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Great Neck South's alumni recall drive to replace Confederate flag at high school

A Great Neck South High School bumper sticker

A Great Neck South High School bumper sticker from when students used the Confederate battle flag as their symbol. In the early 1980s, David Gurfein and other students led a movement to replace the rebel flag as a school symbol. Credit: Facebook

Widespread calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse and other public venues stirred former Long Island students' memories of when they repudiated the banner -- as a symbol of Great Neck South High School's Rebels.

In a flurry of Facebook messages this week, members of the school's Class of 1983 recalled how they came together to end its use more than three decades ago.

For years, the Civil War flag had embodied school spirit and a certain swagger at the school that opened in 1958, establishing its new identity as distinct from the Nassau County district's original high school, now Great Neck North.

"In keeping with the 'Southern secession' theme, the teams were innocently named the Rebels, the mascot was a Confederate soldier, the Confederate battle flag was flown at sports events, parades, and homecoming rallies, and jackets, T-shirts, bumper stickers, hats, etc. . . . were all adorned with the Confederate battle flag," recalled David Gurfein, 50, in a Facebook post Monday.

The June 17 killings of nine African-Americans at a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has put the battle flag -- and its display -- at the center of emotional controversy. The 21-year-old man arrested in the slayings had posted a lengthy racist manifesto on a personal website, along with photographs of himself posing with the flag and white supremacist symbols.

For the students at Great Neck South, the flag held more associations with the popular television series "The Dukes of Hazzard" than with virulent racism. Roy Niederhoffer, now a well-known hedge fund manager and philanthropist, was co-editor of the school newspaper, The Southerner. "It's hard to remember today, when Googling 'Confederate Flag symbolism' is so easy, how much effort it took to get important information like this," he said.

'Oblivious to the heritage'

"No one I am aware of associated any hate with the symbol," Gurfein, who lives in Manhasset and Alexandria, Virginia, said in an interview. "We'd be waving these flags around completely oblivious to the heritage of the flag. To us, it represented the school spirit and pride we had for our teams."

As captain and quarterback of the Rebels football team, he wore a hand towel emblazoned with the battle flag tucked into his waistband.

That changed in his junior year, after he came across a photograph showing an Alabama Ku Klux Klan group, training for a "race war" and posing with guns in front of a Confederate battle flag. The picture accompanied a story published a year earlier in The New York Times.

Seeing that image, Gurfein said, made clear the flag's connection to hatred and racism.

"For me, it finally CLICKED," he wrote in his Facebook post. "All the reading in the world wasn't able to impact me the way that one image did."

The football team -- which won its division championship in fall 1982 -- was a cohesive group. Many of the members had known one another since early childhood, and they were a tight mix of different races, ethnicities and religions -- white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant. They all wore the Confederate flag patches on their uniforms.

But when Gurfein went into school after seeing the photo, his mind was set. He spoke with Gilbert Blum, then the school's principal, who encouraged him in his mission to change the symbol. Blum, he said, wasn't optimistic it could be done.

An alternate logo

Gurfein came up with an alternative: A Revolutionary War soldier would represent the Rebel, and the flag would become the Spirit of '76.

His art teacher, Robert Printz, now retired, recalled in an interview seeing Gurfein work on the new logo in his advertising design class.

"Gil Blum wanted for years to change that symbol," Printz said, but hadn't been able to sway his students. "The administrators and schoolteachers were very much behind this."

Darren Pirozzi, a classmate who now is an attorney in San Diego, said he didn't think the Confederate images were official school symbols. School administrators, he said, "didn't promote it, but they allowed us to do it. It was an uneasy truce."

No one recalled much resistance to making the change once Gurfein explained his thinking and presented the new mascot.

"With input from the class, we found a motivational logo that everyone could be enthusiastic about," said Gurfein, a businessman who retired as a lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Marine Corps. "The students started putting it on hats and shirts, and the principal allowed me to paint a mural that is there to this day."

Raphael Wong, 50, of Great Neck, said he was one of a handful of Asian-Americans in the school then, and probably the first to play varsity baseball, football and basketball. He never felt out of place, he said. "It just didn't matter to us."

So when Gurfein pushed to end the use of the Confederate imagery, Wong said, "I think it was an easy transition, because once people understood what it truly stood for, it didn't represent us as a class."

Classmate Jodi Yedvab, 50, agreed that students hadn't considered what the flag "really symbolized and all the people who had been oppressed. Then you think about it: The black players were wearing that flag on their uniforms. I think we were naive."

Several African-Americans played on the football team, including Quinn Early, who later was a wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints, Buffalo Bills and the Jets, and Earl Beecham, who played for the Giants.

Early, in an interview from San Diego, where he now works as a Hollywood stuntman and on an Internet start-up, said he didn't realize the extent of racial issues in the country until he left the "bubble" of Great Neck for college.

An eye-opener on racism

The discussion those years ago about the flag "was the beginning of an education for me," he said. "I've been successful in sports and in business -- and even so, racism can still sometimes hit me in the face like a pie on a 'Three Stooges' episode."

Kenneth Brown, 50, who, like Yedvab, still lives in Great Neck, was another black player who said the school's inclusive atmosphere had protected him from a deeper awareness of the Confederate battle flag's historical context.

"I didn't even know what racism was until I was about 19," he said. "In Great Neck, we had a tight group and we're still very tight. We were so oblivious to it."

Last week, he pulled his old football jacket out of the closet. The big battle flag was printed on the back. It was a bit of a shock to see it, Brown said.

"I'm like 'Wow,' " he said. "It's a very fun time in my past, but the symbol is something that's against my heritage. Partly you feel like you were just bamboozled. That's like me running around saying 'Yay, slavery.' "

He laughed, looking at the jacket for the first time in years. "We even helped design these jackets," he said. "Oh man. Oh my goodness. Whoa."

Now, Gurfein said, his class deserves credit for what they did more than 30 years ago.

"We will never be perfect, but we will keep going in the right direction," he said. "That's what our founding fathers gave us the opportunity to do."

In his Facebook post, Gurfein ended with this: "I am certain if a bunch of high school kids can initiate and enact such change, well-educated and insightful grownups in America can do the same. ONE AMERICA!"

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