Longform Philly

Month: April, 2015

Lean on Him

lean-on-me-original

Frank Rossi | Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine | March 1987

”CRAZY JOE” CLARK IS A SATISFIED MAN when he’s rolling down the hallways of Eastside High School, ready to crush the slightest suggestion of rape, violence, drug addiction, and all the other vile acts for which Eastside was famous before he came – and which don’t occur anymore because somebody had the sense to send Crazy Joe in to clean the place up, and by the end of his first day, the school was pretty much cleaned up, because that’s the way Joe Clark works – swift and clean, like the hand of the Lord.

In the hallways of his own school, he estimates he walks 22 miles a day. He meets his students, bantering, urging, insulting, encouraging and loving them, as they change classes. With him always is his trusty companion, a white bullhorn tucked into his left armpit. It is a vocal battering ram with which he opens the ears of the throng:

“OK, people, walk to the right. ”

You think walking to the right is not so important? The truth is, making students walk to the right could have been one of Joe Clark’s major achievements. In a school where everyone is already afraid of everybody else,bumping into somebody is an offense that could earn you a few inches of steel in the liver.

It got so bad that Frank Napier, superintendent of schools in Paterson, N.J., moved his office to Eastside High School so he could see what was happening. His first day on the job, a student grabbed Napier and held a knife to his throat.

“I kicked his a-,” Napier says when asked how he handled the situation. The next thing he did was to make Joe Clark principal of Eastside.

That was five years ago. Things changed immediately. The sign on Clark’s office door explains why: “One way – my way. ” It’s not meant to be cute – he’s serious. It’s part of the contradiction that is Joe Clark, and there are many. The most interesting of which is his method of human relations. He treats his $47,000-a-year administrators as though they were children, and he treats his students as adults.

Here’s another. By day the man is strung tighter than a piano wire ready to snap and take your eye out – he screams, threatens and cajoles. At night, in the safety of his own home, he is, by all accounts, content to sit back meekly, listen to classical music and let his wife and daughters take over.

Finally, it would be hard to find anyone as dedicated as Joe Clark is to helping blacks reach their potential. Yet to many blacks, Joe Clark’s mouth is a bomb that can’t be defused – he’s always saying things like “Black kids have Jordache jeans on their behinds and nothing in their minds. ”

Every morning at 5 or so, Joe Clark is up and getting ready for school. By 6 a.m., he’s at work. By 7, even though classes don’t start until 8, students begin to arrive. These are the students who take part in extracurricular activities. At Eastside, you aren’t allowed to miss class to participate in extracurricular activities. You either arrive early or stay late.

By 8 a.m., Joe Clark, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and perhaps the most omnivorous practitioner of vocabulary since Noah Webster, is speeding down the halls, bullhorn ready. What a sight. Three-piece suit, Italian cut, trouser creases sharp enough to slice cheese. The suit does more than fit; his never-eats-lunch body is caressed by it. This is topped off by a silk tie wrapped under a shirt collar that could withstand a nuclear attack.

Tagging along with him is a breathtaking experience. But if you want to talk to Joe Clark you talk on the run or not at all.

In the halls are the greenest plants this side of the Bahamas, and sofas and chairs, lots of sofas and chairs, for students to relax in while they study. The key word is study. Joe Clark catches a boy sitting on the arm.

“All right,” Clark says. “Sit down. You can’t sit on the arm. ” Even as the young man slips down into the seat, Joe Clark has already passed.

“Annette,” Clark says to a girl a little farther along, “pick that paper up, honey. Thank you. ”

To another girl: “Where do you belong? ”

No answer.

WHERE DO YOU BELONG?

“I’m going to the gym. ”

“Let me see your ID. ”

She shows him her identification card. He admonishes her to display it in plain view. There was an ID system before Joe Clark came, but it wasn’t enforced, so the school was open to every punk and pervert in Paterson. Now, no ID card, you’re out, even if Joe knows you by name. And there are not many students he does not know by name.

Another thing about Joe Clark is his telescopic vision. He can spot a gum wrapper on the floor at 25 yards. He stops a student. “Eva,” he says, “you come with me. See that piece of paper there, honey? Pick it up for me. OK? ” She picks it up. “Thank you,” he says. It would have been less trouble if he had picked it up himself, but in Joe Clark’s school, lessons go well beyond the three R’s.

“The kids keep the building very clean,” he says, “3,000 kids, 2,000 blacks, 1,000 Hispanics. ”

“What about us? Aren’t there any whites? ”

“Fifteen years ago, 20 years ago, the composition of the building turned from white to black and Hispanic. The whites were afraid of the black plague. The Hispanic plague. Shows you the ominous nature of our society,” he says, speeding his pace in a now-empty hallway.

“You’ll find we don’t have smoking in the corridors. Drugs? We don’t have it in the building. ”

He knocks on a door and walks into a class. Everybody in the class, including the teacher, holds their breath. Clark looks a kid in the eye: ”Chris – right? ” No answer. “What’s your name, son? ”

“George,” the kid answers.

“George,” Clark says, and you can tell he’s studying the kid, remembering his name. Next time, Clark will know George. Clark steps out. “I go into maybe 50 classes a day. Even if it’s no more than four minutes. That makes me ubiquitous, omnipresent. ”

“They’re also afraid of you – yes or no? ”

He ignores the question. “Well, you know, I run this place democratically. ”

“Yeah, but you’re the president. ”

“Yes,” he answers.

“Or maybe the king? ”

Joe Clark smiles. “Maybe the savior,” he says – only, by now, the smile is gone.

FINDING OUT WHO JOE CLARK REALLY is isn’t easy. He is not crazy, not in the way some of his colleagues refer to him anyway. CBS news described him as a drill sergeant. Others have focused solely on his controversial nature.

Joe Clark drinks at the fountain of controversy. “Controversy I’ve found to be the greatest boon to my rapid emergence as one of the outstanding and provocative educators in this nation. Controversy did that. ”

Joe Clark was born and reared in Newark. His father was home “at a point,” and his mother was home “at a point. ” When he was 14, Clark’s mother left under circumstances he does not talk about. By that time his father already was gone. Joe Clark was left to take care of five younger brothers and sisters. Somehow he did.

He did it without quitting high school. If he had a role model, he can’t remember who it was. All he knew from that time on was that he had to do well. In school Clark wasn’t the brightest, but he worked harder, graduating sixth in his class in 1958.

Right out of high school he took a job as an orderly in a Newark hospital. He was still working at the hospital when he enrolled at Upsala College that fall, so he worked the 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. shift at the hospital and attended classes during the day. At the end of the first year, he ran out of money. What did he know? Nobody had volunteered the information that aid was available to students – work-study money, government loans. Clark transferred to William Paterson College of New Jersey, a state school, where he was a B student until his graduation.

At this point he had only vague ideas of what he could be. He thought about the FBI, or a career in criminology. Instead, he went into teaching, then enrolled in Seton Hall University’s graduate program, pulled straight A’s and earned a master’s degree in administration.

“Eventually,” he says, “I got the break that put me into administration. ” It was the active, liberal ’60s, and by now Joe Clark’s ideas were starting to form, and so was his mouth. Unfortunately, he was in his 20s and had no track record, and nobody wanted to listen to him.

His description of those events is typical Joe Clark. “I was exiled for 10 years. They said I was quite volatile and I talked too much about the ills of society, and so they exiled me. To an all-white school across town. Away from blacks. ”

What he says next provides insight into the vulnerable Joe Clark, the Joe Clark few people see even when they’re looking at it. “Valor tells me to fight ofttimes, but discretion tells me to walk away. I think this becomes part and parcel to survival in a highly complex society. You don’t trust people. Period. Once you reach that plateau in your life, you are less prone to be mortally wounded than if you take people to your heart. ”

A major step for Clark came in the 1970s, when he was appointed principal to No. 6 grade school, one of the raunchiest grade schools in Paterson. Within five years, he cleaned up the place. He was now ready to face Eastside High School. He spent the entire summer working on his plan, so when the first day of school came, he was ready for war, if that’s what it came to.

THERE’S NOT A SCHOOL IN THE NATION that doesn’t have rules against taking loaded guns to class, dealing in drugs, shooting up in the restrooms. Those rules existed at Eastside before Joe Clark showed up. The difference between Joe Clark and those who had failed before him was that he enforced the rules. The first day of school, academic records in hand, he called 300 supposed juniors and seniors to the auditorium. They’d been at Eastside for two years, and almost to a person they had no academic credit.

He kicked them out. You don’t belong here, he said; all you’re doing is distracting people who want to learn. There were complaints. What was Joe Clark trying to do – take their rights away? No, he said. He was trying to guarantee the rights of students who wanted to learn.

In Joe Clark’s school, talking back to a teacher earns you an automatic suspension. Drugs, violence, graffiti and all the rest draw suspensions. No hearings. No talking. Just get the hell out until you can co-exist.

The vile acts that occurred regularly at Eastside five years ago are practically impossible to find today.

A good many administrators are not in love with Clark’s personal style, but they have to swallow their bile for now because Clark has tremendous support in the city of Paterson, from the parents and from his students and a majority of the school board members.

He has that support because whatever he’s doing, it works. Academically, he has tried to bring his school from the ice age into the 20th century. New Jersey has something called a minimum basic skills test. When Joe Clark arrived, only 39 percent of the students could pass the reading and English part. Now, the percentage is close to 70 and rising. When he came, only 56 percent could pass the math test. Now, the math percentage is up to 91.

The MBS test is not considered a credible gauge by many, but Clark has needed some yardstick with which to measure academics. Other tests have not been as hopeful. For example, the number of students who make the honor roll today has not changed much from the number who made it when Clark first arrived. Eastside’s numbers in the Scholastic Aptitude Test, long considered the benchmark by which schools are measured, have remained almost the same in the five years Clark has been principal.

By the same token, more Eastside students are college-bound than ever before, and Clark believes the curriculum is more difficult today than it was in the past. Eastside, says Clark, has the strongest academic program in Paterson, equal to any inner-city school system in the northeastern United States. How would it stack up against a white middle-class school district?

“I think,” says Joe Clark, “that given all the nuances of society, and if we could correct the pervasive ills that surround blacks and Hispanics; and if we were able to undo decades of stagnation and prejudice and poor self- concepts – the dissipation of family – if we were able to do all those things, then eradicate racism from our society; if we were able to construct a government truly committed to justice, equality and liberty for all; if we were able to do just some of those things, there could be parity. Until such time, it’s just a figment of one’s imagination. ”

There is a philosophy among the administrators of Eastside High School, a philosophy handed down by none other than Joe Clark. It says you don’t have any rights until you practice your responsibilities. At Eastside High School, rules equal responsibility.

If Joe Clark suspects you of having smack, crack or even alcoholic apple jack in your locker, he’s going to get a hammer, knock the lock off and have a look inside.The American Civil Liberties Union would love to hit Joe Clark over the head with a law book. He couldn’t care less. “In my school,” he says seriously, “I’m the constitution. These kids deserve to get a good education in a drug-free environment, and I’m just the man to see that they get it. ”

MUZAK SPILLS SOFTLY FROM THE speakers of the third-floor corridor, which is empty, save for Joe Clark at one end and what appears to be a mother at the other end. They come together like two cars on a one-lane highway. For a minute it seems as though they’re going to squeeze by each other without notice, but he stops abruptly and looks her up and down.

“Have you been to the office for a visitor’s pass?” he says. He makes no effort to be polite. Before she can answer, he says: “You have to go to the office first and get a visitor’s pass. ”

“But,” the woman says.

“You must have a visitor’s pass. You just can’t walk through the building. ”

“They sent me . . . ”

He cuts her short. “Come with me. ” He launches that skinny bod of his into high gear; he’s going so fast by now, a kid around the bend who has been horsing around in the hall with a wig on his head gets caught in the act. The kid rips the wig off and stuffs it between his legs. Clark whizzes past, too sizzled to yell at the kid.

Behind Clark, the mother is losing ground. “Slow down,” she says, clearly ticked. “I ain’t walkin’ that fast. ” Clark pays absolutely no attention to her. Sensing that something drastic is going to happen unless she cooperates, she attempts to catch up.

Clark stops. Yanks open the door to one of the administration offices and barely steps onto the threshold. “I found this woman walking the halls without a visitor’s pass. Who did it?” he demands.

“I did,” a woman answers.

“You can’t do that,” he says.

“I know,” the administrative aide says, “but the woman was in a hurry and. . . . ”

Clark doesn’t want to hear it.

He closes the door. But his face is red and brown at the same time, and clearly he hasn’t gotten rid of all his anger. He yanks the door open again. The woman looks up. “If I’m going to have rules and regulations, you have to follow ’em or there’s no sense having them. ” He closes the door before she can respond. As quickly as his heat rose, it dies. A girl passes him.

“Hi, baby,” he says, “where are you going? ”

“To the gym. ”

“Take care, baby. ”

Then the girl turns, a kind of pseudo-hurt expression on her face. ”Where’s my teddy bear?” she whines.

“See me in the morning in my office,” he says.

“I tried to see you this morning, but you wasn’t listening,” she says.

“WEREN’T listening,” he corrects. “See me in the morning. ” Zoom! He’s off again.

“What’s a teddy bear? ”

“Well,” he says, “I get different gifts for the young ladies. Ah, corsages, teddy bears, different things to buoy their spirits. And also to gain support. ” Clark pays for the gifts out of his own pocket.

Down the hall. “Hi, girls,” he says.

“Hah! Don’t speak to me,” one of them says. “I didn’t get no teddy bear. ”

Joe Clark smiles, and he waves to a bunch of black and Hispanic boys making their way down the hall. “All these bears around here,” he laughs, “just grab one, whatever color you like, brown, black, white. ”

He moves on. “Be charismatic,” he says. “Always keep something going. ”

He opens the door to a language class. Bursts in and says, “Hola. Como esta? ”

Everyone is startled.

Finally one student answers him in Spanish. “Glad to see you’re working so hard,” Joe Clark says. “Maybe we won’t self-destruct by the year 2,000. You have to work. ”

He closes the door softly behind him and says quietly, “It’s been prognosticated that blacks and Hispanics will probably self-destruct by the year 2,000. ”

“Wha? ”

“Very formidable magazines. Crisis Magazine, the NAACP. I see it very saliently clear. I believe it’s going to happen. ” Part of it is the lack of family life. Joe Clark really believes he can make up for it, that he can give 3,000 students what they might not be getting at home.

“At home,” he says, “they lack discipline. Here, they have a different perspective. They now have an administrator who is pertinacious. An administrator who has that unswerving resolve to make amends for the deterioration that may exist in their abodes. They have an administrator who has the foresight and intuition to ameliorate those destructive forces and transform them into decency and respect. That’s the difference! ”

“Yeah, yeah, but who’s got the stronger influence. You or the home? ”

“Me, me. I’m convinced of it. I’m much more potent. There is no family structure. I don’t believe that welfare should, in fact, be as entrenched in our society as it is. I think, if anything, welfare has etched away the resilience and the viability and the vitality of a race of people . . . .

“You see, when you give people something, you take their dignity, you take their respectability. You take their pride, their decency, and you make them subservient and dependent upon an institution rather than the basic force that has made this country great – hard work and doing for self. And the bastards have got to work. You can’t give it to ’em. The same thing is applicable to white folks. . . . Half this country is receiving some type of aid. You can’t have a country that way. That’s why we’re faltering now – America. ”

PERTINACIOUS – Holding stubbornly to any opinion or design; extremely persistent. (Scribner Bantam English Dictionary)

When Joe Clark calms down, he admits he’s not necessarily the smartest man in the world, that he is not cut out to be a leader, a superintendent – a No. 1 man. “I’m a good No. 2, No. 3 man,” he says. But he can easily explain how he got to be “the best administrator in the nation. ”

Persistence.

Is that so. Then he ought to know what Calvin Coolidge said about persistence.

Clark hesitates, trying to call it up in his memory bank. Then his eyes burn, and he smiles widely, and punctuating his words with the baton that is his finger, he recites: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than the unsuccessful man with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not – the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.'”

Without waiting for applause, Joe Clark is back prowling the halls of his beloved Eastside, a school that is built on a cemetery, a school which for all intents and purposes was dead until he breathed life into it. You might say Eastside is a monument to Joe Clark’s pertinacity.

“I’ve got to be omnipresent because if I’m not, things go astray,” he says. How can Joe Clark spend all his time bouncing around the halls and still keep the school running? The answer is, he delegates authority to his administrators, people like Veronica Maus, executive vice principal, known as the “Iron Woman” – for good reason.

“I’m not ever going to stay in my office. Why do you think I know so much?” he says. “I see it. I don’t believe anything they tell me, my administrators. They don’t have the internal fortitude necessarily to be totally comprehensive. Their scope is too narrow. Some of them. Not all of them. ”

“The most powerful force in the school, then, is Joe Clark? ”

“True,” he says.

“And suppose another Joe Clark type showed up here? ”

“I would throw him out. I just got rid of one of my vice principals for doing that. THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE MR. CLARK AT EASTSIDE. I’m asking them to earn their $47,000 a year. That’s all. ”

“What does Joe Clark earn? ”

“Fifty-five thousand. Not much at all for the job I’ve got to do. ” He’s had offers. U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett thinks Joe Clark is the best thing to come out of New Jersey since tomatoes. They’ve had lunch a couple of times, during which, by all accounts, Joe Clark instructed Bennett on how to excise the cancers from American schools. It’s a good bet that Bennett would like to attract him to Washington. But Joe Clark’s too smart.

“I’m happy here,” Clark says. “You see, I never let my reach exceed my grasp. I want to do those types of things that produce instantaneous rewards. I can’t wait. ”

Quietly, a girl and a boy stop him. She needs a pass signed. They are serious, so Clark matches his mood to theirs. He asks how they are doing academically, and they say they are doing well. Clark signs the pass and smiles. “Mr. Clark,” the boy says out of the blue, “I’m just a freshman. Please stay with us for three more years. ”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Joe Clark says.

EASTSIDE HIGH SCHOOL, PATERSON, N.J., is Joe Clark’s work of art, a kind of sculpture in brick and glass and flesh and force of will. But it does not have the permanence, for instance, of a Greek statue; it is more like a sand castle threatened by the unrelenting possibility of erosion by an ocean.

There’s a good chance that if Joe Clark were suddenly replaced, Eastside would revert to its primitive state.

“Probably, probably,” he says. “I would be disappointed if it didn’t. I don’t want a lasting effect. I want them to know that Joe Clark did come through here. I want them to see the difference between a person who’s a good manager and individuals who can’t manage.

“I know I’m not indispensable. I know my place. I know my capabilities. ”

Joe Clark’s cure for Eastside’s disease is relatively simple. He believes that young people will do what they are expected to do. If you expect them to be drug addicts and rapists, that’s what they will be. From the beginning, he made it clear that his expectations went quite beyond that.

He never had to line people up against the walls and search for weapons. He never had to go through the lockers, cabinet by cabinet. He fostered pride, dignity and respect. “The reason they carried weapons was because they felt intimidated,” he says. “We removed that. And thus, no more need. They had to fight their way out of here sometimes.

“I had a security guard stabbed the year before I came, alleged rapes, guns, fights – fights in the cafeteria every lunch period. Assaults on administrators. Teachers beaten up. Sex rings. ”

“Sex rings? ”

Clark, disgusted at the question: “Of course. ”

“You mean prostitution? ”

“Yes. Teachers going with the girls. All that balderdash. That should not have existed. They’re gone. And the female teachers who went with the boys are gone. And the boys who went with the guys are gone, and the girls who went with the girls are gone.

“I made it clear that what existed would be no more, and that’s that. I put the security guards out. I don’t need security guards now. Kids know what to do. ”

The trick to Clark’s success is that he put his plan into operation with great force in one day. Then he ironed out the wrinkles later on while nobody was looking. Had he stumbled along trying to implement one rule at a time, his throat probably would be cut by now, literally and figuratively.

His results brought him community support, including the confidence of the mayor of Paterson; the parents are thrilled with his results. And the media have turned Joe Clark into a mythical figure.

Which brings us to Frank Napier, Paterson superintendent of schools. Napier and Clark came up together. They’ve known each other since 1959. For all the clout he has developed, Joe Clark serves at the convenience of Frank Napier. If Napier were replaced tomorrow by a superintendent less sympathetic to Joe Clark, Clark could find himself gone. But if there’s any close friendship between Napier and Clark, neither one admits it.

At an administrators’ meeting one day, Clark was lecturing his staff on one of his favorite topics: loyalty. The superintendent and I don’t agree on everything, he said, but I’m loyal to him.

Loyalty is a fetish with Clark. If he even suspects that one of his administrators is disloyal, he gets rid of him. It’s not easy, therefore, to find anyone on his staff who will speak against Clark.

When he says he’s harder on his administrators than he is on his students, he’s not kidding. Portions of administrative meetings can become downright unpleasant, particularly if Clark assigned somebody to do something and it didn’t get done. During most of one recent meeting, the administrators looked like people who had been told they would die in six months.

At this meeting, he bawled out Florence Lopas, one of his strongest allies, for forgetting to schedule a fire drill; he impatiently prodded a woman who had failed to learn her vocabulary words – he regularly hands out a list of new words for administrators to learn – for that day, and he castigated his black administrators for not setting a better example.

“You black administrators should be setting the example for our students. We thank the white teachers and administrators for their help, but I don’t want them setting the example here,” he told his staff. “You black administrators are not setting a strong enough example. ”

Sometimes he even screams at them. “White guys can’t take that. I tell them, ‘You can’t take it because you’re a white boy, and a nigger is screaming at you. ‘ Oh, man,” he says laughing, always delighted to shock.

Yet for all his boldness, Joe Clark understands that his power doesn’t extend beyond the front door of Eastside High School.

One of his first actions was to require teachers and administrators to wear jackets and ties. “They said, ‘You don’t tell me what to do,’ ” he remembers. “That was in my less-refined days when I took no prisoners. I demanded that they dress up or get the hell out. ” The school board backed him.

The next thing he wanted was a dress code for students. “The American Civil Liberties Union got after me, plus the businessmen. They were making too much money on the kids. Your best-dressed kids are blacks and Hispanics. So they would stop going downtown to buy clothes if they wore a uniform. The businessmen would lose millions of dollars.

“They made no bones about it. They told me. I stood there aghast. But I knew I was working with a powerful structure now: the businesses. And they could destroy me. I didn’t want to court destruction. So I backed off. I want to live. Survive. I’ve got a family to take care of, too.

“They call me Crazy Joe. But nobody ever said I was a fool. ”

Still, to this day, Clark yearns for a dress code. “I’ve found consistently that your best-dressed kids are the dumbest, because in order to be well-dressed, it takes innumerable hours trying to put these different sequences together.

“White kids are poorly dressed in comparison to black kids. I wanted everybody to be dressed the same. I got it from your prestigious schools. Those kids wear uniforms. They’re telling me something.”

Joe Clark is zooming toward the office, for no apparent reason. There is one last thing, though, before he goes in. How come Joe Clark dresses well?

“I’m well-dressed, but I’ve earned my right to be well-dressed,” he says, then he opens the door and disappears inside.

IN PATERSON, JOE CLARK’S CHIEF OPPONENT – it wouldn’t be fair to call him an enemy, because he admires many of Clark’s achievements – has to be Pete Tirri, president of the Paterson teacher’s union. Pete Tirri may be one of the few people who speak out publicly against Clark, partly because Tirri has guts, partly because it’s his job, and partly because he’s an elementary school teacher and it’s unlikely he’ll ever have to work for Joe Clark.

“It’s clear to me that the halls are quieter at Eastside,” Tirri says. ”I just cannot accept a man who prides himself on driving people out of school, a man who feels that the only way to resolve a problem is through confrontation.”

Although he says there have been dozens of abuses of teachers, Tirri focuses on three cases, those of Fran Kubian, a former music teacher; Barry Rosser, the head football coach at Eastside, and Dominick Pelosi, whose position as head basketball coach is in question as of this writing.

“Fran Kubian was considered to be one of the best music teachers we had in the district,” Tirri says. “She had some very talented kids and had contacted the Metropolitan Opera and had set up some program where members of the opera would come to Eastside High School to work with some of her kids.

“When the people from the Met wrote Clark to get permission . . . he said permission was denied. ”

Michael C. Pollak of the Record of Bergen County reported: “Clark’s reply was curt. In a letter, he informed the opera that there was nothing to discuss, because Mrs. Kubian was no longer choir director. He had suspended her himself, ordering security guards to throw her out of the building. ” She was suspended because she didn’t inform Clark in advance that the Met people were coming.

Clark and Kubian had had other disagreements, according to Pollak, mostly because Kubian didn’t keep Joe Clark informed of every detail of her program. Once, “when a news photographer arrived at Eastside to take a picture of the singing group, Clark angrily ordered the photographer ejected, complaining that Mrs. Kubian had not consulted him in advance,” Pollak wrote. He reports that Clark, discussing the situation over the school’s public address system, referred to Fran Kubian as a “dizzy broad.”

Kubian was transferred to an elementary school but refused the transfer. She is now working for a well-off school system outside Paterson. Eastside singers had to do without the Met.

Then there was the case of Barry Rosser. He was relatively lucky. He was kicked out and brought back. Rosser was the girls’ basketball coach in May of 1984 when he walked into an assembly where the school anthem was being played. One of Joe Clark’s rules is that nobody – but nobody – moves during the anthem.

Rosser bent over to pick up a piece of paper. Another one of Joe Clark’s rules is that everybody – but everybody -keeps the school clean.

When Rosser bent over, Clark stopped the music and yelled at him in front of the whole school for moving during the anthem. Later, the two had a shouting match in Clark’s office, during which Clark fired Rosser.

The school board upheld Clark. Clark eventually rehired Rosser, who is the school’s current football coach. The only thing Rosser is willing to say about Joe Clark today is that “he’s a fair man.”

The most recent hoo-ha at Eastside came in mid-January when Clark suspended Pelosi, the basketball coach. Soon afterward, Pelosi, one of the most respected basketball coaches in North Jersey, was admitted to the hospital with chest pains. For days, Clark denied publicly that he had suspended Pelosi.

At one point Clark told the Paterson News: “I repeat once again for the record, Dominick Pelosi is not suspended. ”

Pelosi said he had a letter of suspension signed by Clark. Clark denied it. ”I reiterate again without any mental reservations that he is not suspended,” Clark said.

Tirri finally made public Clark’s letter of suspension, which read: ”Please be advised that your surreptitious manners and chicaneries shall not be tolerated any longer. Furthermore you have been recalcitrant, obdurate, palliative, and contumacious. Also you have violated rules and regulations, established by the administration, the principal. Thus you are suspended, effective immediately.”

Paterson Mayor Frank Graves was glib. He said Joe Clark’s letter to Pelosi had done much to advance education in Paterson because it sent everybody running to the dictionary.

With the letter published, Clark had only this to say: “I plead the fifth.”

What is interesting about these three cases, and others, is that Joe Clark has absolutely no right to suspend a teacher. That is the right of the Paterson Board of Education. More interesting is that the board has upheld Clark almost every time.

Tirri can’t figure it out. “I assume that the board of education probably just figured that something has got to be done, and if he needs to declare martial law at Eastside High School, then they’re going to give him the authority to do that. These incidents flare up. He’s had many grievances ruled against him, a couple ruled in his favor. But they die, they go away. The board sees what’s happening. If you look at the city of Paterson, the only positive information coming out of this town about education is Joe Clark. He is the media’s darling, and what I say is that the board is unwilling to stop him from doing whatever he’s doing.

“I mean, the first year he was principal, an assistant superintendent went into that building, and he threw her out. Either because she hadn’t reported to the office or she hadn’t reported to him.

“I would submit to you that there’s not another principal in the world who would get away with that. From that point on, I think, the board had lost control of him.”

There are now signs that the board has taken steps to regain “control,” if that, in fact, is a problem. For the first time since he has been firing teachers on his own, the board has challenged him. Superintendent Napier and school board president Salviano have declared Clark’s suspension of Pelosi ”procedurally incorrect. ” He has not yet been reinstated.

Although Pelosi and Clark had been at odds on other matters, the one that triggered Pelosi’s suspension was a dispute over a dinner Pelosi planned for his team. Pelosi asked for and received permission from Clark to hold the dinner.

Then Clark told him to cancel it. By that time, according to Tirri, the dinner was paid for, and it was too late. It was at this point that Pelosi did something he should have known would blow Clark’s top – he went over Clark’s head.

Pelosi asked superintendent Napier for permission, and Napier said OK. The dinner was held, Clark suspended Pelosi, and the Paterson teachers union had another uphill battle on its hands.

The question, of course, is why Clark wanted Pelosi to cancel the dinner in the first place? And the answer is that Clark was mad because Pelosi hadn’t invited him to the dinner.

“What kind of bull- is that? ” Clark was quoted as saying. “I’m the principal of this building.”

IT IS NEAR THE END OF THE DAY, AND YOU CAN see beads of sweat on Joe Clark’s upper lip as he makes a final prowl through the gleaming hallways of Eastside High. His pants crease and collar, it should be noted, are still in mint condition.

“I tell the kids, you are treated how you are perceived. Black folk and Hispanic folk have been perceived as being non-contributors to this country. We’re treated as being insignificant.

“We’re not turning out doctors, engineers, journalists, educators. We’re not turning them out. And until that time, we will remain precariously perched. You’ve got to be assiduous. ”

In the midst of this, a bell has rung, and students have spilled out into the halls. As Joe Clark nears the main entrance, two male administrators, both of them huge, are holding two boys.

“These two started a fight in the hall, Mr. Clark,” one of the administrators volunteers.

“All right,” Joe Clark says, not in the least disturbed. “Put ’em out.

Put ’em out. No fights around here. You know the rules. Ten days. We can’t have arguments. ”

Joe Clark moves on. “You see, blacks in this building never fight one another. You have Hispanics and blacks. They used to. But I’ve told them straight up – Hi, Pamela -you’re all brothers and sisters, because every Hispanic here’s got black blood in him. So that takes care of that. ”

Eventually, he returns to the questions of race and education. “I’m going to make it,” Clark says. “Some blacks are going to make it individually. But we will never make it collectively until such time as enough blacks make it individually.

“I’m sure the Jews made it individually first, and when a lot of them began to make it, it impacted upon them collectively. We’re second-class citizens in our own land, and the only way we’re going to change that is to do what the Jews did. You don’t let me in Florida, I’ll buy the damn state. ”

Clark has been able to improve his students’ test scores through ”motivation and high expectation. Kicking a few posteriors of teachers. Being diligent. Getting rid of whomever you had to get rid of. One way or the other. You know, once a teacher gets tenure it’s hard to get rid of them. You know, I get rid of them one way or the other. Either they leave voluntarily or they leave in a straitjacket. It’s up to them.

“You see, I’m not going to permit anybody to destroy the lives of kids. That’s my first and foremost goal. To provide a viable education for these kids, who ARE inferior to white kids. Yes, they’re inferior and I gotta say it. ”

Joe Clark is yelling now.

“Black kids are inferior to white kids. Academically. Not because of innate incapacity. But because their priorities are wrong, their priorities are screwed-up.

“They’re concerned about clothes and jeans and partying, women and girls and other things they see on television, rather than becoming serious academic students. And I’m telling you, until such time as we change our priorities, we are going to be a faltered people.

“I know of no student in this school – black or Hispanic – who’s a dedicated, true academic person. Not a one.

“I’ll tell you what. I’ve watched those white kids breakin’ their butts. They’re weird, they’re odd. No question. But I’ll tell you what. They become your doctors, your engineers. All these things that become a backbone of a people and subsequently a country.

“Take your schools in Philadelphia. I wonder when was the last time you had a black valedictorian. Let me tell you something: Right here in this school, we never had – this is an all-black/Hispanic school with 15 to 20 whites – a black valedictorian. ”

Joe Clark pauses and looks you in the eye as well as any man can look you in the eye when he’s walking 20 miles an hour. His pride bursts, and he says, ”This year is going to be the first year during my tenure that I’ve had a black valedictorian. It makes me feel great! Statistically, that’s the way it should be. There should be a black every two years. Every three years, a Hispanic. Every 50 years a white.

“But our kids are not making it as a people. Our race is in the throes of e-lim-in-a-tion.

“What do we do?! Break our a-. Work like I work. ”

It might be of some interest that Joe Clark is as proud of his handful of white students as he is of his black and Hispanic kids. The whites are the children “of whites who couldn’t escape,” he says. “They just couldn’t get out. You know, I have my white assembly every year. And I welcome these whites, and I praise them for staying amongst 3,000 blacks and Hispanics.

“My God, in their own country, they’re aliens. And they have the guts to stay here. And you know what? Nobody bothers them. We love those kids. We appreciate them, and if anybody messes with one of those white kids, I’ll decapitate the guilty party myself. ”

The city of Paterson has a population of about 137,000, one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic. The whites, according to Clark, are older people “who got stuck” in Paterson, so that accounts for why there are so few whites in the schools.

One of the reasons young whites got out of Paterson is bigotry; another, Clark says, is that blacks have often not been competent teachers or administrators. Black schools, he says, “are out of control. Absolutely out of control. That’s the fault of spineless, gutless managers, principals primarily, who permit things to become uncontrollable. And there’s no reason for it. This school was out of control. ”

The principal before Joe Clark was black. “And the one before that, black. And the one before him. That’s why I call them spineless, gutless bastards who destroy their own people. In your urban areas, who runs the school systems? Blacks generally. And it’s our responsibility to our kids to make sure that we give them the best.

“I tell my kids: Straighten up your back. The white man can’t ride your spine if your back is straight. Stand tall. Be proud, be dignified, and then white people won’t run away from you. ”

BY 3 P.M., THE SCHOOL DAY HAS ENDED and Eastside High School is empty save for the few who choose to stay over. You might hear faint sounds of cheerleaders practicing in the gym, or the choir rehearsing in a room somewhere. But the vibrations of 3,000 souls, so strong during the day, are gone. An empty school is a melancholy place; without students, Eastside High is a body without a soul.

Tomorrow at 8 a.m., Joe Clark’s dream will resume. But somewhere out there, his foes wait for him to stumble. They might agree that Clark tamed Eastside, but they ask: Is the medicine worse than the poison? As long as he’s on top, few people are willing to ask that question publicly.

“I think Mr. Clark is more or less like a father to every student in this school,” one girl said in class one day.

“True,” said another. “Others might not like him because of his strict rules and regulations, but when you put it all together, he’s just doing what’s right for us. ”

At the end of this day, Joe Clark is surprisingly withdrawn, as though his power is taken away with the departure of his children. He picks his coat out of the closet, then remembers something. He calls a janitor and complains that the school isn’t clean enough and that the janitor had better get on the ball, because he won’t tolerate it. He says all of this with not much force.

Then Clark opens a door and steps into the courtyard and gets in the car he uses, a no-frills driver’s ed car that belongs to the school, and heads for home.

Joe Clark and his generic car shrink into the Paterson perspective, leaving Eastside High behind. These halls have absorbed much, and if they could talk maybe they would repeat some things they’ve heard, like a boy looking up at his principal, saying, “Mr. Clark, I’m just a freshman. Please stay with us three more years.”

Writer bio: Frank Rossi, a Scranton native, served as a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1980 to 1986. Prior to joining the broadsheet, the Scripps Howard Foundation awarded Rossi the prestigious Ernie Pyle Award for exceptional human interest storytelling in 1979. He died of cancer in 1992. He was 44.

Prayer for The Dead and The Living

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Daniel Rubin | The Philadelphia Inquirer | December 2003

We didn’t know about Rosa Lewinsohn when we decided to have our sons’ double bar mitzvah in our once-bombed Berlin apartment. We didn’t know about any of the old ghosts, not by name.

I had often wondered who was living in our building when it was hit. Sometimes at night, when the place was quiet and everyone tucked in, I would stand in the living room, with its mismatched pine floors and missing stucco, and try to imagine what had happened.

My landlord blamed the British, though perhaps he was just being polite. In early 1945 the British and the Americans were taking turns pounding the German capital – 84 air raids in the first three months alone. When he renovated the place after buying it a few years ago, he found he couldn’t get rid of the small, dark stains in the wood, no matter how much he sanded them. Phosphorus, he said. Firebombs.

I liked to picture that Nazis were living there when retribution thundered through the roof of Droysenstrasse 5 and into our top-floor apartment. More likely, it was ordinary Berliners. There were lots of them. Maybe they were the sort who looked down on Hitler. Maybe they hid Jews.

Maybe they did nothing.

Writer bio: Daniel Rubin, who teaches courses in Urban Journalism at the University of Pennsylvania, started writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988. He served as the Inquirer’s European bureau chief, based in Berlin, Germany, from 2000 to 2003.

Continue reading “Prayer for The Dead and The Living”

Talking Eases His Life in Hell

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Steve Lopez | The Philadelphia Inquirer | November 1990

They call and want to talk. They don’t expect answers, or suggestions, or even compassion. They just want to talk, and that was the case with the man who couldn’t tell his whole story over the telephone.

He wanted to meet. Possibly because his face tells half the story.

“You see,” he said, his eyes drawing you into his void, “my children and I love my wife. “

His hair is the color of ashes, his face drawn in surrender. He worked most of his life so his family could have food on the table and a few modern comforts. That’s all.

His wife’s illness was gradual at first, so much so that he and the kids found ways to dismiss it. But then it got to where the person at the supermarket was talking about her. The meter reader was a spy. She said unbelievably cruel things to their young kids, reducing them to tears. She yelled and screamed and cursed, because the whole world was out to get her, and she insisted her own family was in on the conspiracy. And through 10 years of ghosts and demons, she has turned their Philadelphia home into a living hell.

THE OLD MOM

What makes it more horrifying is this: Some days, without rhyme or reason, she’s the old Mom. Everything is fine and life is wonderful. And she has no idea, not a clue, that just yesterday, maybe just a few hours ago, she was a witch.

“When she’s in a good mood, she’s a beautiful person. When she’s in bad moods, she becomes an awful person. A person you could hate very easily. We have friends who don’t want to be involved anymore. . . . Until you live it, it’s hard to explain. “

They’ve been to doctors, therapists, social workers. “She’s paranoid, she’s schizophrenic, she’s everything,” her husband says. “Anytime she starts taking medication, three or four days later she begins to feel better. And then she says the doctor’s trying to poison her and she won’t take the medicine.

“We had one woman (therapist) we were going to and she was helping the kids because it was someone for them to talk to. The children need someone other than me to pour their hearts out to. But they realize now, even the youngest, that there’s nothing anybody can do unless my wife wants to do it herself. “

PRESSURE AND LONELINESS

Sometimes the pressure on him is too much, the loneliness too great.

“I had stomach problems, and last year had a complete breakdown. My wife thinks I’m faking. The kids have their good days and bad. When she has her good moods, they try to enjoy that as much as they can. She’ll take them out and be extremely extravagant, buy them things. Other days she’ll be extremely mean to them, call our girl a whore, use language . . . a drunken sailor wouldn’t use.

“We do love her, but we’ve come to an agreement, me and the kids, that when the youngest one is of an age to take care of himself, maybe we’ll all disappear. A lot of times when they see me all worked up, they’ll say, ‘Come on, Daddy. Calm down. You’ve gotta stay in good health to be here for us. . .’ The kids are wise beyond their age because of what they’ve gone through. . .

“It closes in on us to the point where we break apart. We all just creep into a corner and hide, because if she sees us trying to get together and enjoy ourselves, she thinks we’re up to something. It creates problems for the kids in school. . . . They might go to school crying because she calls them names. “

COMMITMENTS ARE TOUGH

The man thinks mental institutions were de-emphasized with good intentions in mind, but now it’s virtually impossible to get a commitment for someone who needs help, unless they harm someone. And the community programs that were promised when institutions closed haven’t materialized. In his desperation, this man has attended meetings where relatives of the mentally ill share information and war stories.

“When I told my story, one woman says, ‘The one thing you can do is get a small knife, stab yourself in the shoulder, right here in one of the meaty parts, call the police, and tell them she did it and maybe you’ll get six to eight months of relief. Maybe. “

“The tragedy,” says one of the man’s counselors, “is that this is not an unusual case. It seems everyone’s hands are tied until someone commits a crime. These cases are legion. “

On his wife’s good days, the man holds back a little, reminding himself it won’t last. On her bad days, he has thought about killing himself, but he can’t do that to the kids.

Mostly he just tries to hang on while pondering the mysteries of the mind and the randomness of human misery. There’s no escaping the loneliness. But sometimes it helps, if only a little, to talk to someone.

Writer bio: Steve Lopez was a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1986 to 1997. Lopez, generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history, joined the Los Angeles Times as a columnist in 2001. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2011.

Cradle to Grave

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Stephen Fried | Philadelphia Magazine | April 1998

Homicide Hal has always been concerned that the Noe case is a ditzel.

The renowned forensic pathologist thought the case might be a ditzel back in 1963, when he did the autopsy on the sixth healthy infant that Art and Marie Noe had lost to “crib death.” And he was completely honest with that nun who called him at the medical examiner’s office in 1966 to inform him that the Noes were listing him as a reference on their adoption application—after having lost a record nine babies.

”I remember telling the nun there were two ways of looking at this,” recalls Dr. Halbert Fillinger, the 71-year-old Montgomery County medical examiner with the “Homicide Hal” license plate. “I said, ‘If you give Marie Noe a baby, she’ll either kill it quickly … or, if she had no hand in these deaths, nobody deserves a baby more than she does.’”

Everyone in the Philadelphia Office of the Medical Examiner (OME) had suspicions about the Noes back then, even though they never said so publicly. And, sitting in an office cluttered with antique murder-phernalia, Fillinger says he continues to have his suspicions today, 30 years after the tenth Noe baby died and the couple was investigated one last time and nothing came of it. While the Noes went on to rebuild their lives, their case lay dormant in OME file #30-68 and police homicide miscellaneous investigation file #11-1968. Just another ditzel.

“A ditzel is a case that looks like a goodie, but means nothing,” Fillinger tells me, his voice so gruff and breathy that everything he says sounds like it might become a dirty joke. “It’s a fairy tale you bought and you get it home and the last chapter is torn out. So there is no answer.

“Yes, I wonder what happened to those ten little kids. But there are so many blind alleys. You think you’ve got something meaty, but it’s like a papier-mache pizza. You keep thinking, Somebody must know something somewhere. But they don’t, because, well, it’s a ditzel.”

Writer bio: While Stephen Fried, a native of Harrisburg and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, is a two-time winner of the National Magazine Award, the result of this story may be his ultimate trophy: it pushed the murderer, after 30 years, to confess.

Continue reading “Cradle to Grave.”

King of the Senior Prom

Michael Vitez | Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine | March 1996

EVEN GOD RESTED ON the seventh day. Not Jim Malloy.

On a recent Sunday night, up at Cannstatter, a restaurant and club in Northeast Philadelphia, he danced with more women than King Ramses had in his harem. He fox-trotted with Peg. Jitterbugged with Mary. Waltzed with Irene. He even wandered into the ballroom next door, where employees from Hecht’s department store were having a private party, and dragged a woman from the furniture department back into the lounge for a swing. The woman was young, only 61. “Three of ’em were standing around,” chuckled Jim. “I just wanted to give the gals something to talk about. “

Jim Malloy, 77, a widower with an artificial right hip, often dances seven nights a week. He rarely quits before midnight, and never sits down. On any given night, he might dance with 20 women. “He is a widow’s dream,” explained one of his dance partners. Another, Deanna Dvorak, a widow and regular at the VFW Hall in Ardsley, where Jim dances every Monday night, said, simply, “He’s a god here. “

But Jim is not the only god or goddess on Philadelphia’s senior dance circuit. Thousands of senior citizens dance one, three, five, even seven nights a week in firehouses, senior centers, VFW halls, and ballrooms around the region. The majority are widows and widowers, who, like Jim, simply love to dance. But they also come out at night to escape the loneliness, to be with people, to be held in another’s arms. So many retiree activities take place during the day, but most dances are at night. “It’s the nights that are the loneliest,” said Teresa Reardon, 66, another of Jim’s partners. “So that’s when we need the dances. “

Almost all of these dancers have seen death up close, know it could visit at any time, and will be damned if they will sit home and wait for it. For these oldsters, dancing is therapy at its best, mentally and physically. “Dancing keeps your body in a pleasant mood,” says Jim.

The senior dance circuit is paradise for a healthy man. Not only has nature left older men in shorter supply, and thus higher demand, but women of this generation do not feel comfortable asking a man to dance. So the men have it made. A few are selective to the point of rudeness, walking past a row of women seated patiently in folding chairs before finding one that suits him – like picking grapefruits at the Acme. Many men, like Jim, feel a civic responsibility to dance with as many women as possible – a burden he bears all too happily. The burden is slightly less enjoyable for Jim’s girlfriend – Dottie. Jim met Dottie Byrne, a widow in her 70s, at a dance five years ago. “When I first started to go out with Jim,” Dottie explained, “I didn’t like it. My husband never left my side. But gradually, I learned Jim loves people. I let him go his own way – and he always comes back. “

Jim Malloy has been dancing nearly every night for six years, since his wife, May, died of lung cancer. He is a dashing figure with his silver hair, his Wanamakers suits and tassled loafers. His tie remains tight well past midnight, his matching handkerchief still perfectly positioned in his lapel pocket. Not only is he light on his feet, but his personality is levitating as well. In a world of lost husbands and loneliness, Jim Malloy is the song-and-dance man.

ON A RECENT SUNDAY NIGHT, JIM and Dottie drove over to Cannstatter around 8. Jim parked his 1987 Chrysler New Yorker in a handicapped spot.

Handicapped? To go dancing?

Jim saw no irony in this at all.

“Whaddaya mean?” he crackled. “I’m entitled like everybody else. “

Then Jim got out of the car – an ordeal that explained everything.

First, he opened the car door. Then he reclined his seat, so he was leaning back as if on a hospital bed. He slowly swung his left leg around until his foot was on the ground. And then his right leg. Then he raised his seat back to a vertical position, lifting himself along with it, so he was sitting up. Then he pulled himself out of the car. Because of the artificial hip, he has lost some flexibility. He can swing for hours, but he can’t bend over to tie his shoes – hence the loafers.

On his feet, Jim was himself again. He bounced into Cannstatter and saw several cronies seated on a bench outside the lounge. “Boys!” he beamed, sticking out his hand, “how are yas? ” He was off and running. Many here and in other dance halls refer to him as “Mayor. ” Some call him “Senator. ” Others, “Judge. ” He circled the room like a politician, kissing the ladies and shaking hands with the boys, stopping at every table and barstool. Dottie just grabbed a seat and made little effort to keep up. This was a frat party for the geriatric set. They didn’t gator and mosh and leap from the mantle, but they still carried on pretty well.

“That guy, every day a dancer,” said Sergei Zubry, 70, a friend of Jim’s. “When the snow falls, he gets a snowshoe – and still he dances. “

The Sunday night group is mostly widows and widowers who belong to an organization called TLA – which stands for, depending on whom you ask, To Live Again, To Love Again, To Laugh Again or, as one woman said, They’re Loose Again!

The music on Sunday nights is provided by Jerry Morris, an accordion player and one-man band. Morris commonly relinquishes the microphone to Jim – ever the Irishman. This night, he crooned “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral. ” The lounge at Cannstatter has no real dance floor, but that didn’t stop Jim or the others. He danced in the hallway and next to the cigarette machine, in front of bathrooms, wherever he found a gal and whenever the accordion player struck a tune.

“I think he takes double Geritol,” said Pat Piotrowski, 62, a widow and dance partner. “I really do. “

During the January blizzard, when every dance for a week was canceled, Jim went particularly stir-crazy. “Jim called me five or six times a day,” said Dottie. “And when he got tired of me, he called everybody else. All his girlfriends. “

“He’s called me at 2 a.m.,” offered one woman, eavesdropping on the conversation.

Why?

“You couldn’t print it,” she said.

JIM DIDN’T GET OUT OF BED MONDAY morning until 10:30. The usual time.

“I’m a 2-to-2 man,” he joked.

Jim always makes himself a nice breakfast – after all that dancing, he has an appetite – bacon, eggs, scrapple, cereal, toast and coffee.

Jim lives in Torresdale and worked as a tool-and-dye man for 30 years. He’d come home in his filthy workclothes, shower, put on a jacket and tie and do the family food shopping, says his daughter, Pat Bigley, who lives in Haddonfield. He was always a sharp dresser, so it hardly surprises her he’s so well-appointed now. Jim was a longtime Democratic committeeman in the 57th Ward (the neighborhood polling place is still in his basement) and considers his greatest achievement getting a traffic island with trees built in the middle of Holme Avenue, across from his rowhouse.

At age 50, Jim used his political connections to get a job as a court crier – “All rise!” – in Common Pleas Court at City Hall. He loved the job and the people, retiring only five years ago. At a dance the other night, he cupped his hand behind his back, as if he were taking a payoff, and joked, “I’ve got arthritis now from doing this for so long. “

Jim is entirely self-sufficient. He cooks big dinners and does all his own shopping. Two dozen neatly ironed shirts hang in his basement. He favors stripes. Don’t think Dottie irons for him. No way. “I don’t spoil him,” she says. “I’ve got enough ironing of my own to do. ” Jim redecorated his rowhouse last year. The walls are freshly painted. He installed a new mint-green carpet and bought new furniture. The house looks like an Ethan Allen showroom.

Even with his bum hip, Jim has no trouble marching up and down the two flights of stairs. He received his new hip 10 years ago after falling off a ladder while visiting his son in Los Angeles. The surgery was not successful, and two years later he went through it again, back in Philadelphia. “It’s fine,” he quips, “as long as I keep changing the motor oil! “

If not for the hip replacement, Jim knows he would be wheelchair-bound or dead. Certainly not on the dance floor.

On Monday after breakfast, Jim threw in a load of wash. Then he drove to Caldor to exchange a suitcase and wandered over to Rickle just to putter about and see what was on sale. Then he headed to the Acme for a few groceries and stopped by his favorite newsstand to play the lottery. “I put my numbers in every day,” he said. “I play $5 or $6 a day. ” He got home around 5, and cooked himself a big dinner: chicken, broccoli, mashed potatoes. Then he put on his gray suit, used an extra-long shoe horn to slip on those tassled loafers, knotted his tie, and he was ready. The silver hair was slicked back. The dentures in tight.

ON MONDAY AND WEDNESDAY NIGHTS, Dottie lets Jim go dancing without her. She visits one of her five children and some of her 12 grandchildren. Jim hitched a ride that Monday evening with Teresa Reardon, a neighbor whom he met at dances. After her husband first died, Teresa danced six or seven nights a week. A widow three years now, she has scaled back to three or four. And she is very honest about why she goes out. “I like to be held,” she said on the drive over. “My husband and I were cuddlers. If the only way I can have a man’s arm around me is on the dance floor, well, I’ll take it. It’s perfectly safe, and it doesn’t lead to anything. “

The lights at the VFW Hall in Ardsley went low precisely at 9, and Richie Moore and his band struck up a slow dance. Jim, a gentleman, danced first with Teresa, and he had her laughing the entire time. Next he found a woman in red high heels with a skirt above the knee for a bossa nova. Then a woman in a blue dress for a waltz. The amazing thing about the waltz was this: In a room filled with 75 couples, everyone seemed to move together, like a wave. Baby boomers wouldn’t have had a clue.

When Jim dances, he’s chatty. The girls laugh and float in his arms. They are young and cheerful. He flirts madly. “Do you still love me?” he asked Dolores Serianni, 63, of nearby Jenkintown. “What color negligee are you wearing?” he asked another. And to still another, he said, “I was dreaming about you the other night,” to which she replied: “I hope you didn’t fall out of bed. ” This is all in fun. Roosters need to crow. Most of the women enjoy Jim’s banter. They know Jim is a gentleman. As the night went on, he waltzed and jitterbugged. He even rocked to “Proud Mary” and, incredibly, twisted to Chubby Checker. All with a bum hip. And all the while his jacket stayed buttoned, his tie knotted tight.

Twice that Monday night, the bandleader called for a mixer, in which women and men line up on opposite sides of the dance floor. The first in each line pair off, and dance across the room, and then go to the end of their respective lines. The band keeps playing until everyone in the women’s line – typically the longer – has had three dances down the floor. Virtually every dance night includes a mixer or two because otherwise some women might not dance at all. Teresa enjoyed several dances Monday night, but in all honesty, had more men asked, she would have enjoyed even more. Jim did not sit down the entire night.

“He just puts his hand out,” Teresa said. “They all come. “

Jim put his hand out for Pat Wolfgang, 58, a widow from Skippack Township, and they had a lovely dance. But even when she’s sitting out, she’s just happy to be at the dance, away from her four walls.

“I have to get out of the house,” said Pat. “I see the oxygen tank and the tubes. . . . When you have to stay with somebody and see him rot away, that is scary, frightening. And so painful. . . . I deserve to go out. This is a nice crowd. “

JIM’S VITALITY AT AGE 77 SHOULD not be surprising. Contrary to public perception, most old people do not just curl up and await death.

“The vast majority of older people, unless they have Alzheimer’s or are in the last stages of cancer, remain incredibly involved with life,” said Robert Butler, director of the International Longevity Center in New York and one of the nation’s leading authorities on old people.

Mentally and physically, experts say, few things are better for old people than dancing – be it a line dance, a waltz or a square dance, all of which are extremely popular these days. “It’s a therapy in the best sense,” said Butler.

Physically, dancing keeps an old person active, reducing the chances of a grab bag of nightmares, from heart disease to frailty to osteoporosis to obesity.

“You’re utilizing large muscle groups, in rhythmic fashion,” said Kathleen Bradley, director of Active Life, an exercise and rehabilitation program at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center. “And that really strengthens the heart. “

Emotionally, feelings of loneliness, emptiness, a need for companionship, and a need to be touched are normal and common, according to experts. And dancing may be the best antidote to depression.

“It’s clearly essential,” said David Greenspan, director of geriatric psychiatry at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. “One of the challenges in late life is the isolation and how to overcome it. ” He said the best defense against depression is an intimate relationship. Not necessarily sexual at all. Perhaps just a good friend, someone to be with.

“Touching, the physical contact, is very important,” he said. “Who gives you a hug when your spouse is dead? When your kids are grown and gone? These dances are the great places to have that chemistry. “

ON TUESDAY NIGHT, JIM AND Dottie drove up to Levittown, to the Paso Doble ballroom, a former A&P grocery store that 12 years ago was converted into the largest ballroom floor in the East. You can just imagine couples like Jim and Dottie, cheek-to-cheek, doing a tango down the produce aisle. There is no lettuce in sight now, just glittering balls and strobe lights, though a few of the dancers do show a little cheesecake. The dance floor now looks like an aircraft carrier deck, all hardwood with cork beneath it for cushioning, and when Jim arrives he is ready for takeoff.

Tuesdays at the Paso Doble aren’t very crowded. The ballroom is rented out by the Single Parents Society, to which Jim and Dottie belong. On Friday and Saturday nights the ballroom is open to the public – $6 admission and $1.75 for a setup: ice, mixer and glasses. Dancers may bring their own booze. Jim and Dottie these days drink strictly cranberry juice. Jim’s been on the wagon for six months, since an acid buildup in his esophagus caused an ulcer. He’s taking medication. The ulcer has affected his diet, but hardly his routine.

Dottie loves the Paso Doble and its lavish decorations. (In the lobby is a knight in armor bearing a nameplate: Sir Dancealot. ) Ordinarily, she would dance most of the night with Jim, but this particular week she was recovering from a cataract operation, and her doctor told her to avoid unnecessary movement. So aside from one slow dance “with my sweetie,” she listened to the Don Mayo Band and answered a question about marriage.

Dottie and Jim have discussed marriage. She was very frank. “I told him I can’t dance seven nights a week,” she said. “I told him if we get married, he’s got to give up a couple of nights.

“Well,” she continued, “we’re still talking. “

Dottie and Jim live separately. And she will not move in with him. “If others want to do it, fine,” she said. “I don’t judge other people. But if I’m not worth marrying -” she let the sentence go unfinished. Dottie will, on occasion, spend the night at Jim’s house. When this happens, Jim will call his daughter and cook up some explanation. “He’ll say, `It was snowing too hard to drive her home, . . .’ ” explained his daughter Pat Bigley. “I say, `Dad, come on, you’re acting like a teenager. ‘ “

ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT, JIM drove over to the Associated Polish Home of Philadelphia on Academy Road, around the corner from his house, for another weekly dance open to the public.

On the way over, I asked him about marriage to Dot.

“I don’t know how far that’s going to go,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe marriage and all. I don’t know. But I know I like to go out and all. Maybe in three or five years, who knows? Don’t you think by then I might be willing to slow down? “

Slow down? Jim?

Does he ever think about slowing down, becoming disabled, dying?

“I honestly don’t worry,” he said. “Have the best time you can. When you go down, you go down. “

He parked the car, slowly got out, and then shuffled into the dance hall.

“Hi, gals!” he greeted a throng. “How are yas? “

He danced with all sorts of women.

But one he couldn’t dance with was Rose. She had hit the jackpot.

For eight years, Rose Favoroso, 70, a widow, was on the circuit. One night, four months ago, Harry Layman, 78, asked her to dance at the Polish Home. His daughter had died of breast cancer after a horrible illness, and months after that, his wife was found to have cancer and died. “The first night I go out in four years,” Harry said, “and I meet Rose. ” He proposed on Christmas Eve. “I knew right away,” he said. “Why wait? “

They now dance five nights a week, including Thursdays at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. In a week, they would be off to Florida, where they were planning to just drift about.

“We’ll find places to dance,” said Harry, “don’t worry. “

Over the years, many singles have paired off and now run in groups of three or four couples who go out together dancing night after night. One such group of eight was sitting at a table near the band.

“We’re recycled teenagers,” said Helen Brenner, 75. She started to elaborate when the Nick Nichols combo broke into the electric slide, a line dance. She was up and gone. One of the men at the table, Bob Henry, 78, of Somerton, leaned over and offered this assessment of the evening. “Where else can you go for $6 and hold a woman in your arms? “

Bob said he lost his wife six years ago, and six months after that he started coming to dances. Now he’s paired up with Evelyn McGeehan, 75, of Northeast Philadelphia, who was also out doing the electric slide. “I found happiness here,” Bob said.

After the electric slide, the band jumped into “In the Mood,” and Helen and Evelyn grabbed their men. Helen’s man is Joe Fulton, 73. He dances well, but Helen can shake it big time. When she returned to the table, she was perspiring like a teenager at a June sock hop, adding credence to her earlier theory. Helen and Joe have been living together for two years. He visited her house one night because his pacemaker seemed to be short-circuiting. He found comfort in her arms and never left. “He just stayed,” she said. Joe recently sold his house, and the two of them are off to the Panama Canal for a holiday. But they don’t plan to marry.

“Stay lovers,” Joe said.

“That’s better,” Helen agreed.

Another of Jim’s regular partners, Peg McGuire, 74, had an interesting story to tell that night. A newcomer, cocky – you could tell just by the way he carried himself – had pulled Peg onto the dance floor for a cha-cha.

“Do you think you could make love to a good Irishman?” he asked her.

“Damn right!” she replied. “But not to you! “

JIM SAYS HE BELIEVES THE RATIO of women to men is 11-1 on the dance floor, but that is purely his impression and not scientific. According to Butler, at the International Longevity Center, women after age 65 outnumber men 3-2. After age 85, that ratio is 5-2. It may just feel like 11-1.

Jim also says that widowers are quicker to hit the dancing circuit than widows after the loss of a spouse. Greenspan, at the Institute, says research bears this out.

“In general, men are much more inclined to just pick up sooner with another woman,” said Greenspan, “while women tend to be much more reflective after the death of a spouse. “

For men, he agreed, because of their scarcity, finding a mate might be easier than for women. But, he stressed, “men change less than women. Men restructure life back to the way it was with a new woman. Women tend to be much slower in finding a new partner. They change. Get involved with the side of the world they had always left to the men. “

And a year later, he said, it often turns out “women have adapted much better. And men are still struggling. “

While some older folks may remarry, like Harry and Rose, others do not, like Joe and Helen. (With Jim and Dottie, we will have to wait and see. ) Couples offer a variety of explanations. Some say marriage would simply be too confusing to children and grandchildren and create problems on holidays, when each partner wants to visit with his or her own children.

Others – women, in particular – say their late husbands’ pensions are simply too good to throw away by getting remarried. Why not just live together and keep the benefits? One woman said that after watching her husband endure a slow, painful death, she could never make a commitment to another man. “I could never,” she said, “live through that experience again. “

ON THURSDAY NIGHT, JIM AND Dottie headed up to a dance at the Hungarian Club in Trevose, where they dance every other week. And on Friday, they skipped a night at the Paso Doble – an extremely rare occasion – to attend a birthday party for Jim’s granddaughter in Haddonfield.

The first thing, as Jim always does when he visits his daughter, is to inquire discreetly about the widow next door.

“That’s all I need,” moaned his daughter.

Jim’s son-in-law, Frank Bigley, joked that Jim has a woman in every port. That of course is an exaggeration. But there is one in Los Angeles, whom Jim sees at dances when he visits his son, usually twice a year. “She says she likes me,” Jim said. “She sends me Christmas presents. What can I say? She says I’m one of the best dancers she’s ever danced with. “

Jim recently spent a few days with his son and two grandsons in Vegas. Four Malloy boys up to no good.

“I called my brother’s wife,” recalled Pat. “I said if you get a call from the Vegas police saying they’re all locked up, I don’t want to hear about it. “

She never heard a word.

EVERY NOW AND THEN, SOMEONE will pass away right on the dance floor, perhaps during a polka or cha-cha. This happened about two years ago at the VFW in Ardsley. The music stopped. The room went silent. The ambulance came. But after a while, the band began playing again, the people started dancing.

Death is always sad. But what a way to go.

Pat Bigley said she hopes, when his time comes, her dad will go the same way.

“Our biggest prayer is that he goes on the dance floor,” she said. “If he ever has to sit by a window, it’ll kill him.”

Writer bio: Michael Vitez writes human interest stories for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 1997 for a series of stories titled Final Choices. Vitez, a native of Virginia, lives in Haddonfield, New Jersey. He joined the Inky in 1985.

An Unfinished Ride

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Bob Ford | The Philadelphia Inquirer | March 2015

Cyclists looking for a safe, easy entry to downtown Baltimore from north of the city seek out Roland Avenue, a wide, divided road with two lanes in either direction, dedicated bike lanes, and even an often-unoccupied parking lane against the curb.

It was the road Tom Palermo chose on Dec.27 for an afternoon ride on a mild Saturday when the temperature rose to 56 degrees. The holidays had been hectic as always, with a lot going on in the house he shared in the Baltimore County suburb of Anneslie with his wife, Rachel; their children, 6-year-old Sadie and 4-year-old Sam; and Mack Superdog, the snuggling pit bull. Palermo, a software engineer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, had also just completed a hand-built touring bicycle for a customer of the frame-building business he ran on the side, a hobby that sometimes consumed him.

Getting a break to simply enjoy a bike ride was as rare a December gift as the weather. From the time he was old enough to ride, Palermo loved bicycles. The native of Riverton, whose parents still live in Burlington County, was always on a bike or a skateboard, according to the friends from his high school days at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia. Riding was an escape, a passion, a sport in which he competed, and was even responsible when Palermo met the love of his life.

As Palermo crossed into the city, he could have taken the parallel options of York Road or North Charles Street, but neither have bike lanes, so he traveled farther west and took Roland. Just south of Lake Avenue, the road rises slightly for a half-mile from the ancient stream bed of Roland Run and crests in the 5700 block. A rider who tops that rise, probably coming out of the saddle to reach it, can see the sweep of the city and possibilities of the day before him. That is what Tom Palermo saw.

It was 2:40 p.m.

Writer bio: Bob Ford, who has been named Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year four times, is a sports columnist for The Inquirer. He wrote for the Delaware County Times for six years before joining the Inky in 1987. He is an alumnus of the University of Maryland.

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