The real Bernie: Sanders’ Brooklyn high school classmates dish on candidate’s teen years

The Making of a Presidential Candidate
‘Rebel with a cause – Track star, class president, nonconformist’

bernie-sanders2Bernie Sanders from Brooklyn to the White House

The first time Bernie Sanders ran for president, he campaigned on a promise to raise money for Korean War orphans.
It would have been an unusual platform for a candidate eyeing the White House. Coming from a 17-year-old kid vying to become student body president at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School, it was almost unheard of.
“The candidates usually talked about these mundane things that mattered to the students — have better food at the cafeteria, make it easier to get basketball tickets,” recalled his former classmate Steve Slavin, 76.
“Not Bernie. He was a complete nonconformist.”
It turned out that Sanders’ classmates cared more about lunch. But he made such a passionate and convincing case that his rival adopted the cause upon becoming president.

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Bernie Sanders was a popular figure at James Madison High by the time of his 1959 graduation.

The students of James Madison went on to raise as much money as they could for a charity working with South Korean children.
A proud son of Midwood, the chutzpah Sanders displayed in that failed first presidential bid was shaped by a childhood rooted firmly in working-class Brooklyn.
The Sanders family — Bernie, his older brother Larry and his parents Eli and Dorothy — didn’t have much growing up.
They crowded into a tiny, second-floor apartment on E. 26th St., one of the many Jewish families in what was then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.

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Bernie and his brother took turns sleeping in a cramped bedroom or in the living room.

Their father, a paint salesman who emigrated from Poland, struggled to make a steady income. The financial strain was palpable for the Sanders boys.
“Our parents didn’t argue much, but when they did, it was always something connected to money,” said Larry Sanders, 81, who lives in England.
“Not knowing what next month would bring, that has an impact on your family.”

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Sanders stumped Friday in front of his childhood apartment in Brooklyn

The Sanders clan rarely went out to eat. But when they did, they’d often go to a Jewish deli on Kings Highway and nosh on chopped liver, knishes and soup.
They spent long summer days on the beach in Coney Island and occasionally caught Brooklyn Dodgers games at Ebbets Field. On Saturday mornings, the Sanders boys would march to a movie theater on Nostrand Ave. to watch cartoons, serials and cowboy movies.
But the vast majority of Bernie’s childhood was spent playing ball on the street that ran past his building.
After hurtling out of P.S. 197 on Kings Highway, he and his neighborhood buddies would assemble on their block for epic games of baseball, stickball, stoopball, punchball, boxball and basketball.
“We’d be out on the street for hours and hours,” recalled Larry Sanders. “It was the same kids, all the time, for many years.”

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Bernie Sanders’ parents, Eli and Dorothy.

A strong athlete, Bernie Sanders especially excelled in basketball. He helped lead his middle school squad to the borough championship.
But Sanders didn’t make Madison’s vaunted team, a crushing blow for a kid who was always one of the better athletes in his circle growing up.
“It was probably one of the worst things that happened during his childhood,” Slavin said.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise — with more free time on his hands, Sanders started running track.

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Sanders was greeted by an enthusiastic Brooklyn crowd when he returned to his Woodside stomping ground.

He proved to be a natural. Within a year, Sanders, now tall and lanky, was a full-fledged star.
“He was a top ninth-grade runner in the city,” said teammate Lou Howort, 74.
Sanders became the team’s co-captain and broke the record for the mile-run at a meet in Flatbush, according to a clip from the Madison High School newspaper.
Off the track, Sanders was elected president of his senior class in 1959. He was known as a popular student who was serious about his schoolwork and never said a bad word about anyone.

"Looks like Williamsburg is definitely ready to #FeelTheBern! ?? and ?? credit to @rrobots." Bernie Sanders Instagram.
berniesanders via Instagram
“Looks like Williamsburg is definitely ready to #FeelTheBern! ?? and ?? credit to @rrobots.” Bernie Sanders Instagram.

“He was a sweetie pie. Everyone liked him,” said former classmate Walter Block, 74, who added that Sanders was already interested in “very left wing politics.”
By his senior year, Sanders’ mother, who was suffering from a heart condition, was in grave health. He stopped showing up at track practices. And even though he got accepted to the prestigious University of Chicago, he opted to attend Brooklyn College instead.
“His mother’s health had a tremendous impact on him,” Howort said. “He had a chance to go to an elite college in the Midwest, but he didn’t want to leave, which is a very decent thing.”
Prior to his freshman year, Sanders and Slavin moved in together, sharing the attic of a three story private home on E. 21st St. near Farragut Road.

Sanders and his big brother, Larry (r.), growing up in Brooklyn.
Sanders and his big brother, Larry (r.), growing up in Brooklyn.

They paid $80 a month for the roughly 350 square-foot space where Sanders’ phonograph sat on a desk and Slavin’s weights filled the bathroom.
Sanders didn’t drink or smoke. But the pair would often stay up late at night downing half pints of chocolate, vanilla or strawberry ice cream as they discussed everything from their domineering landlord to past Supreme Court cases.
“He was someone who used to sit around and just b——t for hours,” Slavin recalled.
It was a trying year for Sanders. Besides dealing with the stress of watching his mother wither away, he was unimpressed by the faculty and students at Brooklyn College.
‘He would complain that the teachers were dumb and the students didn’t really care,” Block recalled.

Sanders, a teenage track star, was recognized in the James Madison High School yearbook.
Sanders, a teenage track star, was recognized in the James Madison High School yearbook.

Sanders’ mother died in the summer of 1960 at the age of 46. Sanders transferred to University of Chicago following his freshman year. His father died soon after. The house he left behind is now owned by Ivor Williams, a retired Guyanese immigrant who cares little about his home’s famous former occupant.
“I’m a Hillary person,” Williams, 78, said.
But he is amused by all the notoriety the home has received as Sanders’ stock has soared.
“I had a couple of people from Japan who came here the other day saying they wanted to buy the house because Bernie lived here,”
Williams said. Clinton and Sanders will face-off in a debate on Thursday, ahead of the April 19 New York primary.
After leaving for Chicago, Sanders would never live in Brooklyn again.
But his old classmates joke that every time he opens his mouth, there’s no question from where he came.
“He looks a lot different,” Block said, “but his voice hasn’t changed.”

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