What do Democratic presidential contender and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, singer-songwriter Carole King, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Judge Judith (“Judge Judy”) Sheindlin have in common?
They are graduates of Brooklyn’s James Madison High School. Somehow, the public school nestled on Bedford Avenue between Avenue P and Quentin Road has produced three U.S. senators, four Nobel Prize winners and an eye-opening list of other graduates who have made major contributions to society.
The school has selected honorees for its 2016 Wall of Distinction, former Madison alumni association president Richard Kossoff told me. They include food critic Arthur Schwartz, renowned physicist and mathematician Barry Simon, screenwriter Roger Schulman, who co-wrote “Shrek,” and the late David “Sonny” Werblin, the NY Jets owner who brought Joe Namath to the team.
“People always ask me, was there something in the water?” said Kossoff. “I tell them the real key was middle- and working-class parents . . . who stressed education so that their kids could do better than they did.”
Past honorees include former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, radio personality Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow and health journalist Jane Brody.
Through the years, Madison High has tried to live up to its namesake’s belief: “Education is the true foundation of civil liberty.” Honorees talk about two things: a particular teacher who affected their lives, and the unique experience of growing up in Brooklyn.
When New York Sen. and Madison graduate Chuck Schumer attended the award ceremonies, he said, “We received two degrees at Madison: an academic degree, and one in street smarts, which served us well over our lifetimes.”
Kossoff founded the Wall of Distinction in 2001 to assure that these grads who had a positive influence are never forgotten. James Madison students look at the wall of neighborhood kids who achieved so much and are inspired.
Kossoff told me a student quietly studied the names on the wall recently, then asked, “Were they rich?” Kossoff said, “No. They were smart and they worked hard.” She thought for a moment, then said, “That’s what I’m going to do.”
Playwright Mike Vogel blogs at newyorkgritty.net.