Memories of The Highland Park Neighborhood – Part III
Curator’s Note: This is the third and final chapter of Dan Cragg’s remembrance of the Highland Park Neighborhood. Dan is a former resident of the Highland Park Neighborhood and the author or co-author of over a dozen books. In a literary sense, this series is a homecoming of sorts, as Dan left in 1958 to begin the first of several careers. His years in the military included two tours of Vietnam as well as others in Europe and South Korea.
Although he no longer lives in Rochester, Dan still visits us from time to time. By way of these remarkable memories, we readers should welcome him back home. In chapter III, Dan revisits School #24, Minnie’s store, the Eastman Dental Dispensary and Monroe High School as he also describes the day-to-day lives of his family and friends. Enjoy!
My father, my uncle, my Aunt Josephine, my Cousin Jack, my sister and I all attended grammar school at PS 24. A Mrs. Gregory, one of my teachers there, remembered both my father and my uncle as her students. My oldest friend, Phil Willis, who is now retired from the RTC and living on Norris Drive (and we’re still in touch), was in my kindergarten class. Imagine my surprise some years ago when I discovered the school had been converted to condos and now my old kindergarten room was someone’s home!
I remember my first day of kindergarten. Since my father was away in the army at the time and my mother a patient at the Iola Sanitarium, my Uncle Bob took me. I had no idea where I was going, what it meant, or what would happen when I trudged into that classroom at the east end of PS24. I also remember the first time I was able to write my own name but more vividly I remember the first words I ever read by myself. Up to that time I always had to get an adult to interpret the Sunday comics for me so it seems appropriate that my first reading experience was in a Porky Pig comic book. That opened vistas for me that have never dimmed.
My old schoolmate Phil Willis and I often argue which year we started school. I think it was 1945 but Phil insists 1944 and the war was still on. I do remember that the glass paneling inside the school was all taped up to prevent fragmentation from bomb blasts. I remember very well the A-bomb drills of the 1950s we had to perform where we’d all troop into the hallways and crouch down against the walls for safety from the blast waves of an atomic detonation. We were also instructed to fling ourselves into the roadside if there were a bright flash in the sky while out of doors, or under our desks if an attack occurred while in the classroom. Looking back on all that now (and all the civil defense preparations of that era) I realize how naive it all was. By 1950 we had less chance of surviving an atomic attack than the school kids did in Hiroshima. But to us then the drills were exciting if also a bit frightening but we were assured the adults would know what to do if atomic war ever came to Rochester.
The principal there when I started was a Mrs. Arlene Fritz who was later replaced by a Mr. Thiele. I remember some of my teachers, Mrs. Rowland (6th grade) , Mrs. Greenstone (2nd grade), Mrs. Brookle (kindergarten), Mrs. Putnam (fifth grade), Mrs. Winterman (4th grade). A Mrs. Kenworthy was our music teacher but I never did much in her class except mumble incoherently, as did all the other boys, when asked to sing along when she played songs on the piano for us. One of her favorites was “The Light Cavalry Overture” by von Suppé and I really liked that but in class I could never be persuaded to more than mumble the lyrics. We boys just did not indulge. (In high school our music teacher was a Mrs. Wannamaker who looked just like Wagner’s Brunhilde. Once, in her 8th grade music class, practicing a chorus from “Carmen,” she heard a boy sing, “Toreadora, don’t spit on the floor-a, spit in the cuspidor-a,” grabbed him by his ear and ejected him from class with the words, “You shall not sing that filthy street song in my class!” But Mrs. Kenworthy at PS 24 was a pin-up girl to us boys).
At the end of the semester we were tested to identify the compositions we’d supposedly learned in class. The pieces were all played back to us via the school’s loud speaker system. I got them all right and Mrs. Kenworthy, in her amazement, accused me of copying the answers from the girl who sat in front of me. But her paper proved she had a tin ear so when that didn’t work I was hauled before the principal for interrogation. In the end it was concluded I just happened to have a good memory. That was the only time in my life I can remember being punished for doing well on a test in school.
I must digress here about music. My family was a singularly unmusical group. My cousin, Jack, could play the piano (acceptably, to my ear) and he had a good singing voice. I loved it when he could be prevailed upon to sit at the old, out-of-tune piano in grandmother’s parlor and sing arias from “The Student Prince.” In Rochester in those days there was no FM radio and as I recall, the only classical music you could get on the local AM stations was half an hour once a week. When the conditions were right I could sometimes receive broadcasts from the CBC in Ontario but what I remember most about listening to those Canadian broadcasts was “The Goon Show,” a zany complement to our own satirical Bob & Ray of radio fame (to which I was a loyal fan) or a predecessor to British TV’s Monty Python.
Of course with the Eastman School downtown there were always concerts but we never attended any. For us the closest we ever got to live musical performances were the hymns sung in church or the concerts at the Highland Bowl. One season a local opera company put on a performance of “Don Giovanni.” In one scene the Don rushed up a set of stairs, tripped over his sword, and was clearly heard to utter a word that was definitely not in Lorenzo DaPonte’s libretto.
Directory of Dan’ Cragg’s Mt Vernon Avenue.
Click the graphic to see the complete directory of Mt Vernon Avenue around the time that Dan was born. Houses have been renumbered since this was published in 1940.
Just down Meigs St. from PS 24 was Minnie’s, later known as Mim’s, a candy story which we frequented whenever we had some loose change to spend there. My grandmother kept her change purse in a drawer in the kitchen and I’d pilfer dimes to use at Minnie’s where I’d treat my conniving classmates (one of whom, under the influence of adult liquid refreshment years later, fell into the Barge Canal and drowned) to a candy feast. That might explain my popularity with some kids in those days. On the north side of PS 24 was our playground. In my day it was a just a plain patch of dirt without any equipment except what we carried with us. I don’t recall that physical exercise played a very prominent role in our curriculum in the 1950s. We got plenty of that on our own, however.
In my day grammar school kids had “religious education,” not in the classroom but at local churches (the Jewish kids had “Hebrew School”). This was really a kind of Sunday school during the week. With parental permission we were taken for instruction one morning a week. The Baptist church I attended for this instruction was at the corner of Linden Street and South Avenue and our instructor, a Mrs. Westra, would come to PS 24, gather up her charges, and march us to the church where we’d study Bible stories. This religious instruction offered a break from classroom drudgery and an opportunity for us boys to goof off. The one boy I remember from that experience, the biggest goof off in religious instruction classes, is the chap who got drunk one night years later and drowned in the Barge Canal.
When I returned to PS 24 in 1963 I was astonished at how small the place had become.
The Eastman Dental Dispensary
One of George Eastman’s many public endowments was the establishment of a dental clinic for Rochester’s school children. For five cents a child could go there and receive all the most modern dental treatment. I was one of those recipients. It was the worst experience of my life up to then and totally turned me off on dental science for the next 20 years. I hated that place so much I actually played hooky on the days we were scheduled to go. When I was caught no one asked me why I did it. I didn’t tell anyone either or if I did nobody considered a fear of dentistry an apt justification for staying away from school. I also guess I never expected anyone to check into my absence but eight-year-olds aren’t known for planning ahead.
The clinic on East Avenue was an imposing structure with a huge set of stairs leading to the main lobby. That lobby was enormous to me at age eight. In the center was a bird cage that held songbirds who tweeted and twittered as they fluttered about inside. To this day I cringe whenever I hear that sound. You’d pay your nickel and then sit on a hard bench until your name was called. The dentists were in a huge hall on the second floor that you reached by climbing a set of stairs. It was the “last mile” for me, those stairs. Once at the top you looked down this hallway lined with dental chairs on each side, and waited for your doom. I think those dentists were in the final phase of their training, something like interns, and in those days I don’t think they were taught anything about child psychology. They also did not use high-speed drills, only those monstrous devices run by a foot pedal that sounded and felt like jackhammers in your mouth. And no anesthetics. Once they had to tie my arms to the chair to keep me in the seat! That was after I ran screaming from that place. Finally, a doctor from New Zealand got me as his patient. He was a careful and gentle man who talked softly and would stop his work if it hurt me. Gradually, he gained my confidence. Eventually the other dentists would gather round and gape at how effortlessly he was able to work on my teeth. I don’t remember his name. If I had I’d have looked him up when I was in New Zealand years later.
Today the clinic is a ruin and some think it’s haunted. No disrespect meant to the philanthropist who endowed the place, but if it is haunted that is no surprise to me. It is truly wonderful to think that medicine has advanced so far over the last 65 years that no longer must anyone enter the portals of such places as the Eastman Dental Clinic or the Iola Sanitarium or lie alone in a hospital bed begging for death.
I started at Monroe in the fall of 1954. My sister and I were preceded there by my father, uncle, Aunt Jo, and Cousin Jack. In their day and in ours almost none of the kids had cars. I should say that in the transition from grammar to high school we ceased being school children and became “students.” So as students we, as those before us, walked to and from Monroe; I did anyway, and in all kinds of weather, dutifully carrying the lunch grandmother made for me (I never bought anything but milk in the school cafeteria). I remember very high standards at Monroe both in the quality of the education we received and the conduct of the teaching staff and the student body. I remember none of the problems that plague the public school systems throughout the nation today. One thing about the school system in those days, the teacher was always right. If you were disciplined it was because you deserved it (whether you did or not). That pertained as much to PS24 as it did to Monroe High. I was held back in the first grade and nobody objected or even bothered to tell me why. Thus the kids I started kindergarten with graduated from high school a year earlier than I.
I believe there were 248 students in the graduating class of 1958. Of them 158 were still living in NY state in 1983. They were all white except for one exchange student from Japan, Shima Murakami, I believe was her name. Many of those graduates went on to distinguished careers. Howard Relin became Rochester’s district attorney, for instance; others became lawyers, prelates, and so on. We held a 25th reunion in 1983 which I was unable to attend and the 50th reunion, scheduled for October 2008, seems never to have come off. About 15 of those who graduated in 1958 were also my classmates at PS 24.
Through the Rundel Library I met other young people from different parts of the city so the group I hung out with during high school included teens from schools like Ben Franklin and Marshall, my first exposure, you might say to a cosmopolitan outlook.
My greatest achievement at Monroe almost got me expelled when I dumped a trash can onto our table in the cafeteria. That engendered a satisfying rush of enthusiastic horror from the students during the second lunch period and they were still talking about it years later. I did it on a $5 bet with Phil Willis. The boy’s advisor, Mr. Julian Lowell, strongly suggested that to atone for this misdeed I give the $5 to the Red Cross. But when Phil coughed the money up later I kept it and spent it on books at Gilboy’s down at 197 Chestnut Street. Our punishment was to sweep the cafeteria floors for one week. Phil was suitably repentant but I picked up the loose change dropped by the students during lunch and saved it up to spend on books and science-fiction magazines.
Ah, books! When I got old enough to earn my own money I started spending it on books and hanging out at the local used book stores. There was the Book Hunter’s Shoppe on South Avenue in the same block as the old Milner Hotel, across from the Rundel Library, a room filled with books from floor to ceiling. The owner was a white-haired gentleman cigar-smoker who never objected to a teen-age browser; the Clinton Bookstore just up Court Street from there which carried the latest paperbacks and magazines; and Gilboy’s, a Mecca for teenage bibliophiles. A. Worden Gilboy was a raconteur of the highest order, an antiquarian bookman renowned for his knowledge, and a mentor to any young person with an interest in literature. In a word, he treated us as adults in sharing with us what he knew. His family lived in the rear and second-floor section of the old brownstone on Chestnut Street. In my high-school years I earned spending money by cleaning the store and his living quarters once a week. I never took the money in salary, I applied it against books on his shelves that I wanted for my own. As we grew older – J. B. Post, Dan Lynch, Jerry O’Neill and I – Gilboy would have us over after hours to enjoy cards, conversation and, after age 18, beer at his kitchen table. I learned more at Gilboy’s than I ever did at Monroe. Or what I learned from him has stuck with me. For me there never will be a more satisfying sensation than holding a real book in my hands.
A love of books led me to crime: I stole a book from the school library, a copy of Henry Fairfield Osborne’s Men of the Old Stone Age. When it came due I told the librarian I’d lost it and paid the $5 to replace it. I don’t know what happened to that copy. Last year I bought another off eBay for $100. When I went into the army I gave all my books away including a copy of the first U. S. edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species which I got from Gilboy for $5. I also bought from him a pristine copy of one volume of paleontologist James Hall’s contribution to the Natural History of New York State. Today I own two sets of the series fulfilling the adage that all things come to he who waits.
Anyway, with my attitude, I was an indifferent student, good at what I liked, history and English, but not very interested in anything else, including sports. One teacher I remember above all the others was the late T. A. Fabiano who taught social studies but he taught it in a way that challenged us to think. He was visibly disappointed when I saw him last in 1963 that I’d chosen the army instead of college. I did finish college eventually, on the GI Bill, but that wasn’t until I was in my 40s. Immediately upon graduation I enlisted in the army. But that’s another story.
On December 4th, 1954, Phil Willis and I climbed a tree in Highland Park and carved our names and the date in its bark. At that time we couldn’t imagine what it would be like to graduate from Monroe in 1958. Four years in the future seemed a lifetime away then. Now so it has become.