Walking through a first-floor, artfully decorated condominium, Steven Mazurek pointed toward the floor and said, “I sat right here. It was seventh grade. This was my first time in the building.”
He was recalling his printing class in the old Union High School, just as some of his classmates were recalling their school days there, too. Members of the Union Class of 1967 — the last class to graduate from the old school at 615 Turner Ave. NW — took a 50th reunion tour of their old haunt, now the hip Union Square condominium complex.
Every turn of the corner through narrowed hallways, and every peek into a former classroom outfitted with artwork and tasteful furniture, seemed to prompt a new memory.
“This is the roof of the gym, right here,” said Jim Eastman, looking up at a high ceiling in an airy second-floor condo. “I used to wrestle down there,” he added, pointing to a corner.
Becky Knack, who began her long career in education here as a young English teacher, looked through a window onto the interior courtyard and pointed to a walkout balcony filled with brightly colored chairs.
“That was my classroom, right there,” Knack said, then put her hand to her heart and smiled. “I loved being here.”
So did many other of the 30 or so alumni who took the tour provided by Union Square residents, as part of a larger reunion held at The Knickerbocker brewpub nearby. For most, it was the first time they’d been in the old Union building since it closed as a high school in early 1968, relocating students to its current site at 1800 Tremont Blvd. NW.
“This is spectacular,” said Inta (Silins) Malis, who came from Arlington, Virginia, as she toured a light-filled unit with original hardwood floors. “Nobody builds buildings like this anymore. This building is so beautiful, it’s a work of art.”
The fact it has been so lovingly preserved was a big reason reunion organizers arranged the tour. Marsha (Olivier) Hoffman had gotten a mini-tour earlier this year at a resident’s wine party. The beautiful condos and nostalgic touches like blackboards and lockers convinced her a tour would be perfect.
“They have done so well with the preservation, that you can just feel it, you can sense it,” said Hoffman, who adored Becky Knack and the library. Many students back then thought it would be torn down, with its creaky floors and drafty windows, she said.
“The freeway just went right around that old building,” she said of nearby U.S. 131, for which many buildings and homes were demolished. “It was meant to stay, I guess.”
The building continued as West Middle School until those students relocated to Westwood Middle School. It also housed programs such as community education and Native American Services before being sold to the condominium developers in 2004.
Longtime Union Square residents Brian and Erica Van Ee organized the tour of four of the building’s 187 condos. They also rented out to Steven and Diane (Jonusas) Mazurek their Airbnb, The Loft at Union Square, from which they donate 25 percent of their proceeds to neighborhood nonprofits. “We believe the school is a public trust that should be shared,” Erica said.
Close Community Bonds
The Mazureks helped organize the reunion from their Chicago-area home by tracking down as many of the class’ nearly 350 members as they could. Fifty have died, another 50 couldn’t be found, and 52 attended the reunion, along with spouses, partners and a few teachers.
It was definitely a labor of love for the couple, for Union is where they met. They celebrate their 47th anniversary this week.
“We met in choir our sophomore year,” Diane recalled warmly. “Steve sat behind me and kept kicking my chair, and I thought, ‘Man, is this guy annoying.”
She coyly admitted they were “caught necking” a couple of times in the choir room. Steven was able to locate the scene of the crime on the tour.
Their memories of Union are of a close-knit community of West Side students, many from immigrant families like theirs. Diane was born in a West German displaced persons camp after World War II, and her Lithuanian family came here as refugees. Steven’s Ukrainian grandparents immigrated to Grand Rapids in 1906, and their children began a long line of Union students.
“All the immigrants were there,” Steven said. “Everybody watched out for everybody. … If you did get into trouble, your parents knew about it before you got home.”
He started at Union in seventh grade, and said he enjoyed his studies from printing and woodworking to physics and chemistry. His and Diane’s chemistry teacher, Bruce Nichols, later walked her down the aisle at their wedding. But their common love was choir: He was president and she accompanied on piano. Directed by Norman Bradley, their Varsity Choir sang in churches, nursing homes and downtown’s Civic Auditorium.
Earning degrees at Michigan State, both worked for Ameritech until they retired. They talk fondly of the place where they met, sang and went to proms together.
“I just loved being there,” Diane said.
Coming From Near and Far
At the reunion tour they were joined by Christiane (Ostler) Hacker, who was a German exchange student in 1967. She came from Munich to visit her daughter’s family in Virginia, but made time to be with classmates she said were gracious and helpful.
“They never treated me like a foreigner, like a stranger,” she said. “They treated me like one of them. This makes me so grateful.”
Coming from much nearer was class President Tom Oumedian, whose condo at River House overlooks the school. He was pleased to see so many classmates from long ago.
“Reunions in and of themselves are nostalgic,” said Oumedian, a pharmacist. “But when you’re actually in the building that you graduated in, and you were the last graduating class with this building, it makes it double special.”
At tour’s end, Oumedian led his classmates in a toast in a room next to the rooftop swimming pool. Representatives from the Student Advancement Foundation and Grand Rapids Community Foundation chimed in.
Audrey (Snider) Maskill, Union’s 1967 Homecoming queen, remembered sitting in geometry class watching the freeway being built out the window. And she talked of playing flute in marching band, trooping in uniform down the school steps on the way to Friday night football games.
“It’s like I just shed 50 years, and I’m 17, 18,” she said with a smile. “Nothing but good times.”