If there is anything that can bind a group of people together, it is their memories of “school days.” Individual memories are often blurred by the passing of time, so the fuzzy edges can often be filled in by the collective memories of others. In the real old days, schools were referred to as “PS 151” or the like. Today they tend to be named after people or places. But in my school days, most of which fell in the 1950s, I simply went to “Second Ward School”. Everybody walked to school, then back home for lunch, then back to school for the afternoon, and back home again after school. It wasn’t quite ten miles uphill each way in the snow, or maybe it was, but that’s just what you did.
Like most kids, I had no idea what a “ward” was, but I knew that the Borough of Crafton had three of them, because there was a “First Ward School” and a “Third Ward School” also. My dad had been a student at Third Ward many years before, never finishing high school before the depression years ended his formal education. It was 1954 when my parents moved to Crafton, a homecoming for dad, to the house on Thomas Street which will forever be “home”, even though it was sold years ago after my parents passed on. I was a sixth grader at Second Ward that September.
I wasn’t too sure about this new school thing. We had moved from the city of Pittsburgh’s “North Side”, where I had attended kindergarten and grades one through five at Clayton School on Perrysville Avenue. As a sixth grader, I was going to be Captain of the Safety Patrol, that group of kids who got to wear shiny white belts and help other students cross busy nearby streets on their way to and from school. Everybody walked to school there too – if school buses had been invented yet, there weren’t any in our neighborhood. So when my parents broke the news that we were moving, and that I would be going to a “nice new school”, I was disappointed at best and apprehensive at worst.
But sixth grade, and the new school, Second Ward, turned out to be pretty okay after all, thanks to a great group of fellow students, the nucleus of the future CHS class of 1961. The sixth grade teacher, Mrs. (Hallie) Smith, was also a big reason my Second Ward beginnings were so great. We all have a few, many if we are lucky, “favorite” teachers. Mrs. Smith quickly became one of mine. Too bad you can only have favorite teachers for one year – at least in the elementary grades.
Seventh grade changed all that – students no longer had the same teacher all day. We moved from class to class. A bell was rung at the end of each class period – good students got the job of ringing the bell which was in the hall on the second floor. Now we could have several favorite and not so favorite teachers all at the same time. Clyde W. Double comes to mind as a favorite. He taught us Science and Math. A debonair little man with a balding pate, he always looked like the scientist and scholar that he firmly expected each of us to be. His room was always lined with posters from the General Electric Company, advertisements for some new technological wonder. “Where progress is our most important product!” they all said, which was the G.E. motto in those days. The posters added to the you-will-learn- things-in-this-room atmosphere that Mr. Double fostered. My favorite memory of science class was the lesson about ambient air pressure, when Mr. Double pumped all the air out of a gallon can and it collapsed when the outside air pressure exceeded the normally equal pressure inside the can pushing back. Wow, was that neat! No magician ever did anything that impressed me so much.
You didn’t misbehave in Mr. Double’s class. Why was that? Maybe we were too busy learning. He wasn’t a big man, so he wasn’t physically intimidating. I think it was because he insisted, no he demanded, that we apply ourselves and be the students we knew we could be. Think of the really good teachers you had in your school days – Joe Perz at CHS is another who comes to mind. You just behaved in their classes because you knew that was the right thing to do.
But every teacher wasn’t a Mr. Double. We had other opportunities to misbehave. One of the best places was in Mr. Yansenn’s class. He taught Social Studies, or so he thought and so it said on our report cards when that time came around. But in fact he didn’t teach much. On the scale of teacher worth, there are some that would not be overpaid if they made a million dollars a year. If I must say what I think, Mr. Yansenn was worth a good deal less. He demanded little of us, maybe that’s why misbehaving did not seem like the wrong thing to do in his class. He tried to maintain control – with a paddle. Recall these were the days when paddling, “corporal punishment” I think they called it, was still permitted, if not actually encouraged. Mr. Yansenn had apparently made a pledge to himself, or maybe to God, to paddle every boy who ever set foot in his classroom. He only got me once, for some perceived, by him at least, deserving activity on my part that I no longer recall. I don’t think a day went by but that several boys had to meet him in the wood shop after school to receive their paddling. Teachers had to have another teacher “witness” the paddling. Mr. Yansenn and the wood shop teacher, the two most notorious paddlers, were always ready to serve as each other’s witness – neat, huh? We would put our hands on the work bench, spread our feet a bit, and aim our butts toward our executioner – opps, I mean paddler – and wait to take our punishment. The paddles were made by the shop teacher, sort of baseball bat size if not longer, flat not round, and with many holes drilled in the end that hit our posteriors. The holes lessened wind resistance I believe, and thus allowed the paddle to strike with greater speed. The number of swats you got depended on the seriousness of your transgressions, but I think Mr. Yansenn made up his numbers as he went. As I recall my one paddling, it was more embarrassing than painful. The one my mother administered when she found out I got one at school was much worse in the big scheme of things.
I don’t know that I was any worse behaved in Mr. Yansenn’s class than most of the other guys, either before or after my paddling, which only made me all the more sure that once he had crossed me off his list he picked on the ones that maybe actually deserved it. There were guys who seemed to enjoy annoying him and went out of their way to do so. My guess is that Tom Loney probably holds the record for most paddlings by Mr. Yansenn. There were other guys too though. It was of course unthinkable that girls would be paddled, so they must all have been very well behaved in his class.
Which brings me to Bill McLuckie. I don’t recall Bill being in our sixth grade class with Mrs. Smith. But when we got to seventh grade, there he was. Came to find out he had been in seventh grade for – well, I’m not sure how long, but long. Bill McLuckie was the only kid in seventh grade who had to shave every day, and he had a drivers license. He wasn’t allowed to drive to school, but you’d see him tooling around Crafton after school hours in what could only be called a “jalopy.” School and Bill McLuckie were acquaintances but not friends. He wasn’t yet old enough to quit on his own, and uninterested enough to apply himself and move on. So there he was in seventh grade, just daring those teachers to learn him something. Bill was also on Mr. Yansenn’s paddle-a-lot list, usually deservedly, but I always expected to hear that he had taken that paddle and applied it to Mr. Yansenn instead. He was smart enough not to do that. Even Bill didn’t misbehave in Mr. Double’s class. He just sat there like a rock, a quiet rock.
Other “new” students beside Bill McLuckie had appeared at Second Ward as our seventh grade year started. Those who had attended First or Third Ward, which only had grades one to six, and the Catholic school students whose elementary years were spent at St. Phillips, joined those of us from Mrs. Smith’s sixth grade class. The class of 1961 just got bigger.
Another remembered teacher was Lucille Stahlman, who taught seventh and eighth grade English. You may remember her as Mrs. Dunham, as she got married the summer between my seventh and eighth grade school years. This was very confusing at the time, so in my memory she remains Miss Stahlman. Many, many, many of our Second Ward hours were spent diagramming sentences on the chalk boards in Miss Stahlman’s class. Although I hated it then, I have come to find that my grammar skills are above average, and certainly a benefit to my writings. I must confess, I still don’t know where to put the participles! Miss Stahlman was memorable for another reason as well, at least to most of the boys. Even in the clothing that proper teachers wore in the 1950s, it was readily apparent to our burgeoning adolescent hormones that Miss Stahlman was a busty lady to say the least. When most of the girls in our class were just beginning to develop, she was well developed already and so even if we weren’t paying rapt attention to the lesson at hand, she didn’t have to worry about our gaze wandering away.
Mr. Marburger is another name that comes to mind, the Second Ward Principal. Did you ever really know what a Principal did all day, except hang out in the Principal’s office? Most of us referred to him as Mr. Hamburger, and we rarely saw him except for an occasional assembly or other such event.
Speaking of hanging out, Second Ward had two janitors. I don’t recall any names, but you could always find them down in the basement furnace room where they would tend the huge coal-burning furnace most of the school year. I don’t know where they hung out in the warmer months of the school year. They both chewed tobacco and could spit from their chairs right over the wooden wall into the coal bin. That impressed me a lot. Old timey as it sounds, students used to take the blackboard erasers from the classrooms down to the coal bins and “clean” them by banging them together, letting the white chalk dust fall down onto the black coal chunks. I liked that job and volunteered for it often. That’s why I know the janitors were good spitters.
I never became a tobacco chewer, but my Second Ward days did include my one brief interlude as a cigarette smoker. It was during our sixth grade year, when one of the guys – I honestly don’t remember who – came up with a pack of cigarettes and dared a bunch of us to smoke one. We were too wise to do it on school grounds for fear of being “caught”, so after school we headed over to the orange brick Methodist church on Belvidere Street. There at the bottom of the steep stairwell leading to the church basement, several of us “lit up” and for a few moments were really cool sixth graders. At least we were when we weren’t coughing. I got about halfway through my “cig”, snuffed it out, and haven’t smoked another one since.
Perhaps my favorite Second Ward memory is going up into the clock tower. The roof of the school was topped by a huge clock with four faces, which was in its own tower-shaped room. This clock and the steeple of St. Phillips church were the two dominant features of the Crafton skyline. By climbing up a series of ladders from behind the second floor stage, you could reach the clock tower. It was sort of a right of passage for eighth graders as they prepared to move on to the high school. It was scary but exhilarating to be up inside that tower, with the huge gears and wheels of the clock mechanism whirring away. There were BB gun holes, maybe .22 holes – not sure – in a couple of the four clocks faces through which you could peek out over the town below. Students for years had written their names in pencil on the inside of the clock faces, and I dutifully added mine to the collection. Flood lights came on at night to illuminate the clock, and those hundreds of pencil marks didn’t seem to harm its readability any. Second Ward School is gone now, but the clock lives on, now on a township building out in Wexford PA. (Visit www.craftonreunion.org for a picture of the clock in its new home.)
Another fun memory is of putting thumb tacks on other kid’s chairs when they got up to go to the board, or restroom, or whatever. The desks we had then were the kind where your seat was attached to the desk part of the student behind you. The seats were not padded, just hard old wood, and could be raised and lowered, just like the seats in a movie, or like a toilet seat. Smart kids learned to raise their seat when they got up. so it was necessary to use scotch tape to put the thumbtacks on their chairs. Everyone was pretty wise to all this, and usually looked before sitting down, but the occasional time when someone actually sat on a tack was a really big event. Aren’t school kids easily amused?
Second Ward didn’t have a gym. Elementary kids played dodge ball or yard ball or other such games on the concrete on the Parke Avenue side of the school, but seventh and eighth graders got to walk over to the high school for gym class. That was a real social event as we all trooped up Emily Street, across some side streets to Crafton Boulevard, and across Black’s Bridge to the high school, with mandatory stops at the store by the bridge on the way and usually at Glaser’s Ice Cream and Bakery on the way back. Tossing somebody’s gym shoes (did we call them “sneakers” then?) over the bridge onto the railroad tracks far below was also frequent entertainment. We probably had a time limit in which we were supposed to make the trip to and back, but I don’t recall anybody ever fussing about it.
Second Ward days were pretty good days, but alas they had to end. We even had an official eighth grade graduation, another of those rare times we got to see Mr. Marburger. Then we were off to Crafton High School, and another chapter in our young lives. When Crafton became part of the Carlynton School District, Second Ward was no longer needed. It sat closed and deserted for several years until it was gutted by fire; the wrecking ball soon followed. The last time I was by, the stone wall at the lower end of what had been the school grounds was still there, but otherwise only the memories of our school days remain.