Thursday, February 6, 2014

Making History Exciting

“What is the worth of life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” Cicero

NWI Times correspondent Jane Ammeson wrote a piece about Ron Cohen and Steve McShane entitled “Local educators discuss ways to excite students about history.”  Ron told her, “I never gave a test, and you didn’t have to memorize anything.  No facts, no bull.  History is about people; history is stories. If you do portraits about the past, remembering facts is easier because students have found the stories interesting and will remember times and dates and why things happened.  But you do not say name three causes of the Revolutionary War and list the presidents in order from the first one.  That’s boring.”
Ron Cohen's latest book
Having traded Bob Mucci three recent Shavings issues for a rare copy off volume 3 on “Families of the Calumet Region during the Depression of the 1930s,” (1977), I scanned the Table of Contents and recognized about half the names.  I can still picture what Diane Banks, Beverly Wright, Frank Yards, Larrty Luchene, Heidi Westerman, and Alex Bencze looked like back then.  Garry Aloia is new a big IUN booster who served with me on the Gary Centennial Committee.  I used an excerpt from his article about his grandparents in “Gary’s First Hundred Years.”
 Judge Alex Bencze

Paul Kern has kept in touch with Alex Bencze, who graduated from law school and is now a Colorado judge.  His Hungarian grandparents Alex and Julia moved from Morgantown, West Virginia, to Gary in 1933 at a time when it was very difficult to find work.  In an article entitled “Praying for Things to get Better” Bencze wrote:
         “Alex had to wait long hours each morning at the U.S. Steel hiring gates to see if a foreman would give him work.  At most Alex got work two days a week.  This forced Julia to seek domestic service employment.  Work was nothing new to her, however; she had been doing it for as long as she could remember.
            On an average day she would wake up at 5:30 a.m. and begin cleaning her own home, a dilapidated little house on Eleventh and Washington, which meant scrubbing floors on her hands and knees.  Afterwards, she would make breakfast for the rest of the family from whatever odds and ends she could scrape together.  Most meals were soups composed of noodles and, as a substitute for milk, browned flour.  After fixing breakfast she would wake her husband and, in order to help him keep his sense of manliness, would make sure he at least made an effort to procure employment no matter how futile the chances were.
            Once all this was accomplished, Julia would walk to Eighth and Rhode Island, where she did housework for a Jewish family.  There she would perform the same laborious tasks she performed at home.  She worked at this job for a few months and then procured full-time employment at the White Star Laundry on Eleventh and Madison.  There she worked for six years from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., six days a week, ironing and mending clothes.  In her words, she used to “patch and patch and patch clothes” until she thought she had become a patch.  She made about ten dollars every two weeks.  There were 12 other ladies who worked with her; the working conditions were deplorable and the laundry so hot that they daily feared heat strokes.”

Finally watched Sunday’s Downton Abbey, as Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) scandalizes her older sister by making out with a black band leader the Jazz Age flapper has brought to the to provide music at her father’s birthday party.

On Facebook I mentioned that I’d be in Ambler, PA, near my hometown of Fort Washington in early March for a wedding and would love to see any Upper Dublin classmates still in the area.  Maple Glen, a nearby community whose teenagers, including the Henry sisters, Pam and Wendy, attended my high school, made the news due to a blizzard that knocked down trees and power lines.  It snowed so heavily in Northwest Indiana that bowling was cancelled a rarity.
 Lee Calhoun

I’ll start off my talk on the year 1955 next Monday to Gary Chamber of Commerce members by saying that I had become a teenager during the 1954-1955 school year and was mainly interested in girls, sports, cars, and rock and roll.  My friend Ron Hawthorne had an older sister with an R and B record collection who introduced me to such songs as “Shake, Rattle and Roll” by Joe Turner, “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard, “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles, “Ain’t That a Shame” by Fats Domino, and “Maybelline” (about a car, not a girl) by Chuck Berry.  Then I’ll show photos of a young Queen Elizabeth, Ike, Thurgood Marshall (attorney in the Brown v. Board of Education case), Roy Campanella (MVP catcher on World Champ Brooklyn Dodgers), Bill Russell (star for NCAA victors U. of San Francisco), Olympic champion hurdler Lee Calhoun with mayor George Chacharis, Vivian Carter (Vee-Jay records founder), and finally the Spaniels, whose hit “Goodnite, Sweetheart” helped launch the first successful black-owned record label.  I’ll list businesses on the 1600 block of Broadway where Vivian’s record shop was located, then conclude: The economic landscape has changed drastically since 1955, and mom and pop stores are largely a relic of the past, but there are still many Gary residents with entrepreneurial skills and the wherewithal to turn their dreams into reality.  That is why the Chamber of Commerce is so vital – to give these people a helping hand.

At lunch Anne Balay, Jon Briggs, and I sat at a table with Donna, one of Anne’s former students, who couldn’t believe she was not awarded tenure.  “Why?” she asked.  It seems IUN is not ready for an openly gay professor, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.  Donna mentioned that her favorite teacher had been Jerry Pierce, drummed out several years ago on grounds of research inadequacy even though he had a contract for a book now in print (one more book, incidentally, than any member of the divisional committee that voted him down).  Jerry had the ability to make medieval history really exciting and had won the prestigious, all-campus Founders Day teaching award.  He organized monthly lunches where faculty discussed their research interests and started an IUN History Club that has become inactive since he left.  Esprit de corps has suffered, and I suspect several of his former colleagues are or will be seeking employment elsewhere.  Most department members live in Illinois and come to campus just twice a week.  With the ever-increasing number of on-line courses, meaningful interaction among faculty and with students may become a thing of the past.  The fact that some of the same people who denied Jerry tenure now claim to care about teaching standards is sheer hypocrisy.

In a New York Review of Books essay entitled “The Good Way to Do History” Robert Darnton discussed Arlette Farge’s “The Allure of the Archives.”  Darnton writes: “What, you may ask, could be less alluring in the digital age than an apology for deciphering words scribbled on paper several centuries ago?”  Later he claims that “The Allure of the Archives” “conveys the sense of adventure produced by plunging into manuscript collections, vaster and deeper than anything available in print.” Or online.

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