Warm memories of a chilly Baltimore classroom in 1953

Municipal strike led photographer from Life Magazine to city school

Baltimore ... Or Less

March 28, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff

It's not everyday you open your morning newspaper to find a picture of your third- grade class. Not when the photo was taken in 1953.

"I was just speechless," Greta Hansen Klug said the other day, still tickled about last Monday's photo in The Sun.

It was a black-and-white photo that was originally published in Life Magazine in January 1953. It depicts several rows of earnest-looking children in Room 208 at Margaret Brent Elementary School. Each child has a right hand over the heart and mouth open, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The Sun reprinted the photo because it captured kids reciting the Pledge a year before the words "under God" were inserted, but that, of course, had nothing to do with why a Life photographer was snapping the picture that day.

It took Greta Klug, 59 now, long married and the mother of a 25-year old son, to explain that.

In the photo, Anne-Margrethe Hansen is barely visible, a crescent of blond hair in the very back, almost completely obscured by a boy in front of her. Still it is not a picture she was ever likely to forget.

After unexpectedly seeing it again in The Sun on Monday, she sent an e-mail to the newspaper. "Notice how we're all wearing coats?" she asked.

Well, now that she mentioned it. All the kids are bundled up in winter overcoats. Were there no hooks, no hangers in 1953?

Of course there were; what there wasn't that day, Klug explained, was heat.

Copying assignments

Just as the Christmas vacation neared an end that year, Baltimore's municipal workers went on strike. Garbage collectors, maintenance workers, furnace men, and school janitors all walked off the job three days before the scheduled resumption of classes.

When that bitterly cold Monday arrived, more than 60 percent of the city schools were without heat. Because of the strike, no one was on hand to run the furnaces or shovel coal.

Kids couldn't shiver through classes all day, but school officials didn't want to give up on school altogether.

The solution was to have tens of thousands of kids troop to school as usual every morning, copy down their assignments, and then send them on their way to do their work at home on their own. (Assignments were also given on the radio and rudimentary classes conducted on television.)

At the time, 8-year old Greta Hansen was a relative newcomer to America. She and her parents had emigrated from Norway less than four years earlier. After enduring the Nazi occupation and post-war deprivations, her father, a wood-worker, wanted to put an ocean between his family and the bleakness of Europe.

They chose Baltimore because Greta's aunt was already here. Greta and her parents moved into a big house on East 21st Street, next door to the Norwegian Seamen's Home. In September of 1949, Greta began kindergarten at Margaret Brent, five blocks away.

"I couldn't speak English and was scared to death. I couldn't communicate with any of my classmates. I still have memories of show-and-tell and not being able to tell."

Norwegians were exotic enough to Baltimoreans then that WBAL put Greta and a neighbor's child on television, in native dress. The girls sang a Norwegian song. "We were supposed to sing the 'Star-Spangled Banner,' but I fainted because of the lights. She did that part alone."

Greta became fluent in English within a year, as many immigrant children do, far faster than her parents. She remained shy in school, but her report cards testify to a sweetness that attracted friends and teachers. Adults were charmed by her Old World custom of curtseying.

'Little immigrant girl'

The Life photographer was clearly charmed by her as well. Mark Kauffman had come to Margaret Brent to illustrate a short story about how Baltimore's schoolchildren were coping with the municipal strike. A caption under one of Kauffman's photographs says the temperature in the school that day was 52 degrees.

After shooting a class photo, (Greta's mother is there too, in the back), he decided on a portrait of just one pupil, and, he chose Greta for that. "He told my mom that I just looked so intent on writing down the assignment, I guess he took a liking to me."

In the photo, Greta is seated at her desk, leaning over a composition book, a pencil gripped in her right hand.

She is wearing her checked overcoat and a kerchief in her hair. Only her blond bangs are showing. Her head is turned sideways and her eyes locked on the unseen blackboard. She is a bundle of concentration, precisely copying down the assignments for the day.

The photo took up a whole page in the Jan. 19, 1953, issue of Life. It struck a chord with readers. Some mailed fan letters to Greta care of the school. A few sent dolls. "I think they felt sorry for me, the poor little immigrant girl."

Her parents, Rolf and Else, couldn't have been prouder. "I think they bought every Life Magazine from every corner grocery store. They sent them back to Norway, so whenever I visited relatives, I'd find my picture hanging on every wall. I was a minor celebrity."

In Greta's recollection, during the strike, kids were in school less than an hour, only long enough to recite the Pledge, say a prayer, she seems to recall, sing a song or two, and hand in yesterday's assignments and copy down today's. And that was all.

The newspapers, of course, treated the strike with grimness, but for a third grader, it was a fun break from the routine. And what could be more exciting than a visit from Life Magazine?

"It was exciting. I don't recall any of it being a hardship."

By the end of the week, the furnace men and janitors were back at work. School resumed as normal. Soon enough, the whole adventure joined a trove of Greta's pleasing childhood memories, one that was astonishingly rekindled last week when she opened her newspaper.

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