Spring Variety Show-1955

Homer's Barbershop Quartet

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During Junior year at Mendel the announcement came about a special activity.  I signed up to be in a variety show.  Mendel Men and the girls from neighboring schools were the performers.  I really didn’t know what I was signing up for but I thought it would be fun.  Mister Schulp recruited students to come for try outs.  He organized a chorale group.  A bunch of boys showed up.  He asked each of us to sing a line to test our voices. For some strange reason, he chose me as one of the singers.

This activity created another reason for me to stay at school longer. On days when we rehearsed, and I had to work too, I rarely got home before nine p.m.  On singing only days, I made it home by seven to do homework.

We rehearsed singing in harmony. Until that time, I didn’t know harmony existed, nor could I read music.  I learned to like singing, but it was hard to stay on a line of notes when the guys next to me sang something different into my ear.

Mr. Schulp was patient, but kept pushing and training.  Eventually, we started to sound better. About a month before the performance, the show went into rehearsal at an auditorium west of Mendel down 111th Street.  The stage rehearsals were in the evening, and Dad let me drive the Green Hornet, to the rehearsals.

The chorale did several numbers, the last one being  a barbershop quartet.  That was my first experience with barber shop harmony. The chorale members wore suits with a white shirt and tie.  The barbershop quartet had to change into a red and white striped jacket and a straw hat for their number. My part in the show was short, but I stayed till the end of rehearsal to see all the performers.

Mom and Dad came to the show and enjoyed themselves.  The event was a big hit and a lot of fun.  I never sang in a group again after that experience.

Junior Year-Missing the Ball or Hitting the Net

 After spending a year convalescing from the polio my being thirsted for involvement in everything that I could get into at Mendel.  I needed to make up for lost time.  Although the polio kept me from playing football I participated by going to the games.  During the second half of sophomore year I became buddies with Stan Kantor, an old rival from Burnside. Stan is one of the tough guys from Avalon Avenue who went to Perry School. He and his neighbors liked to think they were meaner and tougher than the rest of us on Avalon. We were about the same height and weight.  At Mendel, I learned that Stan was one of the nicest guys I ever met. He played quarterback position on the football team.

Father Theis started a booster club which I joined.  We designed and painted posters advertising the football games.  We hung the posters all around school to promote attendance at the games.  Some of my posters were good enough to hang in places where the hall traffic was the heaviest all day long.

My ability to do the posters got me recognized in the school club scene, and Father O’Neil invited me to join the year book staff as art editor.  On the yearbook I met some really nice guys who became great friends.  One of them is Jim Geil.  He and I became inseparable for several years after. Jim and I still correspond regularly by e-mail. because there are eighteen hundred miles between us.

The school dedicated a new chapel and monastery in time for the start of Junior year.  The monastery led me into a new opportunity.  One day, an announcement came over the PA about a job.  I applied, and got the job as the monastery phone receptionist.

In the new monastery, each priest had a room with a pager.  All of the calls came to a single phone in a small cell at the front door. The cell had a desk, a chair, a phone and a large light board on the wall. Each priest’s name was on the board.  If the priest was in, and the light next to his name was on, he took calls.  When the phone rang, I answered it, and determined who the caller wanted.  I placed the caller on hold, and buzzed the priest.  He answered and I announced which line his call was on. The priests let me know when they left the building, and I took messages.   The job required that I be on duty four hours a day from four until eight.  This meant that I got to screw-off after class until four.  Sometimes I walked up to Michigan Avenue.  Most of the time, I did homework, worked on a poster, or the year book.

In the spring, I tried out for baseball and made the fourth string.  Father Burns placed me at third base.  Throughout the time I played sandlot baseball, I always played second base. Third base was never my position but I was happy to play.  I fielded the ball very well; in fact, I robbed some hot-shot hitters of line drives by spearing the ball on the fly.  My reactions were very good.  unfortunately for me, I didn’t have the strength to throw the ball to first base on the fly.

I also tried out for the tennis and made that.  I often played against myself by stroking the ball against the wall of the handball court at Palmer Park. It was another way  to fill time after school before answering phones.  I never played a real game of tennis with anyone so when I joined the team I had to learn the rules as well as the strokes and the serve. That is when I met Jim Murphy.  We became lifetime friends, and roomed together in college. Jim also stood up at my wedding.

Although I played tennis well in practice I never won a match in competition. Years later I realized why.  During a match, I was so worried about making a mistake, I kept seeing myself missing the ball or hitting it into the net.  That problem stayed with me until my forties when I finally realized the power of positive visualization, that is, “see it in your mind and believe it”.  Why did it take me so long to realize that?

By the end of Junior year things were starting to come together for me.  The effects of the polio were still there, but my sports and weight lifting helped me overcome any handicap that I had.  Life was good.

Return to Civilization From a Polio World

Coming home for the Christmas holiday from Michael Reese Hospital created a high level of activity.  It was a good thing for me.  We had lots of company and I went to church a lot.  The holiday action gave me an opportunity to get into living at home more gradually.

The connection to the hospital did not end by any means.  Three times each week I rode the Cottage Grove streetcar from 93rd Street to 29th Street, and then walked  three blocks to the hospital for physical therapy.  At first, mom came with me, but she realized that I could handle the trip on my own and I began taking the trip solo.  The hot packs were gone but the stretching and resistance training continued.

When I first transferred to MR, progress was fast, but now it became tedious. The exercises turned into the sweat of building muscle and learning to use those that still worked.  In the case of my badly damaged neck and hip, it was a matter of finding available muscle fibers and retraining them to do new things.  The process required constant repetition of exercises and stretching.  In many ways a physical therapist is a personal trainer.  They are with you to push you toward a goal without hurting you or damaging a muscle.  In addition to therapy at the hospital, I did a set of exercises at home everyday.

The holidays ended and the next big adventure after traveling to MR was returning to school.  I missed an entire semester, and wondered how I would make it up.  In my mind I was ready to repeat sophomore year and graduate a year after my classmates. Unbeknown to me, Mom kept in touch with Father Grace and the priests at Mendel. Not only were they praying for my welfare, they assured her that when the time came for my return, they would give me an opportunity to catch up.

The toughest aspect of returning to school was answering the questions from my classmates about what happened to me.  It didn’t help that the collar and the crutches broadcast my condition.  After answering and explaining for a week, things were pretty well accepted.  It became very clear that I was seriously behind in every subject, and the prospect of repeating the year challenged me. Each of my teachers gave me counsel and assigned extra reading and homework to help catching up. It became my responsibility to accept the challenge and do the work. Religion, English, Social studies, etc. were easy. They involved reading and some one on one with the instructor. Plane Geometry was another matter. The entire concept of geometry as mathematics was totally new. I thought geometry involved shapes. Later, I learned that solid geometry is the mathematics of shape. Plane geometry was Greek. My head buzzed with new words like “proof, axiom, theorem, congruent.” Father Burnell recognized the dilemma quickly, and assigned a student to tutor me. The second semester work relied on knowing all the definitions and basic proofs presented in the first semester. My classmates literally bowled me over with their knowledge while I trembled at the lack of it.

God bless my classmate Bob Zimmerman.  He was in the Scientific curriculum and the editor of the school newspaper.  I liked him and everyday, after school he spent one hour with me going over all the first semester work.  His patience and persistence to stay with me until the lights went on in my head saved me. At the same time he coached me on the basics I had to absorb the new material and solve daily homework problems.

With all the extra reading, geometry problems to solve, and three trips a week to Michael Reese, there was no time for extra curricular activities. My days of managing the basketball team ended last spring. I had to give up metal shop because of the late start and my condition made it unsafe for me to work with machine tools.  Father Hartigan didn’t want me getting hurt. Instead he suggested I use that time to do my catch up work in the library. I did, and it helped. Would you believe that machine shops became an part of my career? They did, and I am proud of my accomplishments in the field of precision tool making.

The semester finished too fast, but I managed to get through finals with average grades.  All of the teachers were very generous and understanding to my plight and I thank them for that.  On the other hand, I studied very hard to make up the lost time and to catch up.  It worked, I moved into my junior year. I suppose I could chalk up the first semester as experience, but I will brag and say that I came through it with straight A’s in Swallowing, Walking, Smiling, and Living.

The cherry on the cake came when the basketball team awarded me a Varsity letter for participating as their manager in spirit.  By August, on my sixteenth birthday, I gave up the last crutch and my physical therapy ended at Michael Reese.

Thank God for Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine.

Riding the Red Rocket Through the Cottage Grove Ghetto


Three times a week after school, I hobbled out to Cottage Grove from Mendel on crutches.  I always got a seat on the streetcar  at 111th Street. The Red Rocket went without a transfer all the way to 29th Street.  The ride was long, but I had to continue with physical therapy at Michael Reese.  All the way up to 63rd Street things were familiar because Mom had taken us shopping to the Sears and Hillman’s at 63rd & Halsted.  North of 63rd Street, however, Cottage Grove Avenue became interesting.  The neighborhoods progressed from poor  to more poor. The store fronts told the story.  In the better sections there were a variety of businesses; TV shops, cleaners, butchers, bakeries, flower shops, you name it and you could find it on Cottage Grove in each neighborhood along the way.  By 43rd Street the buildings were older, dirtier, the businesses were fewer and those that were there were different.  Night clubs, taverns, storefront churches, groceries and drugstores.  What impressed me most was the up-keep on the buildings – there was none.  Some of the old frame buildings had boards missing or they were loose and hanging.  The paint wore away  years ago, and the wood was grey from weather.  Many windows had boards nailed on, others had metal guards.  There were people everywhere, just hanging around.  The further north I traveled, the people on the car changed from white to black.  By the time I got off at 29th  I was the only white left.

I never felt unsafe at any point of those trips.  The neck brace and crutches gave me a pathetic look and kept me safe.  That section of Cottage Grove was truly what I call a ghetto.  So many poor people all living in very crowded spaces with landlords that didn’t care to spend money on upkeep of the buildings.

The three block walk to the hospital after the long ride was a welcome relief.  I arrived at the Physical Therapy Department at 3:45 p.m. for my 4:00 appointment.  Once in the PT area, I stuffed my duffel bag, crutches, and brace into a locker and donned an Indian style loin cloth for the session.

Each treatment was the same.  Walk the parallel bars without crutches, do leg exercises, then follow-up with neck stretches and neck exercise. The therapist always took over my neck. At times, it felt like she twisted my head backwards..  The drill lasted 30-45 minutes and then it was time to go.

On the trip home, I pulled on the handhold and pushed against my crutches to hike up the high steps into a crowded rush-hour Rocket.  I learned quickly to take any seat that was available.  Many times I stood all the way to 79th Street before a seat became free.

One day I stepped into a very crowded car and squeezed my self away from the entrance to give room for more people to get on.  A little white-haired black lady looked up at me and offered me her seat. She looked exhausted and tired. I thanked her but refused.  At age fifteen I wasn’t about to take a seat from a senior citizen.  That incident repeated itself many times over the course of eight months that I commuted on the Rocket.

The therapy continued throughout the spring and the summer.  By the time of my release from Michael Reese  Physical Therapy, I was very glad.  During that summer I began to lift weights at home to build up my arms and legs.  My gym was the back yard. I dressed in swim trunks and looked like the guy who got sand kicked in his face in the Charles Atlas adds. I lifted weights.

By the time school started in the fall, I talked my way into using just one crutch.  The therapist didn’t think my hip was strong enough to get off the crutch completely. After only a few steps my hip swung out to the side and I fell into a limp. Eventually, I got rid of the collar, wearing it only when I felt tired.

My physical condition was 1000% better by the time school started at the end of August.  The summer of PT and weight lifting did wonders for my muscles. At the same time I was still growing in height.

A feeble smile returned to my face.

Weekend Pass-Free at Last

Physical therapy worked wonders for me.  God spared me from major nerve damage.  Each day in therapy gave me confidence and measured improvement. My strength gradually  returned.  My room mate Myron made no progress at all.  He became a prisoner in his bed limited to scratching his nose with one weak arm and fingers that didn’t move.

Mom came everyday religiously; Dad came on the weekends.  Myron’s mom did the same.  She was an attractive woman, not beautiful but pretty.  She had red hair.  His father owned a business and could not come often.  They lived in the Northern Suburbs.   As days passed, and the two moms spent time together, they became good friends as people  do in a situations like that.

Within three weeks I had gotten my crutches and neck brace and was walking.  I graduated to solid food because my swallow function had improved.  My muscles still received the hot packs and the workout everyday. There was no talk of sending me home, but I had gotten to the point of asking “when” daily.

The day before Thanksgiving Dad appeared in the evening with Mom.  The doctors consented to give me a weekend pass to celebrate Thanksgiving.  They didn’t tell me in advance so I wouldn’t get overly excited about it.

Being home was wonderful, but it was also a shock.  Home was quiet.  It was so quiet that it was scary.  There were no people walking in to check on me all day, and all night.  We did have company but no one stayed very long.  At the hospital, I took walks down the long corridors. At home, I walked the circle from the kitchen to the living room into the dining room and back. I missed the nurses stations and the smiles they gave me when I cruised by. It was too cold to go out. Anyway, I was too fragile to go out.  No telling how I would react to a cold.

Mom’s cooking was even strange at first. This was the first time since August that I ate at home.  I had gotten so accustomed to tube feeding and hospital food that her sumptuous meals that I had loved so much tasted different.  I survived the weekend and I gladly checked back into the security of the hospital late Sunday afternoon.

Coming home on the weekends became a regular thing after that.  I quickly got into the home routine and worked hard all week so I could go home.

The big surprise came at Christmas.  The doctors and therapists all agreed the time had come to release me from the hospital to go home permanently.  What a fabulous Christmas present that was for me and the family too!  Mom got her life back and I was home anxious to return to school.

During mass on Christmas day, I thanked God for sparing me from a worse fate. I thanked Him for all the wonderful people who worked with me. Most of all, I thanked Him for my wonderful mom who never gave up on me. Her support and the vision of getting back in time for football tryouts kept me from going insane. I asked God for guidance about a career in medicine.

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