a fourth from Colby, all with strong student-athlete resumes.
John Ryan is still practicing law in the city. With his vast community interests, he’s helped shape his city into a mecca of respectability.
Mary Furber Raymond was a well-respected nurse in the Haverhill school system and still works part-time in that capacity.
So what do these individuals have in common? They are proud members of Walnut Square School’s Class of 1952, which conducted a 60th-year reunion last month in the city, drawing members from throughout the land.
One might argue this case as being a picayune affair, given its grammar school status and all. Quite the contrary, in fact. Yes, there were years to go before they received a high school diploma, but this particular school laid a foundation that led to many eminent livelihoods.
Keep in mind that back then, this was no four-year stand, then off to middle school. These students started in the first grade and remained here through grade eight, before venturing off to high school. The friends they got to meet became an extended family.
Seldom do you read about such reunions in the primary grades, given high school, college and graduate school reunions, military gatherings, business and other assemblies.
We’re talking about that structure at the corner of North Avenue and Main Street with the 114-year-old clock tower which serves as a beacon of strength to those who encounter it each day. That same school now has two kindergarten classes, three first grades and two second grades.
The weekend began with a school welcoming, complete with a huge banner on the building. Immediately, some 30 members were shown to the third floor of the school and feted to a scrumptious luncheon, courtesy of the PTO and its president, Lauren Towler.
Present were all the dedicated teachers at Walnut Square, including their iconic first-grade instructor Judith Reilly, along with Pam Carr, director of technology, and School Superintendent Jim Scully.
Leave it to Judy for salvaging pieces of the old slate roof with a printed replica of the school, which were presented as souvenirs.
The students demonstrated their appreciation through speech and song, certainly a grand highlight of this occasion.
“It was astonishing to see how little the physical plant has changed ... ,” said Conway, who made the trip from California. “If we had stayed much longer, it may have inspired nightmares from past fights in the coat rooms (same hooks even) and slides down the same banisters. The only real change is that right field is now filled with bright playground equipment,.” he said of the playground area where students once played ball.
Members wallowed in nostalgia, greeting the entire student-teacher population and visiting their former classrooms. Only one teacher remains alive from that era. She’s Frances Cotton Donovan, their seventh-grade instructor. But she didn’t go unnoticed. The members paid her a visit at the Wingate Nursing Home and presented her with a floral bouquet.
From there, off they went to John Ryan’s home on Lawrence Street for cocktails, then to dinner at Roma Restaurant with more reminiscing.
On Saturday, they met for breakfast at Haverhill Country Club before embarking on a cruise from Newburyport Harbor aboard the Joppa Flats, capped by a farewell dinner at Michael’s Harborside.
Talk to Dr. Shepherd and he’ll expound upon the time they won the city basketball championship, coached by Hank Woelfel, and how four of those members started for the high school years later and provoked yet another title.
The fifth starter on that squad happened to be refereeing guru/businessman Joe D’Orazio (a Greenleaf grad) who became “adopted” into the Walnut Square class, joining the clan with his wife, Joanne.
Conway became educated as an engineer, proceeded to business school, then ventured toward investment banking before staking a lucrative claim in real estate.
“Some classmates didn’t attend because they thought a grammar school reunion was weird,” Conway said. “But that’s one of the things that made this so much fun. Most wanted to attend but couldn’t because of overriding commitments. For those of us who returned to Haverhill, it was a moment etched in time and meant to be treasured forever.”
Conway did not land the prize for traveling the farthest to the reunion, coming here from Southern California. That honor went to Jean Woodbury Isteero, who spends half the year in Cairo with her Egyptian husband.