Memories Of Growing Up At Newberry School In Old Town
Childhood sports in Chicago neighborhoods of could be the synergist that makes gang-banging kids turn in their guns.
This writer grew up in the 1950s in Old Town—the tough North and Halsted neighborhood that was designated as Area I and II for Urban Renewal in the 1960s.
Hundreds of buildings were torn down, but renewal never came west of Burling St. As a result, North Halsted was a slum, with vacant lots and boarded up and demolished buildings everywhere.
Yet my parents, who owned a frame 3-flat at 1649 N. Halsted, hung on, and finally sold to theater developers in the early 1970s. Today, my parents’ 25-by-125-foot lot is the parking garage ramp to the Royal George Theater.
Newberry Elementary School, at Orchard and Burling, was my touchstone. A gravel schoolyard, surrounded by beautiful lilac trees. The school had a great gym teacher named Mr. Gallagher, who coached kids to beef-up their young, untrained muscles with leg lifts, chin-ups and plenty of dodge ball.
Amazingly, I was mentored by caring, patient, extremely educated public school teachers for all the years I was there.
One of my favorites was Mr. Proxmire, a handsome, 30ish gentleman who taught 5th grade and was in charge of the Boys’ Choir. He listened to my cherubic voice and said: “You sing like an angel.” I was immediately conscripted into the choir as a soprano.
Whenever we sang, Mr. Proxmire insisted we wear a dress shirt and a necktie. Most of the kids in the blue-collar class didn’t own a necktie, and neither did their fathers. So, he passed out neckties to the boys.
By the 8th grade, I learned that there were student forces that controlled the school yard. Tough Italian kids ruled the school in the late 1950s. The gang leaders were named Peccarro and Romano. They probably are upper-level “Good Fellows” if still alive today.
I was a frail kid. The immortal Vito Maniscalco tossed me in the snow one winter day on the way home to Halsted Street. My mother, always defensive, went to the school principal to complain about the bullying. The kid apologized and stopped throwing me around.
There were fights in the school yard, especially after the construction of nearby Cabrini Green, the giant public housing project. Many African-American families moved north of North Avenue along Halsted to avoid the projects and the children attended Newberry.
One day, Ms. Peterson, Newberry’s evil assistant principal, fed up with an unruly child, hung the kid on the schoolyard’s cyclone fence by his coat. She was silver-haired and wore a gray suit. As I look back, it was a scene from Gestapo Germany in the late 1930s.
But there were many good times at Newberry. My 8th Grade teacher, sweet Ms. Grace, took a fancy to me. She remembered that my sister, Dorothy, a former student, was an accomplished artist.
Ms. Grace knew one of my hobbies was wood burning. I had an artist kit with a wood-burning device. So, she asked if Dorothy, a student at Waller High School, could draw sketches on the top of discarded redwood cigar boxes that I sanded smooth. She requested that I wood-burned ballet and forest-scene images into the wood. They became her jewelry boxes.
I spent much of my last semester at Newberry doing art projects, including colorful, impressionistic water color works on parchment paper. Several of my works were displayed in the classroom.
Things got better when I graduated from Newberry and attended Lane Tech College Prep High School in 1958. As teenagers, we returned to Newberry to play tackle football in the gravel schoolyard, and kick field goals over the cyclone fence. I kicked a few wearing my brother’s worn-out, wing-tip shoes because my parents couldn’t afford football shoes.
Six decades later, I’m still recovering from a broken nose and concussion received when trying to tackle William Howard, a beefy 200-pound fullback. Last I heard, Howard was managing a Jewel Food Store.
Summers in the 1950s were always a delight on Halsted St. My cab-driver father, Chester Louis DeBat, was reared in New Orleans, La., and had a green thumb that created a wonderful Southern-style flower garden in the 100-foot-long back yard.
While in college in the 1960s, Don (Garbo) Garbarino, my best friend and college roommate from the University of Missouri Journalism School, and I returned summers to play fast-pitch rubber-ball baseball at Newberry.
This is the game where you mark the strike-zone on the wall of the school and throw a rubber baseball into the box while trying to strike out an adversary.
Garbo and I had a perplexing assortment of schoolyard pitches—fast balls, sinkers, curve balls, screwballs, even knuckle balls. In one nine-inning game, I struck out 19 of 27 batters.
Our opponents, were two friendly African-American guys, and we played schoolyard fast-pitch for $10 a game. Pitching to Booker, a beefy slugger, was like pitching to Willie McCovey of the San Francisco Giants.
One mistake and the baseball-sized rubber ball was crushed over the huge tree on Burling Street in center field. The ball landed 400-plus feet away in the backyard of a property on Halsted Street.
Ahh, fond schoolyard memories—this is what life is all about in your retirement years.