THE BEST DAY AT COLUMBIA HIGH SCHOOL by Ellen Donker
Celebrating the school’s accomplished graduates
Every year at Columbia High School (CHS), a committee comprised of advisors, student council members, and school staff takes on an important task. Meeting behind closed doors from October until June, the members review a standing list of notable CHS graduates, adding names for consideration. After researching the background of each person, they commence several rounds of voting, with the goal of choosing two graduates to induct into the CHS Hall of Fame.
Senior class president Zachary Singer, who served on the committee along with 14 other students, says they were “sworn to secrecy” until the day before the big reveal on June 5. That’s when students, faculty and the community were notified about the selection. After that date, anyone passing the school and stopping to read the electric sign out front could see that Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, class of 2003, and quilting artist and former CHS art teacher Bisa Butler, class of 1991, were being inducted.
Social studies and psychology teacher Phil McCormick, who headed the committee with teacher Monica Soliman, exudes enthusiasm when he talks about the Hall of Fame. He says, “It’s my favorite day of the year. Hall of Fame is a celebration of what makes us [CHS] awesome.”
This year, the induction ceremony took place during two periods in order to accommodate the entire student body. While the jazz band played a few numbers, students filed into the CHS auditorium and special guests took their seats on the platform. Some years, the faces aren’t known to the students. But this time, there was no mistaking Ibtihaj Muhammad and Bisa Butler, known as one of CHS’s beloved art teachers until she left in June 2018 to pursue her craft full time. An added surprise was SZA (Solana Rowe), inducted in 2018, who was present to introduce Muhammad.
The CHS Hall of Fame program has been in place since 1985, when the Student Council, under the leadership of president Andrew Shue, formed a standing committee to recognize the vast accomplishments of its graduates. The committee established criteria still used today: Honorees should have been role models while students, be distinguished in their current fields, leaders in their professions, and dedicated to the betterment of society – all while being at the peak of their careers. Each year, with the exception of 2017, the committee has inducted one to four former students.
The first Hall of Fame inductees were Amalya Kearse (class of 1955, Federal Appeals Court Judge, Manhattan) and Roy Scheider (class of 1950, actor in The French Connection, Klute, and Jaws). Interestingly, both Andrew Shue and his sister Elizabeth were inducted in 1994.
Retired teachers Carol Petrallia and Hannah Edelman recall working on the committee from 1996 - 2006. Edelman says, “People were always making suggestions and making nominations.” The list was a diverse one, often three to four pages long, with inductees representing many professions, including journalists, judges, entertainers, scientists, human rights activists, athletes, educators, political leaders, movie producers, law enforcement, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. The list continues to grow as new alumni prove their talents in society, which raises the question of whether CHS produces more talented graduates than the average high school. Student pride aside, many of those who have worked on the committee voice an emphatic yes.
Standing by the CHS library entrance, Petrallia and Edelman point to the wall where a plaque for each inductee hangs. As they work their way through the names, plaque by plaque, they enthusiastically share information about each one, marveling at their accomplishments. Edelman recalls, “They had limousines back then. They used to pay to have the inductees stay at a hotel. I mean, they really did it up right.” The ceremonies stand out as well. Petrallia describes Max Weinberg’s induction. “I remember when he came in, he got the whole jazz band on stage.”
The student council encourages the inductees to share their memories and knowledge with current students to inspire them as they think about going out on their own. Edelman says, “They all come through in terms of giving speeches that inspire, and I think they really touch a segment of the population of our students. What you want them to say…[is] follow your dream do this, do that, don’t give up and you, too, can achieve. That’s really the message.”
This year, in Muhammad’s remarks, she recalled sitting in the Hall of Fame assembly as a student. She said, “I was that kid who saw myself on stage. I was like, yeah, that’s going to be me.” Even with her confidence, she struggled to fit in – not many were wearing the hijab – but she spotted a fencing practice in the CHS cafeteria through the car window when she was 12 years old and decided it was a sport she wanted to pursue. She encouraged students to “work hard, be persistent and have faith in God’s plan.”
Butler also reflected on her quest to fit in and poked fun at her attempts trying soccer, softball, track and cheerleading. Finally, she decided to focus on what she knew she could do – paint and draw – and went on to pursue art and education. She was clear that there are no shortcuts to success.
Having retired from the selection committee, Petrallia continues to curate the Hall of Fame archives (and, indeed, all of the CHS archives). She still can hardly contain her excitement attending as a guest and says, “The kids are sitting in front of them [the inductees] in the same school, walking the same hall, sitting in the same classroom.”
McCormick adds, “It’s a great day for staff to be reminded that they play a part in inspiring students to reach their potential. And students realize that people who have come through the halls of Columbia before them have made a path and they can follow in their footsteps.”
Ellen Donker enjoyed learning about the many talented CHS graduates and looks forward to seeing contributions from the next generation of students.
A Sampling of CHS Hall of Fame Inductees
Lois Whitman, inducted in 2011
Class of 1944
Human Rights Activist
Lois Whitman is the founder and former director (1994-2012) of the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division, which investigates and seeks to end human rights abuses against children, including attacks on students, teachers, and schools; the worst forms of child labor; torture of children; and the use of child soldiers. It also addresses issues involving juvenile justice and migrant children. Whitman holds a B.A. from Smith College, an M.S. in social work from Columbia University, and a J.D. from Rutgers University.
Charles Kenneth “C. K.” Williams, inducted in 2001
Class of 1954
Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet/Author
An American poet known for his moral passion, Williams graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught creative writing at a number of universities including Princeton University. Williams received the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Repair, and the 2003 National Book Award for poetry for The Singing. His numerous honors include the 1998 PEN/Voelcker Award for career achievement in poetry, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature (1999), and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2005). Williams died in 2015.
Amalya Kearse, inducted in 1985
Class of 1955
Amalya L. Kearse, a graduate of Wellesley College, received her law degree from the University of Michigan. She was the first female African American partner in a major Wall Street law firm. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter asked Kearse to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, making her the first woman to receive that appointment. She was also short-listed by the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations as a candidate for the United States Supreme Court.
Max Weinberg, inducted in 1987
Class of 1969
Max Weinberg has performed all over the world. He is the longtime drummer for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and was bandleader for Conan O’Brien on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. In 2014, Weinberg was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the E Street Band.