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Sanders for (Student Body) President!

Apr 13, 2016 11:30 AM | 0 comments

With the upcoming primary elections on April 19th, Brooklyn, all of New York City, and indeed all of New York State finds itself basking in the reflected glare of the white-hot spotlight that follows this season's presidential candidates. Trump, Cruz, Kasich, Clinton and Sanders are trotting all over the map this month, drumming up support for their causes and tasting some local delicacies along the way. Tomorrow Brooklyn's Navy Yard will host a debate between Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, drawing even more focus onto our patch of Long Island.

As is widely known by now, Bernie Sanders grew up in Brooklyn, so in some ways his campaigning here means a return to home turf. The Daily News ran a story last Saturday exploring just how deep Sanders's Brooklyn roots dig down, uncovering anecdotes from his childhood in Midwood through his high school career and into his stint at Brooklyn College. I couldn't resist doing a bit of my own investigating in the archives to hunt for traces of Sanders's boyhood days, and I was happy to hit a small jackpot in the pages of the Madison Highway.

The Madison Highway was the school newspaper for James Madison High at Bedford Ave and Ave P in Midwood -- just steps from Sanders's boyhood home. Sanders graduated from there in 1959, and as luck would have it, our collection of newspapers from that school starts in the fall of 1958, as Sanders embarked on his senior year.

James Madison High School in 1946.

While many of us squeak through high school without making the pages of our alma mater's rag, Sanders was mentioned in almost every issue that year. As a star member of the track and cross-country teams he was regularly featured in the paper's sports section.

That's co-captain Bernie Sanders sporting short shorts in the upper left.

As noted in the Daily News piece, Sanders also made an impression off the field. In December of 1958 the budding politician was selected to run against two of his classmates for the job of student body president.

Above, the front-page announcement of the presidential candidates (SGO = student government organization) and below, headshots of all the runners. Sanders is the third buzz cut from the left.

At this point, it is important to note that the Madison Highway came out only monthly, and that our collection is likely incomplete. And while the 24-hour news cycle has trained modern readers to expect up-to-the-minute reports of campaign action, high school elections of the 1950s were perhaps a bit more laconic. After the candidates for class president were announced in December, this campaign trail runs cold until March of 1959:

In case the fine print is hard to read, here we see the newly-elected SGO officers being sworn in. Sanders is nowhere to be seen as new president Robert Rockfeld raises his right hand.

But that defeat wasn't the end of Sanders's involvement with student affairs at James Madison. He makes a fiery comeback in the very next issue of the Madison Highway, grabbing headlines on nearly every page of the 4-page newspaper. As the Daily News article also described, part of Sanders's presidential campaign platform involved raising funds for a Korean War orphan. This was a cause that seems to have pre-dated Sanders's candidacy -- the outgoing SGO treasurer Myron Kalin was already organizing benefits to "adopt" a Korean orphan through the Save the Children Federation in the fall of 1958. Through fundraising efforts the school would donate $120 per year, enough to provide food, clothing and shelter for one child. In the March 25, 1959 issue the editors published a letter from Jong Han, identified as the older brother of Jong Soon, the boy who would benefit from the philanthropy of James Madison High School students:

That article cited Sanders specifically for his fundraising efforts in the campaign. How did he do it? you might wonder. With an all-star basketball game!

In language that portends of hyperbolic campaign pamphlets to come, the paper excitedly affirms, "This [alumni basketball game] is not a dream, and will shortly be a reality. Bernie Sanders made a campaign promise to bring back the stars, and that's exactly what he's doing." You must give Sanders credit -- many politicians who are successfully elected fail to come through on their campaign promises and yet here we have young Bernie making good on his word despite his defeat at the polls.

News of the coming alumni game flooded the (4) pages of the March 25th issue of the Madison Highway, and once again it bears reminding that this paper only came out monthly. When I paged through the following issue from April 16, 1959, eager for news of the alumni game and the profits it reaped for young Jong Soon, I was sorely disappointed. Sanders's fundraising blitz was by then old news, apparently, and no more mention of it was made through the rest of the school year. Did New York Knicks coach and James Madison graduate Fuzzy Levane indeed coach the alumni team, as was hinted? If he did, the Highway apparently didn't think it was worth reporting.

Which is not to say that the Madison Highway ceased to be riveting reading. The wacky editorial board ran several hoax news items in its April issue, presumably in honor of April Fool's Day, which elicited a few chuckles. And then there were also cartoons by staff illustrators:

All of this serves to remind us how important it is to collect things like school newspapers and yearbooks. We are all the time consulting these resources to assist with genealogy research and student projects, not to mention tracking the careers of famous Brooklynites. We've been steadily expanding our collection of high school newspapers, yearbooks, and ephemera, thanks in large part to donations from people who spent their own formative years in this borough. Hopefully there are some Brooklyn-born readers out there right now who are willing to donate a part of their private history to our historic and publicly accessible collections!