Joe Licata contemplated his surroundings while eating a slice of Sicilian-style pizza. The brick storefront along Deer Park Avenue, he observed, looked much different from what he remembered.
Licata was a fourth-grader when this building was used as a classroom annex for the fast-expanding North Babylon community. That was 61 years ago. Now 70, he recently visited the pizzeria that occupies the former makeshift school and dined "right where I used to sit when I was 9." Licata stayed local, married the homecoming queen and has owned the same Deer Park carpet business for 41 years.
To grasp how a strip mall once served as a schoolhouse is to understand Long Island's meteoric growth. Young, postwar families flooded east, trading the narrow streets and cramped stoops of Brooklyn and Queens for the wide-open possibilities along the farmlands of western Suffolk.
When Licata arrived in North Babylon in 1952, he joined a growing cluster of transplanted children -- baby boomers who became fast friends and formed lifelong bonds. "It was a fresh start," said Mike Foran, 70, of Babylon. He met Licata as a schoolboy on a playground. "In Queens, we had nothing. We had a backyard with a clothesline. The garage was in the back."
There was room to grow on Long Island in the 1950s. Deer Park Avenue boomed. When the nearby Babylon School District could no longer handle the burgeoning population of students, North Babylon High School was built and opened its doors in the fall of 1959.
Grammar school friends
Licata and Foran used to walk to grammar school together as kids, holding hands crossing the street. In early December last year, the silver-haired men shared a hearty embrace and overlapping memories when they gathered at Lily Flanagan's Pub in Babylon with other former classmates -- 30 total -- almost all of them among the first graduates of North Babylon High School.
"We were sucking our thumbs when we met each other," said Licata, one of the organizers of what's become a semiannual reunion of sorts. "To grow up with them and remain friends, I think it grounds everyone. Where else can you gather with people -- other than family -- that you've known for 60 years?"
This event shouldn't be mistaken for just another high school reunion. There's a magical quality to these guy-only gatherings (some wives do drop in to say hello at the end). The attendees graduated high school between 1960 and 1967 and some were members of the same high school fraternity, Omega Gamma Delta.
"I think some of the guys come back thinking it's an Omega reunion," joked Kevin Muldowney, 69, a longtime Village of Babylon trustee and its current deputy mayor.
What started out as a foursome at a diner in the 1990s mushroomed into something much more eclectic and wonderful. A golf tournament was added in the summer months, and when more former classmates asked to join, the gatherings took on new life.
"You shake hands, give a guy a hug, and in your mind you're back to 1956, 1960," said Jim Wood, 70, of North Babylon, a retired Suffolk County Police sergeant. "We were different people then. And it was a different time, a good time to grow up in America."
Charlie Spencer, 67, a Class of 1964 graduate who runs the Claude R. Boyd-Spencer Funeral Home, said, "Look around. These are a bunch of fellas who have been successful in life. But what I'm looking at are boys, young boys. That's what's being discussed at these tables: baseball games of yesteryear, first cars, first dates."
Four of the 12 men who turned out for the first event in 1997 have since died. And the names of six former classmates who passed away in 2013 were read off in a somber moment, the only silent pause in an otherwise lively, four-hour luncheon.
The group had buried a good friend, Edwin J. Costello, 70, of Dix Hills, only four days earlier, so much of the conversation inevitably turned to recollections of the Class of 1961 graduate and Vietnam veteran. "We've all been through so much together. You don't forget that," said Bob "Jake" Wickert, 70, of Cape Coral, Fla.
Wickert said he and Costello did tours of duty in Vietnam at the same time, and although they were in different units, they found ways to stay in touch and remained friends long after. When Wickert arrived last month from Florida for the reunion, he planned to see Costello there. Instead, he attended his pal's funeral.
"To lose a friend of 55 years is a very tough thing to have happened," said Frank Lemieux, 69, of Centerport, who shared a house with Costello after high school. The two eventually went into business together.
There was a teary-eyed toast, but the smiles quickly returned. While the group loses friends, it continues to expand. Two years ago, a dentist came up from Virginia. He had been a star athlete and popular teen in North Babylon, but, according to Licata, no one had seen him in 45 years. Turns out, he had taken the advice of an assistant baseball coach and went into dentistry.
The coach shows up
That coach came to the same reunion and finally learned the lifelong impact he'd made on the young athlete. The former coach, teacher and mentor, Bill Angelos, now 79, attended the most recent gathering. And despite his plea to dispense with honorifics, he was greeted warmly, but with formality. "He's Mr. Angelos. Always," Wickert said. "You give him the respect he deserves."
Angelos became a junior high school principal in West Islip before retiring in 1989. His career in education spanned 33 years, but the former history teacher called those early days in North Babylon "special."
"We all reflect about what it was like in those days," said Angelos, the school's first varsity basketball coach. "And those memories are very vivid."
Hofstra University's Corinne Kyriacou called these types of reunions a form of social medicine. "This idea that it propels them back to a time when they were younger -- and brings that vibrance back to their life -- I think from a social perspective, it's probably the best medicine," said Kyriacou, director of the Master of Public Health and Graduate Community Health programs, which focus on aging-related issues.
"One of the most important things from a research perspective to stay healthy is social interaction," she added. "You can have the best health care in the world. But if you don't have the social support system, then it can really affect you. Not just emotionally, but even your immune system."
The newest member of the North Babylon social circle is John Hartz, 67, of Deer Park. He went to the now-closed St. Agnes Cathedral High School in Rockville Centre but grew up in the same neighborhood as the guys at the luncheon. And he does have a direct connection to North Babylon High School: He became its principal.
His attendance is significant because, as the number of friends and classmates from the original group diminishes, the only way to keep the gathering strong is to recruit younger members. If Hartz's broad smile from his station at the "kids table" was any indication, he'll be back.
"Some day the older fellas aren't going to be here anymore," Spencer said. "We have to keep this going."
Those first graduates from North Babylon High School seem to appreciate each other more as years pass. "I love every one of these guys here," said another of the event's founders, Bill Sullivan, 70, of West Islip. "I personally grew up with 15 of the guys here, from the third grade on, so they are like brothers to me."
How to join
Joe Licata, an organizer of the twice-annual North Babylon High School gatherings, said the group welcomes newcomers -- as long as they graduated between 1960 and 1967. These are guys-only luncheons and golf outings. To inquire about joining and dates of events, contact Licata by email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Jim Wood, email@example.com.