Those Good Old Golden Rule Days
Recollections of Senn High School, February 1928 to June 1930
By: Frances A. Posner
It was the 1920s and the post World War I boom was booming. A slight lowering of Puritanic values - nothing like in the 1980s! - showed as Senn boys pitched pennies in the alley between Rosedale and Ardmore or piled on top of each other and rode around the block in open-topped, hand-patched-together Tin Lizzies.
Oh, the fame and honors Nicholas Senn High School won during those years! Every north side high school student yearned to attend Senn. They transferred from Lake View. No Mather in those days. Lake Viewers cut classes to hobnob on the grounds in front of Senn - girls as well as boys. I often saw beautiful Belle Korshak, the judge’s daughter from Lake View, in front of Senn as students congregated outdoors between classes. Lake View had no lawn campus, even so long ago; it was flush against the sidewalk.
When Rosedale’s catalpa trees bloomed in June, the view of the school from Magnolia resembled that of the White House in Washington, DC. It was magnificent!
Senn faculty included musician Nobel Cain, drama coach Amelia Skinner, principals Benjamin Buck and later John Davidson, dean of girls Mrs. Salani, gym teacher Bessie Pierce, mathematician and historian Mr. Brown, English teacher Miss Corcoran (encourager of hopeful writers), French teacher Miss Carpenter, a band master and head of ROTC. And what a staff they were!
I entered Senn as a sophomore in February, 1928, upon graduating from Sullivan Junior High. Five or six, long, narrow, white, portable classroom buildings accommodated student overflow on the Ardmore-Greenview side of the school, where the parking lot is now. Greenview, then, did not end at Thorndale; it continued past Ardmore into Ridge. Senn Park still belonged to old Farmer Kraus. Sennites had not yet begun to crave a football field.
My first home room was on the first floor rear with French teacher Miss Joseph. What a shock I had when I first saw her lean down behind her desk, remove carpet slippers from her feet and replace them with proper shoes. A teacher! She did it every day after lunch.
Mr. Brown taught history in one portable and my geometry class met in another. Mr. Brown looked like Abraham Lincoln - a tall, gaunt man. When he smiled, his whole face lit up and he became handsome. Old Abe’s smile must have worked the same magic.
Euclid’s geometry theorems had to be memorized verbatim; no translating into one’s own words with Mr. Brown. I tried, but barely managed to get a good grade because my words deviated slightly from the text. I ceased math studies at term end.
Miss Beem’s art class met in the attic of the main building, under skylights and beside the squared panes in the arched window above the front facade.
No wings on the building yet in those days. The front facade stretched along a wide, paved and stepped terrace, banked by bushes and trees on either side of the doors. Students strolled there. A long, oval running track girdled the center park, where the band marched and gym classes exercised. (The band also often paraded up and down neighboring streets to the applause of residents.) The park additionally hosted special events like the annual Rose Day costume contest party and class photographing.
Rose Day was part of a week’s festivities each June, when every graduating senior who had distinguished him or herself in some way at Senn was presented with a rose at a student assembly. It was a day of honor and a lovely tradition that is no longer observed.
My twin cousins, George and Jerome Sultan, were preparing to graduate in June when I entered Senn in February, 1928. I would meet the tall fellows in the halls, but they refused to acknowledge me as a Sennite. As a newcomer, I was beneath notice.
As for activities, my home room class chose me to represent it on the Student Council. I cannot, however, recall attending a single Council meeting. I know I did not serve on the Council from any subsequent home room.
Somehow, I found myself most frequently among hefty, athletic girls. Less often with my friends from Sullivan who had formed a sorority which, in the 1990s, is still active at Northwestern University. I became so involved with sports that I had no time to try out for the newspaper, Annual or poetry magazine.
The thoughtful poem “Books” by Caroline Simon, my chum and sorority sister, appears in the poetry magazine issue I prize: Songs of Youth, 1928-1930. The poem, on page 33, is signed with her autograph. Within the year it was published, she succumbed to blood poisoning. I could not drag myself the short walk to her home on Ardmore east of Broadway to attend her funeral. I fled home while crossing Broadway and was the only sorority sister missing. “No!” I wept, “I want Caroline ALIVE.”
U.S. Olympic runner Annette Rogers was one of coach Bessie Pierce’s protégés at Senn. Classmates Dagny Van Maart and her brother Bob made the U.S. Olympic swimming team. The trio spent expensive and grueling hours of pre-trial training at the Illinois Athletic Club on Michigan Avenue.
Goalie at hockey, hurdler at track (expertly coached by roly-poly Bessie Pierce), guard at basketball, player of soccer (with a smashed big toe to prove it) and volleyball, I avoided baseball; my wrists could not swing the lightest bat.
To everyone’s amazement, including Miss Law, the tennis coach, Mary Ann Stahl, and I won the annual Girls’ Tennis Doubles Match, in Belmont Park near the totem pole, entirely by default - no contender showed up to play us. We practiced hard, but neither of us was a very good player. I rarely could see the ball until it was on top of me.
I won my Senn Letter, the big white “S” on green, despite failing the swimmer’s life-saving test because I scrambled for safety whenever the “rescued” dunked me (as “rescuer”) face down under water. However, I loved to dive.
As Gil Blas, hair whitened by Miss Skinner and her costume/make-up students, in the medieval play of the same name, performed in French and directed by Miss Carpenter, I was busy, indeed.
During the scenes, I led the others in the cast, stage-frightened, from the corners of the stage (where they seemed to huddle for shelter) out into the middle of the assembly hall stage where they belonged. I moved them, like chessmen, from place to place on the stage according to the action and grouping the play demanded - and never dropped a line of my part. This experience filled me with a dream to direct stage productions, a dream shared by Andrew Jackson, my next-door neighbor on Rosedale.
That year Andrew won the Cup for the best Rose Day costume - a huge white and black skeleton - and, with drama coach Miss Skillen’s blessing, headed for New York City.
In 1930, Jean and Mary, the May twins, won the Cup as twin, fluffy white birdlings. I wore a pretty colonial dress my mother designed, with a high-piled cottony wig.
Good students were selected by Mrs. Salani, dean of girls, to serve as office helpers and tutors. It was quite an honor.
I well remember the assembly at which the Debating Club held the first debate I ever witnessed. Irving Kupcinet, now a famous Chicago newspaper columnist, impressed me with his assured arguments. I thought, then, that he would become a lawyer. His team won.
There was, for those days, a reckless element among the students. One morning the Chicago Police Department invaded the school, ordering every student to open and stand beside his/her book and clothes locker in the hall until the police had inspected and approved it. They were searching for liquor. I believe some bottles were found.
In my senior year, I wanted to increase the number of activity records I had accumulated, so I could have a long list in the Yearbook. I applied to Noble Cain for membership in his prize-winning Glee Club. Patiently, seated at his piano, Mr. Cain tested my voice. I had none and was not admitted. I would have enjoyed dressing in the long, green Glee Club robes.
Instead, for my final term, I doubled course load in order to graduate in June, instead of in February 1931 with my original class.
Among the added courses, I chose first-year Latin. Only four or five seniors enrolled in the class. It was a happy, jolly, “amo, amas, amat”-ing time. The freshmen were goggle-eyed over us seniors and our red-haired teacher appreciated the fun.
Principal Benjamin Buck was beloved. A handsome, stocky, white-haired man, he was promoted to a Board position during my senior year. I best recall him as he conducted an outdoor assembly, facing the student body massed on the steps of the terrace in front of the school. The occasion? I have forgotten.
Mr. Davidson, a tall, slender New Englander, succeeded him as principal. He was a fine man, but his nasal twang, especially on the word “WOIK,” caused twitters among his senior students.
On Rose Day, June 1930, a hundred or so honored graduating seniors were seated in rows on the stage in the assembly hall before the entire school. At the podium, Mr. Davidson was reading a long and, I am sure, inspirational poem with a frequent refrain. Page after page he turned and, in rhythm, called out the refrain, “Whoa, Pegasus! Whoa!” The students (including me) who sat behind him, silently, gleefully, but without his knowledge, pulled in imaginary reins at each refrain. It was delightful. He never suspected.
Many years have come and gone since then, but my memories of those days at Senn remain forever golden.