In 1963, dozens of elementary school students at the John F. Bermingham School in Oyster Bay predicted what the world might be like in the far-off 21st century. Some imaginings were outlandish. “When the father goes to work, his car can fold into a briefcase,” wrote one. “Fish will be able to live on the ground,” wrote another.
But some essays were spot on. “Our vehicles, such as cars . . . will run by themselves!” And, “Scientists might invent robots that do your work for you.”
The prophecies and drawings of 160 students were sealed in a time capsule for nearly four decades and opened January 2001. Since then, the capsule and its contents have been in the Plainview home of retired Oyster Bay-East Norwich elementary school teacher Richard Siegelman, whose goal has been to locate the former students who contributed their depictions of the future, and return the childhood treasures.
Siegelman has had little success, yet he couldn’t bring himself to throw away their past. “I was the last remaining Bermingham teacher still working in the district,” said Siegelman, who is 72. “When I retired, I took it home with me,” he said of the time capsule. “I sort of feel I’m the keeper.”
In 2009, he had hoped to find students by having the capsule’s contents scanned and uploaded to the district’s website (see box); 93 pages showed close-ups of the contents, but there were few takers, if any. Spurred by a recent conversation with a former colleague and refusing defeat, Siegelman is once again searching for the students, who are now in their late 50s and early 60s.
This time, he reached out to Newsday for help and the result was almost immediate.
“You’re kidding me,” said Kevin Franznick, 61, of Locust Valley, when a reporter called to tell him that an essay he wrote when he was 8 and in third grade still exists. “I remember it well,” he said of the time capsule project.
“Oh, how cool,” said Danae Ginas Flood, a second-grader back then, now 60 and living in Huntington. “A buried time capsule that they actually dug up and saved.”
Time capsules are not new. The idea is to collect items of a certain time period, entomb them and then reveal the contents at some future date. Often, capsules are used by organizations to mark the opening of a building, an anniversary or other special event. “It’s a very common phenomenon,” said William Jarvis, author of “Time Capsules: A Cultural History.” And while “buried” is the term most used to describe storage of a capsule, they are frequently placed within a building cornerstone or elsewhere, above ground. In fact, they shouldn’t be buried, Jarvis said, because of the risk of water damage or possibility that the location could be forgotten.
The Bermingham capsule is the size of a breadbox and made of copper. In 1963, it marked the opening of the new school that was constructed the year before. Included with the works of some of the 450 students who were the first to enroll at Bermingham was the Oyster Bay High School handbook with student guidelines: “Girls will not be permitted to attend classes if dressed in slacks” and “Dungarees or ‘bluejeans’ are not considered proper attire for boys.”
Siegelman joined the Bermingham faculty in 1966 and doesn’t know whether the time capsule was actually buried. The school was closed in 1982 and razed in the 1990s; houses were built on the 11-plus acre property. He learned about the capsule in 2000, when the district issued a news release saying it would be opened and invited former students and teachers to the unveiling. “I was curious what was in it,” Siegelman said. At a school assembly, metal shards went flying as the box was opened with a circular saw, recalled Siegelman, who was master of ceremonies at the event.
Siegelman retired in 2003 after 37 years with the school district. He loved teaching and has a collection of more than 200 T-shirts — many were gifts — related to topics such as math and reading. Last November, he was chatting with longtime music teacher Steve Walker about the time capsule, and was inspired to give his mission another shot, so he contacted Newsday.
Siegelman and his wife, Laura, 69, an artist, have no children (just his roughly 1,000 students, he says), but he thinks even the parents of kids who were part of the time capsule project would like to have their children’s work.
It can be a kick for the former students, too. On his own, Siegelman located Peter Dunn, 61, of Farmingville, a carpenter who was in third grade when he wrote an essay for the time capsule. He plans to frame it and hang it in his home. “It’s just a keepsake from a good time in my life,” Dunn said.
With a reporter’s help, Siegelman made phone contact with Kevin Franznick, who works for a nonprofit. Franznick said he often wondered what had happened to the capsule. “I don’t even remember what I wrote about,” he told Siegelman.
“I’m going to read it to you right now,” Siegelman said. Franznick’s essay ended with, “Not long ago I flew by jet to Chicago. I wonder how I will travel in the year 2000.”
Franznick’s memory clicked immediately. “My grandparents were in Chicago,” he said. “I remember when I flew on the jet, I got a little set of wings.”
He and Siegelman made plans to meet at a diner so Siegelman could return Franznick’s work. “It’s kind of neat,” Franznick said, “hearing your own voice from 53 years ago.”
Are you in the Bermingham time capsule?
Drawings, essays and pictures stored in the 1963 Bermingham School time capsule can be viewed at obenschools.org by clicking “Quick links,” then “Bermingham Time Capsule.”
Included on the website is a list of 160 students who contributed something to the capsule — from Charles Abbate to Jane Zinman — and candid shots of children in classrooms.
The website also has a five-page missive recalling everything that retired teacher Richard Siegelman knows about the capsule. Siegelman, who is guardian of the box and its contents, wrote, “So, if YOU ARE one of the 160 former Bermingham School time capsule (former) “kids” whom I will list alphabetically at the end of this letter, and would like to retrieve your personal historical ‘artifact,’ I hope you will contact me at my email address (email@example.com). Or if you are one of their relatives, friends, or neighbors, I would welcome your contacting me on their behalf too.”