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The six Philadelphia mayoral candidates have achieved great success throughout their lives. Lynne Abraham has been the city’s district attorney, Tony Williams is a state senator, Jim Kenney has introduced legislation for environmental and gay rights as a City Councilman and so on. But at one point all of them were teenagers. They joined geeky clubs. They worked hard to pay their own way through school or for extracurricular activities. They played football. And Williams rocked an afro Dr. J would envy.

Billy Penn collected yearbook photos for all of the candidates (except Milton Street, though we tried) and talked to many of them about their high school lives. Come take a walk into the 50s, 60s, 70s and 90s, and learn more about the Philadelphia mayoral candidates’ formative years.

Lynne Abraham

Germantown High School, 1958

In 1958, people were…

  • Listening to “Poor Little Fool” by Ricky Nelson
  • Awed by the U.S. launching its first satellite into space
  • Watching the movie “Vertigo”
  • Paying three cents for a stamp

Abraham remembers Germantown as a working-class community where most of the teenagers were strivers. “I felt very comfortable with my classmates and they with me in that we all wanted the things our parents didn’t have,” she told Billy Penn. “That was sort of a shared sense of mission. We were out to do good and change the world and be successful.”

Abraham worked part-time jobs at a soda fountain and as a babysitter to save up for class trips to West Point her junior year and Washington D.C. her senior year. She took part in after-school activities, like the slide-rule club. Fellow Germantown High math lovers would get together and solve problems with these measuring devices.

She also served in student government as a class senator. Abraham wasn’t thinking politics that early, though. She says she had no idea about her potential career as a high schooler, aside from briefly thinking about being a physician. But, she says, “I just didn’t know if I had a path to get there. We had no money, we were just a working-class, blue-collar family. … I was a female. I was Jewish. And being female and Jewish, it was not a welcoming time at that time for medical school.”

Nelson Diaz

Rice High School, Harlem, N.Y., 1965

In 1965, people were…

  • Listening to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” by the Righteous Brothers
  • Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and 2,600 others demonstrating for civil rights in Selma, Ala.
  • Watching “The Sound of Music,” starring Julie Andrews, in theaters
  • Paying an average of $21,500 for a new house

Diaz worked every day after school for National Messenger Services so he could pay the $800 yearly tuition at Rice and help support his family. For the job, he walked or took public transit all over the city and beyond, delivering messages, needing to transport them faster than a car could. Sometimes this work brought him as far as Baltimore. Diaz would take the train down, meet another employee at the station in Baltimore and then hop on another train right back to New York. When his workdays ended, he had made $5 for four hours of work.

Diaz says he didn’t take school seriously until he was a sophomore. Not completely fluent in English until around third grade, he remembers the lessons and guidance from Harlem mentors like Negro Leagues baseball star Leroy Otis finally kicking in that sophomore year. “Somehow,” he told Billy Penn, “the light went on.”

Diaz loved playing baseball and watching basketball. Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul Jabbar) attended neighboring Power Memorial High School the same years he was in high school.

Jim ‘Crazy’ Kenney

St. Joseph’s Prep, 1976

In 1976, people were…

  • Listening to The Ramones’ first album
  • Not yet paying attention to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founding Apple
  • Voting yes to allow casinos in Atlantic City for the first time
  • Watching “Rocky”

Kenney didn’t participate in student government, but he does trace his desire to be a politician back to high school. He credits his father’s firefighter profession and the St. Joe’s Jesuits’ emphasis on public service for inspiring him to want to work in government.

Kenney played football for St. Joseph’s and in the team photograph from the fall of 1974, you’ll recognize not just Kenney but the man he’s currently trying to succeed: Michael Nutter, a 1975 St. Joe’s graduate.

Doug Oliver

Milton Hershey School, Hershey, Pa., 1993

In 1993, people were…

  • Listening to “I Will Always Love You,” by Whitney Houston
  • Buying the first Beanie Babies
  • Mourning the bombing of the World Trade Center, a car bomb attack that killed six and injured over 1,000
  • Watching “Jurassic Park” in movie theaters

Oliver told Billy Penn he vividly remembers being an eighth grader in the Germantown section of Philadelphia on the verge of falling into trouble. “I was just starting to head down the wrong track, but Milton Hershey saved my life.”

Milton Hershey is a boarding school that offers financial support to qualifying students who are in need throughout Pennsylvania. During high school, Oliver lived in Hershey with a family that worked for the school and played basketball and soccer, as well as the trumpet. “I always had a mom who cared,” he says, “but now I was in that perfect situation where your parents and your teachers and your administrators and everybody was on the same page with respect to your development.”

Oliver left Milton Hershey thinking he’d become a high school math teacher and coach. His main mentor at Milton Hershey had been Lewis Webster, his American Government teacher/basketball coach. 

Anthony ‘Tony’ Williams

Westtown School, West Chester, 1975

In 1975, people were…

  • Listening to “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind & Fire
  • Buying Magic 8-balls and pet rocks
  • Celebrating the last U.S. soldiers being pulled out of Vietnam
  • Watching “Saturday Night Live” debut

Yes, Williams was probably the best-dressed candidate during his high school years. Westtown is a private school with its own lake tucked in a rural setting. Williams played basketball and soccer for the school. Those were part-time activities. As you can see, however, his unbelievably cool afro looked pristine all of the time.

Adlaine Peterson and Jenine Pilla contributed to this report

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...