It was June of 1966 when Joel Barlow High School was getting ready for its fifth commencement exercise in the school’s gymnasium. This would be the second of a total of only five years that the school would graduate students who had attended all of seven through twelfth grades at the combination junior and senior high school. Times were changing; both Easton and Redding were still growing, and by 1966, both towns were then educating their 7th and 8th graders in their recently constructed middle schools.
With students and teachers who had been together for six years running, there wasn’t a tenured teacher there who didn’t know the name of practically every graduating senior in that class of a little over 140 students. The school only had a total enrollment of about 600 students by then, and they were taught by just 36 faculty members, many of whom had been there since the school’s opening day in September of 1959. It was a tight knit group.
Then senior, Mary Sunderland, recalled having “a piece of paper that I put in my pocket on June 21, 1966, my graduation day. On it were three things, a bucket list of sorts. The first was to give back to Barlow at some point in time.”
Foresight. It certainly wasn’t something this writer possessed in 1966. I was just looking forward to a relaxing summer of playing volleyball at the beach and sailing with my friends on Long Island Sound. It would be the final summer of our youth where we wouldn’t have to work! Giving back to Barlow was the furthest thing on my mind.
But not only was Mary looking ahead, she actually remembered that piece of paper from her pocket some 44 years later. By then, she was Mary Sunderland Mahony, an accomplished author and long-time educator whose children were fully grown and establishing families of their own.
“In 2010, I called my classmate and old friend, Sharon Morrissey. I told her that I wanted to gather all the classes on the Barlow field and have one big reunion. SAM (Sharon was, and always will be affectionally referred to as SAM by those who know her; the combination of her initials) was on board immediately. I then sent a letter to Dr. Thomas McMorran, the then Barlow principal, introducing myself and sharing my idea of getting alumni involved and throwing a picnic. He welcomed us with open arms and so it began. It was actually the wife of one of our classmates, a 1967 Barlow grad, who reminded us that 2011 would be the 50th anniversary of the first graduating class. We then had our theme for the party; a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first graduating class.“
“It was an overcast day with a few raindrops early on. As SAM and I stood on the top of the hill looking down at the Barlow field, all we could see were class signs of the graduation years of 50 classes and over 700 alumni laughing, embracing, and sharing stories that had not been shared in some cases for fifty years. They came from all over the world and their excitement was captured by selfies and an endless number of embraces. It was an amazing day and a dream realized for my classmate and me. As the committee met one last time in August, we were looking at a sizable amount of money raised and so it began: the formation of the Joel Barlow High School Alumni Association. Our goal was to give back by supporting various initiatives as well as providing scholarships to deserving seniors.”
That was nearly a dozen years ago. Since that time the group has raised thousands of dollars, and to date has awarded over twenty-five scholarships to worthy Barlow graduates to help them further their education while incurring just a little less student debt. In all, they have sponsored and organized 4 all-class picnics, the first three being staged at 3-year intervals, with the latest one held 5 years after the last.
In addition to the funds raised at the association’s picnics, they have established a “Buy a Brick” program where donors can have their name – or any name of their choosing – etched into a brick that will be part of a “Walk of Fame.” You can purchase one of those bricks with a minimum donation of only $50. To date, that program alone has raised over $4,600. Sponsors listed on their webpage also help support their scholarship program.
The organization publishes a regular newsletter that keeps the alumni informed about various events and ongoing projects. The Alumni Spotlight feature highlights success stories about Barlow graduates who have earned accolades in their field of endeavors, published a book, or won an award. Obituaries and tributes are often published when old classmates or former teachers pass away. That newsletter keeps us all connected – both to the school and to each other.
When the Joel Barlow Athletic Hall of Fame committee was organized, it was the JBHSAA that stepped up and offered its assistance in establishing the Athletic Wall of Fame. The organization helped to initially fund the wall and offered its support as well as a great deal of free promotion on its webpage and in its newsletters.
But Mary and the organization that she & SAM founded weren’t content with simply funding scholarships and keeping the alumni informed. They wanted to do more: “As time moved on, the idea of a capital campaign was presented to the board with the hope of finding a designated space within the high school that the JBHSAA could support. In the fall of 2019, the JBHSAA embarked on its first Capital Campaign that was completed six weeks early in August of 2021.”
The project was a room dedicated to providing a relaxed space where students could read and study. The initial goal for the first phase of the project was exceeded by almost 80% despite the uncertain economic climate caused by the global pandemic. The generosity and enthusiasm of the Barlow alumni was considerably more than the group had expected it to be. What had at first been approached with uncertainty was suddenly looking to be a viable project.
“The JBHSAA Reading Room was open for tours at the Fourth Annual All-Class Alumni Picnic on June 11th, 2022. In the room are beautiful new library tables, Tiffany lamps, new leather chairs and side tables, an alumni display cabinet, a wall of photos that share the story of how the high school came to be, and most importantly, a bronze plaque that tells the story of the JBHSAA. It is our way of paying it forward for a great education and a fantastic high school experience. A good high school education gives us our legs and then we need to go out into the world and learn how to stand on them. Joel Barlow gave all of us a great foundation and sent us off into the world well-prepared for our next steps.”
Barlow’s new reading room was created by utilizing an unused media space next to the current school library. It has been transformed into something akin to a major center-hall reading lounge found in many old libraries where patrons can take a book and either sit in a comfortable leather chair to read it under the soft light from a nearby lamp or utilize a large library table where it can be opened wide and studied in great detail. While it obviously doesn’t have that feel of opulence found at some of the greatest university libraries in this country and beyond, it does provide a more comfortable and serene atmosphere than simply using the existing library’s institutional style furniture and bright florescent overhead lighting.
The room was opened without fanfare this past week. It is not 100% complete as of yet. Supply issues have caused numerous delays, but the leather chairs, the end tables with plugs & power ports, the beautiful Tiffany lamps, and all the large library tables have been delivered and are in place. Still to come are the chairs for the library tables and frames for a gallery of photographs depicting the school’s earliest years that will adorn the walls. A new parquet floor that should help further lessen the institutional look of the room by replacing the existing carpeting has been promised by the school administration in the near future.
A large display cabinet is now in place that holds memorabilia of Barlow’s early years, as well as some of the many books that Barlow graduates have authored over the years. Photographs commemorating Alumni milestones and achievements also occupy some of the glass shelves within. The case still has room for many more items and, according to Mary, it will be filled as more items are donated by the institution’s alumni.
The entire project represents well over $20,000 in funds donated by those who value the education that the school has provided them. A great deal of time and effort went into the new reading room’s creation. It represents a small token of appreciation from those who have benefitted greatly from a good education that laid the groundwork for a productive and successful life.
Among those who have donated their time in addition to Mary and SAM are current and former board members Cindy Rohr, Art Cristiani, Kri Kartaglia, Mike Handy, Deborah Cole, Marilyn Schwab, Bryan English, Anthony Paradise, Christina Balotescu, Tom Linley, Bobbi Granskog, Anne Lipkvich, Barbara Valzania, and Rachel Olschan.
You can visit the Joel Barlow High School Alumni Association website at: JBHS ALUMNI ASSOCIATION – Home (weebly.com).
If you would like to make a donation to the JBHSAA, please make your check out to: JBHSAA, c/o Jackie Garvey, 100 Black Rock Turnpike, Redding, CT. 06896. Any and all amounts will be greatly appreciated and put to good use by people who truly care about Barlow’s past as well as its future.