Schumer relives his days at James Madison HS
New York’s powerful senior senator was once a teenager who took a job cranking up a mimeograph machine for one of his favorite teachers to earn a couple of extra bucks.
That was just one of the tidbits shared by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, who returned to his alma mater, James Madison High School, in Midwood on Friday morning to reminisce about his high school days and to offer hope to today’s students that one day they too could go on to do great things in their lives.
“It’s great to be back here at Madison,” Schumer, 64, told an audience of hundreds of cheering students in the Sonia Lerner Auditorium. But the passage of the years, he said, “makes me feel old.”
When he was telling the story about working for teacher Stanley Kaplan running the mimeograph machine, he asked, “Does anyone here know what a mimeograph machine is?”
Schumer, who was the valedictorian of the Class of 1967, appeared to be enjoying every minute of his trip down Memory Lane.
(For additional photos, see BrooklynArchive.com.)
He casually strolled down the center aisle of the auditorium holding a container of coffee, took the podium after being introduced by Principal Jodie Cohen, and spoke about his life as a kid growing up in Midwood. He also took questions from students, ranging from issues like the budget deficit to his favorite sports. One student asked him whether he will run for president. “The answer is no!” he said emphatically.
He told the students that he loved his days at James Madison. “Madison gives you a great education,” he said. He recalled how his favorite English teacher, Marie Reilly, opened up his eyes to great literature and how other teachers helped him along the way.
During his days at James Madison, Schumer was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper The Highway, was a Math Team Leader and served on the Budget Committee, among other activities. He was voted Brightest in the Class and earned the General Scholarship Medal at graduation.
He played basketball and baseball, but not football. “I weighed 146 pounds,” he said, adding that he was “too light for football.”
During his presentation, Schumer’s yearbook picture was projected on a screen on the stage.
Schumer lived with his family on East 26th Street in a house his parents bought for $19,000 in 1962. “I lived right down the street,” he said, noting the close proximity of his house to the high school. He attended P.S. 197, Cunningham Junior High School, and then entered James Madison H.S. The school is located at 3787 Bedford Ave.
Schumer, who was born in 1950, is a Baby Boomer. He said there were always large crowds of kids attending local schools when he was a kid. “We had 80 kids living on my block,” he told the students. There was local street gang, the Avenue U Boys.
James Madison was so crowded in those years that the school had split sessions. As a sophomore, a student attended classes from noon to 6 p.m. Juniors went to school from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and seniors had to be early birds, attending classes from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. There was no freshman class. The school had 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. Ninth grade was in junior high school.
Even as a teenager, Schumer was a go-getter and a scholar. “From Madison, I was lucky enough to go to Harvard,” he said. But he admitted that the Ivy League made him nervous. “When I got to Harvard, I was scared,” he admitted. There he was, a kid from Brooklyn, at one of the country’s most prestigious universities, surrounded by wealthy prep school graduates.
But he had an edge. “The education I got here at Madison kept me on the ballpark,” he said. The combination of his education and his Brooklyn street smarts propelled him forward, he said.
After graduating from Harvard, he went to Harvard Law School. He got a job at a law firm that paid $400 a week, which was more money than his father Abraham, an exterminator, had made. But Schumer found that he didn’t like the job. He urged the students to find work that they love and not to let anyone try to pressure them into going into lucrative professions that don’t interest them.
Schumer had always been interested in politics, so when a state Assembly seat opened up, he decided to run, going up against the Democratic Party machine led by political boss Meade Esposito. So slim were Schumer’s chances that the local barber, who was also the local bookie, told the then 23-year-old Schumer that he was a 50-1 long shot to win.
Schumer shocked the political establishment by winning.
He served in the Assembly, representing Midwood for six years, and then ran for Congress in 1980. In 1998, he ran for the U.S. Senate and has been there ever since.
But Schumer was quick to point out that he isn’t the only U.S. senator from James Madison. Bernie Sanders, an Independent who represents Vermont, and Norm Coleman, a former senator who represented Minnesota, are also James Madison graduates.
He made a bold prediction. “Madison is going to have a fourth U.S. senator,” he said, adding that the future senator “is in the audience today.”
The school also boasts other famous alumni, such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and singer-songwriter Carole King.
But on this day, it was a Brooklyn kid-turned senator who had the students cheering.
Junior Julia Hagiel said she looked forward to Schumer’s talk. “It’s very inspiring. It gives you hope,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle.
For additional photos, see BrooklynArchive.com.
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