The early 1970s were heady times for America. The Free Speech and Black Power movements dovetailed with the end of the military draft and the beginning of the Watergate scandal. Girls could get birth control pills without telling their parents while boys burned their draft cards. And in Berkeley, a group of idealistic, determined teens prepared to take the next step of their life journeys.
It’s been 50 years since those 940 Berkeley High School seniors received their diplomas on a sweltering afternoon at the Greek Theater. Now 67 and 68 years old, they’ve gone from budding activists, athletes and performing artists to Social Security-eligible grandparents. And while their paths were as divergent as the student body itself, the rich academic and social lessons they learned at Berkeley High School was something they held onto their entire lives.
Berkeley High School’s all-class reunion picnic will be held 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, at San Pablo Park, 2800 Park Street, Berkeley. Free parking and shuttle bus service will be provided from the Berkeley Adult School, 1701 San Pablo Avenue.
“If it wasn’t for Berkeley High and the great teachers I had, I don’t think I’d be where I am today,” said Elston “Ricky” Perry, a retired educator and consultant who was the senior class president.
This week, the Class of 1973 will commemorate its 50th Class Reunion with three days of celebrations throughout Berkeley, culminating with a reunion brunch at the Berkeley Yacht Club Sunday. Tickets for the events are sold out.
Last summer, about 20 alumni gathered over a series of Zoom meetings to start reunion planning. Some committee members had been friends in high school, some hadn’t, but all joined the committee because of their shared love for BHS.
They grew up in different neighborhoods, from the flats to the hills, coming together in a racially diverse environment. Their varied experiences brought up a trove of memories.
They learned about all kinds of contraceptives in the Social Living class. They memorized the prologue to “The Canterbury Tales” in 10th-grade English. They met heavyweight champ George Foreman, who came to campus at the invitation of Coach Paul Daniels, the school’s first Black athletic director.
They took Afro-Haitian dance for gym. They won the league football championship and came one victory shy of becoming Northern California champs in basketball.
“It was a great environment and the teachers used all of that to cultivate our minds,” said Raymond Bell, a BHS Hall of Fame athlete who went to UCLA on a football scholarship. “It was the perfect fertilizer for us to think. We had the freedom to talk about it and write about it.”
Many of those provocative conversations took place in David Eichorn’s popular Constitutional Law class. Students flocked to Eichorn’s classroom, which was furnished with sofas and overstuffed chairs, as the history teacher helped hone their critical thinking.
Eichorn never shied away from current events. He relished in them.
“I brought in (Black Panther Chairman) Huey Newton; I took kids to San Quentin. I had lawyers in. I brought in outside resources as part of the curriculum,” said Eichorn, now 86, who taught at Berkeley High from 1970 to 1996. “What I was interested in is having students learn to apply the constitution to the kinds of issues that come up daily.”
For Black students, BHS represented a haven for Black consciousness. Berkeley High created the first full-time high school Black Studies department in the nation in 1968 and by 1973, the department was operating full throttle, as scores of Black students took classes at the Black House, one of BHS’ alternative schools, and worked on the staff of the Ujamaa, the Black student newspaper.
Robert McKnight taught Black history and served as the Ujamaa adviser. He is something of a Berkeley institution, having taught at BHS off and on from 1971 to 2012.
McKnight allowed students to express themselves freely on the pages of the Ujamaa. Not only did the weekly work in conjunction with the Daily Jacket, the campus newspaper, to cover events happening at BHS, but it enlisted students to write personal essays, opinion pieces and poetry.
“I hoped that the Ujamaa would give exposure to what was happening in the lives of Black people,” said McKnight, 79. “I wanted to challenge students academically, but I also wanted to keep them reminded that they had a responsibility, which was to remain conscious.”
Becoming the change they wanted to see
Whether it was recording history or making history themselves, Berkeley High students, in many cases, became the change they wanted to see.
When they noticed a rash of bike thefts on campus, Kate Killeen and her friends raised enough funds to get a security fence installed — courtesy of the owner of the local bike shop.
“The lesson I learned from that was to do your homework, network, and remember to say thank you,” said Killeen, now an attorney.
In 1973, Carolyn Ware Cheifetz, emboldened by her status the year before as the only female trumpet player in the marching band, was urged by family and friends to run for drum major her senior year — and won by two votes over her male opponent. Her victory made her the first female to hold the position at BHS.
“I didn’t look at it as a feminist move at the time,” Cheifetz, a retired nurse, said. “But thinking about it now, I realize what an important time it was in my life and something I’m most proud of accomplishing.”
While Berkeley High appeared to be the perfect place to learn and grow, it was far from idyllic. These were tension-filled times, and many students felt it and suffered because of it.
Denise Noldon grew up in a family of seven siblings and remembers when FBI agents would park across the street from their South Berkeley home to keep an eye on her older brother, who was a member of the Black Panther Party.
“I remember trying to make sense out of that,” said Noldon, a retired educator. “I had a lot of PTSD from all the things that I had been through, but our parents were very good at helping us understand. Plus, I read the newspapers from cover to cover. I was always concerned about what was happening in the world.”
Diverse student body socialized by race
As diverse and progressive as Berkeley High was, the student body of 3,000 students, for the most part, socialized by race.
Greg Cheifetz, a white kid who grew up in North Berkeley, was bullied by Black kids throughout junior high and high school. A retired architect (and husband of Carolyn Cheifetz), Cheifetz says he experienced PTSD because of the incidents.
But 50 years later, something magical happened. New and renewed friendships have formed as a result of planning the reunion.
Reunion Committee Chair Cheryl Noldon (Denise Noldon’s twin sister) says her intent was to try to make the committee as “diverse as I possibly could. I also anticipated that there would be a lot of push and pull because of the differences among us,” she said. “But to me, it was the different people from different backgrounds who came in and made the difference.”
Cheifetz has been one of the biggest beneficiaries. He’s attended monthly breakfasts hosted by ’73 alums Ken Turman and Elliott Stephens. They’re called the “Original Brothers,” or OB, because it’s a mostly male gathering. Being a Berkeley High alumni is the only condition for invitation and the gathering is diverse as the menu items. “It’s a super cool vibe,” Turman says.
Being part of the reunion planning committee has also allowed Cheifetz to reconnect with classmates, both Black and white. And that bond, he says, has helped him heal.
While admitting that 50 years ago, he was intimidated by Ricky Perry, the senior class president and activist who advocated nonstop on behalf of Black students, “it’s wonderful to talk to him now,” Cheifetz says. “It’s so wonderful to be on the mature side of life and be able to talk completely openly. It’s been fantastic.”
Paul Hollingsworth, another member of the planning committee, said organizing the reunion has given classmates a shared sense of purpose and belonging that they couldn’t have in high school because of the size of the student body.
The wonder is that these revelations have come 50 years after the fact.
“We’re older and wiser and now can appreciate what’s important,” Hollingsworth said. “We’re getting together and we’re focused on getting the job done. Nobody cares who’s Black and who’s white. Maybe that’s what Berkeley has taught us — that 50 years later, this is what America should be.”
Annette John-Hall is a journalist and a member of the BHS Class of ’73.