Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Urban Historian

“This dude knows urban history.” Joy Barr reviewing “Urban America in the Industrial Age” by Raymond A. Mohl
 Ray Mohl 

Historian Raymond A. Mohl passed away.  My urban history predecessor at IUN, he wrote extensively about Gary history before moving on to Florida Atlantic and then University of Alabama at Birmingham.  He was the most dogged researcher I’ve known, and his papers, located at IUN’s Calumet Regional Archives, are a veritable gold mine.  I kept track of his distinguished career, in part through Ron Cohen, who saw him regularly at conferences.  I would have loved to collaborate with him.  When he was thinking of updating “Steel City: Urban and Ethnic Patterns in Gary, Indiana, 1906-1950,” I sent Indiana University Press a set of suggestions to enliven it and include a chapter on World War II, but Ray never got around to following up on the project.

Ron Cohen wrote:

  I met Ray Mohl in 1969 when four of us shared a room during the American Historical Association meeting in Washington, D.C.  When Ray moved from IUN to Florida Atlantic Univ. in 1970 I took over his position, plus his office in Gary Main (later Tamarack), along with his collection of Classic Comics and Boy Scout handbook. This remained my office for 34 years. Meanwhile, Ray had begun studying Gary's history while at IUN, including the history of the famous Gary school plan, and soon after arriving I also began a history of the Gary schools. After we had both began publishing articles on the Gary schools they were brought together in our book collaboration THE PARADOX OF PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION (1979), thanks to Ray's publishing connections. Ever since we had remained close friends, often sharing a room at the annual meetings of the Organization of American Historians. Ray also became involved with various meetings of those involved with the history of education. He kept up his interest in Gary's history, and would send boxes of his research materials to the Calumet Regional Archives. He was one of the pioneers in urban history, having launched the JOURNAL OF URBAN HISTORY, while also pursuing many other interests, including the history of black baseball teams. Ray was a real gentleman and dear friend. I have cherished our friendship for 45 years, which has now ended all too soon.”

A Post-Trib column by Jerry Davich listed things he misses from years past, such as drive-in movies, car vent windows, and Nehi grape soda (my kids' preferred Orange Crush, bottled by Superior Beverage Company at Twenty-First and Connecticut, run by Bud Rosen).  Region fun spots included Kiddieland in Merrillville, Glen Park Bakery, and Wilco grocery.  Several readers mentioned Jack Sprat Ice Cream Shop in Miller and The Spa Restaurant in Porter, our favorite when the kids were young.

Mary Matury Gibson wrote “Remembering Strawberry Fields,” about growing up in Lowell.  Her grandfather came to America as a stowaway; Ellis Island officials promptly sent him back to Italy.  Drafted into the army, he endured 13 months as a POW during WW I and later successfully emigrated to America with a wife half his age.  Donna Vickroy wrote in the Post-Trib:

“The [family] settled in East Chicago, Indiana.  But after [Mary] Gibson’s brother was hit by a car, the family moved to rural Lowell, where they grew strawberries, and her father, who had long worked a series of odd jobs, including ice cream vendor and barber, came to be known as the ‘Strawberry King.’”

Growing up poor in a farmhouse with no indoor plumbing, Mary had a single pair of shoes to her name and slept in the same bed as several siblings.   She suffered from dyslexia and finished high school unable to read until entering a nursing program in Chicago that turned her life around.

For lunch Saturday I took Anne Balay, daughter Emma, and Emma’s friend Steven to Flamingo’s.  Anne calls it The Bird and, hanging out there, found several sources for “Steel Closets.”  The bill for four was just $36,92, including tax.  Anne has upcoming speaking engagements in Pittsburgh and St. Louis.  I told her that the previous day I had delivered volume 44 of Steel Shavings to Home Mountain Printing.  IUN still won’t let me use my university account because I dared bring up in print the unjust denial of tenure for Anne.  Emma is still outraged that so few colleagues came to her mother’s defense while Anne is more charitable toward those too timid to question authority.
 wintry scene by Roy Dominguez

A blizzard cancelled Superbowl dinner plans with the Hagelbergs.  About 20 inches of snow blanketed the Region, the fourth largest amount in recorded history.  I enjoyed watching iconic Patriot QB Tom Brady battle Richard Sherman and the Seattle secondary (they call themselves the Legion of Boom).  Shockingly, the Seahawks blew the game in the final seconds by attempting a pass on the one-yard line, a colossal blunder.  The hype over the touted commercials was bullshit (as Tim in Jonathyne’s class would surely agree).  Katy Perry was excellent at halftime, but Lenny Kravitz had too small a part.

Scheduled to appear on radio station WLTH, I called in from home because the roads were so bad.  Morning host Jeffrey Smith asked me to discuss the history of churches in Gary.  I talked about African Americans and Eastern Europeans founding parishes almost as soon as they arrived to work at the mills, sometimes first meeting in tents or saloons.  I discussed settlement house workers, such as the efforts of Frank and Leila Delaney.  Founders of Stewart House, they helped black newcomers adjust to city life during the 1920s and survive the Great Depression.  I mentioned that Reverend L. K. Jackson of St. Paul Baptist Church (about to celebrate its centennial) was a virtually a one-man civil rights movement during the 1940s and how Julius Jackson and other ministers fought for racial justice during the 1960s.  I brought up Robert Lowery, who ministered to prisoners as well as parishioners at St. Timothy, and praised present-day leaders such as Chet Johnson of New Tabernacle Church, who gave up a lucrative private sector job to work with residents in need. I promised to come on the show later in the month.

Monday being a snow day, I watched “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), which I hadn’t seen since it first came out.  I’d forgotten the silliness about Woody Allen thinking he had a brain tumor and how interesting were the sisters’ parents, aged actors played by Maureen O’Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan.  Narcissistic egotists much like their children (save for Hannah), they spat but were the glue that held the family together.  Max von Sydow as an insufferable artist pontificates after TV channel surfing:

You see the whole culture: Nazis, deodorant salesmen, wrestlers, beauty contests, a talk show. Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling? But the worst are the fundamentalist preachers. Third grade con men telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak with Jesus, and to please send in money. Money, money, money! If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up.”

In a “Home on the Range” Ayers Realty Newsletter column Judy Ayres recalled working as a teenager at Tittle’s grocery store bakery, her eleventh grade Wirt English teacher, Miss Thyrza Otterbacher, instructing the class about symbolism, and her late mother adopting a recipe for Southern Oven Unfried Chicken.  Before listing the ingredients Judy wrote:

  “This is the recipe that convinced my mother at age 85 to give up fried chicken, one of her favorite things to eat and cook.  She also loved country music and decided that if Trisha Yearwood, a country singer, thought this chicken was good enough to prepare for her husband, Garth Brooks, also a country singer, it was good enough and more healthy for mom.”

In Little Redhawk Café Jenny Prassos asked if I were still teaching.  She took my survey course 15 years ago and is back at IUN three kids later. She recalled my telling the class that on a walk I had come across a dead body on National Lakeshore property a couple blocks from our house.  Funny what students remember.  In the fall of 2000, Jenny kept a brilliant journal as a class assignment.  Here are excerpts:

September 4: At Burger King in Valpo last week some managers decided to fake a robbery.  One was found dead from hypothermia because she was stuck in the freezer too long.  Some people are nuts.

September 17: No matter how I try to figure out my purpose in life, I end up back at square one.  This whole growing up thing is too difficult.  Here is my time to shine.  Why am I not traveling the world?  I still have so much to learn.

September 28: A baby got killed by a drunk driver in South Haven a while ago.  The guy drove into the yard.  He was evidently on cocaine, too.  The mom used to work at dad’s old restaurant.  I am praying for her.  The jerk got four years and can be out earlier for good behavior.  This country sucks.

Prassos' description of a relationship applied to the parents in “Hannah and Her Sisters”: “We fight all the time but then look at each other and laugh.”
 Francois Sagan

In Jonathyne Briggs’ class I learned a new word to describe traditional postwar sex roles, heteronormativity. Briggs mentioned how important fashion was in understanding the Fifties culture, to which, in reference to consumer fads, Tim bellowed out, “Bullshit!”  Students are reading Francois Sagan’s 1954 novel “Bonjour Tristesse”  (Hello Sadness).  Somewhat similar to J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” it deals with a disillusioned teenage pleasure seeker and her relationships with a flawed boyfriend and a playboy father.  Written when just 17, and influenced by existentialism and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, author of “The Second Sex” (1949), Sagan has her introspective alter ago declare, “My love of pleasure seems to be the only consistent side of my character.”  And elsewhere:

The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.”

Reporting from Indy, legislative intern Marla Gee said that Linda Lawson told her she learned history “literally sitting at his feet.”  Nice.  Here is an excerpt from Marla’s latest email:

I always stop by for breakfast or lunch when it’s here at the Statehouse; so far, Verizon, Lucas Oil, NAACP, Indiana State, and many others have made their presence known with everything from bagels and coffee to really nice hot meals.  We had a very special event for our servicemen and servicewomen last month; the statehouse had more uniforms than suits on that day!  Food wasn’t bad, either.  I do recall a rather curious encounter with a group of Amish who were in Chambers protesting the photo voter I.D. requirement, how their farmland was assessed, and I think “canned” hunting!  I don’t suppose they should be classified as lobbyists, but those baked goods they brought with them were AWESOME.  A bit of controversy also accompanied their visit; apparently some staffers objected to the prominent role they play in the puppy mill industry.  This was news to me.  Anyway, it was too late NOT to eat their products, I had already swallowed.”

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