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Niskayuna High ’62 grads talk about life after school in classmates’ documentary

Sunday, August 12, 2012
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Niskayuna High School Class of '62 graduate Don Schermerhorn, seated, is prepared for a film interview by, from left, Don Wilcock, Anna Polesny and Bob Van Degna.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Niskayuna High School Class of '62 graduate Don Schermerhorn, seated, is prepared for a film interview by, from left, Don Wilcock, Anna Polesny and Bob Van Degna.

The advertising campaign for George Lucas’ film “American Graffiti” asked prospective viewers “Where were you in ’62?”

The movie followed California high-school grads through one crazy summer night in 1962.

Bob Van Degna doesn’t have an advertising budget for his movie project. But he knows where his cinema subjects were in 1962 — they were just leaving Niskayuna High School.

For Van Degna and school friends Don Wilcock and Anna Polesny, the questions are “Where were you in ’67? Where were you in ’72? Where were you in 1982, 1997 and 2002?”

The three novice filmmakers just completed final interviews for their 90-minute documentary about life after Niskayuna High, working title “We Still Have Dreams,” which will be shown at Proctors in Schenectady on Saturday, Sept. 29. The premiere, which will be open to the public, will help mark the reunion weekend for Niskayuna’s Class of 1962.

‘We Still Have Dreams’

WHAT: A film that chronicles lives of 25 people who graduated from Niskayuna High School in 1962.

WHERE: Proctors, GE Theatre, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 29, at 2 p.m.

HOW MUCH: Free to Niskayuna Class of ‘62 members; $5 for general public

MORE INFO: www.niskayunaclassof62.webs.com

The idea came from Van Degna, 67, an equity investor who now lives in Cave Creek, Ariz. When he received word last year that his gang from 1962 would observe its 50th class anniversary, he began thinking of a way to jazz up the proceedings.

“I’m a photographer,” he said, as he and his team prepared for interviews in Altamont earlier this month.

Getting started

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to go out and photograph these people? Maybe I should shoot video of them. Maybe I should interview them.’ That’s how it kind of got started. Then Don got involved and Anna got involved. None of us had ever done this before; we are first-time filmmakers. It will be a first-time film.”

About 200 young men and women graduated from Niskayuna in 1962. About 20 have passed away, and reunion organizers have located about 90 alumni. Twenty-five agreed to talk about their lives.

The film is not about middle-age reflections on sock hops, hanging out at the malt shop, the big game against Mohonasen or the time Bobby kissed Janice in the middle of fourth-period English class.

“I think we’ve found some extremely interesting stories,” Van Degna said. “People have gone through all kinds of hardships and come out the other end still very positive and still very young, looking forward to doing interesting things.”

Added 68-year-old Polesny, a 1962 graduate, artist and former teacher who splits her time between Altamont and Northampton, Mass.: “We have everything from the geek to the cheerleader. We show all the personalities that the group was made up of. It’s more than just a video about classmates. It’s a statement about the times we lived in and experienced.”

It’s also a statement for the spirit of youth. Members of the class may be pushing 70, but they do not feel old.

“I wanted to get out there and show that the 50th anniversary from high school is not that big of a deal,” Van Degna said.

The film crew traveled to Massachusetts, Arizona, Florida, Oregon, Utah, Illinois and Wisconsin for hourlong interviews with one-time kids who once studied on Balltown Road.

Rewarding experience

“Every home we’ve walked into, we’ve been welcomed,” Van Deg-na said. “We’ve spent hours with these people, not only on camera but off camera. It’s been a very rewarding experience. Surprised? I don’t know, I guess I didn’t go in with an expectation. I think if I had called you up and said I wanted to interview you for an hour, you’d probably be very guarded. For some reason, this group doesn’t feel that way because we have this natural affinity.”

Wilcock, 68, who lives in Scotia and is a music journalist for both The Saratogian and The Record newspapers, has handled most of the questioning.

“Diana Gould White is the CEO of a group of 80 lawyers in Chicago who are providing legal aid to indigent people who have problems with the system and our world today of hard economic realities, especially on the south side and west side of Chicago,” Wilcock said.

“Walter Haas, he climbs mountains all over the world and has lived in Salt Lake City for the last 40-some years and is extremely healthy for a person our age. He’s into extreme workouts and likes to push the envelope in terms of literally risking his life in situations that require extreme physical conditioning.”

People talk about the serious things that have happened in their lives. “We’ve learned a lot about different marriages, some that lasted for 44 years and some that lasted for nine months,” Van Degna said. “We’ve had a number of people who have had a lot of things that have been very serious. Lots of cancer, for example, serious battles with cancer. Or people like Jim Beggs of San Diego, who’s been a struggling musician his whole life and he’s still looking, at 68, to come up with the thing that’s going to make him famous.”

‘Not a simpler time’

The teenagers from 1962 are also talking about the traditional — or nontraditional — families in which they grew up.

“We’re going to shock some people with the comments that are in these interviews because it wasn’t a simpler time,” Wilcock said, adding that societal restrictions of 50 years ago would have prevented a gay student discussing his sexual preference. Or persuaded the young teenage girl from the class to never discuss why she had to hide in the woods until her alcoholic father fell asleep.

“We were almost totally unaware as students of the struggles that we all were going through in our personal families,” Wilcock said. “It was almost like a Charles Dickens-type environment. Post-World War II, everything is wonderful, we’re living in this beautiful community and everyone is well-educated. That’s not what we’re discovering.”

Wilcock, who is also managing editor of the music magazine Alternate Root, left Niskayuna High after his sophomore year. His family moved to Pittsfield, Mass., and he graduated from Pittsfield High School.

Issues are also part of the “Dreams” package.

“Vietnam is also an important part of this because that was an era through which we lived,” Bartoli said. “Unlike World War II, which was a heroic war, Vietnam was a war that many people questioned. For our generation, it’s a really interesting issue to see what peoples’ perceptions and experiences were.”

Class member Robert Cragin was killed during the war. An Army first lieutenant, he was 23 when he died on Feb. 26, 1968. Cragin’s high school friends have talked about the young soldier, so the filmmakers have been able to assemble a Cragin profile for the project.

Women’s rights are also discussed.

“One person talks about going on a job interview in 1966 and the person asks whether she’s on birth control and she answers it,” Van Degna said. “Today, it would be like, ‘Don’t do that!’ It’s kind of the ‘Mad Men’ type of thing where it’s ‘My gosh, we were doing that back just 50 years ago?’ ”

Each of the 25 interview subjects has been asked to provide 10 personal photos that will help illustrate their stories. Choosing which pictures to use could be tough; so will choosing what pieces of interviews to use in the film.

Serious editing

With about 25 hours of material, editing the film will also be a project. The crew didn’t have to worry about picking music from the era — purchasing the rights to songs or music would have been too expensive.

The Proctors showing will really be a preview; Van Degna and his partners may further revise the film.

People with connections to Niskayuna — and middle age — are expected to appreciate the work. Van Degna hopes others will, too.

“I’m hoping young people will enjoy watching it,” he said. “They’ll see lives laid out before them that they’re going to have to go through themselves.”

 

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