The Spectator Meets With 101-Year-Old Stuyvesant Alumnus Milton Fechter (‘38)
Issue 14, Volume 113
Milton Fechter (’38) is a 101-year-old Stuyvesant alumnus living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Spectator sat down with him in an interview to discuss Fechter’s Stuyvesant experience, career path, and life at 101.
Though 83 years have passed, Fechter is still nostalgic for and passionate about his time at Stuyvesant. “You could play ball maybe for two hours in the street before some vehicle would come along,” Fechter said. Fechter acknowledges that times were simpler back then as opposed to the hustle and bustle of New Yorkers today. “I went to Stuyvesant and the three years that I spent there from 1935 to 1938 are the happiest years of my life,” Fechter added, noting that the skills he learned there are still valuable today.
Growing up during the Great Depression, Fechter saw the effects of the crisis first-hand. “A dozen eggs were 10 or 12 cents. A roll was one penny. A big tomato was a penny. A cucumber was a penny. A banana was a penny. A penny was money,” said Fechter. However, he notes that, as a teenager, the economic downturn wasn’t at the forefront of his thoughts; rather, the Depression affected his childhood in subtle ways. “There was a [teacher named] Dr. Brody. Dr. Brody was only [there] because of the Depression. He had two PhDs, one in math and one in physics. But during the Depression, he grabbed whatever job he could, you know?” Like Dr. Brody, teachers would work multiple jobs to make ends meet, with some teaching at Stuyvesant by day and at universities by night.
His peers shared similar experiences, as there was little money in circulation at that time. “A girl used to work six days a week in the back of a store as a bookkeeper for $7 a week. That’s [also] why you were able to get such teachers like [Dr.] Brody and others. They were actually college-level instructors with two PhDs, but he stayed with Stuyvesant and did some good work I hear through the years,” Fechter said.
Even at 101 years old, Fechter has an incredible memory and has no problem remembering the names of all the teachers and administrators present back then. “We had a wonderful principal. His name was Sinclair Jay Wilson. And if anybody was a perfect gentleman, it was Sinclair Jay Wilson. You could learn manners from [him]––all of us kids from the East Side could always use manners,” Fechter joked.
After graduating from Stuyvesant, Fechter went on to graduate from City College in 1942. “There was no fee, no fee at all,” Fechter said of his alma mater’s program. He claimed that the only admission requirement for his class was a GPA above 90. Unfortunately, City College didn’t turn out to be all he had hoped for. “[The teachers at City College] acted so snotty to us, which they didn’t do at Stuyvesant,” Fechter said. “It’s nice to be treated nice.”
In 1941, America entered World War II, which Fechter remembers vividly. “I came into the [dean’s] office. There were four men there. One I recognized right away. He had been in charge of Pearl Harbor. It was Rear Admiral Yunel,” Fechter said. Being an engineering student, his talents were highly sought after, as the Navy lacked young engineers. Fechter began working as a mechanical engineer for the Navy’s shipyards. While the salary wasn’t bad––$52 a week––there was one thing in particular that won him over. “The thing that got me was when the dean of the college said [I] don’t have to take the final exams. That sold me right away because the final exams at City College can give you nervous breakdowns,” Fechter said.
After a year and a half working for the Navy, Fechter moved on to the private sector. “Engineers have to wait for big companies, and since they’re individualists, no one joins a union. [That’s why] they don’t make the type of money that a doctor or lawyer does,” Fechter said. Fechter found a different source of income when his engineering ventures did not turn out to be incredibly profitable. “Yeah, I didn’t make money in engineering. But I made money [from] rebuilding buildings on my own,” Fetcher reflected.
After an eventful career, Fechter has settled down and is enjoying retirement. His house is filled to the brim with books and newspapers, and he describes himself as an avid reader. He also has formed relationships with his neighbors, all of whom describe him as a talkative and kind man. When asked if he has any advice for current Stuyvesant students, Fechter said, “Don’t be in a hurry [...] Take everything in, and at the same time, build yourself a rounded life outside [of Stuyvesant]. In other words, study hard, develop friendships, play ball, you know, the things like that.”