v26-1 Peirce School Playground - A brief history of the Peirce Skating Club

Vol. XXVI No. 1 - SPRING 2015

By: Kathy Gemperle

Back in 1937, it was apparent that the recreational needs of the crowded Peirce School were not being met. At that time in the 1930s there were no Chicago Park District facilities in Edgewater with activities for youngsters and this remained true until the opening of the Broadway Armory in the 1980s. A lobbying effort began with a “Recreation Rally” on December 3, 1937. By December 7, Mayor Kelly had promised $30,000 to provide both play equipment and a field house for after-school recreation.

The dedication of the field house and playground took place with much fanfare a mere 10 months later, on October 14, 1938. Mayor Kelly, Alderman Keenan and Principal Mildred Fahy were photographed at the event and the photo later appeared in Mayor Kelly’s reelection literature. By current standards, the speed with which this project was completed, from rally to installation, is astounding.

Fred Gohl, who had come from Indiana to Chicago to further his education, was hired by the Chicago Board of Ed as a playground supervisor. His first assignment was Swift School and he served there during 1937 and then he was transferred to Peirce School. Fred was in charge of all kinds of activities and old records showed he had 250 children participating in after school sports.

In the winter of 1938-39, he froze the playground and introduced skating as an activity by creating an Ice Carnival. In 1939 the Peirce Skating Club was formed and began competing in local meets. In 1942 there were 42 skaters, a difficult number to get to various meet locations. Sometime in the 1940s they reduced the number to 35.

The skaters received instruction on balance and controlling the edge of the blade. They learned that the start was very important and time was spent practicing it. In the 1940s the Peirce Skating Club participated in the Chicago Tribune sponsored Silver Skates competition. One year they won a trophy for the most entries in the Silver Skates Derby. In 1944 they won the Silver trophy of the Silver Skates and they did this for five consecutive years.

In 1948 the Club became an organization, the Peirce Skating Club, with their home base at the Peirce School playground. As a separate entity they had to elect officers. While many area youngsters got their start at Peirce playground, other students from the city and suburbs came to Peirce to join the club. Some of the names of the best skaters live on in the documents of the Chicago Tribune archive and in the memory of those who enjoyed the playground activities.

Donna MacKenzie, a 6th grader at Peirce became a recognized champion winning or placing in almost every contest she entered. She specialized in the 220 yard and 440 yard events. She was first in the Peirce Ice Carnival in the 440 yd; first in the Northwest Skating club meet in the 220 yd and in the AAA State Championship in the 440 yd.

Donna was first in the Chicago Board of Education playground championship in the 220 yard event and she went on to be the Indoor/Outdoor Champion in several categories. and was the 440 yd. and 880 yd. champion at the age of 17.

A 1947 photo of the club (on our cover) shows A. Olsen, D. Gross, D. MacKenzie, S. Crawford, Lillian [name not legible] and K. Krumm. There will be more about these youngsters in the 1950s when the playground saw increased activity. Among the events that the club participated in were the State of Illinois, Tri-State, Silver Skates, National, North American and Western Open, which was hosted by Peirce at Humboldt Park. Traveling to these meets added to the work involved in running a skating club, but the collection of trophies grew.

Alan Olsen broke the Midget Boys record for the 220 Yards at the National Speedskating races with a time of 22.4 seconds in 1950. It was remarked many times that January of 1950 was too warm and that the ice was slushy. This caused problems for the skaters practicing in the slush, until it got cold. That same year Jim Campbell won the 10,000 meter at the National. In 1952 the Peirce club won the team title at the Silver Skates. Ed Schroeder was a Silver Skates Champ that year and he joined Coach Gohl in working with the younger skaters at Peirce.

The original names of the age categories were Pony – under 8; Midget – under 12; 12-13 Juvenile;14-15 Junior; 16-17 Intermediate; over 18 Senior. In 1953 the Peirce Club elected officers: President Jim Campbell; vice president Kent Krumm; Secretary Donna MacKenzie. Krumm went on to become the President of the Illinois Skating Association in 1953 and then later the President of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1973-1977.

Many of the same names keep popping up in the records of events from 1952-1957. As the youngsters grew up at the Peirce playground they stepped up in the age categories. A prominent name in all these reports is Mary Novak, who held seven National titles. She was one of the greatest pack style speed skaters of all time and was inducted into the Speedskating Hall of Fame. In 1954 she won the Junior division and in 1955 the Intermediate. In 1954 Peirce won the Northwest Skating Club William Erickson Club Derby with Richard Widmark, Alan Olsen, Melrene Matthis and Mary Novak on the team. Melrene Matthis won the Skater of Year in 1954.

Mary Novak began skating at the age of three which Fred Gohl recommended as the right starting age in several interviews on how to become a great speed skater. But she did not live in Edgewater. She transferred to the Peirce club after starting at the Glen Ellyn Club. She returned to Glen Ellyn in the 1960s. In 1959 she set the Senior Women’s record for the 880 yard at 1 min., 41.3 seconds.

In 1955, 57 people from Illinois qualified to go to the Olympic trials. Those from the Peirce Skating Club were Mary Novak, Melrene Matthis, Richard Ring, John Novak, Alan Olsen, Ann Pipluh, Elaine Sargos, Richard Wellbank and Richard Widmark. It was an illustrious group. Another skater of note was Fred Fischl who won the Silver Skates Junior boys in 1955. In 1958 he was named Skater of the Year.

In April of 1959 Fred Gohl retired from the Peirce playground and coaching the Peirce Skating Club. He had been there 20 years. A special dinner was held for him at the Burnham Yacht Club and two skaters, Melrene Matthis and Ray Novak, were honored as National Champions. Ed Schroeder stepped up to coach the Peirce Club. Later he was named the coach of the 1960 Olympic team. The playground continued to attract neighborhood youngsters and Coach Norman Anderson was place in charge in 1960.

According to Jim Nakao, “The team was very strong in the 1960s but most speedskating clubs were in the suburbs; there were a few city clubs (Northwest, CYO) but not many. I think the club was largely disengaged from the playground well into the 60s and beyond, because they practiced at some indoor facilities. The Club always had its own President, but coach Anderson was a speedskating meet official and always helped manage the club, storing skates, uniforms, etc, at the field house. Speedskating was a very expensive sport due to equipment and travel. The meets were all over the place, Northbrook, Lombard, Des Plaines, Humboldt Park, Waveland (occasionally), Minnesota, Wisconsin, etc.”

In 1960 Peirce won the North Shore Open. In some of the following years the Peirce Club placed third or fourth in several of the meets. Some of the individual Peirce skaters placed 2nd and 3rd in some of these meets. Maureen Krause, Ann Bukowski, Linda Baacke, Mary Novak and Helen Lutsch are names that appear on the score sheets. In 1963 Karen Kasper qualified for the Olympic trials.

Jim Nakao has memories of Coach Anderson organizing skating, basketball, volleyball, softball and flag football at the Peirce playground. “We were so lucky that he was in charge, because he worked so hard for the kids. Today we are better adults because of his leadership.” Jim goes on, “It was there where Coach Anderson got myself and my brother to join the Peirce Skating Club. From there we competed around the country and in the suburbs of Chicago. Peirce sponsored a large meet called the Peirce Western Open which was usually at Humboldt Park. Another big meet every year was the Chicago Tribune Silver Skates, which was an event that I won once in the juvenile boys division.”

“At nite the ice was bathed in moon light and field lights, and we had a blast skating and playing tag. Not everyone had to be a competitor. In the early years of the club in the 50s and 60s the team actually practiced at Peirce playground. Eventually other larger venues were developed for all the teams to practice.” This led to some changes at the playground, but it continued to be open and flooded for skating.” Jeff Stillwell, a Peirce graduate remembers some of the skaters who began at Peirce and continued at Senn in the 70s. Among them were Jim and Bill Hargesheimer, Tony Garbaldi and Tom Lonis.

Mr. Anderson flooded the Peirce playground whenever it was cold enough. In the 70s the club was down to a handful of skaters and everyone skated the Tribune Silver Skates; it was a big meet that was usually outdoors but later went indoors. In 1970 Peirce Class A boys captured the Lilacia Speed Skating title at the meet on the Lombard Lagoon.

By the early 1980s the thawing winters had taken their toll. An indoor season was started in October-November. Then if it was cold enough, an outdoor season for December and January, then an indoor session for February and March. The problem was the unpredictability of the winter temperatures. The practicing moved to a variety of places including Northbrook, Park Ridge and Evanston.

In 1982 the Tribune announced that the Peirce Skating Club had moved to Robert Crown in Evanston, which was an indoor rink.

After-school activities continued at the playground. Mr. Anderson was there for many years and influenced many children to enjoy sports activities. The field house provided storage for equipment and sometime indoor activities. The playground coach was a school district employee and he checked in at the school office. The playground was open for activities year round, not just for the speed skating. So in the spring there was baseball. Alderman Harry Osterman remembers playing ball at the playground. When Coach Anderson passed away on June 20, 2013, Alderman Osterman introduced a resolution in the city council memorializing “Coach” for all his contributions to the Peirce playground over his many years of service.

Most of the information for this article came from the Chicago Tribune archives. The results of most meets were published in the newspaper and information given about up and coming stars. As Peirce School gets ready to celebrate its 100th year it is fitting that we remember the Peirce playground and all it meant to this community of Edgewater.

Editors note. Special thanks to Jim Nakao for seeking an article about the Peirce Skating and following up with his recollections. Thanks also to Florence Kays Hurter for the wonderful photo that is on the cover.

See page 11 for a flyer about the Skating club.