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In Loving Memory

The Campaign for Stuyvesant/ Alumni(ae) & Friends Endowment Fund, Inc.

P.O. 2626
Peter Stuyvesant Station
New York, NY 10009

Office

610 West 115th Street
New York, NY 10025-7771
(212) 222-9112

Thinking Back on the Stuyvesant Fencing Team

 

I entered Stuyvesant in the tenth grade in the fall of 1951. I attended the afternoon session, but I went to the morning session in my junior and senior years. Soon after we arrived, there were team and club presentations in the gym for newcomers. I loved baseball, but I had to wait until spring to try out. To keep in shape during the winter, I needed a sport to hold me over. First, I went out for football. I got through the selection process, but I needed a signed permission slip from my parents in order to play. When they didn’t sign it, football was out for me. Next, I thought of basketball, a sport New York kids play well. I soon learned that the starting five for the next couple of years had already been selected, and that it would be hard for me to break in.

Just as I was considering this dilemma, a fencing team member, Pat Petix '52, approached a group of us, inviting us to see the team’s presentation. Never having seen the sport of fencing, I was curious. I had always liked swordplay in the movies and in books, so I went to see what it was all about. It looked challenging, and I signed up.

We only fenced foil, and the team members did all the coaching. We did have a so-called faculty coach, Emanuel “Manny” Leibel, who was an English teacher and never fenced. He gave us legitimacy, though, and offered encouragement to the team. As I remember, whenever he came to practice he wore a coat and tie and brought the New York Times crossword puzzle, which he worked on while he smoked and watched us train, occasionally glancing over his reading glasses when he had something to say to us.

Each fencer had to purchase his own equipment. I went down to Giorgio Santelli’s Fencing Company in Greenwich Village on a Saturday morning and picked out a foil, mask, and glove. I got a ten- or fifteen-minute lesson from Maestro Giorgio, and was on the subway heading home before noon. I remember teammate Sam Abate '54, who would buy only an Italian-handled foil because it looked more like a rapier than the French-handled foil the rest of us used. Sam was proud of his heritage and enjoyed showing off his “Italian” foil.

The varsity team members transmitted their fencing skills to us, and we all learned from each other. It was a novel and effective teaching method. We practiced daily outside the school’s auditorium in the hallway downstairs from the main entrance on 14th Street. Occasionally, when it wasn’t occupied, we could practice in the auditorium itself. (I recall that the Surveying Club used the auditorium to practice shooting transit sights.) When we had access to the auditorium, we practiced in the front space at the foot of the stage. We preferred that, because we could sit down when we rested and didn’t have anyone passing through. But practice in the hallway was the norm.

Remember baseball? Well, when the call came for players in the spring, I showed up for tryouts in the gym, but the fencing team captain came in to tell me that, because of scheduling conflicts, I could not work out with the baseball team and remain a fencer at the same time. After a long conversation, he convinced me that I could get a scholarship to NYU or Columbia as a fencer, whereas there was no guarantee that I would even get to play baseball. After much thought and agony, I decided to choose fencing, and I never had second thoughts.

We looked forward to practice each day. Before fencing with each other, we did several exercises. One exercise was having one fencer hold his glove against the wall and drop it without warning, while the other, from an on-guard position, would try to prevent the glove from falling to the ground by extending his foil to stop the glove. We worked in pairs, alternating practicing basics with each other while offering tips and encouragement. We wore sweatshirts and sweatpants, and when it was too warm for those we wore gym shorts. (Fencing uniforms were reserved for the varsity fencing meets.)

Fencing form was emphasized, and at the team meets we were actually graded on form. Scores from 1 to 10 (10 = high) were given to each fencer by the meet directors/judges. The form score could decide a tie or close bout. It was an excellent way to cement the basics into your game, and we all took it very seriously. It was interesting to hear us rationalize a loss by saying, “I lost, but I had a 10 in form.”

Our varsity fencing team, which included Tommy Moshang '54, Ernie Jackson '55, and me, won the City Championship. Tommy and I were Co-Captains. Our weekly competitions were held on Saturday mornings in the basement gym of the all-girls Washington Irving HS. We would all travel from our homes (most of us took the subway) and gather in the gym prior to the start of the meet. The local colleges would provide fencers to be directors and judges; high school fencers also filled in as judges when they weren’t fencing. We enjoyed the contact with the college fencers and made lasting friendships with them. Each week, the Sunday New York Times sports section carried the results of the Saturday meets. We varsity members bought ourselves Columbia-blue letter sweaters and had our chenille SHS letters sewn on them. We wore them proudly, and I still cherish my varsity fencing letter!

Stuyvesant fencers had excellent access to the local college fencing teams. We were invited by the NYU coaches, Hugo and Jimmy Castello, to practice with their team once a week. We would walk from Stuyvesant to Greenwich Village, to the NYU fencing team room, and get lessons from the NYU coaches and fencers. Many Stuyvesant grads were members of the college teams in the area--including Pat Petix and John Farrell, who were on the NYU team. I later fenced with them on the NYU varsity.

In June 1954, at sixteen, I graduated Stuyvesant. I wanted to go to the U.S. Naval Academy, but you had to be eighteen to enter. At my graduation, I was awarded the school’s Preschel Medal for fencing. My teammate Tommy Moshang went to Columbia University on scholarship (and became a doctor), while I went to the NYU Engineering School. (I could have gone to Columbia on scholarship, too, but Columbia did not offer aeronautical engineering.) I was offered and took a fencing scholarship to NYU and attended for two years. I left NYU in June 1956, when I was selected to attend the Naval Academy. A few years later, in 1959, the Naval Academy team made NCAA fencing history.

If life is about making good decisions, my decision to go to Stuyvesant was one of my best. All my wonderful memories in fencing began there, in that hall outside the auditorium, where I took the first steps on my journey to the national championships, the U.S. Pan-American team, and the U.S. Olympic team.
Joe Paletta '54,
NCAA foil champion, U.S. national foil champion, and member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team

 

The team starters were classmates Steve Fajen, who was an amazing fencer, Richard Rothenberg (now a professor of medicine at Emory), Jerry Halpern, Alex Kozicharow (tall, fun-loving, with flaming red hair, who died in a car accident), George Sachs (now metal recycling co chief in MA), and me.

High school fencing in New York City was very competitive and Stuy's team was important to the school. After practice, most of us who were starters would walk to the Salle Santelli in Greenwich Village to practice under the guidance of Georgio Santelli, the legendary Hungarian fencer who did more than anyone else to help establish the sport of fencing in the U.S. We were also encouraged by Albert ("Albie") Axelrod '38, the greatest Stuy fencer, who was like a god to us.
Andrew Kaplan '58,
Los Angeles, CA

 

In the 1956-57 season, Marty Weiss was captain and Paul Pavlow was co-captain. The six-man squad was rounded out by Ira Slutzky '57, Steve Fajen '58, Richie Rothenberg '58 and me '58. I fenced in the number 4 slot. The way PSAL competition worked, each person fenced two bouts when two schools met. The #1 from one team would fence #1 and #2 from the other team. It was the same for #3 & #4, and #5 & #6. Mr. Leibel, an English teacher, was the coach. He left either in the middle or the end of this season and was replaced but Robin Kazer, a shop teacher. Neither one was a coach, just a faculty advisor. The older students coached the younger ones. Mr. Leibel was near retirement and a curmudgeon. Mr. Kazer was young and we all loved him. He even had us to his home in Stuyvesant Town. We finished in 4th place in the PSAL. The meets were always held on Saturday morning in the Washington Irving HS gym. About 14 high schools had fencing teams. I think the best team that year was Forest Hills HS led by seniors Gene Glazer and Gil Eisner (both of whom went on to be NCAA champs and Olympic team members).

In the 57-58 season, Steve Fajen '58 was #1, I was #2, Richie Rothenberg '58 was #3, Alex Kozicharow '58 was #4 and Andy Kaplan '58 was #5. I don't remember #6 (It may have been Billy Applebaum '58)

Before the PSAL season began there was an Interscholastic Fencing Tournament sponsored by NYU. Steve, Richie and I made up the 3-man team. Barringer HS of Newark won and we came in second.

At the end of the regular season, we were tied for first place with Lincoln HS (led by Herb Cohen, who became a 2-time NCAA champ and Olympian, and Neil Diamond, who became a singer). They beat us in the fence-off.

In the individual PSAL championship Baez of Alexander Hamilton HS (can't remember first name) won, Herb Cohen came in 2nd, Izzy Colon of Morris HS came in 3rd, and I came in 4th. Baez didn't go to college. Herb, Izzy and I went to NYU and in 1961, swept the NCAA tournament. Herb was first in foil, Izzy won the saber, and I won the epee.

Those are my memories of fencing in Stuyvesant HS. During those two years there was rebuilding in the school and we had to practice in the hallways. After our Saturday morning meets at Washington Irving, we would go to Union Square and heckle the speakers. Since we usually won, there was a wonderful glow of camaraderie, and I still have a special place in my heart for Union Square.
Jerry Halpern '58,
Brookline, Massachusetts

 

Long ago (I believe it was December 1962), Larry Miller '63 was the captain of the Stuyvesant High School fencing team. It was a “rebuilding” year with the loss to graduation in 1962 of the then (and still) legendary Bruno Santonocito, Tom Kalfa, and Mark Berger, all of whom went on to Columbia. (They had helped win the NYC Public School Athletic League championship for two years running.) There was little hope of a repeat performance by the incumbent band of neophytes led by Larry and Tom Musliner.

Frank Lowy '64 and I, with only one year as fencers and not a single competitive bout (much less a win) to our credit at the start of the season, were also members of the team, along with Bob Chernick and Brant Fries, both class of ‘63. Week after week, we gained experience and confidence, and after defeating Roosevelt (led by PSAL individual champion Howie Harmetz), we found ourselves--much to our amazement--in the final.

At the time, the title was determined by a three-team round-robin. The finalists were Brooklyn Tech, Jamaica, and us. We were decidedly the underdog. When we arrived--after what seemed like an interminable subway ride--we felt pretty intimidated. Many of us (including me) would have been happy just to collect our third-place medals and leave without having to suffer the public humiliation of losing. We had a support section of one--Larry’s dad, who had faithfully accompanied the team. Our feeling of despair only intensified after I lost the first bout decisively.

But Larry would have none of this. He won as convincingly as I had lost and inspired confidence in all of us. With his leadership, we suddenly believed that we could actually win! And win we did, defeating both adversaries and winning the coveted city championship. In my fifteen years of fencing that followed, including a victory, together with Frank Lowy, at the 1968 NCAA championship, I never experienced a more satisfying and unlikely victory.
Jeff Kestler '64

Jimmy Kuhn ’65 presents Stuyvesant HS Fencing Team Co-Captains David Ferguson ‘05 and Grace Fried ’05 with $5,000 check from the James D. Kuhn ‘65 Fund for Fencing of The Campaign for Stuyvesant/Alumni(ae) & Friends Endowment Fund, Inc.

Two bouts will always stay in my mind on this 40th anniversary of the great team of 1964 with Co-Captains Jeff Kestler and Frank Lowy. I guess I remember most about fencing in those days was the inevitable 12th and final bout. Most of us hoped we wouldn't have to be the guy to fence the 12th bout with the team down 6-5. I had to do it twice with the City Championship on the line. In my junior year we were fencing our arch-rival Brooklyn Tech on a day where Kestler had the flu and we didn't know if or how he would fence. Our team was one of the best in Stuyvesant history. We didn't lose a match all year and we had two of the best three fencers on the east coast with Kestler and Lowy. Chuck Schwartz and David Nichtern were the two "B-slot" fencers. (They probably would have been in "A-slot" on most teams.) Mike Block and I fenced "C-slot." Two years later, Mike and I went on to win the North Atlantic Collegiate Foil Championship at Syracuse. After some ups and downs, the match went to 6-5 and I had to fence the dreaded twelfth bout. I needed to win to put us in a three-bout fence-off. I was the only Junior on the team, and I was already nervous as hell when Kestler staggered over to me and said hoarsely that I had to win at all costs for the team. Fortunately, I was able to rise to the challenge, and I won the match allowing us to win the City Championship in the fence-off on a 5-4 victory by Nichtern.

The following year we were not as fortunate. Unbelievably, against Far Rockaway, I was once again faced with a match where we were down 6-5. But this time under the rules, all I had to do was win 5-2 and there would be no need for a fence-off. I didn't give up a single touch, but due to an officiating error, we were forced into a fence-off that we lost. I went on to fence at Syracuse, and was reunited with Kestler and Lowy at the 1968 NCAA Championships in Detroit where I finished 11th. I didn't pick up another foil until thirty years later when I returned to the sport, and fenced in the veteran division, finishing 7th and 8th in the 2000 and 2001 Nationals. I regretted not having competed during all those intervening years which undoubtedly would have been filled with great camaraderie and fond memories as was my time at Stuyvesant.
James D. Kuhn '65,
Co-Captain of the 1965 SHS Fencing Team.