Sunday, May 20, 2012

School's Almost Out!

Hot town, summer in the city: I am certain the readers of this blog reflect on their summers as special times during high school. As a child I was fortunate to live at the end of St. Clair Ave. Thus I got to see and hear the band practice up and down Waddell as they marched Waddell from the school to Tenth Street. On days I could not afford or did not choose to pay bus fare to Noble J. Dick bus lines I recall thumbing (otherwise called “bumming” or “hitch-hiking would) a ride to the Park to enjoy a day at the pool. I remember walking to the Stadium to watch the football players working out for the season after they’d returned from camp, and seeing the Honeybears practicing their routines. Some days I would walk up to the Fifth Street School playground or thumb a ride to the Terrace to check out the playground activities. Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer were fun-filled activities that are no longer available.

Times change; kids don’t: Today the young people of Clairton have the same 10 weeks or so off in the summer. But times have changed, opportunities have diminished and the number of wholesome and constructive activities available has been reduced by a large margin. Gone are the wpaying summer jobs in the mill or on the City Parks and Recreation staff have disappeared. Summer jobs to bolster the college fund simply no longer exist. The City does not fund supervision at the playgrounds and the number of playgrounds has been reduced. The pool still offers recreation, and with the building of the Ravensburg Bridge, kids from “the hill” can easily walk to Clairton Park and the pool.

It boils down to economics: In our day nobody seemed to be extremely wealthy nad few were dirt poor. Every family seemed to be middle class with two parents and three and one-half kids. The lawns were green, dads worked and moms for the most part stayed at home. Today, the number of single-parent families has skyrocketed and opportunities for employment are sparse. Those who do not earn a scholarship or receive financial aid will likely not pursue any post-secondary education Summers have become a time to simply “hang out” between the end of one school year and the beginning of another.

A few groups of current and former Clairtonians, nearly all CHS alumni are working to change that. The Clairton Chamber of Commerce, the Reaching the Reachable outreach program, and members of the Clairton History Facebook friends have been working furiously over the past year to provide mentoring for current CHS students, offering real life examples of CHS alumni who have become successful in various fields of endeavor, demonstrating job application and interviewing skills, teaching the ins and outs of obtaining financial aid for post-secondary education, and many other avenues to help current CHS students and grads reverse the cycle of poverty that has gripped many in our hometown. Ted Kay, Terrence Fort, Dr. Pauline Long, Joannie, Jordan, Terry Lancaster, Kathy Grisnik Tachoir, and Dr. Elisabeth Erlich are among the many who have taken the baton to help the youth of our community break the bonds of poverty.

First things first: With the school year about to end and graduation rate high, athletic successes noted, a summer of uncertainty is about to begin. With few recreational outlets many of our children will spend the summer hanging out and doing little that is constructive simply due to lack of opportunities. Minutes of a recent meeting of the group included the following: After a review of the process and template we would use, we identified, discussed and selected the initiatives to implement for Clairton's youth for the summer. Volunteer "Champions" were named to develop action plans/timing, identify local contacts or groups and implement each initiative. Five immediate and three long term initiatives were adopted.

Immediate needs: 1. Field Trips,  2. Swimming Pool Passes, 3. Playground Activities,  4. Movie Nights,  5. Community Day.

Long Term initiatives: 6. S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math Coalition),  7. Computer Training, and  8. Vacation Bible School Schedules.”

Help is needed: None of the above can occur without help and support from CHS Alumni. Our fantastic alumni has stepped forward in the past to help with scholarship and athletic projects for our children. We ask you to do so again. The City of Clairton has committed several hundred dollars as a first step in helping the summer projects and we are asking you to supplement their commitment with your alumni gift. Every person listed above, as well as many other fellow alums are providing their time, money and effort on a volunteer basis helping with field trips and movie nights. Donations are now needed to purchase pool passes for the 2012 summer season.

The Clairton pool policy is to admit free any child under 3 feet tall when accompanied by an adult. Your donations will help purchase pool passes for children whose stature exceeds 36”

 A few donations have already been committed. Send your donation to: Joanie Jordan, 13 Wellington Woods Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15229.

 A little blogging music Maestro: “Be True to Your School” by The Beachboys.

Dr. Forgot

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


From Clairton to College: Back in the late 1800s when I attended Clairton High School – or so my grandkids think that is when I attended – it was actually the late 1950s – Clairton was a booming mill town. African Americans, first generation European Americans, Anglo-Americans whose families had been here for generations, all worked side-by-side in the area’s mills and all studied side-by-side in the classrooms of Clairton High School and the many elementary schools in the community. Sub-communities were somewhat segregated with Slavs, Italians, and African Americans dominating parts of town but it was not uncommon for most of the neighborhoods to be integrated. The closest thing to a wealthy section of town was the mansion at the end of Mitchell Avenue. Work was plentiful, the economy boomed, and for the most part life was good.

People are people: The community was not without its blemishes. There were occasional skirmishes at the school and in the mill, accusations of political chicanery, a scandal when one of the teachers was accused of photographing nude underage girls, and there were even illicit drugs for sale on our little version of Mayberry. But overall, most residents had a goal for their family and that goal included having their children get a good education, graduate from high school then join the service, get a job, or pursue a college education. The Marines seemed to be the service branch of choice for many of those who opted for the military and jobs were plentiful in the mill as well as in supporting businesses for those who chose option two. Many scholarships were available to those who opted for college, from scholarships offered by affinity groups to the PICCO scholarship offered by the booming chemical plant at the bottom of the hill. The population was bursting at its seams with a high of about 28,000 residents including many returning young WW-II veterans who moved into cheap and available temporary housing to begin their families.

Our choices were sometimes overruled: I was never crazy about the academic side of school. From junior high school onward I did not do particularly well in my classes. Oh I learned most of what was taught, but for some reason did not earn stellar grades. I did not see scholarly pursuits in my future. My vision was to go to the Marine Corps and do whatever it was they did at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune, then return to Clairton in my snazzy Marine dress uniform to wow the girls who did not give me a second look while in high school.  At least that was my fantasy.

BZZZZZZT!!!! Wake up call! My father had other plans for me and since I was the only son in an ethnic family those plans included post-secondary education. We argued. Service. College. Service. College. Service. College. And so the arguments went until a classmate told me she was going to a college 2,000 miles away that was sponsored by a religion that I’d barely heard of.

That was my answer! I would tell my father I’d go to college only if I got to choose the school. He’s balk at my choice and I’d be free to go to the Marine Corps! Wrong. He did not balk and at the tender age of 17 I ended up a stranger in a strange land, attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Times change: The only places where things stay forever grand and happy are in fairy tales and reminiscent blogs. I went on to college and to my surprise, actually graduated with a degree in Psychology and eventually earned Masters and Doctoral degrees. But the winds of change blew almost from the very day I left Clairton. First there was the assassination of a young popular president, then the war in far off Viet Nam, Woodstock, Watergate, gasoline shortages, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so many other changes worldwide and in the U.S. And of course, our little cornet of Camelot did not go unscathed. The booming steel industry was dismantled as Detroit manufacturers lost market share to foreign competitors whose cars were smaller, sleeker, more efficient and more dependable. Clairton became one more component of the rust belt when the mills closed up and down the river.  The city’s population base began to tumble to the low 20,000 mark then into the teens, and by the turn of the 21st century, to below 10,000 and by 2010 to around 6,500 souls lived in the once-thriving community. Those who had gone off to college and the military for the most part did not return and their parents who had worked their careers in the mills stayed in their paid off homes until they died out.

The worst was yet to come: As mentioned above, my first university degree was in Psychology; the study of human behavior. Two characteristics of human behavior have emerged in our town. First, it is human nature to not want to be at the bottom level of society. People at the bottom scratch and fight to get off the floor and that often means doing it at the expense of knocking somebody else to the bottom. Clairton appears to have been the "Somebody Else." We see this in the constant negative media coverage of our town regarding drugs, shootings, and any other negative sensational headline or gossip that attempts to put Clairton below surrounding communities. This phenomenon is exacerbated by those who still live there or who have moved away but join in on the bashing, making the community appear worse off than it actually is.

Are there real problems in Clairton that include drugs, violence, and a struggling school system? Of course. But those conditions are no worse nor better than many sister cities up and down the Monongahela Valley who have suffered similar downturns.

Turn the tide: Instead of dwelling on the negative, as is human nature, some current and former residents have begun to take an active role in erasing stereotypes by accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. Terrence Fort and a host of others have recently begun the CHS Mentorship program. Their goal is to get every CHS grad into some sort of post-secondary education program. Thus far they’ve brought in successful CHS alumni to speak to current CHS students, brought in a financial aid specialist to discuss the ins and outs of financial aid for post-secondary education, mentored students on a 1:1 basis, conducted mock interviews with students, and many other activities.

I’ve also gotten wind that another group is in the process of forming a not-for-profit corporation that will allow them to seek grants to raze and refurbish Clairton properties that have been abandoned. We’ve heard about the school’s successes on the football field and it is gratifying to see successes in other areas. I have every confidence that the tide will indeed turn in Clairton and the community will once again be a model for health and happiness. It might have to start small, but every acorn that grows to be a mighty oak started as a seed.

A little blogging music Maestro: “I Will Survive” by Cake.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Clairton Stuff

MISCELLANEOUS CLAIRTON Seems like a while: It has been quite a while since I’ve last written anything Clairton. Been busy on Facebook between Reaching the Reachable, Clairton History, and Clairton Activists. But most time has been spent in my newest venue, being an usher at the newly opened Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Have had the good fortune to work and see the musical Color Purple as well as the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Pink Floyd, Clint Holms, Celtic Women, Golda’s Balcony, Yo Yo Ma, Al Gereau, and many others. Today’s blog will be rambling about Clairton as well as some notes from one of your former teachers – although I did not have the pleasure of taking his class.

    Bears will be Bears: We have noted, as have many media outlets, the successes over the past four years of the Clairton Bears football team and their 47-game win streak as well as their three consecutive state championships. But as Albert E. Einstein once said, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Such can be illustrated by the Bears baseball team that lost as many consecutive games as the football team has won. In fact, the baseball team has not won three consecutive games in the past seven years, until three games ago. Not only did the Baseball Bears break their Bad News Bears moniker, they knocked off an undefeated rival and now stand a chance – albeit a long shot, of making the playoffs. And this turnaround was done under the guidance of a first year coach! Go Bears and thanks to Bill “Woodland Terrace Forever” Bennett for the tip.

  When is a number more than a number?: One of Clairton’s all time favorite teachers mentioned in earlier blogs is alumnus Don Taylor. As noted above, I did not have the pleasure of his teaching but in a recent spate of emails many of his former students praised him and referred to 917. My first thought was that it was an area code, but that led to Brooklyn, NY. I couldn’t figure it out so I went to the source and asked Don about the history of the mystery. Here is his response:

 “So, here is the story: One day during class [my history class, juniors, Class of 1962] a student complained that history was difficult for him since he had a hard time remembering events, dates, etc. I then explained that history was not merely an exercise in remembering and dates but involved understanding, analyzing, etc. Furthermore, I replied that there were cognitive studies which indicated that what we have experienced and learned is stored in our memory and that given the proper stimulus it would be restored to our recollection. I went on to say that it is therefore difficult to forget! At that point I chose the number 917 as an example [no connection, birthday, significance, nothing, just "out-- of-- the-- air" number]. I then had them repeat it several times, write it several times, etc. After a few minutes I asked if any had forgotten the number.

 NO one had! Every time you consciously attempt to forget it the memory of the number is reinforced by the stimulus.

 I then did the same experiment in each class and over the years. Following this I reinforced their memory by having it appear again and again [e.g. John Doe lived at 917 Fifth Avenue], in one of my skits in a pep assembly, a mad man appeared in a strait jacket wildly proclaiming that Duquesne would defeat the Bears that evening. Upon being pursued by attendants from the asylum, he fled and on his back was his inmate number -- 917.

 Once when my championship high school quiz team led by Nancy Bekavac was on the radio, they always selected 9 for the first question set, then 1, then 7 [those from Clairton listening chuckled but our opponents sensed we were on to something when they scouted us] and so on during the remaining years I enjoyed at CHS [last class I taught was 1968].

 It eventually took on a life of its own. When I meet students from that period now a half century later, they often greet me with the number 917. It is in my email, played on the lottery, the combination of locks, and who knows what else! Perhaps now you will be stuck with it after this message!

 Finally, and for me most important, I believe it has become a sign of affection between an old school teacher and his beloved students who respected and loved one another. A love which remains UNFORGOTTEN!”

 Fondly, "Mr. Taylor"

  Times change but great teachers don’t: With a little prodding, Don Mr. Taylor gave me another example of his creative teaching delivery style: “All sorts of memories are coming in regarding Clairton. Lynne Carroll Novak [CHS in the mid 60's -- very pretty Honeybear] wrote that Thomas Jefferson had red hair. Others remember that Columbus had red hair from my teaching. Interesting how my use of gimmicks has been remembered. 

Early in my teaching at Clairton, I had a young man last name Lawson. In teaching about Columbus, I mentioned that before he became prematurely grey, he had red hair. I always attempted to make the people in history real flesh and blood persons. I then stressed the problem of stereotyping people [northern Italy not all darker complexion -- the Natali family in Clairton -- Marie, red hair --middle row first seat in room 104].

 Also in order to encourage more complete answers on my essay tests and to have students not give up but to try and figure out the answer, I announced that I would give a point for at least trying even if it were wrong. Comes the test and Lawson did not know an answer but wrote, "Columbus had red hair." O.K. he got one point. The next test and again he didn't know an answer and wrote that Columbus had red hair. Come on Richard! You wrote that on the last test! But true to my promise -- one point. To give him and any others a different answer for one point I began to mention others with red hair, George Rogers Clark, Thomas Jefferson, Generals Wolfe [British victor at Quebec] and Sherman [Civil War], "Jeb" Stuart with a red beard, etc., etc. Thus began the only history of red haired people being taught in America!

 Another example of having some fun in the midst of serious lectures. That and my extra curricular efforts, Pep Club, chaperoning, skits, being there after school for discussions, encouragement, counseling, etc., etc. What bonding and enjoyment and enduring friendships we had in addition to the college prep type teaching that I attempted to provide.”

 A little blogging music Maestro: “Be True to Your School” by The Beachboys. Dr. Forgot email: