Longfellow

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, Why the Kof?James Longfellow Watson was a key–though underrated–defensive tackle in East Orange High School’s 1963 state champion football team.

My enduring memory of him in that role is the game against one of the toughest teams on the schedule, Phillipsburg High from near the Pennsylvania state line. Jim seemed to live in the Phillipsburg backfield that day sacking the quarterback and stymying runs.

As a senior Jim took up ice hockey, and that’s when we became friends. EO was nobody’s hockey powerhouse. In fact we were perenially one of the leagues’ doormat teams.

But Watson was a gifted athlete and an imposing–6’4, 210 –physical presence.

Our high school yearbook noted, “Fuchs was joined on defense by newcomer Jim Watson who developed rapidly as the season progressed. The two often skated the entire game, a rarity in hockey.”

And we became friends. I called him by his middle name, Longfellow, and he referred to me as “Tuffy Fuchs.”

That winter of ’63 was the year the Beatles invaded America and changed popular music forever. It is hard to imagine this today but their mop haircuts were a complete novelty then.

One Saturday morning after hockey practice, Longfellow and I were hanging out in his basement. “OK, Tuffy,” he said, “close your eyes.”

Standing before me, when he told me to open them thirty seconds later, was this very tall, very Black young man wearing a hilarious Beatles wig. And then he started to laugh, one of the most infectious laughs I have ever encountered, and I started to laugh too. And it seemed like we laughed for an hour.

I will always treasure the memory of that day, but not as much as I treasure the memory of our game against Montclair.

As I wrote, we were not a good hockey team, but due largely to great work in the goal by Jim Ross, and Watson’s improved play, we won our last three games.

But the one I will never forget was Montclair. Montclair and East Orange had a historic rivalry in football and that carried over to all sports. Earlier in the season Montclair defeated us handily at South Mountain arena, and there was no reason to think they would not do so again on the cold evening that we met at the outdoor rink in Branch Brook Park.

Late in the second period, a light snow had begun to fall, and the scene is flash frozen in my mind. The score was 2-2, and The Montclair Goalie kicked out a hard shot by our star forward, Joe Mirabella. The rebound dribbled toward Watson as he skated in from the blue line. Skating full steam toward the puck, Watson hit a slap shot so hard that the Montclair goalie did not see the puck until he fished it out from the back of his net.

3-2, EO!

We desperately tried to hold onto our lead as the snow that made us feel like we were skating through mud continued to fall.

As the final period wound down Montclair was pressing when I intercepted a pass and scored on a breakaway to give us an insurance goal and a 4-2 victory. Watson and I had skated the entire game. When we embraced at the final horn, we were exhausted but overjoyed.

We beat Montclair!

After graduation we lost touch. Last time we spoke he was accepting a football scholarship to the soon to be open and not long thereafter to close Parsons College in Iowa. His vision was to become, “Jim Lon Watson, all American Tight End from Parsons.”

After that to my regret, all I know about Jim is that he was listed among our classmates who had died when we planned our fiftieth reunion in 2014.

I wish we had kept in touch because I smile each time I think of the joys we shared.

A Laboratory for Diversity

“Hail to our Alma Mater, Old East Orange High!” These words of our school song brought Goosebumps to my arms when those of us attending spontaneously sang them in unison at our 50th class reunion

What a joyous experience the reunion was! It was good to see people I had not seen in half a century, and I was proud to introduce my wife Vickie, who grew up in San Francisco, to the people I knew back then.

I feel very blessed that I grew up in East Orange, New Jersey. My class was–give or take–half black and half white. We learned in a laboratory for diversity. Our reunion attendees reflected that ratio, and I can say with pride that it was 100% color blind!

I believe the reason is that respect for racial and religious differences was an unspoken agenda of our high school curriculum in those days.

During my formative years I was one of the few Jews in my school environment. Among my classmates all I encountered was interest in and respect for my beliefs. I was the only Jew in my small (seven-member) high school fraternity, and it was not a problem for the others when I asked that we not hold all of our meetings on Friday nights because I wanted to attend services at my synagogue.

I am a rabbi and a proud Reform Jew, but that does not mean for a second that I think everyone should believe as I do.

Diversity is not just something to tolerate; it is something to respect and affirm as a positive good. We are enriched as a society by the different cultures and religious beliefs in our world.

And yet, I cannot count how many times people have asked me, “Why do we have to have so many religions? Why not just one?”

I answer, “Whose religion should it be? Will it be yours in which the belief in Jesus’ life, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension to heaven are essential for salvation? Or will it be mine where Jesus plays no theological role at all? The bottom line is we will never have just one religion unless people are forced to abandon beliefs they hold precious.”

Also, I often hear of the problems caused by religion as a reason for abandoning it. My response is, “Religion does not cause problems. It is the inability or unwillingness of some to recognize the validity of beliefs different from their own that causes problems.”

There is biblical warrant for diversity in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). When people ask me why we have to have all of these different religions, why not just one, I point to that story and say, “Once upon a time it was that way. People talked the same, believed the same and acted the same. God thought so little of all that unity that the Almighty scattered the peoples and confounded their language In short God created diversity.”

When I was about five, my mother gave me one of the greatest presents I ever received. It was a phonograph record called “Little Songs on Big Subjects.” One of my favorites went like this: “I’m proud to be me but I also see you’re just as proud to be you. Its just human nature so why should I hate for being as human as I. We’ll get as we give if we live and let live, and we’ll both get along if we try!”

It was good advice when I was five-years-old, and it is good advice to day for all of us today. The “Laboratory of Diversity” that was East Orange High School 50 years ago is a worthy model for humanity today as we share space and strive to coexist in harmony on this ever-shrinking planet!EOHS

 

Life Lessons from My Love Affair with Tennis — 1

Tennis and I go back a long way, ever since I was a little kid, and my Dad first taught me how to play.  Make no mistake; I was never a good enough to play the grand slams, but I love the game and owe it so much!

As a sophomore I was the number one player on our East Orange High School tennis team.  I posted a 2-13 record that year.

The first of the “2” occurred when the number one player from our cross town rival Clifford Scott, Henry Paillard, was not playing, and I got a win over their not-as-strong number 2, Bob Lawrie.

My second win, though, was huge!  We played each of our conference rivals twice.  In our first meeting at West Orange, I did not only lose; I received a 6-0, 6-1 drubbing from Jay Saunders.  Maybe Jay took me for granted when they came to our courts a couple of weeks later, but I earned a 6-4, 6-4 win. I was so proud!

I was EO’s number one for three years, and in those three years I lost to Kearny’s Cal Trevenen six straight times.  In those six matches I won only one set, the first set of the first match we played when we were sophomores.

At Hamilton College I became a better player earning a 50-3 record in three years on the varsity and winning a couple of NCAA, college division, regional tournaments and being the finalist in another.

My breakthrough came freshman year.

In those days freshmen were not allowed to play varsity, and I was the number one player on our freshman team.  Who should walk out on the court as my opponent for our opening match against Colgate – at Colgate, no less – but Kearny’s Cal Trevenen!  But this time I did something I honestly thought I couldn’t do and grabbed a straight set victory.  I defeated Cal again when Colgate came to Hamilton.

I reached out to Cal about two years ago (he is a successful attorney in Montclair, NJ), and though he was very gracious, he really didn’t even remember who I was. I can never forget him, though, for helping teach me one of life’s most important lessons:

Yesterday is gone.  It doesn’t matter anymore.

Do the best you can right now, and who knows what good things can happen?