Old grads relive past at converted No. 59

Jacques Kelly

January 15, 1993|By Jacques Kelly

A handful of School 59's graduates walked through the corridors of their childhood yesterday, up the stairwells and into the classrooms.

They didn't know what to expect of a place that's now an apartment house for senior citizens, where they hadn't set foot for nearly 50 years.

The group knocked on the door of fifth-grade teacher Audrey Glassman's former domain, Room T, on the third floor of the school at Keyworth Avenue and Reisterstown Road that was named for novelist Louisa May Alcott.

Thelma Harris ushered the group through her sunny flat, which she occupies with her husband, William.

"I just love this place. It's so nice and quiet," Mrs. Harris said of her quarters with high ceilings, large windows and plenty of room.

The School 59 alumni marveled at preserved tin ceilings, polished maple floors and old blackboards that now line the halls. What was once a school still looks like a school.

"So many of the students come back to visit. I invite them in to take a trip down memory lane. We're proud of ourselves here. There is great dignity in this type of housing," said Goldie Mason, manager of the building now known as Alcott Place.

"My husband was stationed in Germany for three years during World War II," said Mrs. Glassman, 71, who taught at the school from 1940 to 1965. "I got word he would be coming home, so I took a week of leave off, naturally in those days without pay.

"Well, wouldn't you know, the day he arrived at Fort Meade to come home was the day I had scheduled a class trip to Washington. The children had saved their money all year for the trip and I just couldn't drop out. So on his first day back home in three years, Henry wore his uniform on the class trip," said Mrs. Glassman.

"It never looked this good when we were here," said Robert Cohen, an alumnus who was graduated from the sixth grade in 1948 and who amazingly has received $35 checks from 605 Louisa May Alcott students, some from as far back as 1921, to attend a May 2 reunion at Martin's West.

The school was closed in 1972. There were no school records surviving. Everyone was notified by word of mouth and advertisements in the Jewish Times, because of the neighborhood's predominantly Jewish population from the 1920s through the 1960s.

Mr. Cohen said that dozens of former pupils have written to him, describing the old Park Heights neighborhood and their beloved school. "They talk of the warmth and safety, that everyone seemed to be equal,the family values, shared heritage. One man wrote, 'The teachers were dedicated people trying their best to give us a strong foundation and the behavior to build upon.' "

School 59 is a striking 1911 building, tall and filled with light, designed by distinguished architect Otto Simonson. He exercised some deft artistic license on its stucco exterior, placing large bands of bricks around the windows. The contrast with the dark bricks and light stucco give the building a quirky striped effect. There is certainly no other schoolhouse in Baltimore that resembles it.

When the school first opened, there weren't enough children to fill its 24 classrooms. That soon changed, and by the 1930s the Park Heights neighborhood was booming with families -- on Loyola Southway, Oswego, Keyworth and Violet avenues and on the main streets of Reisterstown Road and Park Heights Avenue. Eventually, portable classrooms had to be set up in the playground.

"If you didn't go to 59, you went to St. Ambrose [the Roman Catholic school at Wylie and Park Heights avenues] or maybe the Talmudical Academy. But 59 was definitely the center of the neighborhood," said Albert Harris, another reunion organizer, who attended from 1941 to 1948.

The alumni readily recall their principals -- Florence Thalheimer, Annie Manning, Pearl Goetz, Edward Gersuk, Kathryn Wilhelm and George Schwartzman -- and longtime teachers like Dorothy Kratz in kindergarten, Esther Freilachoff ("Miss Esther" to her generations of first-graders) and Ada Reynolds, whom second- and third-graders looked on as a stern taskmaster.

And for School 59's students and teachers, the ringing of the lunch bell (the school lacked a cafeteria) meant a -- across Reisterstown Road to Gleiman's Pharmacy.

"Everybody called my mother, whose real name was Ethel, 'Mrs. Doc,' " said Carolyn Gleiman Shochet, whose parents operated the store from about 1942 through the mid-1960s.

Teachers often were ushered into the owner's kitchen, so they could eat their bag lunches in private.

"My grandmother, Mrs. Wolfe, might make some egg salad or tuna fish sandwiches. It was my job to run through to the soda fountain and bring back drinks for the teachers," said Mrs. Shochet, who in the 1940s lived just across the street from the school.

"My father would only use Blackman's chocolate syrup, which he felt was better and stronger than Hershey's. All the children bought a coddie for a nickel and a small chocolate soda [syrup and Seltzer water]," she recalled.

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