It was cold Monday, Jan. 29, 1963. The temperature didn’t rise above 22 degrees and undoubtedly there was a layer of snow blanketing the ground. On the radio, Joey Dee and the Starliters belted out their number one hit, “Peppermint Twist.” Just down the dial would have been the Beatles crooning their popular new release, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
JFK was president.
Gas was 29 cents at the pump and a loaf of Wonder bread could be found on the shelves of Almacs. It cost 22 cents. Life was somehow easier back then, or so it seems in hindsight.
In Warwick, life was busy – and crowded, for that matter. In order to accommodate all the high school-aged students, Veterans Memorial High School was in double sessions. With 3,900 students, things were tight.
Anticipation was building for the unveiling of a new school on Pilgrim Parkway. The Vets football team had made an important 7-6 victory over its arch-rival, Cranston East, when late in the fourth quarter player Jim Foster scored and then picked up the extra point for the win. Michael Walder was soon to be selected as class valedictorian, having already earned high praise in both English and science. Rosalie Wheeler had just been given a “first division rating” for her soprano solo in the New England Solo and Ensemble Festival in Boston. Vacation reading assignments had been completed: “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee topped the list. The city was in motion, and change was in the air.
By the time that chilly January day arrived, Warwick was abuzz with excitement at the pending grand opening of its new and still untested school, Pilgrim High School. On that Monday, 50 years ago, the first students crossed the threshold of their sparkling new school – a model of shiny classrooms filled with new desks, of hallways void of skid marks or cast-off wads of paper, of a “dining hall” waiting to serve up its first hot meals, of a gymnasium ready to host its first division basketball game, and of an auditorium bedecked with “cypress green and rust curtains,” “a wavy plaster ceiling that serves as an acoustical barrier” and 150 seats with folding tops for note taking. There were even landscaped courtyards spread throughout; one designated just for seniors. It was a sight to behold.
Patty Thompson (Donilon), Class of 1965, was a sophomore when the big move was announced. She recalls with a youthful enthusiasm the thrill of entering her new school for the first time.
“It was so big and sprawling! It was all so new and pretty. The courtyards were just beautiful. We all thought they were the coolest things.” She especially loved the new “dining hall” (it was not to be called a “cafeteria” under any circumstances). “Everybody was so excited. We had many dances in that dining hall.”
Thompson describes how efficiently the big move had been planned and was ultimately orchestrated. At Vets, all the students who were within the new school’s boundaries were in the same classes, so when the time came to move – all those students traveled together. Thompson remembers that the school secretary separated attendance rolls for the eventual Pilgrim students, and that when they moved, they even brought all their books. Despite the mid-year timing and cold weather, the move went as planned. Pilgrim was now theirs.
Fast forward to January 2013. In 1963, Marie Cote, Pilgrim's first female and alum principal, was 10 years away from enrolling at Pilgrim. Cote is now, as she was then, a “Patriot” through and through. She has returned to the school over the course of her entire adult life. Pilgrim is where she is most comfortable, amongst the students who know her well because Cote is a familiar and constant presence here.
“I am a Patriot. I bleed Black and White. Once a Patriot, always a Patriot. End of story,” Cote says with affection and conviction. This is why she is so passionate about celebrating Pilgrim’s 50th anniversary.
As plans got underway for the upcoming celebration, a mysterious package arrived on Cote’s desk. Although from an anonymous sender, its origin could be traced to a community college in Fairfield, Calif. The manila envelope contained a series of newspapers dating back to 1962 – all from Veterans Memorial High School (the Hurricane Herald) and the first few school papers published at Pilgrim, The Compact. Filled with announcements about the pending dedication of the new school (held on Dec. 30, 1962), the new principal (Mr. Michael Morry) and all the usual fare of school newspapers, these relics of another time provided a treasure trove of photographs, stories, memorabilia and history. These rare finds – sent from an uncertain source with only the words, “Thought you might want these,” attached on a post note – created the perfect springboard for a perfect celebration.
Cote and a close-knit group of talented faculty have been busy these past few months planning an event befitting such a momentous occasion. Beside her most of the time is her sister Marilyn Massey, who has been working her magic scanning photos that are all part of the celebration.
Listening in on them discuss the details of the fete, one would think they are planning nothing short of a Broadway production. Amidst fits of laughter and friendly ribbing, this cadre of lively and dedicated teachers – Christopher Pratt, Pilgrim’s band leader for 26 years, Brian Callahan and Richard Denningham, both English teachers for 14 and 11 years respectively, and finally Jacqueline Soares, the relative novice of the group as the three-year choral director – are putting their creative genius together for a night of revelry, music, laughter, nostalgia and a long and winding walk down memory lane.
This Saturday, students from Pilgrim’s band, chorus and drama departments will showcase the passing of the decades through music and dramatic “flashbacks.” Upwards of 100 performers will take the audience on a journey through the ages.
Unlike Pilgrim’s first band, which performed selections from Vivaldi and Gershwin at the school’s dedication, Pratt’s 82-member band will entertain with popular numbers from the ’70s and ’90s, including an “incredible medley of disco music.” Meanwhile, 81 members of the chorus will perform some unforgettable hits from the ’60s and ’80s. One number will be from teen heartthrob Bon Jovi, whose star power has extended to this generation. A musical collaboration will end the night with familiar tunes from the 2000s, which will undoubtedly sound nothing like Joey Dee and the Starlites.
Throughout the evening and under the watchful eye of writers Denningham and Callahan, the students will re-enact scenes depicting the lives of a typical high school coed across the decades – with all the drama, comedy, trials and challenges of being a teenager. Exploring timeless issues of love, war, race and gender, these vignettes will be both thought provoking and humorous – perhaps touching a chord in the hearts of many generations of alumni who will be in attendance.
A gallery of sorts is also being created where photographs that were taken back in the early ’60s will be recreated by the students, many of whom are either the children or grandchildren of Pilgrim’s alumni. Including amongst the photographs will be Lauren Picard, daughter of Andrew Picard, alumni and “Class Clown” of the Class of ’84. Picard, a senior, was just voted by her classmates as the student who is “Most likely to return to Pilgrim as a teacher.” Pilgrim High School has come full circle.
Pilgrim’s 50th Anniversary celebration will be held on Saturday, Feb. 2 in the Pilgrim High School Auditorium, beginning at 7 p.m. Cote expects planned activities to last about 90 minutes and may include a “roll call” by class of alumni in attendance. Admission is free and all, whether a Pilgrim alum or not, are welcome. As a special preview of the band’s performance, guests are invited to a band concert to be held this evening, Thursday the 31st, also at 7 and also free to the public.