Panthers after 60 years

WAY BACK WHEN

Friendships: Some East Baltimore kids started the Panther Club in the Jewish Education Alliance Building 60 years ago. About 50 of them are headed for the Catskills tomorrow to celebrate and remember.

June 24, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Games of basketball and volleyball have ceased along with the all-night drives to New York City's Palladium or Atlantic City to dance to Latin rhythms. Memories of late-night cha-cha sessions in Baltimore's old Mount Royal Hotel's Pan-American Room are just that.

There are a few more aches and pains than there used to be. Hair has turned gray and waists have thickened. Many have retired and most all are now grandparents.

However, friendships made 60 years ago when they were kids growing up in East Baltimore remain as firm as when 10 boys decided to establish the Panther Club in the Jewish Education Alliance Building at Central Avenue and Baltimore Street.

Tomorrow morning, some 50 Panthers and their wives will board two buses and head off to the Catskills to celebrate 60 years of friendship and recall a time when they were younger and the world was a more innocent place.

"I was 20 years old when I joined in 1948," semi-retired developer Norman Abrahams 72, of Pikesville, said the other day.

"I was looking to expand myself socially and I heard about this club that met in the Jewish Education Alliance Building. In those days, it was the hub of Baltimore's social clubs and a place where kids could meet other kids. It was a godsend for me to join such a great club," Abrahams said.

"They had a gym and we played basketball and volleyball and other sports. It was open seven days a week including Sunday," he said.

He explained that the origins of the name of the all-male club had come from a former Cub Scout troop.

"It just stuck," said Abrahams with a laugh.

Composed of public school and Hebrew school students along with former Cub Scouts who met in the JEA Building, the Panther Club's early advisers were Jerry Scher, Babe Wallman and Nate Berlin.

Panther Club members played basketball, volleyball and wrestled. They held track and field events and softball games at Patterson Park. There were ping-pong and declamation contests and dues were only 10 cents a week for the club. JEA dues were another dime.

Some members enlisted to fight during World War II and later in Korea. As the Panthers turned into young men, they sponsored dances in the JEA's auditorium and on its roof.

After the JEA Building closed during the early 1950s, the club moved to the JEA's Cottage Avenue building in Northwest Baltimore. By the mid-1950s, members were meeting at one another's homes.

"Now the boys were starting to take that long walk down the aisle and instead of `breaking up that old gang of mine,' it drew them closer," wrote Alvin Paul Freedman, 71, the club's current president, in a thumbnail history of the organization.

By the 1960s, children were becoming part of the club, "peripherally," explained Freedman, who joined the club in 1953 and describes himself as a "short-timer." Still working, Freedman is a stockbroker with Capital Portfolio Management in Hunt Valley.

"The fellows were working hard and raising families, but Tuesday night was meeting night. If you weren't there the question was asked `What happened?' " he wrote.

"Parties were well-attended and camaraderie was and has been a rallying cry of the members. The question wasn't `Do you have a date?' but `Do you have a baby sitter?'

"Parties were held all over town at such places as Cadoa Hall, the Blue Room, Brith Shalom Hall, the Southern, Emerson, Lord Baltimore, Stafford and Park Plaza hotels," he wrote.

There were hay rides and excursions to Bay Shore Park, Glen Echo Park, Frock's Farm and to Great Falls, Va. The club's annual New Year's Eve party had become and still is a major event.

When founding member Dave Goldberg died, club members decided to give an annual party for children at area hospitals in his memory. They also actively support various causes relating to Israel.

When a club member dies, the club gives his widow a check for $1,000.

"We've all become extended family and we make sure that no one is alone. In fact, widows are invited to club functions," said Freedman.

Membership statistics are impressive. The average age of members is 75. There are nine club members who have been married at least 50 years, 26 for 45 years and five for 40 years.

Four charter members, Irv Fishbone, Nate Silver, Stan Tilkin and Bernie Arbesman, have been active in the club since 1940.

"Old geezers? They don't like to think of themselves that way," said Freedman, laughing.

Today, in addition to their regular functions, the club meets twice a month at an area restaurant to swap news, retell old stories and generally enjoy each other's company.

"The meetings are friendly but raucous and there's a lot of yelling," said Abrahams, laughing. "However, good will takes care of all of it."

All activities are discussed and voted on at meetings after committee reports.

"Democracy is in action here. Everyone can express his opinion on anything and they usually do!" Freedman wrote in his club history.

Abrahams believes that the Panther Club with its longevity is the only such boys club still active in the area.

"It really is unusual that we've stuck together all these years," he said.

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