Midwood High School celebrates 75th anniversary

October 20, 2016 By John Alexander Brooklyn Daily Eagle
From left: Honoree Matilda Raffa Cuomo with her granddaughter Amanda Cole and Midwood High School Alumni Association President Harris Sarney. Eagle photos by John Alexander

Matilda Raffa Cuomo Honored for Civic Service, Humanitarianism

Midwood High School alumni packed the Grand Prospect Hall on Saturday to celebrate the school’s 75th year as one of Brooklyn’s top-ranked public high schools. Accomplished alumni, including elected officials, authors, composers, performing artists, attorneys, doctors and business leaders filled the ballroom. Tables were set up according to graduation years, starting with 1943, Midwood’s first graduating class.

This year’s distinguished honoree was Matilda Raffa Cuomo, class of ’49, wife of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and mother of current Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Ms. Cuomo has dedicated her life to education. She and Mario had five children together: sons Andrew and Chris, a television journalist; and daughters Margaret, Madeline and Maria, who is married to fashion designer Kenneth Cole. She was joined at the event by her granddaughter Amanda, the daughter of Maria and Kenneth Cole. U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, class of ’88, was there to honor Cuomo. Also in attendance was New York Times bestselling food author Mimi Sheraton, whose new book “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die,” has just been released.

The evening was hosted by Harris Sarney, president of the Midwood High School Alumni Association and graduate of the class of ’57. Sarney, along with Elaine Reiss, another graduate of the class of ’57, helped organize the milestone event along with a group of dedicated committee members.    

The oldest attendee was Mary Kitchell Anderson, a graduate from the class of ’43. She explained that after graduating from Midwood, she went on to earn an engineering degree from Pratt Institute, where she was the only woman in her class. After graduation, she worked for Bell Labs. She proudly showed off the very first Midwood yearbook and said, “Midwood launched me on a wonderful lifetime career.”      

Elaine Greenberg was another graduate from Midwood’s early years. After graduating, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College and a master’s degree from Columbia University. She taught English at Midwood and established a successful career in movies and television. She appeared as a regular on “The Good Wife” and “Sex and the City,” and had roles in “Zelig” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” two movies written and directed by fellow Midwood alumni Woody Allen.

Sarney opened the evening’s festivities by welcoming the guests and presenting Carol Demas and Paula Rosen Janis, both class of ’57, who performed songs, including “The Hello Song,” from their acclaimed children’s television series “The Magic Garden,” which ran from 1972 to 1984.

This was followed by a thorough and informative history of Midwood presented by distinguished historian and scholar Sean Wilentz, a graduate of the class of ’68.  Wilentz is the author of numerous books including “Bob Dylan in America,” “The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln” and “Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad.”

According to Wilentz, “Midwood High School was, and is, and remains the product of the New Deal. Opened on Feb. 3, 1941, it had been constructed by funds from the Works Progress Administration.” He added, “Just as it was constructed with New Deal dynamism, Midwood was dedicated to nurture in the New Deal spirit.”

Wilentz recalled that at the school’s official dedication ceremony on May 8, 1941, the featured speaker was Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. Wilentz spoke about how the school’s students have almost complete control over their student rights, with the exception of the curriculum. The students approve their constitution, complete with a mayor, board of estimates and student court.  Wilentz praised this as, “a great example of putting democracy and education into practice.”

Wilentz referenced the Brooklyn Eagle a few times during his talk. The Eagle was there to report on the school from its inception. Wilentz concluded by thanking the school for all that it has done for him, adding, “We are all indebted deeply to this place, and I will never fully repay my debt to this wonderful institution.”  

After brief remarks from Midwood principal Michael McDonnell, U.S. Rep. Jeffries took the stage. Jeffries explained that he had earlier attended services for the late Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, alongside Gov. Cuomo. He thanked McDonnell for his leadership and for continuing to elevate Midwood “as the best public high school in the city of New York.” He said it was “an honor to be here with the former first lady of the state of New York, who has helped improve the lives of so many people, and has done it with intelligence, integrity, grace and eloquence.” Jeffries joked that after spending the day with Gov. Cuomo, he was tempted to tell him that he was his second favorite Cuomo.

Sarney was given the honor of presenting Ms. Cuomo with the first Matilda R. Cuomo Humanitarian Award, in recognition of her service to young people and to their education. In the future, the award will be given to a graduating senior who “best exemplifies the character of humanitarianism” that Ms. Cuomo embodies. He praised her for devoting her life to public service and helping others. He said that throughout her life “she has worked for the benefit of young people, students, particularly those who are challenged and have difficulties … and in need of more than schools can support.”

Cuomo thanked Sarney and called herself a “Brooklyn gal from P.S. 137, who went on to Midwood High School.” She shared fond memories from her high school years, and how she became captain of the guard squad. She emphasized how important it is to help young people and make sure they stay in school and get a good education, which she believes can be achieved through mentoring.

Cuomo founded the child advocacy group Mentoring USA, a nonprofit child advocacy organization that has helped change young people’s lives through mentoring. Children are empowered and given the opportunity to realize all of their dreams. The program pairs children with their own unwavering, steadfast role model to help inspire and guide them in their educational pursuits.  

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