Notably Norwich: Remembering the good times when everyone went ‘down city’
Despite spending most of my adult life in other communities, Norwich, where I was born and raised, will always hold a special place in my heart.
To say the city has changed since my upbringing between the mid-1950s and mid-’70s would be an understatement. Some are critical of Norwich, and to be honest, the city, like many its size, faces a number of challenges.
Today, Norwich remains special, even though many of us have moved away. What makes it that way are historic, long-standing places and institutions such as Norwich Free Academy, Otis Library, WICH radio, Leffingwell House, Norwich Inn & Spa, Mohegan Park, Chelsea Parade, Norwich Golf Course, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Park Congregational Church, William W. Backus Hospital, American Ambulance, the Post Office, and the Department of Public Utilities. And if there is a more stately and beautiful City Hall anywhere in Connecticut, I’ve yet to see it
Sadly, however, the once-bustling business district is a mere shell of its former self in what Norwich residents often called “down city.”
Gone are the businesses that were anchors down city such as H.A. Bruckner, Reid & Hughes, Feister & Raucher, La France, Silberman’s, Campbell’s Sporting Goods, F.W. Woolworth, Beit Brothers Super Market, Beverly Tea Room, the Palace and Midtown theaters, the Ambassador barber shop, Norwich Savings Society, and, more recently, People’s Bank. The (Norwich) Bulletin, which once occupied the better portion of an entire city block on Franklin Street, now resides in much smaller confines in the former train station at the bottom of Railroad Place.
The YMCA on Main Street was once a veritable beehive of activity, ranging from kids in swimming and gymnastics classes to businessmen enjoying saunas and noontime basketball games. Today, the Y sits shuttered and unused.
Norwich is where I was born — on Aug. 31, 1954, at Backus Hospital, at the height of Hurricane Carol — the first of three children to Bill and Peg Stanley. We lived first in a small home at 122 Newton Street, then a larger home from 1967 at 17 Meadow Lane in the city’s Cherry Hill section.
There are other sections of the city, such as Taftville, Greenville, East Great Plains, Laurel Hill, the East Side, the West Side, Occum, and Norwichtown. I may have missed some, but in this column I will do as well as the memory of a 66-year-old will allow.
Norwich Free Academy, from which I graduated without distinction in 1972, is the city’s shiniest gem. In addition to being Norwich’s high school, it also serves as the primary high school for the nearby towns of Bozrah, Brooklyn, Canterbury, Franklin, Lisbon, Preston, Sprague and Voluntown. It is a private institution that once boasted an enrollment of more than 3,000 (today, enrollment stands at about 2,150). It was founded in 1854, and with numerous buildings (including seven on the National Register of Historic Places) on its 38-acre campus, it resembles a small college. NFA even has its own museum, the Slater Memorial Museum, replete with its distinguishing tower.
Alumni include Edwin Land, the father of instant photography (and for whom the school’s library is named); billionaire businessman and philanthropist Sidney Frank; author Wally Lamb, who would later teach at NFA; network television announcer Don Pardo of “Saturday Night Live” fame; Robert Papp, former Commandant of the U.S Coast Guard Academy; Peter Slosberg, founder and brewer of Pete’s Wicked Ale; and Allyn L. Brown, former Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court.
NFA and New London High School have the nation’s oldest high school football rivalry, dating back to 1875. Occasionally, I still see the great Jim Giordano, who coached some of NFA’s best football teams while I was a student there.
Freshmen were technically called juniors, but were often referred to as “Greasies.” Sophmores were lowers; juniors were uppers; and seniors were, well, seniors. Fridays were school color days when students were expected to wear NFA’s red and white to show school spirit, especially during football season. Greasies who didn’t comply were sometimes decorated with red lipstick by seniors.
NFA has always boasted a great faculty. During my years, Lois Anderson, Dorothy “Toddy” Agranovitch, Karl Ferling, Andrew Tellier, Eugene Gancarz, Mel Mackowicki, Daniel Gibson, Raymond “Pop” Congdon, and my uncle, Jim Perrone, were among my favorites, though there are so many more great ones who taught at NFA.
These recollections come without the benefit of my 1972 yearbook, The Mirror, which is stored away somewhere.
Earlier in life, I would marvel at the longevity of those alumni who would live long enough to attend their 50th high school class reunion — and, yes, muse that they were very old. Yet, here we are, the Class of 1972, less than two years away from this happy celebration. While I have not attended all of our class’s reunions, I will, God willing, be there for this one, whenever and wherever it will be.
Here’s hoping many surviving friends from yesteryear, who enjoyed the privilege of this marvelous school a half-century ago, will be there, too (date and venue TBA). Here’s also hoping that the young people who are enrolled at there today fully appreciate NFA’s many unique opportunities and take full advantage of them. You will be glad you did and prosper from them throughout life.
Bill Stanley is a former reporter at The Day and will retire on Oct. 16 after more than 21 years as Vice President for Development & Community Relations at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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