Oldest living Weequahic graduate tells all
Roddy Shill studied an enlargement of her photograph from the 1934 Weequahic High School (WHS) yearbook. Her hair was neatly set in waves, and she was wearing a blouse with a ruffled, high collar. She smiled and said, “That’s a very nice picture. I wish I looked like that now.”
It has been 84 years since that photo from Weequahic’ s first graduating class was taken, and at the age of 100, she can be forgiven for not having a clear memory of the moment. After all, “I only went to Weequahic for a year,” she said. “Before that I went to Central.”
Shill was born Rosalind Savad on Dec. 17, 1916, and grew up in the Weequahic section of Newark before there was a Weequahic High School. She said it was an hour-long bus ride from her home to Central High School on High Street in the city’s Seventh Ward. When she transferred to WHS for her senior year on the school’s opening day, the long commute became a 12-block walk.
She said the first day at her new school was “very exciting. Everybody there had something to say, but I can’t remember what I said.”
The words beneath her high school photo list a variety of extra-curricular activities: president of the Photoplay club and membership in several others, including Swimming, Domestic Science, and Business. She was also listed as a Patrol and an Usher at graduation. But Roddy remembers her after-school life much differently.
“I used to work with my father when I came out of school so I didn’t do too much activity. I went to school, went home, and went to work,” she said, reminiscing from her room at The Chelsea at Bridgewater, an assisted living facility where she has lived for the past 11 years.
Her teenage years came at the height of the Great Depression. Her family had no money to send her to the prom or to college, or even to buy a copy of the yearbook, which was called “The Wigwam.” After she received her Weequahic diploma, Roddy became a secretary at different offices in Newark.
Throughout the decades she maintained a close-knit circle of eight girlfriends who kept in touch with one another until they began dying off. They referred to themselves as the “Cosmos Girls,” a nickname for their self-described clique, the Cosmopolitan Club. “I used to see them all the time,” she said, recalling several of their names, such as Florence Gannon, Jill Rosenthal, and Eleanor Leavitt. “They were lovely.”
Being Jewish “was what was expected in our neighborhood, but we had our candy store, Savad’s, in a gentile neighborhood in Maplewood. I was outnumbered,” she said jokingly. “But it didn’t matter to me, I got along with everybody.”
Roddy recalled her polite, well-behaved classmates, as well as having travelled widely throughout Europe with her sister, Molly. Shortly after graduating high school, Roddy married Benjamin Shill, a gynecologist with a practice in Newark. He had two daughters, Susan and Nancy, from a previous marriage, and later the couple had another, Paula.
They moved from the Clinton Hill section of Newark to Van Meltzer Place off Chancellor Avenue in Weequahic so that the two older girls could attend WHS.
Susan Shill Gardos, who graduated in the class of 1958, now lives in the Boston area. She attended the University of Wisconsin and is retired as a librarian at the Russian Research Center at Harvard University. She said she remembers Weequahic as “very Jewish,” and the school as “fairly competitive.”
“Everybody seemed to be smart,” Gardos said. “The girls seemed to be pretty and the boys seemed to be handsome. I don’t think we appreciated it at the time but it was a great community.”
Her sister, Nancy Shill, graduated from Weequahic in 1961. “It was a big Jewish neighborhood and it was the only high school in the world as far as I was concerned,” said Shill. “It was beautiful and we had very high scholastic standards. Everyone went to college. But when Roddy went there they didn’t expect the women to go to college, just the men.”
Nancy lives in Wrightstown, Pa., and has worked as a computer programmer. She is also painter, violinist, and guitarist who enjoys playing the music of early American composers “as well as the military songs and college anthems my father enjoyed,” she told NJJN.
Paula Shill Nicolai is the daughter of Roddy and Benjamin. Her family had moved to Springfield by the time she was a teenager and she graduated from Jonathan Dayton High School. She now lives in Califon, where she is a retired teacher of hearing-impaired children.
While geography limits Gardos’s visits to her stepmother, Shill, Nicolai, and some of Roddy’s seven grandchildren visit her on a regular basis.
Asked whether she considers her life to be a happy one, Roddy shrugged.
“Nowadays, everything in the world has changed,” she said. “Some of it I like. Some of it I don’t. But I don’t follow politics too much.”
“Don’t get her started,” warned Nicolai, sitting by her side, fearing that her mother might launch into a diatribe about current times.
For her 100th birthday last December, “I didn’t get too excited, and nobody else did,” Roddy said.
“I don’t know about that,” said Shill. “We had a big party. We had about 60 people. They came from all over. They came from Maryland. They came from California.”
Roddy smiled. “I was happy. I saw people I hadn’t seen in years. It was great.”