Remembering Historic Huntington Commencements
Thousands of area teenagers have graduated from Huntington High School over the past 148 years. The first commencement from Huntington Union School was held Friday, July 18, 1862 at 2 p.m. Since then the community has gathered annually to celebrate the awarding of coveted diplomas.
That first graduating class consisted on just six students. The number of seniors would grow over the years, reaching nearly 750 in the mid-1970’s before declining sharply as school enrollments shrunk all across the state.
In 1862, each of the six seniors either gave a speech or read an essay and each time they were followed with some sort of musical selection, either instrumental or a song. That first graduating class included Charles H. Baldwin, Emma F. Downs, John S. Sherrill, James T. McKay, Ella J. Conklin and valedictorian William G. Nicoll, whose attorney father, William Nicoll presented the diplomas that day in his role as commissioner of common schools.
The following year, 1863, also saw six students earning diplomas, including four from Huntington and one each from Yaphank and Islip. Thus, a yearly tradition was born.
Huntington’s 50th commencement was held on Tuesday, June 20, 1911 at 8:15 p.m. in Assembly Hall at the old high school on Main Street. The night began with the Rev. Charles E. Cragg giving an invocation and following with the singing of “The Evening Dance” by the girls’ chorus.
Three salutatory addresses were then given by seniors Leroy Randle Grumman (“The Aeroplane”), Nettie May Carll (“Nature Secrets by Huntington Road-Sides”) and Laura Brewster Kissam (“The Boy Scouts of America”). The chorus followed with a rendition of Brahms “Lullaby” before senior George Clifton Sammis addressed the crowd on “The Conservation of Our Forests.”
Mr. Grumman would go on to start an aircraft company in his Huntington garage. It ultimately developed planes that helped the U.S. win World War II and later created the lunar escape module that made a moon landing possible.
At that same 1911 commencement, senior Ella Newman spoke on “Amusement, a National Necessity” and the girls’ chorus followed by singing “The Owl and the Pussy Cat.” Senior Camillus Rogers Trainer then gave a stirring address on “Stonewall Jackson, A Man.”
The honor of giving the valedictory address in 1911 fell to Sarah Louise Funnell, who spoke about “The Land of the Impossible.” Prizes were then awarded to Huntington’s 50th graduating class and diplomas were presented. The chorus sang one final song – “My Mammy’s Voice” before the closing benediction.
Fifty years later, Huntington High School held its centennial commencement in the auditorium on Tuesday, June 27, 1961 at 8:15 p.m. More than 330 seniors marched to their seats while the band, conducted by music teacher Rufus E. Kern, played “Pomp and Circumstance.” The full house sang the “Star Spangled Banner” before Rev. Lloyd A. Duren gave the invocation.
Principal Robert A. Cushman presented the evening’s speakers, including New York State Historian Dr. Albert B. Corey, Superintendent J. Taylor Finley, who spoke on “Then and Now”, salutatorian William Bendiner, honor speaker Sandra Koch and valedictorian Jane Kurshan.
Mr. Finley presented the Class of 1961 and Alexander Wilson, president of the Huntington Board of Education, followed with a short speech. The high school band then played “Nabucco Overture” by Verdi before the presentation of diplomas was made. The crowd followed that by singing the school’s alma mater song. The evening concluded with a benediction and the band playing Sousa’s “Corcoran Cadets” as the seniors marched out of the auditorium.
In commemoration of the 100th graduating class, Huntington village merchants chipped in and paid for a monument to be placed in the ground in a grassy area in front of Huntington High School. It still sits there today, although grass frequently covers it and most pedestrians aren’t aware of its presence.
The Class of 2011 will be another historic one, since that year will mark the 150th anniversary of high school diplomas being awarded in Huntington. The streak has continued uninterrupted, spanning the Civil War, presidential assassinations, financial panics and depressions, two World Wars, major government scandals and dramatic changes in society.