When the Penn AC Olympians came back to Depression-era Philadelphia, they got jobs as builders and beer salesmen. Beer gave them their wages and also their strength. “These were Depression era guys,” Joe Sweeney said of the men who would become his coaches and had grown up hauling kegs around. “They used to take the trolley from West Philadelphia, bring a lunch bag, row, eat lunch, and then go home. All were beer salesmen and worked for beer manufacturers. They’d go around to bars, take orders for beer, had to buy a round for everyone in the bar. I got to like them because I was from their old neighborhood. I got that whole culture thing.”
After he graduated from La Salle University in 1964, Joe Sweeney joined the Penn AC Rowing Association, the rowing club most associated with the “Irish mafia” godfather John B. “Jack” Kelly. As an up-and-coming rower and building contractor, Kelly had spent his formative years at the venerable Vesper Boat Club. In the 1920s, he and a group of his Irish-American friends founded the Pennsylvania Athletic Club and built a magnificent clubhouse just off Rittenhouse Square. Sadly, the club was completed just after the stock market crashed in 1929, and Penn AC had to move to more modest quarters. Still personally flush with cash thanks to New Deal building contracts, the Democratic Party powerbroker and head of “Kelly for Brickwork” approached Vesper with a proposition: in exchange for a name change, Penn AC would give financial support to Vesper’s rowing programs.
Vesper turned Kelly down.
Undaunted, Kelly then set his sights on West Philadelphia Boat Club, which had fallen on hard times and only had about 4 active rowing members. West Philadelphia happily agreed, and it changed its name to the Penn AC Rowing Association. Over the years, Penn AC became a hub of Catholic high school rowing. From this club, Curran and Dougherty coached generations of students from West Catholic High School, LaSalle High School, Cardinal O’Hara, and St. Joseph’s University.
Patriarch Kelly took a liking to Joe Sweeney, the up-and-coming novice Lasalle rower and Navy vet. Sweeney, although he had never rowed before coming to college, quickly proved to be a skilled and powerful oarsman. Shortly before his death in 1960, Kelly gave Sweeney a job with the Parks Commission. Kelly’s son John B. Kelly Jr. (known as Kel) carried on his family legacy, both as a rower and coxswain for Penn AC. Kel had honed his athletic prowess under his father’s tutelage and as a student at the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1947, Kel won the Diamond Sculls Regatta at Henley, the same aristocratic contest that his father could not enter because, supposedly, he had worked with his hands as a bricklayer.
“I got to know the family and I was of the age where young Jack was competing and I was in some races he was in,” Joe remembered.
He also got to know Jack’s beautiful sister Grace, who occasionally came back to Philadelphia from Hollywood. When Grace was a girl, Kelly had used his position as president of the Parks Commission to get a playhouse built for her behind Belmont Mansion. “Grace Kelly used to study her lines and performances in a bar on City Avenue called The Wynnewood,” Joe remembered. “We would stop there while on the rounds with the rowers and coaches who worked as beer salesmen.”
When Kelly came back to Philadelphia after it was announced she would be marrying Prince Rainer II of Monaco, she of course paid a visit to Boathouse Row. As the star of the 1956 film High Society made the rounds with the Philadelphia rowing community, Joe Sweeney served as her chaperone. By the 1980s, Joe Sweeney was Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, and traveled with Kel to Hong Kong to be the first Westerners to compete in the Crown Colony’s dragonboat races.
On the way to Hong Kong, the twenty men from Philadelphia had a layover in San Francisco. They used their downtime to train, running up and down the city’s hills. “At the top of one hill, we stopped and rested,” Joe recalled, “and there was a residential brick building being built. Young Jack started to describe how a brick building was like a strong family.
“You have to have strong family connections,” Joe recalled Kel saying. “Each course was a family, each individual brick was a person. Great Irish malarkey.”
The men of Philadelphia won the silver in the Hong Kong dragon boat regatta, the first Western team to win a medal in the race’s history.
When Jack Kelly Jr. died in 1985, Joe served as the usher for the Monaco side of the family at the memorial service.
After that rough introduction the to LaSalle rowing program, Joe Sweeney did come back to Crescent, again and again. He discovered that coaches Joe Dougherty and Tom “Bear” Curran were not just founts of rowing wisdom, but also had some remarkable rowing stories from their younger days.
One of Joe Sweeney’s favorites was the story of the Reich Chancellery theft.
The American “Big Eight” that won the gold at Liege, Belgium in 1930 consisted of Charles McIlvaine in bow; Tom Curran, 2; Jack Bratten, 3; John McNichol, 4; Myrlin Janes, 5; Joe Doughert, 6; Dan Barrows, 7; Chet Turner, stroke; and Tom Mack, coxswain. In the final, the Penn AC “Big Eight” beat Italy by two lengths, and Denmark by six lengths. During their trial runs, the Philadelphia Irish “Big Eight” made 2,000 meters in an astounding 5 minutes and 18 seconds. According to Joe Sweeney, “there was considerable speculation that this might be the fastest eight ever seen.”
The Philadelphians of Penn AC teammates tried to repeat their time to enter the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, but they sadly lost to crews from the University of California and the University of Washington crews, respectively. In 1936, the men of the Penn AC eight went to Berlin to participate in the controversial, high profile Olympic games of that year. Although they didn’t make the US eight, the Penn AC men rowed in various smaller boats.
There, they faced a few challenges. The first had to with equipment. The University of Washington crew (of The Boys in the Boat fame) brought their own boat with them: a magnificent cedar-and-mahogany eight handbuilt by the British-born master boatbuilder George Pocock. Yet the other American rowers, including the Penn AC boys, had to make do with quads and pairs loaned to them by the Germans.
The Nazis had their own agenda: proving the athletic superiority of the Aryan race. at the expense of the foreign teams.
“The rowers swear they were sabotaged,” Sweeney said. Tom Curran and Joe Dougherty, who rowed in the Penn AC pair, didn’t even make it to the finals.
The second problem was that their coach, Frank Mueller of Vesper, was a German national who was terrified of being detained in his native land and being conscripted. He stayed behind.
The young men of Washington won the gold at the 1936 Olympics in their American boat, running the Langer See course in a mere 6:25.4, beating out Italy at 6:26, and Germany at 6:26.4. Bringing their own boat across the Atlantic probably made that .4 second difference.
After the games were over, Dougherty, Curran, and the Penn AC boys stayed in Berlin for a week to take in the sights of the Germany capital, which on the surface seemed radiant and prosperous, a shining symbol of a renewed Germany. Little did they know of the concentration camps, the incarceration of political dissidents, and the Nuremberg Laws that stripped Jews of their rights as citizens. The highlight of their week in Berlin was a tour of the Reich Chancellery, recently renovated and expanded by architects Paul Troost and Leonhard Gall in a sleek, somewhat sinister Art Deco style.
While touring Adolf Hitler’s private office, the story went, Tom Curran spied an elegant pen set on the Fuhrer’s desk. While no one was looking, he swiped it, and took it back to his room at the Olympic village. That night, a group of men wearing black jackets, swastika armbands, and high jackboots showed up at the Penn AC dormitory, waking the men up.
It was the Gestapo.
“The pen set is missing,” the lead Gestapo officer snapped at the Americans. “We want it back.”
Joe Dougherty, who was the captain, took a guess that it was the “bad boy” of the group who committed the crime. He turned to Tom Curran and ordered him to hand the pen set over to the Gestapo. Curran went back to his bunk and gave it to Dougherty. The stern, starchy Philadelphia Penn AC captain then solemnly handed Hitler’s pens back to the Gestapo officer.
He turned to Curran and punched him square in the jaw. Curran fell to the floor, groaning in agony.
Dougherty then said to the Gestapo officer, “Are you satisfied or are you next?”
“I’ve heard that story from two or three other people,” Joe Sweeney said of the coaches he got to know twenty years later when he towed at LaSalle. “They were gentlemen. They had their own ethics. Really good guys.”
After spending several years in the Navy, Joe Sweeney came back commercial obstacle course to Philadelphia in the late 1950s to go to college on the GI Bill. His widowed mother continued to work as a nurse, rising to become the head of Student Health Services at the University of Pennsylvania.
The day he started his freshman year at LaSalle University, Joe swung by Boathouse Row, across the Schuylkill River from his old Powelton Village neighborhood. He had shown up on campus dressed in his Navy uniform. The Christian Brothers gave him a suit to change into on that first day of school. Dressed in his new outfit, he was on the way to pick up his mother at Penn, but had an hour or two to kill on the way home. He knew that LaSalle’s rowing program was based out of the Crescent Boat Club, a Tudor-revival structure on the eastern end of the row. He walked into the boathouse and saw a group of young men (he was a decade older than the other Lasalle freshmen) gathered around coaches Joe Dougherty and Tom Curran, both “Boathouse Row gods.” Dougherty, a “straight-laced Irish Catholic” as Sweeney remembered him, had rowed in the American “Big Eight” that set the 2,000 meter record at the 1930 Olympics at Liège, Belgium. They were also part of the “Irish Mafia” that hung out at the neighboring Penn Athletic Club (“Penn AC”) over cards and whiskey: the Kellys, the McIlvaines, and other Irish-American patriarchs were prosperous but couldn’t join any of the elite downtown clubs. Tom Curran, the “bad boy of the group,” had also rowed with Dougherty at Liège.Inflatable Irish pub
John B. “Jack” Kelly, powerful contractor and prominent Democratic kingmaker, was the godfather of the group. He had famously been denied entry at the Henley Regatta’s “Diamond Sculls” because the rules stipulated that which excluded anyone “who is or ever has been … by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer”. The rejection kindled a competitive fire in Kelly to not only push himself harder as an athlete (he was also an excellent boxer), but also his son Jack Jr, a Penn graduate who won the Henley “Diamond Sculls Challenge” in 1947 and 1949. Using his enormous bricklaying fortune, Kelly Sr. built up the rowing program at the Pennsylvania Athletic Club. He also mentored many aspiring young, working class Catholic rowers so they could compete toe-to-toe with the scions of Philadelphia’s Protestant gentry.
When Joe Sweeney entered Crescent that day, he had stumbled into the heart of Boathouse Row’s Catholic community. It was gritty, no-holds-barred competitive.
“Hey kid,” Dougherty shouted at Sweeney as he walked in the Crescent door, “would you like to row?”
One of the LaSalle eights was missing a man. Sweeney had never rowed in his life. He didn’t have a change of clothes, so he jumped into the eight in his Christian Brothers suit.
Sweeney not only had no idea how to row sweep, but he also learned to his horror that Coach Dougherty had his kids row at only one speed. “Full power upriver. Full power down river. No pieces.”
Yet Sweeney didn’t shirk. “In the Navy, I did what I was told,” he said. “I was so sore, my legs were cut up, Grease all over my pants. I looked up at Tom Curran and I said, ‘you son of a b***h.”
Curran smiled back at Sweeney. “You’ll be back!” the old Irishman said.
Source: interview of Joe Sweeney by Steven Ujifusa, November 9, 2016.
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.
In the 1930s, Ferdinando’s son young Ambrose went to work at his uncle’s butcher’s shop in South Philadelphia, which he would eventually take over. Because few families owned cars during the lean years of the Great Depression, most Philadelphians still shopped for food in their neighborhoods, bringing home only what they could carry. Meat was expensive. Housewives would usually pick out a live turkey, chicken, or goose, have the butcher do the slaughtering, and then take the carcass home to pluck and dress themselves. “The animals were our pets all year,” remembered Ferdinando’s grandson Michael Sr. “Well, until Eastertime.”
In 1947, joining the postwar exodus of second and third generation Italians out of South Philly, Ambrose Campo set up a new establishment at 2401 S.62nd Street in a squat, two-story brick building decorated with pressed-tin bay windows and cornices. Like countless Philadelphia business owners, the Campos ran their butcher shop on the first floor and lived in an apartment on the second floor. Everyone in the family was expected to help out, whether it was mixing meatballs, manning the cash register, or sweeping up at closing time.
By the 1970s, as supermarkets squeezed family butcher shops out of business, Ambrose’s son Frank decided to remake Campo’s as a delicatessen. The delicatessen was originally a German concept: it served sandwiches and other prepared meals to sit-down customers, and also catered meals for family events and local fraternal organizations. Jewish delicatessens served only kosher meats (pastrami, corned beef, brisket) and sold no dairy products, while Italian and German ones served plenty of pork products (salami, prosciutto, soppresata) and specialty cheeses such as provolone. “Butcher shops were becoming a thing of the past,” said 33-year old Frank Campo, grandson of Ambrose, “and after some years of decreased sales my father started making sandwiches with the shop’s steaks and sausages.”
Yet despite this adaptation, the old Italian-American community in Southwest Philadelphia that had sustained Campo’s Deli continued to disperse. Many of the residents moved to newly constructed automobile suburbs in South Jersey and Delaware County, a pattern followed in other mostly-Catholic neighborhoods such as Grays Ferry. In 2001, Campo’s Deli closed its 62nd Street location and moved to a new site at 214 Market Street in Old City, and also opened concession stands in Citizens Bank Ballpark. Not long after that, the Philadelphia Archdiocese announced that Our Lady of Loreto parish was to be shuttered. “Yes the area has become somewhat economically depressed and church attendance has declined,” wrote Damian D’Orsaneo to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003, “but is that any reason to close a church? I’m not a biblical scholar, but one thing I remember from 12 years of Catholic schooling is that Jesus’ followers were, for the most part, the poor and downtrodden. If this church provides peace and comfort to even a few, isn’t that a good enough reason to keep its doors open?”
The church thankfully did not meet the wrecking ball, and continues to serve local worshipers as Grace Christian Fellowship. Its colorful murals and Art Deco facade still attract the attention of airport-bound motorists hoping to avoid traffic on I-76.
Campo family history provided to Steven Ujifusa by Michael Campo, June 23, 2016.
Email correspondence, Michael Campo to Steven Ujifusa, June 23, 2016.
Email correspondence, Michael Campo to Steven Ujifusa, October 18, 2016.
“There was peace and the world had an even tenor to its way. Nothing was revealed in the morning the trend of which was not known the night before. It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub it’s eyes and awake, but woke it with a start – keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since, with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912.” -John B. Thayer III, 1940
John B. “Jack” Thayer III seemed to have everything a successful Philadelphian could want. He was the son of the second vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and educated at the Haverford School and the University of Pennsylvania. He was married to Lois Buchanan Cassatt, granddaughter of Pennsy’s president Alexander Cassatt, the mastermind of New York’s Penn Station. After graduating from college in 1916, Thayer served his country with distinction in World War I, and then worked in a series of investment jobs until he became partner in the investment firm of Yarnall & Company. In addition to serving his alma mater as its financial vice president, he also belonged to numerous clubs and societies.
Dr. Thomas Sovereign Gates, president of the University, called him a “loyal and trusted servant.”
Yet even as America celebrated victory over the Axis in that joyous summer of 1945, a dark cloud seemed to be enveloping the 50-year-old banker. His beloved mother Marian had died the previous April. His 22-year-old son Edward had been shot down over the Pacific a year before that.
And then there was the ever-present ghost of his father John B. Thayer Jr., whose legacy as railroad executive and sportsman was memorialized on a plaque in Penn’s Houston Hall.
Jack Thayer had spent the past three decades searching for peace. And he found none.
On September 19, 1945, Thayer drove from his elegant home in Grays Lane in Haverford to the intersection of 48th and Parkside Avenue, parked his car, took out several wrapped blades, and slit his wrists. Then his throat.
His body was not discovered for another forty hours.
John B. “Jack” Thayer III left behind a book he had printed privately a few years earlier and inscribed to his friends and family.
On the early morning of April 15, 1912, 17-year-old Jack Thayer and his friend Milton Long found themselves stranded on the sloping decks of the RMS Titanic. Two hours after the ship’s collision with the iceberg, the Titanic was down by the bow and listing heavily to port. There had been no general alarm or sirens.
The Titanic’s giant engines had stopped shortly after 11:40pm. “The sudden quiet was startling and disturbing,” Thayer recalled. “Like the subdued quiet in a sleeping car, at a stop, after a continuous run.”
Then came the roar of escaping steam from the ship’s 29 boilers, and an occassional white rocket bursting in the night sky.
The two young men found themselves blocked from entering the lifeboats: “No more boys,” barked Second Officer Charles Lightoller. In the distance, they saw flickering oil lamps coming from the 18 lifeboats that had made it off the ship. Jack’s mother Marian was in one of them. The freezing cold Atlantic rose ever closer to the boat deck. Lights from submerged portholes glowed green for a while in the black water before shorting out. Atop the officers’ quarters, a group of men struggled to free two collapsible liferafts lashed to the deck. There was no hope of hooking them onto the davits and lowering them properly: they would have be floated off as the ship went down.
“Mr. Moon-Man, Turn off the Light,” a popular song from Jack Thayer’s childhood that was almost certainly part of theTitanic band’s repertoire. From the 1979 film SOS Titanic.
A few minutes after 2:05am, first class passenger Colonel Archibald Gracie IV, who had helped women and children into the lifeboats for the past hour, was surprised to see a “mass of humanity” come up from below, “several lines deep converging on the Boat Deck facing us and completely blocking our passage to the stern. There were women in the crowd as well as men and these seemed to be steerage passengers who had just come up from the decks below. Even among these people there was no hysterical cry, no evidence of panic. Oh the agony of it.”
First and second class passengers had access to lifeboats from their deck spaces. But not steerage — they had been kept below until now. Except for those lucky enough to find their way through a maze of barriers and corridors to the boat deck level.
Gracie also noticed John B. Thayer Jr. chatting on deck with his fellow Philadelphia millionaire George D. Widener, whose wife Eleanor had also left in a boat. Only a few hours earlier, the Widener and Thayer families had hosted a celebratory dinner in Titanic’s captain Edward J. Smith honor in the ship’s 120-seat a la carte restaurant on B-deck. Gracie remembered that the elder Thayer looked “pale and determined.”
Jack Thayer lost his father in the milling crowd, which after realizing all the boats were gone, began to surge with panic.
At around 2:10am, the liner’s bow took a rapid plunge downward, as seawater burst through cargo hatches, doors, and windows.
“It was like standing under a steel railway bridge while an express train passes overhead,” he recalled of being stuck on the sinking ship, “mingled with the noise of a pressed steel factory and wholesale breakage of china.
Milton Long got ready to slide down the side of the ship by using one of the dangling lifeboat ropes. “You are coming, boy, aren’t you?” Long said.
“Go ahead, I’ll be with you in a minute.” Thayer responded above the din.
Long slid down the rope. Thayer jumped. “I never saw him again.”
Thrashing around in freezing water, Thayer could see the ship in full profile as it sank deeper into the Atlantic.
“The ship seemed to be surrounded with a glare,” he recalled, “and stood out of the night as though she were on fire…. The water was over the base of the first funnel. The mass of people on board were surging back, always back toward the floating stern. The rumble and roar continued, with even louder distinct wrenchings and tearings of boilers and engines from their beds.”
The Titanic’s electric lights flickered out, came on again with red glow, and then went out for the last time.
Then he saw something even more terrifying: the ship breaking in half. “Suddenly the whole superstructure of the ship appeared to split, well forward to midship, and bow or buckle upwards,” he recalled. “The second funnel, large enough for two automobiles to pass through abreast, seemed to be lifted off, emitting a cloud of sparks It looked as if it would fall on top of me. It missed me by only twenty or thirty feet. The suction of it drew me down and down struggling and swimming, practically spent.”
The water began to numb his limbs, and he looked desperately for something that could support him. Everything was too small: deck chairs, crates, broken pieces of paneling. He then banged his head on something big. It was one of the two collapsible lifeboats, overturned, with about a dozen men scrambling to stay balanced on its wood-planked bottom. With his last bit of strength, he swam for the boat and hauled himself on top.
He couldn’t just lie there. To keep the boat from sinking, the men had to stand up, leaning to the right and left at the command of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the same man who had said no more boys were allowed to board lifeboats. Also onboard was Colonel Archibald Gracie. As cold and frightened as he was, Jack did not turn his eyes away from the spectacle. “We could see groups of the almost 1,500 people still aboard,” he wrote later, “clinging in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees; only to fall in masses, pairs or singly, as the great after part of the ship, 250 feet of it, rose into the sky, till it reached a 65- or 70-degree angle.”
When the water closed over the Titanic’s stern–at 2:20am, April 15, 1912–Thayer heard a noise that rang in his ears for the rest of his life.
The sound of hundreds of people struggling in the icy water reminded him eerily of the sound of singing locusts on a summer night at the Thayer family estate on the Main Line. “The partially filled lifeboats standing by, only a few hundred yards away, never came back,” he wrote angrily. “Why on earth they did not come back is a mystery. How could any human being fail to heed those cries?”
Among those voices that cried out in rage and desperation in that mid-Atlantic night were those belonging to his father John Borland Thayer Jr., as well as his friend Milton Long. Over the next thirty minutes, the cries gradually grew fainter and fainter, until there was only the sound of water lapping against the sides of the collapsible boat.
At around 6:30am, the first pink light of dawn shone across the flat calm ocean. Icebergs glittered all around. One of the partially-filled lifeboats drew up alongside the overturned collapsible. One by one, the men who had survived those awful few hours atop the boat scrambled aboard. Most of the 20 or so of his boatmates were crew members. Thayer, the pampered scion of one of Philadelphia’s richest families, realized how little those distinctions mattered atop Collapsible B. “They surely were a grimy, wiry, dishevelled, hard-looking lot,” he wrote of the men who had shoveled coal into the steamship’s boilers, seven decks below the paneled salons and suites of first class. “Under the surface they were brave human beings, with generous and charitable hearts.”
With the dawn came another sight: the smoking funnel of the small Cunard liner RMS Carpathia, whose master Arthur Rostron had steamed full-speed through the icefield after his wireless operator had picked up Titanic’s radio distress call. She came a few hours too late to save everyone from the Titanic, but soon enough to pick up the 705 people who had made it into lifeboats.
“Even through my numbness I began to realize that I was saved,” Thayer wrote in his book, “that I would live.”
Archibald Gracie, Titanic: A Survivor’s Story (Stroud, UK, 2011), p.30.
“John B. Thayer 3d Found Dead in Car,” The New York Times, September 22, 1945.
This past January, I spent an hour speaking with Ron Donatucci, a native South Philadelphian and long-time Register of Wills. He has been a fixture at City Hall for the past three thirty-five years. Before that, he was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a Democratic ward leader, and a lawyer in private practice. He also serves on the Board of Directors of City Trusts, and Temple University’s Board of Trustees, the board of Girard College, and Wills Eye Hospital.He was childhood friends with the attorney Frank DeSimone, who I interviewed for a previous piece for PhillyHistory.
When asked what he felt was the most formative experience of his childhood, he replied that it was his three years at Central High School in the mid-1960s.
For Ron Donatucci, asking, “What class were you in?” is his version of the classic Philadelphia question, “Where are you from?”
He grew up in the Girard Estates section of South Philadelphia, a comfortable enclave of 1920s Tudor and Spanish revival homes within the boundaries of St. Monica’s Parish. With a few, mainly Jewish exceptions, the Girard Estates neighborhood was Italian-American and devoutly Catholic, mostly second and third generation Americans who had become doctors, lawyers, and small business owners. Donatucci’s father, an old school “Roosevelt Democrat” and local ward leader, ran a successful plumbling supply business.
After attending the local parish school at 18th and Ritner, Donatucci went to Bishop Neumann High School for a year. He then tested into Central’s 224th class, and joined about 15 other neighborhood kids who got on the Broad Street subway each morning to the Logan campus.
Donatucci remembered going up to his English teacher, Dr. Logan, saying, “I’m new here. How many books do we need to read.”
“One book a week,” Logan responded.
Outside of the guidance counselor’s office, Donatucci saw a boy sitting on the floor looking bereft.
“I screwed up,” he muttered sadly. “I got a 1590.”
“You screwed up?” Donatucci replied with amazement over his fellow student’s almost perfect SAT score.
The Central High School of the 1960s took Philadelphia’s smartest boys out of their neighborhood and parish schools and threw them together in a rigorous, competitive environment.
“All of the sudden, I was in a high school that was predominately Jewish.” Donatucci remembered. “These were the students that wanted to pursue an education that was free, and the type of competition was scary.” Among the future stars in Donatucci’s 224th class was Raymond Joseph Teller of the magician duo Penn and Teller. In 1964, the school newspapers reported that Central’s 224th class boasted more National Merit Semi-Finalists than any other school in the country. At Neumann, he said that he would study about two hours a day after class let out. At Central, he upped his study time to six.
The all-boys experience was a critical part of the Central experience. “We weren’t distracted,” he claimed. So was meeting people of different ethnicities. At lunchtime, people tended to separate into their neighborhood ethnic groups: African-Americans, Jews, Italians, and Ukrainians. “The guys from South Philly would sit at the same table,” he said. Yet the cultural exchange continued with swapping lunches. “I would give them pepper and egg sandwiches,” he said. “The Jewish kids would bring in blintzes. The Ukranians brought in perogis.”
He often found himself at the homes of his Jewish friends for the High Holidays. When describing Jewish and Italian culture, he said, “They are so similar.” He joked that his Jewish name was “Ronny Dumberg.”
Donatucci graduated from Temple University in 1970, and aside from a stint in Baltimore for law school, has remained in Philadelphia ever since. His two sons did not follow him to Central: they went to St. Joseph’s Preparatory instead, which remains an all-boys school, unlike his now-coed alma mater. Yet he still remains on the Central board of managers. “I’ve met guys in Central who are my friends today,” he said. “It’s such a great feeling when you’re talking to someone and you ask, ‘What class are you in?'”
The effort of a free people to provide for the education of their children as a necessity for the maintenance of the their political institutions makes a story of interest and importance. Especially is this true when the movement meets with criticism and opposition, when its leaders are hampered by the absence of any general appreciation of the value of the issue, and when violent prejudice of race, religion, and class is aroused and must be overcome.
-Franklin Spencer Edmonds, 1902
For some perspective about the dismal state of today’s Philadelphia public school system: a century ago, a high school education was a luxury, not a necessity. According to a recent article in The Atlantic: “Teens didn’t create ‘high school.’ High schools created teenagers.'” In the 1920s, only 28 percent of American children attended high school. For the rest of America’s teenagers, adulthood began at 14. This meant getting a job to help make ends meet: helping their parents out on the family farm, stocking the shelves at the mom-and-pop, or learning a trade such as carpentry, shipbuilding, or baking. For the very poor, work began even younger than that: rolling cigars or sewing garments in dark, ill-ventilated sweatshops; picking stones out of coal on conveyor belts (breaker boys); collecting full spools of thread in a textile mill (bobbin boys); selling copies of the Philadelphia Inquirer on street corners (newsies), or shoveling coal into the boilers of a foundry. Child labor was not formally abolished by the Federal government until 1938, with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act under the Franklin Roosevelt administration.
During the first half of the twentieth century, those students lucky enough to attend public high school went to classes in grand buildings that looked more like castles than schools. West Philadelphia High School, completed in 1910, had an auditorium equipped with a pipe organ. In those days, a public high school degree was generally sufficient enough to propel a graduate into the white collar middle class. The city’s Roman Catholic population turned to an extensive network of parochial schools to provide reasonably priced education to its youth. St. Joseph’s Preparatory in North Philadelphia was one such institution that traditionally gave working class Roman Catholics a chance at a better life than their Italian, Irish, German, or Polish immigrant parents.
Yet a college education, public or private, was out-of-the-question except for the rich or exceptionally hardworking student. If a public school graduate gained admission to Penn or Temple University, they typically commuted to and from their parents’ house by trolley or elevated rail, and had to juggle jobs and family obligations in addition to their studies. My grandfather, a 1926 graduate of West Philadelphia High School, paid for his undergraduate studies at Penn’s Wharton School with money earned from dance band gigs.
The city’s expensive preparatory schools–which catered to the Rittenhouse Square/Chestnut Hill aristocracy–were all but closed to the city’s burgeoning immigrant and African-American populations. They were also the surest feeders to the Ivy League, with few questions asked.
Then there was Central High School, a magnet high school that was arguably one of the most powerful engines of economic mobility in the city. Founded in 1836, it is the second-oldest continuously operating public school in the United States. Its first home was at the intersection of 13th and Market Streets, and started holding classes only just after the Philadelphia city fathers rather grudgingly conceded to fund a public school system. Much of the push for free education for Philadelphia’s children came from Quaker activists such as Roberts Vaux, who objected that parents had to declare shameful “pauper status” in order to send their children to a charity school.
Once established, Central High School gained the financial support of several of Philadelphia’s richest families, including the Whartons and the Biddles. Central’s first president was Alexander Dallas Bache, a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania and grandson of Benjamin Franklin. Over the next century, Central was housed in a series of grand structures until the 1930s, when it settled in its current Art Deco campus in the Logan section of North Philadelphia. Its counterparts in other cities include Boston Latin in Boston and Stuyvesant High School in New York. An applicant had to pass a grueling entrance examination, but once in, he (it remained all-boys until a 1975 Supreme Court ruling) found himself surrounded–and pushed to excel– by the best and brightest students from all over the city. For many, it was their best shot at making it into a top college, and then onward to a successful career, in Philadelphia or beyond. The school’s alumni roster reads like a who’s who of Philadelphia’s meritocracy: linguist Noam Chomsky, artists Thomas Eakins, architect Louis Kahn, mayor Wilson Goode, and industrialist Simon Guggenheim.
Yet students who had grown up in tightly-knit neighborhoods, rigidly segregated by ethnicity and class, the transition could be just as difficult as it was thrilling.
My fiancee and I have just purchased a c.1905 twin house in the Cedar Park section of West Philadelphia. It is a typical house for what was originally an upper-middle class streetcar neighborhood (according to the National Register of Historic Places, West Philadelphia contains America’s largest intact collection of Victorian housing stock): three stories (four including the finished attic), a front and back garden, polychrome brickwork on the front facade, and plenty of carved interior oak woodwork and leaded glass. The work of those long-dead woodcarvers is truly outstanding– the baroque scrolled staircase and latticed screen in the front parlor made me wonder if these men also plied their craft in Cedar Park’s grand churches, such as Calvary United Methodist and St. Francis de Sales.
Cedar Park combined the walkability of the old city with the spaciousness of the country. In fact, before the rise of the mass-produced automobile, Cedar Park was considered a Philadelphia suburb. Unlike the ornate, turreted “Queen Anne” homes in the vicinity, our Cedar Park house is square and stolid, with minimal exterior ornamentation. The use of space is very efficient. Although the house is almost 3,000 square feet, one wouldn’t guess it when looking at it from the street. Philadelphia architectural historian/photographer Joseph Minardi describes houses built in this idiom as “colonial revival,” but they actually don’t bear much resemblance to the “authentic” colonial models in Society Hill. Perhaps a hybrid of Colonial Revival and Arts & Crafts would be a fairer description. These big houses, Minardi states, were “far from fancy,” but still considered “comfortable for an upper-middle class worker and his growing family…spacious and modern with room for servants to assist the lady of the house.”
One of the first things I did after we decided to buy the Cedar Park house was learn more about its history. It appears that its first owners were members of the Bricker family. William Elmer Bricker, a “transitman” at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (headquartered at 730 Market Street) and a 1907 alumnus of Lehigh University, is listed as living at the house in the 1908-1909 proceedings of his alma mater’s alumni association. According to the mayor of Philadelphia’s annual report, Bricker earned $70 per month, or about $1,700 in today’s money, a solid wage in the early 1900s, and was a son of a veteran of the “War of Rebellion.” As an undergraduate, he belonged to Delta Upsilon fraternity. No spouse or children are listed. In 1917, he is listed as still working at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, with an office at 820 Dauphin Street.
It appears that the PRT was a family affair for the Brickers. On March 20, 1913, the Transit Journal noted the death of James E. Bricker, 70, superintendent of the PRT and Civil War veteran. A native of Cumberland County, he had started his career as a conductor on the West Philadelphia Street Railway during its “horse car days” and rose to become superintendent of the Union Traction Company until its takeover by Widener’s Philadelphia Traction Company, and then the PRT. It appears that William Bricker shared the house with his parents, as the Harrisburg Daily Independent notes that Miss Emma Stewart was spending the month of February, 1910 with her sister Mrs. James Bricker on Cedar Avenue.
To borrow Minardi’s phrase, the PRT was one of many prosperous businesses that employed West Philadelphia’s “upwardly mobile meritocracy.” It was chartered on May 1, 1902, with John S. Parsons as its first president. Its board included Peter Arrell Brown Widener–the richest man in Philadelphia–who had created his $100 million fortune by building electrified trolley lines and developing land around them. Also on the PRT board was his son George Dunton Widener, who would perish in the RMS Titanic disaster in 1912. PRT’s purpose was to construct an electrified, high speed rail line that would run from Frankford in North Philadelphia all the way to 69th Street in Upper Darby. The PRT needed bright young men like Bricker to manage the complicated logistics of constructing an elevated railroad along Market Street: in Center City, where the railroad went underground, the tracks were was built using the “cut-and-cover” technique previously employed in the construction of New York and Boston’s underground system. In West Philadelphia, the line ran above ground, through what was then largely undeveloped farmland.
By choosing to buy a house in Cedar Park, William Bricker had the best of both worlds when it came to commuting into Center City. He was only two blocks north from the electric trolley line that ran along Baltimore Avenue, and seven blocks south of the 52nd Street stop on the Market Street Elevated, which opened for business in 1907. Travel time from West Philadelphia to the Center City business district was cut to a mere 10 minutes. Between 1910 and 1920, West Philadelphia’s population skyrocketed by 110,000 residents, its greatest increase ever, to hit a peak population of 410,000. Within a few years, the rowhouses and apartment buildings of the Garden Court development filled up the sylvan landscape separating the Bricker house from the elevated line.
Considering the number of Philadelphia transit-related articles I have written over the past several years, I found the purchase of this particular house to be quite a fortunate coincidence. To the PhillyHistory.org readership: if anyone has additional information on the Bricker family, please let me know!
Note: to read about the creation of the Center City Commuter Connection, click here to read my PlanPhilly article from 2008.
Music from the period of our “ragtime” house: the “Top Liner” rag, composed by Joseph Lamb in 1916.
Joseph Minardi, Historic Architecture in West Philadelphia, 1789-1930s (Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2011), p.94.
Samuel Bass Warner Jr., The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Growth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), p.194.
Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, February 18, 1910.
Catalogue of Delta Upsilon (New York: The Arthur Crist Company, 1917) p.479.
Annual Report of the Bureau of Railways, Department for Internal Affairs, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Part IV: Railroad, Canal, Telephone, and Telegrah Companies (Harrisburg: C.E. Aughinbaugh, 1910), p.507.
Anthony J. Drexel was one of the wizards of late 19th century finance. He also had big shoes to fill. His Austrian-born father Francis Martin Drexel emigrated to America at the dawn of the 19th century to seek his fortune as a portrait painter. The elder Drexel found that he was more skilled at bond trading than portraiture–although talented, he was no Thomas Eakins. Like many immigrant fathers, Francis put his three sons (Francis Jr., Joseph, and Anthony) to work at the family business, running errands and sweeping floors in their office at 2nd and Chestnut. He also went on more than his share of adventures: at the age of 13, he guarded a gold shipment as it traveled by stagecoach from Philadelphia to New Orleans. In this pre-Federal Reserve era, paper money was untrustworthy. Gold was king.
Although Anthony (born in 1826) would eventually inherit one of the nation’s great banking fortunes, the lack of a formal education plagued him all of his life. Despite his wealth, he felt awkward in Philadelphia society, and preferred the privacy and love of family life. Although he and his wife Ellen lived there briefly, he had little interest in the gaiety of the Rittenhouse Square set. The titans of Wall Street didn’t know him that well, either. As The New York Times wrote of him: “For a man of such financial importance, Mr. Drexel did not have a wide personal acquaintance here in this city.”
Soon after this father’s death in 1863, Anthony Drexel purchased a large plot of land centered at the intersection of 39th and Walnut streets, far out in West Philadelphia. He then commissioned an unknown architect (possibly Samuel Sloan, designer of nearby Woodland Terrace) to design a sprawling Italianate villa, where he, his wife Ellen, and their nine children could live away from the noise and dirt of Center City. He was also generous to his extended family, frequently looking after his niece Katharine Drexel, whose father Francis Jr. raised his children as strict Roman Catholics. His brother Anthony however crossed the Reformation aisle, raising his family as Episcopalians. As an adult, Katharine renounced her privileged upbringing altogether and became a nun, donating her time and vast inheritance to Native American and African-American civil rights causes.
The A.J. Drexel compound in West Philadelphia took up the entire 3900 block of Walnut Street, and was separated from the street by a hedges and a high iron fence. Not that there was much traffic in those days: the horse-drawn street car ran as far west as 41st and Chestnut. West of 42nd Street, the city melted away into a pastoral landscape of rolling fields and babbling creeks.
Drexel has a few other high-profile neighbors, namely the Clarks–who lived at Chestnutwold, 42nd and Locust–and the Pottses–who lived in a Ruskinian Gothic pile at 3905 Spruce Street. To the east and north were several less idyllic neighbors, most notably the Blockley Almshouse, Presbyterian Hospital, and the Pennsylvania Home for Blind Women.
The area was pretty but not exactly fashionable. Promoters wrote of West Philadelphia that “the ground in general is elevated, and remarkably healthy; the streets are wide, and many of them bordered with rows of handsome shade trees.” For their part, the denizens of Rittenhouse Square claimed that residents of West Philadelphia spoke with a distinctly unpleasant accent. Drexel didn’t particularly care. Nonetheless, he spent much the next three decades of his life investing in and improving the blocks around his home, especially after the University of Pennsylvania’s move to the site of the Blockley Almshouse in 1873.
To be continued…
“Anthony Drexel is Dead,” The New York Times, July 1, 1893.