Wednesday, August 29, 2012

When Wilson spake, students listened

Professor William R. King, retired, is one of our favorite blog readers. To refresh your memory, Bill King clod-hopped into the grandeur of Clairton High School on a bus from Elrama. He was a bit intimidated by the "city folk" of the huge metropolis of Clairton and its fancy high school so he acted out. That is, until a school administrator had, what pundits today call a "come to Jesus" talk with him and his education began to change. He immersed himself in the opportunities at CHS, graduated, earned a Ph.D. and became a popular and prolific faculty member at Pitt. So outstanding was his work that no less a world leader than Vladimir Putin lifted (as in plagiarized) some of Professor Bill's writing and placed it in his (Putin's) own dissertation. You can Google it for the specifics as it created quite a stir.

Professor Bill recently wrote a piece about his experiences in Miss Wilson's English class at CHS. In case you missed it:

Some affiliations that we make become a part of our identity.
For instance, a Marine is always a Marine -- never an ex-Marine. A member of a college fraternity or sorority usually says, "I'm a Sigma Nu" (or whatever). Members of national lodges, such as the Masons or Elks, often wear lapel pins so that they can be recognized by other members.

I have such a lifelong affiliation, acquired in high school, that is shared with thousands of people. I am a member in good standing of "Miss Wilson's Chaucer Cult."
Some background: Miss Helen D. Wilson taught me and about 150 other kids in six classes of senior English at Clairton High School in 1955-56. To me, she was a frail, little, old spinster lady who was very demanding.

For instance, we were required to learn about six vocabulary words each day. Every day, she would select students to recite the meaning that they had gleaned from a dictionary of each of the previous day's words. Other students were chosen to use them in a sentence. Anyone unable to fulfill this duty got a cold frown and a mark ostentatiously made in her grade book.

She never specifically told us the purpose of this, probably because the short-term purpose was to help us on the "College Boards," now called the SATs, and that might have turned off those who weren't going to college. In those days, the idea of preparing for these important tests, now an industry, was not widely accepted. Besides, who can argue that having a better vocabulary isn't a good thing for everyone?

I understood this and other demands that Miss Wilson made. But the one thing that she had us do whose purpose I could not fathom was to memorize and recite the "Prologue" to Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" in OLD ENGLISH. It goes something like this: "Whan thet Aprilla whet ets sura sota, the droth of March hath perced to the rota ... " and on and on. (Apologies to those offended by misspellings of Old English; I learned it only phonetically.)
It was a number of years before I discovered Miss W's purpose in searing this strange poetry into our memories. I had to see a new school principal about one of my kids. The newspaper article about his appointment mentioned that he was a Clairton High School graduate. So, I thought that our common background would be a good icebreaker for the serious talk that I wanted to have with him.

His secretary ushered me into his office, and we shook hands with me saying, "I understand that we went to the same high school." He replied, "Did you happen to have Miss Wilson for senior English?" I nodded and we both spontaneously broke into a recitation: "Whan thet Aprilla ... "

His secretary came rushing back into the office saying, "I heard you two doing that strange chant and I thought that there must be something going on that is awfully weird!" After assuring her that we were still sane, we discussed our joint realization that we were unwitting members of "Miss Wilson's Chaucer Cult."

Something like this has happened to me a number of other times. Over the years, I've tried to figure out the benefits that our ability to do this recitation, other than recognizing fellow cult members, might have. I have found none. On those rare occasions when I've demonstrated this ability in public, such as when conversation is in a lull at a dinner party, people's eyes have a tendency to glaze over and some hurriedly leave the table.

My wife, who is also a member of the cult since she took the course with Miss W a year after me, is more sensible. She does recitations only in the privacy of our bedroom; I suspect it's to turn me on.

So, it seems to me that the sole purpose of this class assignment was the creation of a cult. We were being sent out into the world, like "sleeper" agents planted by a foreign intelligence service, to be activated at some future time when we meet another member.

This little lady, Miss Wilson, teacher over the years of thousands of students and now long dead, lives on through the cult that she created, as well as in the hearts and minds of those of us who she taught so much and who remember her so fondly.
William R. King of Fox Chapel, a retired University of Pittsburgh professor, can be reached at The PG Portfolio welcomes "Back to School" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.

A little blogging music Maestro: "Be True to your School" by the Beachboys.

Dr. Forgot

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Visionary or ADHD?

Fifth Street Grade School: From the time I was in the second grade my parents did not receive good reports on me from the school. In fact, I was passed to the third grade “on condition,” which meant if my academic performance was not up to snuff in the third grade the school reserved the right to demote me and have me repeat the second grade. Somehow I made it through the third grade and beyond but the comments that accompanied my not-so-stellar report card nearly always included, “He daydreams when he should be working.”

Definition of a visionary: I once heard a visionary described as “one who looks at the same thing but sees something else.” I do not profess to be a visionary – my daydreaming was probably undiagnosed ADHD - although to this day I see things differently than many other people. My view of Clairton and the image vs. the vision is also different than that of many others. I am not talking about the Clairton of the 1920s through the 1950, nor the people who claim Clairton as their hometown but have moved on to impact the world. I’ve written about many such people in this blog; Ron Lancaster in sports, Johnny Moio in Hollywood, Dr. Walter Cooper Cooper, scientist and inventor, Nancy Bekavac, college president, Joan Cutuly, writer and educator, Benny Benack, musician, Claudine Cmrada Schneider, Congresswoman and Harvard professor, and many, many more. But today we will discuss neither the good old days nor the sweet by and by, but what’s happening in the here and now.

What’s happening in Clairton: Short history: Our town was born, thrived, and like much of the Mon Valley and Pittsburgh went into a period of decline. Many left for better job opportunities but remain in spirit with family ties or memories of the good things of our past. New residents moved to Clairton and some long-timers remained and have weathered the storm. Civic leaders have put together several initiatives including a coalition to strengthen the education of our school children, another to plant gardens for the community, and one to clean up neglected gems such as Memorial Hill in Clairton Park. Clairton’s renaissance has begun. It is evidenced by Clairton Activist and Clairton History Facebook pages and with the newly created web page, which every current and former Clairton resident should visit.

It is time to repopulate our town: At its peak Clairton had a population that approached 30,000. Car dealerships, movie theaters, city parks, businesses and opportunities were abundant. With the closing of the area’s mills the population has dwindled to fewer than 7,000 according to the 2010 census. But those numbers include activists who are now ready to rebuild the community “one brick at a time.” It is time to look at Clairton’s assets that will attract new residents. Atop on the list is affordable housing and low taxes. A nationally recognized high school football program and one of the top athletes in the country will boost the fortunes of the local high school. But to whom how to market the community and its assets remains a question.

One vision that might work: The core group of people who have been doing everything from pulling weeds to planting gardens has set the wheels of revitalization in motion. Low cost housing and low taxes are in place to attract new or returning residents. One demographic group to target; former Clairton residents who left for college or service or jobs and settled in other parts of the country, are now retired and would like to return to their roots. Several have already made the move and others have expressed an interest in doing so. Another target demographic includes young urban professionals who work in downtown Pittsburgh but would like to live and rear their children in a healthy bedroom community rather than the city. A third demographic is renters and potential first-time homebuyers. These groups include people who would be willing to take the Clairton advantages in exchange for sweat equity that would require repair and cleanup of Clairton properties. Most Clairton homes have garages, off street parking, and those wonderful alleys that allow access not found in most urban homes. Had the Highway 43 at the Large interchange been completed, it would be an easy commute to downtown. But since completion is not expected in the near future, lets look at alternatives.

What comes next: My career included teaching graduate university students and my favorite class was Research. The first class would start with the following story: “A boy scout needed one more good deed to complete requirements for a merit badge. He decided his good deed would be to a little old lady across the street. So he told his mother of his plan and that he might be a little late getting home in case the lady needed additional assistance. Dinnertime came and went and the lad did not come home. When he finally arrived his irate mother, who had been worried sick by his absence asked, “Where the HELL have you been until this hour?” The lad sheepishly reminded her of his mission and his mother asked, “…And that took you until NOW?”

His response: “She didn’t want to go.”

The parable is a reminder that before a task is to be undertaken several steps must be completed. A needs assessment and a plan outlining specific tasks, a timeline, project priorities and a host of other planning will insure that things are accomplished and that the improvement plan continues. A core committee needs to be formed with representatives from as many components of Clairton life included as possible. The mayor and City Council must be included as well as key members from the churches, business community, school district, and the community in general.

Only the beginning: The ideas above are some that can be implemented with little upfront cash and lots of sweat equity. We have already seen what a handful of Clairton residents are capable of doing. The time is now. The place is Clairton. Send your contact information to the email address below and it will be forwarded to those who have begun the taskof rebuilding Clairton one brick at a time.

 A little blogging music Maestro: “Help” by The Beatles.

Dr. Forgot

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Reverend H.D. Hough, war hero?

A tale of the Hough: In our previous posting we responded to a letter that asked about H.D. Hough. Author Rebekah Hughes is in the midst of researching a book about survivors of the World War II submarine Robalo. In her research she discovered that some information of POW names was passed on to a young U.S. sailor named H.D. Hough. Her efforts to track down H.D. Hough led her to one of our blog posts in which we discussed Reverend H. D. Hough, pastor of the First Presbyterian church on the corner of Mitchell Avenue and Fifth Street during the 1950s. I asked readers of the blog for any memories that might tip us off to whether Reverend Hough and the young seaman were one in the same. Indicators seemed to suggest they might be, as they both would have been born in the early 1920s and after all, how many H.D. Houghs could there be?

The readers responded: After placing a call for information on H.D. Hough last week I was inundated with responses from Clairtonians and former Clairtonians. Many remembered the Presbyterian Church from their high school days, for even if they were not members many attended “canteen” dances that were held after every CHS home football game.  Others had been members but had moved away but shared memories and still others remained in the area and offered suggestions.

The Reverend H.D. Hough: He was a dynamic young minister; movie star handsome, a great teller of parables, and the perfect fit for a young, growing congregation in Clairton. Rev. Hough was born near Fayette City and spent his entire career in Western Pennsylvania. He worked tirelessly, putting together a Youth Fellowship to bring the younger members into church activities, tapping several young members to take on leadership roles, sponsoring and encouraging young people to attend summer camp at Camp Crestview and older young people to attend summer activities at Grove City College. The church was more vibrant under his leadership than it ever had been or would be in the future. Perhaps his longest lasting achievement was a concept to expand the church – literally. He envisioned an addition that would be built from the church up Mitchell toward the manse, the house designated as the home for the church minister.

Working with a fury: Reverend Hough went about the fundraising with a fury. His indefatigable energy brought in tens of thousands of dollars, and with a huge donation be PICCO scion Robert Ostermeyer, the dream became a reality and the “new addition” was built. It was a fine addition with room for church offices, meeting rooms, classrooms, and in the basement was a huge multipurpose room complete with a state-of-the-art kitchen. That multipurpose room became the home of the “canteen” dances after each home football game. It also served as a meeting place for Youth Fellowship as well as weddings, funeral mercy dinners, and a myriad of other activities. The mid-to-latter 1950s were a golden age for the country, for Clairton, and for the Presbyterian Church.

The mirror has two faces: H.D. Hough had a son born in 1952 and named H.D. Hough Junior. Like any first son he was the apple of his father’s eye. He was often seen playing in the church under the watchful eye of Rev. or Mrs. Hough. But the Reverend, for all the great ideas he brought to fruition, and for all the wonderful things he did for the church and the community was just a man, and as a man he had flaws and endured a tortured life. There were rumors of inappropriate behavior and he was quickly transferred to another church. His son, HD, Junior graduated high school and attended Grove City College, and would be taken by death when barely out of his teens. Reverend Hough established an endowment fund in the name of his son that would purchase books for the Grove City College library. Rev. Hough passed away in the mid 1990s.

An H.D. Hough by any other name or rank: The young sailor who served in the U.S. Navy was a meticulous record keeper. Yeoman Second Class H.D. Hough was aboard a submarine that had several kills in the Pacific Theater of War before an enemy mine sank it. HD Hough was one of the survivors who was sent to a POW camp in the Philippines where he was secretly handed a note with names of survivors of another sunken sub, hence the interest by author Hughes. During his imprisonment, H.D. Hough was promoted to Yeoman First Class and was transferred to another POW camp in Japan.

H.D. Hough the POW: Y1c H.D. Hough was among a group of prisoners of war transferred aboard the Hokusen Maro ship. The prisoners often referred it to as the Benjo Maro (Benjo meaning toilet) due to the filthy conditions aboard the ship. The ship, also called “The Hell Ship,” left for Formosa but the POWs on board were in such bad shape that it docked in Takao Harbor, where they were put ashore before continuing on to Japan.  Conditions were so bad that 36 American POWs died in 39 days during the trip. Yeoman first class HD Hough meticulously recorded the names of every POW who did not survive. He spent the remainder of the war in POW camps and was repatriated after the war’s end.

Tracking him down: An extensive search of military records showed that Yeoman first class H.D. Hough was in fact Hubert Dwight Hough. He returned to his hometown after the war, Okaloosa, Iowa, where he lived until his death in 1995. Ironically, the Reverend H.D. Hough of Western Pennsylvania and Hubert Dwight Hough, who also went by H.D. never met but they were born within months of one another and died within months of one another.  So ends the mystery. Thanks to everybody who offered information.

 A little blogging music Maestro: “Coincidence” by Aaron Kelly.

Dr. Forgot