John Stanger teaches writing at Elmhurst College. He has also edited English textbooks for McGraw-Hill. Recently he sent us a series of short vignettes from his years growing up in Oak Park.
“I write when the mood hits me,” he says. “I might write more. There are many stories to tell.”
We hope you enjoy this nostalgia trip as much as we did.
When I turned 12, it cost me 50 cents to go to the movies. I liked the Lake Theatre because there was always a double feature.
The patrons were quiet and orderly, and I attribute that to the presence of Sgt. Dibbern. Mr. Dibbern patrolled the aisles on weekend evenings. The rest of the time, he was a sergeant on the Oak Park Police Department. He seemed to know where potential trouble was brewing, and one look from him caused mischief to disappear. I went to elementary and high school with his son, Ron, with whom I am still a friend. I knew Mr. Dibbern as a nice guy, but in the theater he was all business, and I knew that I would be reprimanded, too, for goofing off.
The one night when the noise got out of control was when the movie Rock Around the Clock was showing. Boys and girls jumped out of their seats and danced in the aisles and even on the stage. Although Mr. Dibbern was challenged, he called for the film to be stopped and then he tossed out the “performers.” It wasn’t long before peace and quiet was restored.
The only times most kids could go to the movies was on weekend evenings, so we knew that Mr. Dibbern would be watching over us.
The Lamar Theater on South Marion [Where Family Services and Mental Health Center is now located] was OK, but the management showed one film, and it still cost 50 cents. Most of us rarely went there because we felt only “old folks” attended the Lamar. Now we are the “old folks,” and the Lamar would be a welcome place, but alas, it long ago fell to the wrecking ball.
The Southern Theater was on South Oak Park Avenue by the Garfield (now the Eisenhower) el. The movies were old, the floors were sticky, and the place closed when a number of people got ringworm from resting their heads on the back of the seats.
I got my first summer job in 1956 at the age of 16. I was the stock boy, janitor and mail boy at Cannon’s Book Store on Oak Park Avenue. I worked from 8 to 5, six days a week. My bosses were Mrs. Cannon, Miss Fordyce, and Mrs. Mann (Mrs. Cannon’s daughter, the wife of jazz drummer, Bobby Mann).
I stocked the shelves with new shipments, swept the floor, dusted the shelves, washed the windows, and took huge cartons of books via dolly to the post office-all of this for $1 per hour with a half-hour for lunch. Oh, yes, more than once the cartons fell off the dolly into the street, and yes, I was caught once or twice in a downpour.
In the summer of 1957, I worked from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Richman Brothers Clothing Store on Lake Street. I worked five days a week and earned $1.50 per hour. My job was to receive pick-up tickets from male customers (or their wives), find their altered suits and pack the suits in a Richman box.
Mr. Greenberg, the manager, was a fanatic about “the right crease,” so he always watched me pack the suits. I did learn how to pack clothing and that served me well over the years whenever I have had to pack a suitcase.
Miss Pocock’s dancing class
Many of my peers, as well as myself, had the “pleasure” of attending Miss Jessie Pocock’s Dance Class at the Oak Park Club on Thursday evenings during the school year. We started in seventh grade and continued through eighth grade and that ended the lessons for most of the kids. I was not so lucky. I continued through my freshman year of high school because my folks thought I had potential. I never learned much because I had two left feet and little interest.
Picture this: Adolescent girls dressed in formal gowns and boys in suits and all wearing white gloves. The boys sat on one side and the girls sat on the other side of the huge hall. Most of the time we glared at each other. The worst of it was that when dancing, the boys had to hold the girls around their waists with the right arm and hold their raised right hand with the left hand. The gloves were a good idea because they stemmed the flow of sweat. Sometimes I’d need “special” instruction from one of Miss Pocock’s young female teachers-E GAD!
There were two or three times during the year when we performed for our parents, who sat in the balcony admiring their little Arthur and Katherine Murrays. I would try everything to avoid these evenings, but my sudden attacks of illness went unheeded, so there I was, tripping over my feet or worse yet, trodding on some girl’s feet.
I know that Miss Pocock made a lot of money off of the doting parents because she would arrive at the club in a chauffeur-driven limousine and appear dripping with furs and jewelry.
If you want to know, I still have two left feet.
Oak Park and River
Forest High School
The teachers were very fine, serious and devoted people, but there were some amusing incidents in the classroom that I can remember.
In the freshman year, all students took General Science. This was before honors classes were part of the curriculum. My science teacher was also a coach, and he had a difficult time explaining anatomy. One of my classmates was a doctor’s son, and he would correct the teacher practically every time the teacher pointed to a part of the human body on the life-like wall chart. Whenever this happened, the teacher would blow his stack. The next year, this teacher was permanently assigned to physical education classes.
My American History teacher was a very prim and proper lady who would often lecture us on the dangers of smoking. One day her purse fell off her desk and a pack of cigarettes skittered across the floor. Her face turned beet red as she retrieved the pack. She told us that she had found in them in the hall and was going to throw them out. Oh yeah!
The lady I had for first-year English was a great lover of poetry. One day she was deep into a reading and while the tears were streaming down her face, some ceiling tiles fell to the floor. She continued reading as she was oblivious to the noise of the falling tiles. Even the sound of students getting under their desks didn’t stop her from reading.
My third-year English teacher was practically deaf even though he wore two hearing aids. In those days each classroom had a telephone which was on the teacher’s desk. About two or three times a week, someone from the attendance office would call our teacher. Whenever the phone would ring, a student would point to the phone, and the teacher would pick up the receiver. The conversation went something like this:
Teacher: “Who? What? Who? Spell that name. S? oh, C. What? H.A. What? R? OK. LD? No? What? E? OK. S. OK. Let me check on Charles. She-oh-he. No, he isn’t here.”
I am certain that the person from the office was completely frazzled when the conversation ended.
My World History teacher droned on and on when he lectured, causing one or two people to snooze. His method for awakening them was to drop two heavy books on their respective desks. Fortunately, none of the sleepers ever suffered a heart attack.
Our biology teacher announced one day that the next day he was going to take a drop of blood from each student’s finger so that we could study the blood cells under a microscope. My lab partner, Susan, was very excited and said that she couldn’t wait, because her goal was to become a doctor. The next day we lined up and the teacher jabbed each of us. Susan was in front of me, and when her turn came, she fainted. I wonder if she became a hematologist.
Some of my classmates talked about other “different” incidents, but these are the ones that happened in my classes.
My favorite teacher was Miss Redmond, my sophomore English teacher. She made poetry so interesting. Not only that, but she was quite attractive. My class of 1957 is celebrating our 50th Class Reunion on Oct. 12-13, 2007.
We didn’t have a TV until I was 11 in 1951. Before this, we played outside after school and listened to the radio at night. Listening to the radio sharpened one’s imagination. When I finally saw some of the actors on TV, many looked nothing like I had pictured them in my mind.
After school, the neighborhood kids would play ball games at Dunne’s Lot. One fall day, I showed up for football and no one was present. I went to a buddy’s house, and I was told that the kids were at Eric’s house watching Howdy Doody. I went to Eric’s and was invited into the living room where the show was in progress on the brand new TV set. I watched for a few minutes and then asked the kids to come out and play ball.
None of them seemed interested, so I went home. That day marked the beginning of the end of our sports activities. It was a rare day-except in summer when we could field a couple of teams.
We were probably the last family in the block to get a TV. My grandfather was convinced that a person would eventually go blind watching TV. When we got the TV, the fear of blindness did not stop him from watching TV from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
My folks limited my TV viewing to the extent that I was allowed to watch shows on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings (one show). In my home, outside play, chores and homework took precedence over television.
Even today, I am not a regular TV viewer, but I certainly would watch if “Omnibus,” “You Are There,” and “Gunsmoke,” were televised. But, alas, excluding PBS, the current menu is not to my taste.
My grandfather was a history buff, and he sometimes talked about a local World War I hero. My dad had served in the Great War, so I was interested in hearing about Alan Winslow-what a great name for a war hero.
Alan was born in 1897 to the William Winslows of 515 Auvergne Place (River Forest). This home was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and is known as the Winslow House. Alan graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1915 and spent two years at Yale before he enlisted in the Navy in 1917. He soon transferred to the Air Service where he was trained by French pilots.
He was a sergeant, but soon was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant and flew with Eddie Rickenbacker’s Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron (the 94th), which was based in France. He and the famous ace, Douglas Campbell, are credited with destroying the first two German planes downed by the 94th. This occurred near Toul, France, on April 14, 1918. Alan was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for this action. During the next three months, Winslow shot down at least one dirigible and two more German planes.
While in a dogfight on July 31, 1918, Winslow was shot down. His fellow airmen as well as his brother, Paul, thought that Alan had been killed, but a letter written by Alan to his mother disclosed the fact that he had been captured after he crash-landed. He had been taken to a POW camp where his shattered left arm was amputated.
After the war, he lived in Washington, D.C. It is believed that he died in Ottawa, Canada in 1933, but the records are somewhat unclear about this fact.
From 1947-1957, my family owned Studebakers. We had Commodores and Commanders. In fact, I learned to drive on a ’56 Commodore. There are two things I remember about Studebakers: 1) The company, which was founded in 1857, had built wagons for the U.S. Army, and 2) All Studebakers looked like torpedoes.
My Uncle Gene, on the other hand, bought either a new Lincoln or new Cadillac every two years. When I couldn’t find him, I knew that he was in the garage tinkering with his machine. His objective was to keep the motor purring.
One day I was assisting him (handing him tools) when the garage window suddenly shattered. The neighbor kid was shooting at our garage with his Red Ryder BB Gun and one BB hit me in the forehead, and the other put a dinger on the hood of Gene’s Lincoln. The dinger, I believe, bothered him more than did my wound. He went to the neighbor’s house and audibly complained about the damage done to his car and casually mentioned my forehead. The neighbors paid for the car repair. They asked my folks if I required medical attention, but they said I did not.
I remember that these neighbors moved to a far western suburb where Jimmy could continue practicing with his Red Ryder and not hit anything of value.
The Julian family
I attended O.W. Holmes School with the Julian children. Percy, Jr. was in the class behind me (1954), and his sister, Faith, and cousin, Roderick, were younger. I met Mrs. Julian a few times at school functions, but I never met Dr. Julian.
I often walked home at noon with the Julian children. I lived on Oak Park and Chicago avenues, and they lived on East and Chicago. If I didn’t walk home at noon with them, I would see them on their way back to school because I was the patrol boy at Oak Park and Chicago.
I remember the Julian children as being very polite and kind people. I didn’t see much of Percy Jr. after grade school graduation, even though we both attended Oak Park High, but he was a year behind me and in different classes. I believe that Percy eventually graduated from Harvard.
I remember when their home was bombed. It was a terrible event, but fortunately, no one was injured.
Dr. Julian was a great man whose discoveries helped to alleviate human suffering. The Julians displayed great courage by staying in Oak Park, and their bravery, I am certain, dissuaded the racist hoodlum element from attempting further violent attempts on the Julian family.
The Art League
My family lived at 516 N. Oak Park Ave., so the Art League was across our southern fence. There are four things I remember:
1) I was sent to a class to learn how to draw still life. After four sessions, it was determined that I was artistically handicapped.
2) From time to time, I would see Ernest Hemingway’s mother arriving for her classes. She was a formidable appearing woman, probably six feet tall and always dressed for winter. I learned that every year she drove to the Painted Desert and set up her equipment along the side of the road and painted in watercolor.
3) During the summer months, my family enjoyed the Thursday night rehearsing of the barbershop singers.
4) Every Thursday afternoon was devoted to burning wastepaper. Since our receptacle was near the southern fence, I got to know Mr. Al, the artist-custodian of the league. He and I spent many Thursdays discussing everything but art as we watched our respective fires destroy the weekly paper collection.
Major Leaguers in River Forest
During World War II, many Major League ballplayers enlisted in the Navy and were sent to the Great Lakes Training Center for basic and to await transfer to another duty post. While at Great Lakes, they formed a baseball team with the great Tiger catcher, Mickey Cochrane, as their manager. They would play local college teams on Sunday afternoons during the spring.
My grandfather would often go to the Concordia diamond to watch Bob Feller, Johnny Mize, Virgil Trucks, and Hal Newhouser play. One of the players was an 18-year-old seaman named Johnny Groth. He was to later star for the Tigers and the White Sox. Also, Johnny married the daughter of my parents’ best man.
A number of years ago, I mentioned the baseball games to a Concordia professor. The professor told me that he was a pitcher on the college team during WWII, and that his greatest thrill was playing against the formidable team from Great Lakes.
One Sunday afternoon he was called into the game to pitch to Ken Keltner, the third baseman for the Indians. Well, my professor friend whizzed two strikes past Keltner and could feel fame coming his way as he grooved the next pitch toward the plate. My friend heard the crack of the bat and watched his Sunday pitch soar over the left field fence and across Division Street. His flirtation with fame had disappeared on an 0-2 fast ball.
On the northeast corner of Oak Park and Chicago avenues was the large green expanse known in the neighborhood as Dunne’s lot, probably because it was next to the Dunne home.
This was our baseball field, soccer field and football field. Neighborhood kids played without coaches, parents or referees being present. Being deprived in this way, it is surprising that some of the boys went on to become star athletes in high school and college.
Generally, we got along well, and I can’t remember any bench-clearing brawls; However, one incident does stand out. It was on a Sunday in summer around noon, and the field was muddy because of a Saturday evening downpour. We were waiting for our right-fielder, Jerry, to return from church and because Jerry was late, we started the game without him. He finally appeared in the fourth inning, and we were at bat. Jerry took off his tie and jacket, and we immediately put this heavy hitter into the lineup. We were losing when he stepped to the plate. Chuck Cee was coaching at first, and he motioned me over to him. He told me that if Jerry got a good hit, he was going to have some fun with him. Well, Jerry lashed the first pitch into the right field corner, and was headed for second when Chuck yelled, “Slide, Jerry, it’s gonna be close.” The right-fielder was fumbling the ball when Jerry hit the mud and was sprayed from head to foot. Jerry was so mad that he ran off of second, grabbed a bat, and went after Chuck. I can still see Jerry in hot pursuit of Chuck who was running for his life up Oak Park Avenue.
From time to time, one of us would bat a ball through a window in the Dunne home. Well, being solid citizens (actually, afraid of the consequences), we would divide the cost and pay Mr. Dunne. He wasn’t surprised by our honesty; he and all adults expected it.
In 1956 a ranch home was built on the site of Dunne’s lot.
The Reyff Toy Store was located on the west side of Oak Park Avenue near where Erik’s Deli is in operation. The most fascinating item in the store was the train. This electric train went through a village, over a mountain, across a river, and stopped at a depot.
Mr. Stanley Reyff, Jr. was never too busy for kids.
He would turn on the train anytime one or a dozen kids wanted to watch it. It held our attention for hours.
Next door to the toy store was Reyff’s 5 & 10. This was the place where many kids went to buy school supplies, not only on the first day of school but throughout the year. I remember how courteous the clerks were in the stores.
Mr. Reyff, Jr. and his dad had as much fun as the kids did watching the train and talking about the steel erector sets and the different types of bicycles that were on display. What toy store can you go to today and have such camaraderie with the owners?