Replacing lost high school yearbooks was a great way to connect people to their past
I couldn't wait to escape from my hometown after college graduation. As a journalist living in Greenwich Village, I hated returning for Christmas dinner and birthday parties. It depressed me to see how Paterson, New Jersey, a once great city, had gone downhill. After losing our mother, my siblings and I came back to clean out our cluttered old house. I felt bereft.
As we went through closets and drawers, we found stacks of old Life magazines, piles of Archie comics and reams of sheet music. We also discovered over 30 yearbooks. Most were from Kennedy or Central High, where my father worked for decades as a teacher and administrator. As head of the English department, he'd always received a complimentary copy. We also found annuals from two Catholic schools, which my family attended. The oldest book was from 1938. The most recent was 1984, the year my father retired.
We debated whether to donate these to the Paterson Library, which had a collection. My brother, sister and I decided it would be a good deed to get them to graduates who'd lost their yearbooks and desperately wanted replacements.
Since I was the unofficial family publicist, I took charge of the project. I cataloged the stash and posted a notice on Facebook groups for Paterson natives. The requests poured in immediately, including from the library (who would get the unclaimed ones). The books were free to graduates but they'd have to come to our house—I was not schlepping to the post office.
I spent hours answering questions: Do you have Kennedy '69? St. Joe's '71? Central '64? I checked my list and got back to them. “Sorry, we don't have that year.” Or “Yes, we have it. Please send me a private message to arrange pickup.” I felt like I was running a pop-up yearbook store with a limited stock. I promised the annual to the first person who contacted me and confirmed a time for retrieval. I jotted down the names and pickup arrangements.
Many people had lost their books in floods, a big problem in New Jersey. One woman was willing to drive two hours from the Shore. I told her I'd give the book to my brother who lives there and she could pick it up from him.
A man named Marc was coming to the house to retrieve two books for friends who'd gone out west. His buddy in Denver was super excited. As I gave him the address, he noted this was not a good neighborhood anymore. “No kidding,” I shot back, adding that my widowed mother lived here until last year. We'd been concerned but Mom was feisty and refused to move.
One man didn't know the exact year his mother graduated St. John's. Was it '37 or '38? Could I find out? I told him I certainly wasn't going to look through the books to locate specific students. He apologized for his unrealistic request, noting he was caught up in the possibility of finding her book. Having recently lost my mother, I felt for him.
I was surprised to find myself swept up into nostalgia for the past, the desire to reconnect and see their senior picture and their classmates. In the eras before social media and selfies, the yearbook was a cherished time capsule filled with old friends.
After an overwhelming response, I took the Facebook post down. I couldn't deal with all the messages. The thread veered off into tales of old pals and lost yearbook stories. It would have been simpler to take all the books to the library but there was something powerful about giving them away personally.
When people contacted me privately, we discovered mutual connections. Several folks recalled my father. Grads who still had their book wanted to buy another copy. I said they weren't for sale and would go to those who had lost theirs.
As I took the train out to Paterson on the day I'd scheduled the pickups, I was anxious. What if nobody showed up? What if I made a mistake in my inventory and didn't have the year I'd promised? When I got to my parents' house, I checked and then I lined the books up on the piano and put in slips of papers with the names. I wanted to be ready for the arrivals.
My phone rang at 12. It was William, who'd driven two hours from Pennsylvania. He was on the corner, riding down the block in a gray pickup truck, looking for the house. I yelled to my brother to run to the front porch to flag William down while I grabbed the yearbook. When I got downstairs, he was double-parked, walking to the porch. We all shook hands and I handed him his yearbook over the railing. William thanked me and insisted upon giving me $20. I said I didn't want any money, but I could give it to charity. After he left, my brother said, “You should keep it. Charity begins at home. You put a lot of time into this.”
Next, Marc picked up yearbooks to mail to friends. As we chatted in the hall, I found out he'd worked at the Paterson News and knew my old boyfriend, Joe, a reporter there. We dated for years before we both came out as gay. (No wonder the sex wasn't that good.) Marc recalled that Joe also wrote for The Aquarian, an alternative paper. I told Marc that Joe launched my writing career at this hippie rag, that we went to Woodstock together and saw many free concerts. Marc said Joe was supposed to get him press tickets to Led Zeppelin but he landed up with tickets to the Iron Butterfly. We laughed and broke into singing “In a Gadda Da Vida.”
Memories flashed back, like the time Joe phoned me from the newspaper warning me that more riots were expected that night. When Marc asked what happened to Joe, I told him he died of AIDS at 43. “Sheesh,” said Marc, in shock. “He was the best young reporter.”
Rich, a distant cousin, wanted his late sister's yearbook. He asked to see the house, so I invited him up, though the place was a mess. We went into the kitchen where he greeted my siblings. We looked at his sister's senior picture and I read the caption out loud: “A cute little bundle of warmth and sincerity.” Rich told us they had very little from her and he was giving the book to his mother. “This is a wonderful thing you are doing,” he said.
Everyone told me this giveaway was a kind and caring act. People were so grateful, blessing me, that I felt like an angel returning an important part of their lives.
Fran and Joan, two friends who graduated in the early '60s, arrived together and each got yearbooks. They gave me a potted plant of yellow roses in gratitude. We chatted in the hall and looked at their pictures. “Weren't you Miss Central?” Joan asked her friend. So, we flipped to the pages of class votes and there she was.
Only one person didn't show up. She worked nearby and couldn't get away during her lunch hour. As people returned to their roots, they made it into a day trip. They visited old friends, rode past the Great Falls and went to Libby's for their famous hot dogs.
Ironically, this former hippie who'd fled to downtown Manhattan had become our family ambassador of nostalgia. We gave away books ranging from 1962 to 1974. Besides the action at the house, my brother and sister made deliveries to their suburban neighbors. It felt powerful to restore lost Paterson history to its native sons and daughters. My father and mother, who never moved from this house, would have been proud of their kids. I knew the yearbook giveaway would connect others with their past, but I was shocked it reconnected me with mine.