Durfee alums, including Carl and Sander Levin, draw on their past memories, eager to help Detroit kids succeed.

Photography by Erin Kirkland

Earlier this month, I had the privilege to witness brothers Carl, 85, and Sander Levin, 88, enjoy a touching reunion with a handful of their Durfee Intermediate School classmates, class of 1949. It was made even more emotional because it took place in a beautiful refurbished hallway of the architectural gem they called their educational home on Collingwood in Detroit, just south of Central High School.

This was no ordinary reunion, nothing like the ones usually reserved for a suburban hotel banquet hall. It was a planning meeting and prelude to a much larger reunion and event scheduled for Nov. 7 at the school, now called the Durfee Innovation Society (DIS). DIS, through a partnership with Detroit-based nonprofit Life Remodeled, began breathing life into the shuttered school in 2017, billing it as a “hub of opportunity for children, students and adults.”

The Jewish News, along with CKC Agency and Star Trax Valet, are partners in the upcoming fundraising event.

Former U.S. Sen. Carl and Congressman Sander Levin relive their days at Durfee Intermediate School through old yearbooks. Now called Durfee Innovation Society, the building in Detroit, Mich., will be renamed after the Levin brothers and Jim Comer, a Detroit philanthropist. It now houses the newest Metro Detroit Youth Clubs site and many other social service organizations.

The Levins and Jim Comer, Detroit philanthropist and founder of Comer Holdings LLC, headquartered in Southfield, will be honored at an official dedication ceremony celebrating the opening of the newest Metro Detroit Youth Clubs (MDYC) to be housed within the DIS. The club, which will bear the three gentlemen’s names, will be the organization’s fifth area club, joining others in Ferndale, Royal Oak, Southfield and Washington Township.

The humble, distinguished longtime U.S. senator and congressman agreed to lend their names to the club with assurances it would be dedicated to making a difference in the lives of Detroit children and the community at large, building a bridge from the advantages they enjoyed in the past to a more promising future. It was equally imperative to the Levins that the new club include and be named in recognition of a representative of the Detroit African American community. In Jim Comer, the Levins knew a great choice had been made.

For 60 years, MDYC’s mission has been to empower youth to reach their full potential through quality programs. Serving more than 2,200 members age 6-18, the clubs are open weekdays after school, Saturdays for specialized programming and throughout the summer from early morning to evening.

Carl and Sander Levin on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019 at Durfee School.

Advancing academic achievement, career exploration, financial literacy, character building, leaderships skills, civic engagement and sports are just a few of the educational and life skills opportunities made available to the children on a daily basis.

The clubs are led by a team of full- and part-time professionals, supported by a 24-member Board of Trustees comprised of business and community leaders, plus hundreds of volunteers who serve as tutors and academic mentors.

Now, the newest Levin-Comer club location, within the same decades-old walls of Durfee that provided Carl, Sander and the predominately Jewish student body a safe and nurturing environment years ago, will inspire a future generation of greatness for under-served children in Detroit.

“To the extent our careers can be an inspiration, that’s a great reward,” Carl said. “It makes me very happy to think that’s a possibility because these kids deserve the same opportunity we had.” Added Sander: “Durfee was so much a part of our growing up. I salute this club for helping to take the memories and build them into the lives of others.”

That there is much work to be done is a vast understatement. MDYC CEO Brett Tillander stunned us with the recent MSTEP (Michigan’s standardized assessment test) reading scores that indicated only 1.2 percent of third graders at the Central High School building just north of Durfee (now a K-12 school) met the state’s reading standards.

Congressman Sander Levin rests his hand on memorabilia during an interview that also includes his brother former Sen. Carl Levin on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019 at Durfee School.

The Levins’ participation with the Metro Detroit Youth Clubs is not an isolated event. It comes on the heels of years of support to the organization. Tillander fondly recalls “Sander playing basketball with our kids over the decades, while Carl has often welcomed and championed our members over the years.”

The idea for creating the Levin-Comer Club at the Durfee location was first generated by former Garden Fresh Gourmet founder Jack Aronson. He is an MDYC board member, and the club’s Ferndale location is named in honor of him and his wife, Annette. After touring and falling in love with the Durfee Innovation Society, Aronson informed Tillander the site was “a must-see” for future MDYC consideration.

At the same time, Aronson shared his enthusiasm with Carolyn Krieger, owner of CKC Agency, the Farmington Hills-based public relations firm he’s partnered with for years. Turns out Krieger’s parents, Winnie (Goldberg) and Aaron Krieger of Farmington Hills, both 85 and childhood sweethearts married for 66 years, are lifelong friends of Carl’s and part of his graduating class of 1949.

Throw in the fact that Carolyn is a huge reunion enthusiast, having organized her own sixth-grade class get-togethers for years and, well, connect the dots and you have yourself an incredible event for the MDYC on Nov. 7 that will profoundly impact the futures of Detroit students for generations to come.

The Kriegers, plus fellow Durfee ’49 classmates Ruby (Fischer) Fridson of Farmington Hills, Martin Magid of Bloomfield Hills and Herb Saperstein of Novi, were on hand at Durfee to reminisce about their school days ahead of the November event. Until this meeting, all three had not walked through the doors of Durfee in 70 years.

Along with the Levins, they gathered around a table in a small room adjacent to the Durfee library, where memories of chocolate phosphates, city buses as the only form of school transportation, lifelong friendships, WWII and FDR’s death were just a few of the vivid word pictures being painted by these 85-year-old “students.”

“I’ll tell you one other story,” said Sander Levin, talking about one unforgettable day on the playground at Durfee. “It was just behind the school. Carl and I were here, and I liked to kick footballs. Carl would hold the football and I would kick it.” Carl chimed in: “You know, extra points.”

“So, we were practicing extra points,” Sander continued. “Then we went home, and our parents told us,” Sander said, pausing before sharing the haunting news that awaited him and his brother. It turns out on that day, while 10-year old Sander was innocently kicking footballs being held by his 7-year old brother Carl, the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor.

On a much lighter note, Martin took home the award for funniest memory when he admitted he made a buzzer-beating half-court shot for the Durfee intramural basketball team. “The ball went swish,” Martin said, “right through the net … for the opposing team.”

At the end of the visit, it was to a person, as Aaron Krieger described, “great to be back in the hallowed halls of Durfee.” Added his wife, Winnie: “It’s also great to know that the Jewish community that benefited so positively from the foundation that Durfee provided us as children can now help pay it forward.”

As the mini-reunion began to break up, Tillander proudly informed the gathering that “those hallways and nearly every classroom in the DIS, including the 35,000 square feet dedicated to the MDYC, are now occupied by counseling, literacy and entrepreneurial programs.”

“Durfee,” Tillander concluded, “once filled with the energy and promise of our Greatest Generation is filled once more with hope and opportunity for the next greatest generation. We are so proud that Carl and Sander Levin, Jim Comer and the Durfee alumni are on this journey with us.”

Metro Detroit Youth Clubs Dedication Luncheon honoring former Sen. Carl Levin, Congressman Sander Levin and Detroit philanthropist Jim Comer will be held 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, at the Durfee Innovation Society, 2470 Collingwood, Detroit. Tickets for Durfee alumni, friends, family and the community: $55 one ticket or $100 for two. Event includes lunch, school tours and complimentary valet parking. For tickets or to donate, visit miclubs.org or call 888-MI-CLUBS (888-642-5827).

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