Gray, lanky, and serene-faced, Joe Sweeney is now 80 years old. The former Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy grew up in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia. His father was a prominent physician at Pennsylvania General Hospital, his mother a nurse. His mother, born into a well-to-do North Carolina family, converted to her husband’s Roman Catholic faith, not just out of love, but out of a remarkable thing she saw during the 1918 flu epidemic.
“There were lines of people people on 34th Street trying to get into the hospital,” Joe said. “The people who died at the hospital were buried across the street, where the Civic Center was. The seminarians from St. Charles dug the graves. Mom and Dad had horrible experiences, but she was inspired by what she saw.”
Young Joe came up through Philadelphia’s parochial school system, living in a big Victorian house at 38th and Spring Garden and attending St. Agatha’s Parish. Yet he never got the chance to row in high school: his father died when he was only ten years old. Even though his father was a highly-paid physician, the Sweeneys did not have enough in savings to maintain their previous lifestyle. “My mom put the older boys through parochial school,” he said, “but she couldn’t afford to keep everyone at home.” To earn extra money, Joe would run errands for the local Pennsylvania Railroad employees. During the 1940s, the PRR was in slow decline, but it was still one of the biggest employers in Philadelphia. Thousands of brakeman, signalmen, locomotive engineers, and repairmen worked long and hard shifts at the Powelton yards adjacent to 30th Street Station, “In the afternoons, the clerks would give you an address to a train man to let him known when and where to report,” Joe remembered. “The PRR would give you a quarter to deliver the slip to the man at his home.”
Running errands for the railroad also gave young Joe his first taste of alcohol. As the dusk approached, he would stop by the houses on Brandywine Street, just north of Powelton Village, where the wives of the railroad workers were making dinner. “The mother would give you a metal pot, and you’d go to the nearest bar, where there would be a blackboard with the names of the guys.”
The bartender would fill up the pot with beer, and then give Joe a shotglass full of beer.
“That was his pay to you,” Joe remembered. “I remember being so small that I had to reach up to the bar to get that little shotglass full of beer. It was the culture. Teach you how to drink.” Yet despite the heavy drinking, the clergy made sure that their flock would turn off the spigot in time for Sunday communion. Monsignor Mellon of St. Agatha’s would stride into Deemer’s bar, fully dressed in his robes, and announce, “Alright men, It’s Sunday!” And everyone would scatter and the bar would close.
When he turned 17, Joe left home and enlisted in the Navy. He came back to Philadelphia in the late 1950s and enrolled at Lasalle University. It was there that he discovered rowing, which would turn into a lifelong passion. It was also on Boathouse Row that he discovered the so-called “Irish Mafia,” headed by the legendary Kelly clan.
To be continued…
Interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.