In 1869, a group of civic-minded women opened a home for older people, on the island of Manhattan. The leader was Hannah Newland Chapin, wife of Edwin Chapin, a noted Universalist minister in New York. The motto of the Chapin Home was: “What is your need‚ not your creed.”
In 1910, the home was moved to the glacial spine of Queens, where it remains to this day.
My mother, May Spencer, wrote about the Chapin Home as a reporter, and later Society Editor, of the Long Island Press in Queens. The home was on familiar turf -- right down the block from the beautiful new Jamaica High School, where my mom had been in the first group of students in 1927.
The Chapin Home obviously made an impression on our mom. When we began to suggest that she needed more care than she was getting, alone, in the big old house where she had lived since 1925, she was having none of it.
However, she allowed as how she had found the Chapin Home to be a nice place when she was a young reporter. And when it became necessary, our mom spent most of the last years of her life in the Chapin Home.
For the past month, the Chapin Home has been celebrating its 150th anniversary. How many institutions last that long?
Well, in that same year, with the wounds of the Civil War so visible, when these civic-minded woman built a rest home, the American Museum of Natural History was founded in New York City; the “golden spike" was driven in Utah, completing the first transcontinental railroad; the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first fully professional baseball team. (Jesse James robbed his first bank that year, Happy anniversary, Jesse.)
And the Chapin Home is still going strong. I heard about a sesquicentennial party last Friday and accepted an invitation. But first, I consulted my siblings about their memories of Mom in Chapin. We all agreed that Mom’s formidable intelligence and strong will had given the staff a good challenge. One of the caretakers – I believe with a lilting Trinidadian accent – had nicknamed Mom “City Hall.” You know – you can’t tell City Hall anything.
My sister Liz recalled how the staff would make sure Mom was dressed for a ride in her wheelchair down the block to Jamaica High and how Mom would sit in Goose Pond, across the street, and tell about her days at Jamaica.
Liz’s husband, Rich, has fond memories of the weekly Catholic Mass there, and the musical entertainment – and how he would dance with some of the “showgirls” who lived at Chapin.
My sister Jane recalled how “staff members were so welcoming, and helpful,” and how other residents became Mom's friends - and ours. “What a blessing it was for her to spend her final years there,” Jane said.
My brother Chris remembered how the staff “showed loving humanity,” particularly a caretaker named Delva (still at Chapin) who “called me several times in Mom's early days at Chapin, either telling me what was most disturbing Mom or placing me in telephone contact with her.”
And my wife recalled how the staff made it easy for her to sit with my mom in her final weeks, and play opera on the CDs, and how other residents would visit the room, for the music as well as to give support.
With these memories fresh in my notebook, I went back to Chapin last Friday and met Kathy Ferrara, the director of activities‚ volunteers and spiritual care, a friendly face from Mom’s time. I also ran into Janet Unger, the former administrator, now retired, and Jennifer McManamin, now the chief administrator. I felt great energy and purpose from all the staff.
Nearly 17 years later, the main hall, under a bright skylight, seemed like home -- full of residents, many in wheelchairs, or with walkers, the clientele as diverse as Queens itself. After lovely music by a harpist, Chapin honored seven residents as centenarians – 100 years or older – and three others who are 99, including Frances Cottone, who wore her red Marines cap, having served stateside during World War Two.
(Local Fox News, Channel 5, did a nice feature on the centenarians)
After a few short talks, the staff distributed birthday cake, while a pretty singer entertained with American standards – Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, plus Tom Jobim’s “Corcovado,” in Portuguese. I later looked up the singer, Hilary Gardner, and discovered she is very active in jazz circles, in New York, Europe and elsewhere – and has a very interesting web site.
Some residents smiled and applauded the music; others just took it in. A few ladies danced in place, or with a few young male attendants, and Kathy Ferrara, alert and smiling, just as I remembered her, danced with several women. (She even got me up on my feet for a few minutes for my vague approximation of the lindy.)
Visiting my mom for five years demystified aging for me. On my return, I remembered how hard the staff worked, how they kept the Chapin Home clean and positive. I have no illusions about the daily routine back in the residential wing -- the care needed by the ill and the elderly, the hard work, the constant upbeat attitude.
Memories of my mom flooded back: sharing her mid-day meal, looking out her window at Joe Austin Park (named for an epic youth coach in Jamaica, an honor bestowed by one of his star athletes, named Mario Cuomo.) Coming back, years later, I felt very much at home.
Before the summer totally gets away, I need to write about one of my loveliest outings of recent months – a visit to a historic cemetery I had not known existed.
I went with a few history-minded friends from Jamaica High School, who are forever bonded to central Queens, where we were raised.
The region goes back to Dutch and English settlers in the 17th Century, and, of course, the Jameco tribe of Native Americans, who named themselves after the Algonquin word for beavers, who were here first.
We acquired our educations and lifelong friends at Jamaica High without ever knowing about Prospect Cemetery, on Beaver Road, now surrounded by York College in South Jamaica.
The private cemetery is one of the oldest in New York City for English settlers.
Our tour was conducted by Catherine Ludlam, who is related to other old Long Island families; (the name is sometimes spelled "Ludlum," but the original, from Matlock, Derby, England, is spelled "Ludlam.")
Either way, Ludlam, a retired computer consultant, has helped revive the cemetery from the neglect and vandalism over the decades.
How did old Jamaica types, now scattered in our worldwide diaspora, hear about Prospect Cemetery? The credit goes to my good friend Michael Schwab, who went to Jamaica half a decade later than I did, and is now a retired judge from the apple-and-cherry paradise of Yakima, Wash., living in Seattle.
Michael and I became pals through his veneration of Joe Austin, the grand mentor to generations of basketball and baseball players at the St. Monica’s Parish. (Michael is as Jewish as the prune danish he craves on his regular homecomings to Queens.)
Michael and his lovely wife Jane, of blessed memory, would seek out historic spots on visits to Queens.
Across the street from where St. Monica’s (with its basement basketball court, where a player named Cuomo practiced running his defender into murderous tile pillars at center court) used to be, is the historic cemetery. Who knew?
Michael Schwab became a fan of the cemetery, via Cate Ludlam, and asked me to round up a small group of Jamaica pals when he was in Queens a few weeks ago.
So I rounded up history buffs -- West Side Shelley and East Side Jean and Trumpland Michael and Westchester Wally and my wife, the non-Jamaican.
Cate took us first to a family chapel, built for three Ludlam sisters. During the lawless 60s and 70s, vandals delighted in shooting out the stained-glass windows, now replaced since the site was secured by the growth of York College.
Next, we walked through thick grass (Eco-Lawn, a brand that needs no mowing) and Cate pointed out tombstones that told of life from one generation to the next -- no historical footnotes or explanations, just names and dates.
The earliest recognizable tombstone was: for Mary Fitch: (“Died: Jan. -- (?) 1709. Age 17 years.”)
Nearby in the Hariman family section was the tombstone for “Jane Lyons, a colored woman, who upwards of 65 years was a faithful and devoted domestic in the family of James Hariman, Sr. of this village, died Dec. 19, 1858. Age 75 years.”
And not far away was the tombstone for James Henry Hackett, a noted Shakespearean actor who in 1863 impressed a resident of Washington, D.C., who wrote a fan letter signed “A. Lincoln.”
As we trekked around the cemetery, Cate told us about her earlier explorations – the homeless man, living in the underbrush, who shocked her, and the student dig for obscured markers that ended prematurely with the discovery of the skeleton of a child – identity and cause of death, unknown.
Cate mentioned the sad discovery to a relative, a writer named Cornelia Read, who subsequently included Cate in a novel called “Invisible Boy.”
Nearby, we saw the weathered tombstone of Increase Carpenter -- a stunning flashback for me to the late 40s, when my class at P.S. 35 in Hollis used to take a walk to the site of the farm of Increase Carpenter, the quartermaster in the upstart militia.
This farm was where Gen. Nathaniel Woodhull was captured while ferrying cattle eastward to keep them out of the hands of the British. When Woodhull refused to say "God save the king," a British soldier whacked him in the arm with a sword, and the general died of the wound.
Cate Ludlam knows the details. She is a member of the Increase Carpenter chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
My friends are proud of our roots in a landmark public school. (The city, in all its wisdom, lost control of the school and terminated it a few years back.)
In our ways, we luxuriated in being in downtown Jamaica, where the el used to run, where Gertz used to be, just south of the main line of the Long Island Rail Road, still rumbling.
After the tour, we repaired to a terrific Portuguese restaurant -- A Churrasqueira -- a block from the modernized Jamaica station -- a perfect ending to the day.
* * *
I have barely touched the surface of Prospect Cemetery. For further information, here are a few links:
Donations to maintain the cemetery may be made to: PCA ℅ Cate Ludlam, PO Box 553, Oyster Bay, NY 11771
The current edition of the New Yorker contains a terrific article by Jelani Cobb about the fate of our mutual alma mater, Jamaica High School in Queens.
(Brian Savin notes the article is available on the New Yorker site, so I am showing the link here. Subscribe anyway.)
Cobb has been working on the article since he sat in my family kitchen for a few hours on a snowy day in February – or perhaps I should say, since his mom made sure he attended Jamaica because of a teacher she respected.
That teacher was Herb Sollinger, from a family I have known for many decades -- the bonds to that beautiful building on a hill, bonds that New York City, under Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein, went out of its way to atomize.
The building still stands – built to last forever – and four small schools take the place of the entity known as Jamaica High School. I hope they are doing well -- and I visited a couple of smaller schools in Queens last year that seemed to be excellent.
Cobb does a wonderful job detailing the education JHS gave to generations. He also fairly represents the problems, the challenges, the occasional violence, in the new era.
But I was in Jamaica High quite a lot in its last generation, as the guest of dedicated teachers and students who reminded me of my era.
I visited Josh Cohen’s honors English class, where a young African-American woman quizzed me about freedom-of-information laws. (I tensed up because she knew more about it than I did.) She was a bright light and now works for a union in the city.)
Another time I visited Cohen’s class, and a young man with an Islamic name was reading his term paper on “The Crucible” by Arthur Miller.
The city tried to scare off students, distributing flyers about violence in the area. Two young women in chadors told me how their parents had transferred them to another old school, but the girls soon told their parents they were getting a better education at Jamaica, and transferred back.
Education was happening. Some young people were going on to college.
I got to know teachers like Sue Sutera, who held the place together as a teacher, as a coach, as a mensch. When Jamaica High was blown up, there was no institutional memory; she had to scramble to find a job elsewhere. I suspect union-busting as a motivation, also.
I’ve written about Jamaica on this web site – just click on the tab for Jamaica High.
The subject could not have found a better and fairer journalist than Jelani Cobb. I am a huge fan from watching him on MSNBC and reading him in the New Yorker, as he wrote about Ferguson and Charleston – and now our own high school.
I originally did not include the free link out of respect to Cobb and David Remnick, the editor, who has installed new energy and gravitas to a grand institution. I wish New York’s leaders had found the courage and wisdom to do the same for Jamaica High.
Martin Goldman was the valedictorian at Jamaica High School in 1956, which is saying a lot. We had 821 graduates and needed two graduation sessions.
Martin’s average of 97.484 was the second highest in the history of the school at the time. He was also president of the General Organization and was widely respected as both smart and genial, and he remains so today, as a physics professor at the University of Colorado.
Goldman is also a project scientist at the successful launch at Cape Canaveral Thursday.
From Kenneth Chang’s article in The New York Times on Thursday:
“A NASA mission called Magnetospheric Multiscale, scheduled to be launched Thursday night, aims to make the first detailed measurements of a region of colliding magnetic fields about 38,000 miles above Earth. The magnetic collisions, which can potentially disrupt satellites and power grids, are not well understood.”
It continued: “The protective bubble of the Earth’s magnetic field typically deflects high-speed particles from the sun. But an onslaught of particles from a solar explosion can pop the outer layers of the bubble.”
Asked to describe his role in the mission, Martin wrote in an e-mail: “I am the PI and Team leader for one of three Interdisciplinary Science Teams which each received a ten-year research grant from NASA seven years ago to do research in support of MMS. Our mission was to predict what MMS will measure by performing computer simulations of magnetic reconnection, by developing mathematical models to describe the physical processes and to study relevant results from existing spacecraft.”
Martin continued: “MMS is NASA's most complex mission ever. There are over 100 experiments on board each satellite. This kind of "robotic" exploration of space has a much greater scientific payoff than manned exploration of space (such as the space shuttle) and is much more cost effective. The MMS mission will reveal key energization processes triggered by the sun in Earth's magnetic field over many 10's of Earth radii.
“These processes occur explosively and can affect our power grid as well as expose astronauts and pilots to high levels of radiation. The same processes cause the auroral borealis at northern latitudes. We need to know how to predict when they will occur and how much energy will be released from Earth's magnetic fields. The physics that will be learned will be relevant to other venues in which magnetic reconnection occurs such as in astrophysical objects and in harnessing the fusion energy of hydrogen for sustainable energy production far into the future.”
Martin and Helen Goldman, who catch up with old friends on trips home to New York, were at the blastoff at 10:44 PM Thursday.
“It was a Hollywood launch,” Martin wrote. “I was just as thrilled as my 25 family members surrounding me at the lift. My 11-year-old niece Cella Sawyer expressed my feelings perfectly.” Cella wrote:
“THIS IS NOT THE SUN!!! It’s a rocket, and it seriously lit up the ENTIRE SKY!!! Like NO JOKE!!! It is also 11 PM – not the morning!!! This is probably the most AMAZING 5 minutes of my life!!! Thanks Uncle Marty and Congratulations!!!”
Congratulations from all of us, too, Martin and Helen.
* * *
The mission can be followed on NASA various sites:
Great assortment of photos:
Project Scientists (including Martin Goldman)
Launch Schedule for Cape Kennedy:
Tom Moore, a leader of this mission, was a student of Martin’s at Boulder:
(I am in a rage over the closing of the grand New York tradition, Jamaica High School. The building still stands, built to last forever, on the glacial hill in Queens. My mom was in the first class to enter the new building in February of 1927. I was in the class of 1956, way down, but in it. A decade ago, I visited some honors classes and found education and hope alive and well. But New York let the school get away in recent years, and the most imaginative thing the city could think to do was close it down, and put four experimental schools in corners of the building. We’ll see how that works out. The concept of holding up a beacon to the new and the hopeful and the future of Queens seems to have escaped the city. What rank failure.
(Unable to be around on June 26, to pay homage to the last graduates and dedicated teachers of Jamaica High, I asked Kathy Forrestal, whose family has remained close to Jamaica, to write her impressions.)
By Kathy Forrestal
Not long after this year’s graduating seniors were admitted, the Department of Education moved for a second time to close Jamaica High School and, after four years of slowly phasing out, the school graduated its final 24 students on Thursday, June 26, 2014. “You are the 175th graduating class,” Principal Erich Kendall told the graduates, “and there will not be a 176th.”
I was a member of the class of 1994 and have been involved in efforts to save the school. I’ve had many opportunities to return to Jamaica. Watching the school phase out has been like watching a loved one waste away, particularly for the students and teachers who lived the loss daily. Principal Erich Kendall wondered if immediate closure would have been merciful; others noted that then the students and teachers wouldn’t have been able to spend those years together. The loss of Jamaica is traumatic for those who love the school.
Shortly after I graduated, NY Times reporter and Jamaica alum George Vecsey wrote of a visit to Jamaica, “I see the same energy, the same dreams, the same potential. You remind me of my friends.” I can say the same thing about the graduating class of 2014: they remind me of my friends, and I am happy to welcome them to the Jamaica High School alumni family. I could not be sorrier that there will not be any more members added to this family in the future.
“We were told Jamaica was a failing school, but we came, and we saw,” said graduate Philip Samuel. “We stayed. We chose to come to Jamaica and to work hard with our teachers to overcome any disadvantages associated with attending a closing school.” Twenty-plus years ago I was told I should reconsider my decision to go to Jamaica; how wrong people were. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “I heard it was a bad school, but I was so wrong;” I wish we had been able to make more people believe us. Jamaica was family, a second home and, in spite of phase out, this sentiment was echoed by this year’s seniors.
The Jamaica these students knew was different in many ways than the one I attended. As Jamaica’s student body shrank, the school lost classroom space to the growing schools co-located within the building. Honors and AP courses disappeared, as did the specialized programs like my old Computer Science program. Favorite teachers were excessed, including a teacher who represented the heart and soul of Jamaica. Every semester brought loss. If you can succeed in a phasing out school, Principal Kendall said, you can succeed anywhere. I have no doubt the 2014 graduates will succeed; they are truly impressive young adults.
Student speakers expressed gratitude for the undying support of their teachers. Teachers past and present attended graduation. More than a few were emotional watching tribute videos, including one set to Passenger’s “Let Her Go.” The song’s lyrics say, “'Cause you only need the light when it's burning low, Only miss the sun when it starts to snow, Only know you love her when you let her go.” Jamaica alums know we love the school but just how much we loved her became truly apparent when we had to let her go, but the wonderful thing about Jamaica is the people. That can’t be destroyed and I’m clinging to the knowledge that Jamaica lives on in its alums.
Jamaica has great alums. Assemblyman David Weprin, class of 1974, was saddened by the closure of his alma mater and spoke at graduation of the fact that his brothers (including Mark, a member of the NYC Council) both were alumni as well. The legacy of the school, he said, will live on in its graduates. Given the number of alumni and friends in attendance at graduation – including Borough President Melinda Katz, whose father taught at Jamaica High School, and Special Assistant to the Borough President and former NYC Councilman Leroy Comrie, who graduated in 1976 -- that legacy is strong and will remain.
“These students understood the loyalty and pride of being part of Jamaica High School,” Jamaica High School coach Susan Sutera said. “They carried the legacy of tens of thousands of students who came before them and they did it with incredible honor and dignity. They sent the school out with a bang.”
I never wanted to say good bye to Jamaica. Walking its halls, seeing the mural in the lobby depicting colonial Jamaica, photos of students who attended long before I was even born, trophies representing decades of athletic dominance, and most importantly meeting alums from the 1950s through today, I know without a doubt you can’t replace Jamaica High School.
(I can only echo Kathy’s lovely words. Sue Sutera and James Eterno and Josh Cohen and the other teachers had the same dedication and effect that Irma Rhodes and Jean Gollobin and Rose Kirchman had in my time. The terminators who closed Jamaica High will never understand. It’s their failure but the city’s loss.)
More on Jamaica’s closing:
With all the changes at my old school, the sun still sinks behind the west goal. On autumn afternoons, it still glares directly at the east goal.
It all came back to me Thursday. I had not seen a game at Jamaica High since the end of the 1955 season, when I was benched after edging over to the sidelines to catch up on the Dodger-Yankee score. (It was the seventh game of the World Series, and we were playing in Brooklyn.)
So much has changed. The comprehensive Jamaica High School has been phased out, replaced by four smaller schools tucked into corners of the grand old building on the glacial hill. But there is still a Jamaica team in the Public School Athletic League, and on Thursday it played a big game against Far Rockaway.
The coach is Dana Silverstein, twenty-five years old, a former player for the University of Rhode Island. She says the young men have probably never played for a female coach before, but they listen to her, they show respect.
I remember the polyglot Jamaica team of my years. Silverstein told me she heard at least thirteen different languages in the building but that one player will translate a fine point for a teammate, if needed.
The Jamaica home uniform was a white shirt and navy blue shorts. I remembered our ratty red long-sleeved jerseys and our school song, to the tune of Aura Lee (Love Me Tender): “Red and blue/ Red and blue/ School of red and blue…”
The Jamaica football team – another innovation since the 50s -- practiced directly behind the west goal. The players dressed in the fieldhouse which I remembered as old and musty, where we ate orange slices at halftime. More recently I have heard that Joe Austin, the legendary coach for St. Monica’s – Mario Cuomo’s mentor for life -- used to keep a spare set of clothes and perhaps spend the night there if the baseball games ran late.
Far Rockaway had won ten matches and lost only once, scoring above three goals seven different times. Jamaica, with a 4-6-1 record, could not afford another loss if it wanted to qualify for the playoffs. From the start, Far Rockaway was more physical, knocking Jamaica players to the artificial turf, pounding the ball downfield.
I have been watching games from the press tribune for the past eight World Cups, as Sócrates and Baggio and Zidane and Donovan moved forward like Pak-Men on electronic rampage, but down here on terra firma it happened fast.
For this ancient defender, the old terror came back – how hard it was to track the ball while facing west, the autumn haze, the sun at a nasty low angle, and suddenly hordes of opponents would materialize, as if in a science-fiction movie, right out of the glare.
Far Rockaway fired wide a few times but then scored the goal that had seemed inevitable. “Keep fighting,” the coach shouted.
The teams changed sides at halftime, and with the sun at their backs, the Jamaica players seemed invigorated. They tied the match with a lightning shot from distance; a few minutes later they scored another cannonball goal. “Zero-zero,” Silverstein shouted, meaning, don’t let up. But Far Rockaway pressed toward the fifty Jamaica football players clustered behind the west goal, and with about five minutes left, the visitors scored.
“Fight back, Jamaica,” the coach shouted. “This is your season.”
The match ended in a 2-2 draw. The coach called her players onto the turf and addressed them: “I can’t think of a bad thing to say,” she said, her tone optimistic, encouraging. “You played well. Practice tomorrow. Game Monday.”
The last game is 4 PM Monday at Campus Magnet in Cambria Heights, which used to be Andrew Jackson – Jamaica’s biggest rival in the old basketball days.
My word to my old teammates, from Long Island to California, is that these guys watch the great clubs and national teams, which we never could do. My teammates would love their, power, their moves, their maturity on the field. Go, Jamaica.
The roster, straight from the website http://www.psal.org/profiles/team-profile.aspx#012/28517:
The link is Jamaica High School, built to last forever, high on a glacial hill.
The White family moved into the house in 1938. Jean White was our class president for 1956, a born leader. President for Life, we call her.
Jean was captain of the cheerleaders when her boy friend Eddie Grenning played for Brooklyn Tech against Jamaica, in the PSAL semifinals in 1955. Then she led the cheers for Alan Seiden and Artie Benoit as Jamaica won the title.
When Eddie passed, way too young, Jean sought out adventures, getting air-lifted onto a remote island in Alaska, where she spent a winter working as a community liaison. Now she lives on another island, called Manhattan.
A few weeks ago, Jean White Grenning was in the old neighborhood and decided to take a look at her childhood home, which the Whites had sold to the Forrestals in 1977. Jackie Forrestal sent her daughter Kathy to Jamaica High, where she worked on the school paper, the Hilltopper, and loved her time there.
On this spring day, Jackie and Kathy were both gardening in the front yard when Jean dropped by. So much history in that meeting. Jackie has become a leading activist, sticking up for the legacy of Jamaica High, as the city, in a fit of Pol Pot nihilism, has sought to destroy the landmark high schools. Jamaica High is being phased out, with the gorgeous indestructible building turned over to the new fad in education, boutique mini-schools.
In its time, Jamaica nurtured Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat from Houston, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Stephen Jay Gould, Bob Beamon, epic Olympic long-jumper, Paul Bowles, Sid Davidoff and Herb London. Four friends of mine, who lived a few blocks from each other, became doctors, some still working.
The last legal hopes for Jamaica High are stalled somewhere in the court system; Jackie Forrestal goes to meetings, reminding people that her daughter Kathy had a great time in Jamaica not so long ago. Jackie has come to be the caretaker for bound issues of the Hilltopper, our school paper, and other treasures, just in case the school somehow emerges from this dark age.
A few weeks ago, Jean White Grenning and her brother Stuart White took the subway to Parsons Blvd and walked up 164th St., visiting their old church, the First Methodist Church of Jamaica. “The minister graciously showed us around the church and explained that he would be leaving for another church in South Jamaica. In general, he said, church attendance is down all over.”
They stopped in the old candy store, now a deli, and talked to new owner who has been there six years. Then they visited their old house, a few blocks from Jamaica High, and Jackie showed them around the house “which looks the same to us. We then walked to Union Turnpike stopped in another deli (now Korean) and peeked into the windows of Dante's which did not open until 4 o'clock.” (Back in the day, Dante’s was a mere pizzeria, where everybody went after the basketball games.)
Jean and her brother walked up 168th St. to Jamaica High, where they chatted with a few boys in one science-oriented mini-school. “They were unsure if they liked the smaller school and thought maybe they would like a bigger school,” she said.
The neighborhood has changed; there is a bustling mosque on 168th St. A few years ago, I had a great time visiting some classes at the old school; I felt Jamaica High was still producing strong people like the Whites and the Forrestals.
Editing papers at Jamaica High and Dartmouth College, Larry Sills dreamed of working for The New York Times. Instead, he went into the family manufacturing business.
The next thing I heard, Sills was the focus of a terrific article in the Atlantic in January, about a company that still makes things right here in the United States.
If you want to jump immediately to the article by Adam Davidson, I would encourage you to do so.
I was told about the article by the Hon. Walter Schwartz, my lawyer and friend -- otherwise known as Chief -- the editor of the Hilltopper in our senior year at Jamaica. Sills was the sports editor who gave up his column and assigned me to take over. I hope I remembered to thank both of them for giving me a start.
Schwartz and I visited Standard Motor Products the other day. The Sills family used to own the six-story factory on Northern Blvd., but now leases the airy top floor.
Sills told us how the recession has challenged his company, but he continues to produce things in Greenville, S.C. and elsewhere.
He paused and pointed to the ceiling.
“There’s a farm up there,” he said, telling us how the landlord arranged for the Brooklyn Grange to run a one-acre farm on the roof.
Sills described how a crane lifted tons of dirt and a tractor onto what New Yorkers used to call Tar Beach. He winced as he recalled the concussion of the tractor spreading dirt a few inches above his curly head.
We climbed a flight of stairs to the farm, where four or five nimble college-age people were doing what farmers do. There was also a photo shoot going on, with an actual model; we tried to stay out of her way.
Sills pointed out the skyline of Manhattan, plus the tomato and pepper plants, and early shoots of sunflowers which, in a few weeks will reach our height. He pointed out several bee hives in one corner and laughed about how the bees took a ramble one day, blocking traffic on the busy street below. He showed us the chicken coop. Every Wednesday, he said, Brooklyn Grange holds a public market in the lobby, in front of the art display.
We took a short drive to Zenon Taverna in nearby Astoria, for some excellent grilled fish, celebrating this ethnic borough. Sills and Schwartz and I discussed our college newspaper careers at Dartmouth, City College and Hofstra, respectively.
As it turns out, Larry and I both chose industries currently being challenged in this new economy. He did not display any remorse about heeding the tug of his family business. After all, he used to accompany his dad to work on Saturdays as a child, and he keeps photos of his ancestors in the board room.
The company has given him a livelihood that supports his family. He has been portrayed in what seems like a fair way by a good young journalist in a major magazine. Plus, the roof continues to support the farm right above him. A century ago, people built factories to last.
Tuesday is National Teacher Day, and people are being asked to salute a teacher who made a difference in their lives.
We’ve got teachers in my family – my wife, our daughter-in-law, a sister, a brother, a sister-in-law, two nieces, a nephew and his wife. I’m proud of all of them.
But the teacher I am thanking today is Irma Rhodes, who found me underperforming in high school and turned me around. She opened a world for me, after I had washed out of honors classes at Jamaica High in Queens.
I honor the teacher who did what teachers do – she made English exciting, or fun, or at least tolerable. She was, as I discovered, an educated woman with intellectual and literary interests, and she managed to transmit a bit of her enthusiasm to her class of juniors.
Early in the fall semester, Mrs. Rhodes assigned us to write a book report, any author, any subject. As the son of two journalists, I chose Stranger Come Home by William L. Shirer, a novel by a well-known journalist.
The book was probably lying around the house; my mother probably put it in my hand. (By that time she was legitimately worried that I would remain a slacker.) I did some minimal research and deduced that the plot pretty much matched the career of Shirer – a correspondent in Europe who had been pursued by the red-baiters when he returned stateside after World War Two.
Mrs. Rhodes read the report and asked me to me read parts out loud in class. She was so pleasant that she never transmitted the feeling she was turning me into a teacher’s pet. She just said, this is a book report, and people in the class seemed happy for me. She created a positive mood among the students, which is not easy to do.
She followed it up, talked to me after class, inviting me to work on the school yearbook, promoting me when openings came up. She held salons in her home for the yearbook staff – a bit of work and planning, plus piano playing, literary talk, refreshments. She organized theater outings to Manhattan on weekends – something at the Jan Hus Playhouse on the east side, Anastasia on Broadway.
Oh, yes, and I got a date for the senior prom, much to my shock. A girl, a year older than me, liked my essays when Mrs. Rhodes had me read out loud. (Jean, our class president-for-life, had to virtually order me to ask the girl out.) As Richard Price wrote in a classic essay in 1981, one of his earliest lessons was that being The Writer was a neat way to meet girls.
Mrs. Rhodes and I kept in touch long after I was actually accepted by Hofstra and started working for newspapers. I brought my wife to her home. I mourned when she passed much too soon and I mourned when one of her daughters also passed way too young.
I don’t mind saying I think Mrs. Rhodes was proud of me, the way my wife is proud of the smart young man she taught in her humanities group in the challenging late ‘60’s, who is now a national byline.
I see that same pride in our daughter-in-law who teaches English as a Second Language. I cannot describe how proud I am to see this dedicated young woman going to work every day with the new ethnic groups of my home borough of Queens.
Teachers do this. The vast majority of them care. It makes me crazy to hear taxpayers complain about the alleged high salaries and perks of teachers. “(They get the whole summer off.”) They didn’t see my wife doing lesson plans on weekends, or my sister's daughter using part of her modest salary to buy school supplies for the underprivileged children of her southern town.
About a decade ago, I got to reconnect with my old high school – the same rooms, the same hopeful faces as my contemporaries in the ‘50’s, in some honors classes I visited. I could feel Mrs. Rhodes (and Mrs. Kirchman and Mrs. Gollobin and all the rest) still in that building.
Yet the city of New York saw fit to cook the books so Jamaica High would look like a statistical failure. They are keeping the glorious landmark building open and are tossing out the institution in favor of the new fad of boutique schools.
The teachers of today remind me of the teachers who taught us back in the ‘50’s. I thank them all, and most of all I thank Irma Rhodes.
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I should add: memories of favorite teachers are welcome here, under Comments. GV
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: