THURSDAY, JULY 22, 1999
A Very Cherry Reunion
Classmates Celebrate a Unique Place
BY LOCKER MCCARTHY
Darien may be considered by many to be a pluperfect preppie paradise, but the private boarding school that called this town home for 57 years fit the stereotype as well as might Mullah Night at Wee Burn.
Cherry Lawn School closed in 1972, but this weekend its graduates are revivifying memories of a unique place with a reunion and, on Sunday morning, a ceremony dedicating a plaque in the park that bears its name, exactly 80 years after it arrived in Darien.
Reunion Committee President Lew Meyerson, revisiting the site of his last three years of high school, said. "I came here from Stamford High School, and Cherry Lawn was just so different from public school. The faculty ratio was about six-to-one, and you got all the attention you needed. There were about 40 in my graduating class; at Stamford there were seven or eight hundred. And it was a very artsy place; there were a lot of, uh, unusual people here - students and teachers.
"We had our morning assemblies in an outdoor room, even when it was 14 degrees outside," said Mr. Meyerson, now an accountant with Beiersdorf Inc. in South Norwalk. "There would be announcements of the day and sometimes someone would read a poem or sing a song."
Mr. Meyerson was in Cherry Lawn's last graduating class, as was the reunion committee's vice president, Mike Manners. "By 1972 the school was in a little disarray," he recalled by phone from Bristol, where he is in the city's Information Systems Department. "They'd had a major fire in the building called the infirmary and a person died - a custodian who had an apartment there had evidently fallen asleep smoking."
Mr. Meyerson remembers two previous fires as well. "All the school's buildings were wood, except the girls' dormitory, which was built to replace the one which had burned down."
(Editor's note: the old girl's dormitory is now home to the Darien Nature Center)
"After the last fire, the school had trouble getting insurance," Mr. Manners said, "and parents had concerns about safety."
"At the end of the 1971-72 school year, there were about 150 enrolled at the school," said Mr. Meyerson. "But only about 50 were coming that fall, so letters went out that the school would not open."
From its inception in 1915, Cherry Lawn School fostered very close relationships between faculty and students. Its founder, Dr. Fred Goldfrank, whose niece, Bertrice, had polio, wanted to create a place where children with special needs, like chronic illnesses, could go to school together, rather than be isolated in their homes as was the norm then. He filled his home in Stamford with schoolchildren and made his yard, replete with cherry trees, their playground.
Cherry Lawn School quickly outgrew Dr. Goldfrank's house and, keeping the name, moved to a 28-acre campus in Darien in 1919, where it grew into a kindergarten-through-12 grade co-ed boarding school for children of all different abilities and talents. It was one of the first co-ed boarding schools in the country, and always one of the very few where girls and boys shared the same campus.
By the fall of 1940, the school had a working farm and, as a special feature, a dormitory called "Swedish House," which had been transported to Darien directly from the legendary 1939-40 New York World's Fair, where it had been the Swedish Pavilion.
The school threatened to outgrow its campus after World War II, so it dropped all but its four high school grade levels. It developed a national reputation for its openness, in more ways than one. It was famously tolerant - no dress code; no prohibitions against, for instance, smoking or owning pets on campus; easy access to the outside world.
But it was also literally open, with outdoor classrooms and even screened-in sleeping porches.
The lack of structure and Bohemian atmosphere was a balm for some but a bane for others, including notable drop-outs like director Mike Nichols (then Michael Peschkowsky), actress Carol Kane ("Taxi") and rocker David Lee Roth (who later penned a song for his famous band, Van Halen, called "Hot for Teacher," about a Cherry Lawn staffer that was the object of his affection).
Some somewhat notable graduates include Arnold Mizzy, who was married (for a month) to burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee; Renee Shneour, who gained some fame in Spain as flamenco dancer Laura Toledo; Basil Burnell, who, playing a fish monger in the classic movie of Dickens' novel, "David Copperfield," uttered, "Fish!...fresh fish!"; Thelonious Monk Jr., son of the jazz great and an accomplished musician in his own right; Andy Warhol acolyte Baby Jane Holzer; and Sheldon Harte (who kept a pet monkey as a Cherry Lawn student), the head bodyguard for exiled Russian revolutionary Leo Trotsky in Mexico City. Harte was mysteriously murdered a week before Trotsky was himself assassinated by a Stalin henchman in 1940.
The roster of former teachers includes actor Lloyd Bridges (drama) and Dorothy Butters (English), who went on to write the "Mrs. Pollifax" mystery novels.
"The teachers were just very special," recalled Mr. Manners. "They came because they loved teaching here. They only made about $4,500 a year, so for them it was really a calling rather than a job."
Mr. Manners is stunned by the reaction he's received since the idea for a reunion and plaque dedication surfaced. "It's truly astounding," he said. "It's just a tremendous response, people are coming from all over, even South America; I mean the place has been closed almost 30 years!"
He's found the emotional link to Cherry Lawn School running deep among its grads: "There's no generation gap in how we remember the school. It's just a big part of a lot of people's lives."
"I loved the school," said Mr. Meyerson. "I was a lousy student but it was one of the very best experiences of my life, here."
As a reporter got down on his hands and knees to peer at the small lettering on the new plaque, affixed to a rock just west of the nature center's parking lot, Mr. Meyerson laughed, "I just wish that was a little easier to read."