Ervin Drake: life of a legendary Harrisite
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THOUGH MUCH of the student body is familiar with Townsend Harris’s alma mater, few are aware of the tune’s origins. Graduations and Founder’s Days are passed singing “in praise of happy days” thanks to alumnus Ervin Drake, who graduated from the original THHS in 1935. On January 15, he passed away at the age of 95 due to cancer.
“Ervin Drake is one of eight legendary songwriters who attended or graduated from the original [THHS],” said Tom Postillo, an alumnus from 1984 to 1986. “This list is quite something, and only one of these eight men is still living: Charles Strouse.”
He further explained that “the songs that these men wrote are referred to as ‘the Great American Songbook’ and are considered among the greatest cultural treasures that our country has given to the world.”
Born in New York City, Mr. Drake published his first song at age twelve in 1931. He graduated from THHS in 1935 and studied at the City College of New York. He went on to attend the Juilliard School of Music.
Mr. Drake initially began his career as a furniture salesman with his father, but when his first few songs became popular, he left his father’s company and went on to write music for artists worldwide in numerous styles. Mr. Drake also produced television programs and wrote music for Broadway plays.
From 1973-1982 he was the President of the American Guild of Authors and Composers, and helped pass the U.S. Copyright Law of 1976. He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Among Mr. Drake’s best known songs are “I Believe”, which became a number one hit for Frankie Laine. He also penned “It Was a Very Good Year,” which was later performed by Frank Sinatra.
Despite his burgeoning musical career, Mr. Drake never forgot about his high school. When he learned that the reopened THHS lacked an alma mater, he composed and wrote one himself because he believed a “great institution” like THHS should have one.
Music aside, what many may not know is that Mr. Drake also played a key role in reestablishing THHS; he agreed to an offer from the City Council to be one of THHS’s Founders. Since the original THHS was an all-boys institution, he requested that females be admitted to the reestablished school. He was quoted in a former Classic article saying that he believed it was “rather criminal to have barred young women from attending Townsend Harris. Having an all-male school was especially wrong in an education institution with so much to offer…[and I am] gratified others felt the same.”
Mr. Drake had also been Keynote Speaker in the past and was inducted into the THHS Hall of Fame in 1993. He also received the Founders’ Award.
Mr. Postillo admired Mr. Drake’s talent even while he was in high school. When he heard that Mr. Drake had written Sinatra’s famous song, he was astonished. For this reason, “Ervin Drake held a special place in [his] heart.”
At the first Founders Day, Mr. Postillo met Mr. Drake for the first time. They kept in touch, and Mr. Drake even attended several of Mr. Postillo’s shows, always requesting that Mr. Postillo play “It Was a Very Good Year.”
“I joked with him saying that I was simply too young at the time to put that song across to an audience,” he said.
Mr. Postillo emphasized the importance of the history of THHS’s musicians, saying, “I can only hope that the teachers today are aware of the rich legacy that Townsend Harris alums have given to the world.”
Music teacher Peter Lustig agrees, saying, “Students who study here look to [Mr. Drake] as an example….They an consider themselves as a continuation of great musicians coming from THHS.”
“I’m waiting to see who’s going to be the next Ervin Drake [at THHS],” he added anticipatively.