It’s Graduation Time

In the past week my social life has been busier than usual (being a quiet home-loving type).  We had two graduation parties and I had a wedding shower, plus a day with Judy and Ann which is in a category of its own.  The graduation I am thinking about today is actually one that took place in June 1932.

One of our graduations was a young cousin (first cousin once removed to be specific) who graduated from high school this week.  She is a wonderful young woman who we are enjoying watch grow up.  As part of the festivities her parents held a small dinner party for the family and we had a mini-reunion.  Her father and his two sisters were there (my husband’s first cousins), one sister’s husband and their adult daughter, and a second cousin.  Along with all the talk about college, and the graduation ceremony, and what our young cousin will do this summer, there were many conversations about “how did they meet?” and “when did they move to?” and “where did we all sleep?” and the priceless (from one cousin to another) “remember when I took the scissors to your hair?”.  The kind of conversation that you hope for when getting family together.  And pictures got brought down from the walls and the upstairs cache.  Including a number that we don’t have copies of, that I am plotting to get my hands on long enough to scan.

Iz and Freda, graduation June 1932

The best one (and most appropriate to the graduation) was a picture of the two siblings who were parents to my husband and the three cousins, in graduation robes and hats.  The back says Iz-Law School, Freda-B.A., June 1932.

These graduations were significant for several reasons.  The most notable is that Iz and Freda were the children of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, neither of whom had any formal education.  Iz and Freda not only graduated from high school but from college, and in Iz’s case also from law school.  Iz described his father Nathan as never having gone to school a day of his life but that he was “ to tutor his kids here in America in biology and math when we were in high school. And where he acquired that knowledge, I don’t know. But it’s confirmed by the kids. My father also became literate, read the Yiddish papers and he read the English papers.”

Iz and Freda also grew up speaking only Yiddish until they started school, only learning English at age 5 or 6.  I am also told that Freda was left-handed and forced to switch to her right by having her left hand tied behind her.  What an introduction to education!

Iz’s progress through school was not the path I expected.  He graduated from high school in 1925.  The family had moved from Syracuse to Buffalo during his senior year of high school and although he finished the year in Buffalo, the school there wouldn’t grant a diploma because he hadn’t been there for the full year.  So he had to return to Syracuse to get his diploma from Central High School where he had started.  Then he apparently worked for about 3-4 years, and entered University of Buffalo in the Arts and Sciences program in about September 1928.  It looks like he may have taken a year of basic courses and then entered the law school probably the next year.  He graduated from the law school in 1932.  In those years the law degree was a Bachelor of Laws, not the Juris Doctor that it is today everywhere in this country, so it is possible that he originally entered as a law student directly from high school or after only a year of college level courses.

Between 1932 and 1936 he went back to school and did a Bachelor of Arts in History and Government.  My theory is that during this period of time, which was during the Great Depression, he had difficulty finding work and going to school made sense.  He could have gone part time and kept student benefits, or may have had a scholarship of some sort which was fairly common in those years I have been told.

Lena with Iz's sign

Lena with Iz's sign

We know that he hung out a shingle as a lawyer from a snapshot of his mother standing proudly beside it.  He also worked for the city water department at some point.  And I have been told by one of the relatives that he may have taught history after college for some period of time.  These occupations should be verifiable, but I haven’t gotten that far yet.  He was admitted to the bar in New York in August 1933, so couldn’t have practiced privately until after that time.

Iz’s sister Freda graduated with a degree in chemistry at the same time Iz graduated from law school.  She was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Buffalo in chemistry.  After graduation she succeeded in getting a highly competed-for job with DuPont, working in a lab.  She later taught high school chemistry in Buffalo until 1942 when she was pregnant with her first child.  She had married in 1937, and presumably married women were allowed to continue teaching as long as they weren’t pregnant.  She had to hide her pregnancy to avoid being fired.  I have been told that Freda had wanted to go to medical school, but given the Depression (and perhaps to help keep her brother in school) she went to work instead.  There has been a strong thread of interest (and ability) in science in the family (among the women as well as the men) although none of the older generation went into careers using science except for Freda.

This generation, the children of immigrants with little or no formal education, was highly educated one and all.  And they passed on the love of learning and the valuing of education to their children.  So we will continue to have graduations to celebrate for some time to come.

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