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The Flying Dutchman

Jan 6, 2012 12:09 PM | 0 comments

When I learned the Brooklyn Connections program had partnered with the Erasmus Campus, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work in the historic Flatbush institution that boasts an impressive list of alumni, including Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Joseph Barbera (of Hannah-Barbera), chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer, actress Mae West--just to name a few. On a personal note, it is the school my father attended  from 1971 to 1975.

Erasmus Hall exterior. Photo by Irving Herzberg, 1957

From outside, the building on Flatbush Avenue resembles a medieval college building in the Gothic style, with owls perched atop the entrance; one would not at first assume this was a school.


Erasmus Hall has changed a great deal since its inception in 1787 from the small, wooden structure that still survives at the center of the campus, to its current grandiose iteration.  The school, originally named Erasmus Hall Academy after Dutch Scholar Desiderius Erasmus, was founded by a group of prominent trustees including John H. Livingston, John Vanderbilt, Aaron Burr, George Clinton and Alexander Hamilton.  The land was a gift of the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church and additional funds were contributed by the residents of Flatbush.

Erasmus Hall opened with about twenty-six young men enrolled in the Classical and English departments. Girls were allowed to register after 1801.  In June 1887, the town of Flatbush hosted a two-day celebration for the centennial anniversary of the school, the largest the town had ever seen.  However, by the early 1890s Erasmus was in decline due to competition from similar institutions such as the Polytechnic and Packer Institutes.  To resolve financial issues, in 1896 it was offered to the Board of Education of Brooklyn--on condition that it be maintained as a secondary school of the "highest grade and character."  As the population of Brooklyn increased and more residents attended secondary school, the original building became too small for the growing student body.  In 1905, the cornerstone was laid for what would be a thirty-five year construction project resulting in the present structure.   


The Brooklyn Collection houses several editions of "The Dutchman," a monthly paper published by the journalism students from the 1950s and 1960s and three "Flying Dutchman" yearbooks from 1901, 1911 and 1920.  These publications highlight the school's numerous clubs, sporting teams and student achievement.


In the 1920 yearbook, Erasmus boasted thirty-two clubs, not to mention nine sporting teams (including a girls' basketball and baseball team).  Notable clubs included the Classical Sodalitas (the Latin Society), the Hellenic Club, Debate Club and Monday Club--which was the oldest club in Erasmus, founded in 1899. 

Debate Club booklet, 1880s

Below are the lyrics to the school song:

Erasmus, all our hearts to thee with fervent impulse turn; We love thy halls, where hope is bright and lights of knowledge burn.  The hearty friendships of these days which through our lives shall last; The melody of youth's fair dreams, none from our hearts shall cast.

Chorus--Then cheer, cheer, cheer with might and main, Cheer for both one and all; For while we've still a heart and voice; We'll sing Erasmus Hall.

When manhood claims us for its own, thy charms shall never pall; With fondest love we'll ever turn, thy fostering care for all; And while we've still a heart and voice we'll sing Erasmus Hall.

When girls were not in class or in one of the various clubs, they might have been competing in the annual posture contest for the title of "Miss Erasmus." The winner was chosen based on her posture, personal appearance and health record.  Below is the 1951 "Miss Erasmus" winner Sedelle Nichols (center).

Graceful Erasmus Hall High School lassies do a victory step after Sedelle Nichols, center, was chosen 'Miss Erasmus.' Second and third runners-up, respectively, are Barbara Liebman, right, and Irene Greenberg, left."

Brooklyn Eagle, December 28, 1951

The 1954 "Miss Erasmus," Judy Sonnenstein (left) beat out 2,500 girls to win her title. 

Erasmus Hall's three best postures--Erasmus Hall High School principal John F. McNeill congratulates the winner and runners-up of the school's annual posture contest.

Brooklyn Eagle, April 7, 1954

There were also some touching stories to come out of the school.  One of particular interest is about "Bobby Soxer," a 78-year-old woman who received her diploma in 1955, after attending Erasmus Evening Elementary School in 1948 and graduating the lower school in 1949.  She decided to take classes after her husband passed away in 1944.   According to the Eagle, she not only craved an education, tired of signing her name xxx, she also missed being around people.

Brooklyn Eagle, January 27, 1955

Fast forward to 1987 when Daily News Reporter Tony Marcano went undercover as a student in the school.  He reported the school walls, halls and gymnasium were overwhelmed with graffiti, teachers and administrators were unhelpful and the school was grossly overpopulated.  According to his report, when he "dropped out," there was no attempt to keep him as a student.  He felt the school system had failed him, just like they failed many other students.

Today, the graffiti has been cleaned up, and the building has been divided into five, thriving, smaller schools--Academy for College Preparation and Career Exploration: A College Board School; Academy of Hospitality and Tourism; High School for Service & Learning; High School for Youth and Community Development; and Science, Technology and Research Early College School (STAR).  I am working with the last of these, in a sixth grade social studies class.  The students will be completing a research paper about the history of Erasmus.  I cannot wait to see what they come up with!