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Gilman in the 30s: A No-nonsense, No-frills Education

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Gilman in the 30s: A No-nonsense, No-frills Education

      For one Gilman boy, the Great Depression spelled modest prosperity. As prices crashed, my allowance-two dollars a week-stayed the same, and its purchasing power soared. Movie tickets-normally 75 cents for a loge at Loew's Century-fell to 35 cents. Hershey bars formerly cost a nickel; suddenly they were three for a dime. Phonograph records-always 75 cents at Kranz or Hammonds Music Shops-were now only 35 cents. Taxicabs-a form of transportation previously beyond the wildest dreams of a Second Former-soon could be had for 25 cents for the first three and a half miles, five cents for each additional half-mile. Even Mr. Marrian's slowest math students knew that this was a better bargain than the trolley at a dime a head.

      There were other benefits too. Seats at the movies were easier to find. Parking downtown was a cinch. An excellent faculty at Gilman was more or less frozen in place. Few teachers wanted to take the chance of looking around in times like these.

      For Gilman itself the situation was very different. With virtually no endowment, the school depended almost entirely on tuitions to find the cash to keep going. This practice worked as long as there was a steady supply of full-tuition boys, but that was no longer the case. As the Depression deepened, families spent their savings, used up their credit, cashed in their stocks, hocked the car, and there still wasn't enough to keep going. Some took their sons out of Gilman and shifted them to less expensive private schools or to the public high schools, City and Poly.

      Enrollment in the Upper School fell from 238 in 1930 to 178 in 1935, meaning a drop in tuition income of $39,600. Even more alarming, perhaps, was the case of boys who remained enrolled but whose parents were trying to cut a deal with the school delaying payments. In 1932, some 46 accounts were delinquent, totalling $15,741. In 1933, the figure rose to 63 accounts in arrears totalling $25,601. Where to find the money needed to run the school?

      The problem fell squarely into the lap of E. Boyd Morrow, the headmaster who had replaced the charismatic Captain Miles in 1925. Morrow was a cool, austere realist. His relations with the student body were remote-the boys hardly knew him-and because of his aloofness he was invariably referred to as The King.* (*Not many knew that this austere headmaster was an accomplished violinist.) Yet he was probably the right man for the job at this particular time. The school's plight called for hard decisions, and Boyd Morrow could make them without flinching.

      A good place to start was the mid-day meal. The school's philosophy had always been that a Gilman education not only prepared boys for academic and athletic excellence, but also for the life of a gentleman. With this end in mind, students assembled every day in the paneled elegance of the Fisher Memorial Dining Hall for a formal hot luncheon, served on real linen tablecloths, with real linen napkins, and by real waiters in starched white jackets. The result was reasonably successful, except for the occasional gifted lad who knew how to use his knife to flip a pat of butter up to the ceiling and make it stick.

      Now the era of civilized dining was coming to an end. It didn't all happen at once, but gradually the napkins, the tablecloths, and the obliging waiters all vanished from the scene.

      Other economies brought a distinct touch of second-hand goods to the world of textbooks. For years the custom had been for every boy to buy a completely new set of books at the start of every term. Suddenly someone discovered that the books rarely changed; so why shouldn't an incoming Second Former take over the books used by his predecessor, who had now moved on to the Third Form?

      Second-hand became the byword in athletics too. In the fall, nearly everybody took football, and each year brought brand new uniforms, complete with helmet and shoulder pads, for a period that amounted to a couple of months. The irony was that the boys who liked football the least bought the most. They invariably abandoned new equipment at the end of the season, while the boys who truly enjoyed the game tended to hang on to lucky helmets, socks, sweatshirts, and the like. Now, the drift to the second-hand meant that everybody looked like a seasoned player, even if he never did more than warm the bench.

      Parents chipped in with their own economies. The custom-tailored suit from DePinna gave way to ready-made slacks and a jacket from Hutzler's. Vests disappeared completely. So did knickers; boys now went straight from short pants to long trousers, no stop in between.

      None of these measures were enough. Enrollment continued to slide, and the school's countermeasures continued to fall short: Fees were eliminated for commencement speakers . . . Fire insurance was reduced on the main building from $200,000 to $175,000 . . . Receipts from the circus, traditionally earmarked for a swimming pool fund, were diverted to general maintenance. Funds designated for two major scholarships were ( with the approval of donors) spread out so as to cover additional needy students. On one occasion, trustees, arriving for a meeting, were each dunned $50 on the spot.

      In the fall of 1932, Morrow took an especially drastic step. With the approval of the Board of Trustees he made an across-the-board 10 percent cut in all faculty and staff salaries, followed by a second 10 percent cut a little later. Prep school masters didn't get much to begin with-the rationale was that the tweedy atmosphere and long vacations made up for lack of money. Now a master making $2,000 was expected to live up to the same standards on $1,620.

      Gilman's ordeal continued. On April 18, 1933, the school's treasurer, W. Bladen Lowndes, confronted the board with the dismal news that a special drive to clean up back bills had netted only $3,000 of the $23,000 owed. He recommended still more cost-cutting measures: eliminate sandwiches at morning recess. ..cut out away-games with distant rivals. ..close down the school magazine, The Blue and The Gray. ..do away with the Cynosure, the seniors' yearbook.

      Mr. Morrow was more inclined to go to the heart of the matter: find more boys. He argued for ( and finally got) an expanded Lower School, which enabled the school to carry students all the way from kindergarten to the gates of college. (There's no record of what Calvert, Gilman's principal feeder, thought of this.)

      The headmaster also worked hard to build up the boarding department. After all, a boarder paid roughly twice as much tuition as a day boy. He urged the trustees to go out and find likely prospects. He issued a new catalogue designed to appeal especially to prospective boarders. He sent three of his faculty stars-Herbert Pickett, Ed Russell, and Eddie Brown-on headhunting trips to the provinces.

      Unfortunately, they were up against the city's demographics. Baltimore was rapidly expanding to the north. This trend found Gilman becoming less a country school and more a school of the suburbs. The parents of potential boarders were usually looking for a Currier & Ives setting in New England, or the Old Plantation South for atmosphere. Gilman's location offered a rather bland alternative. The school's boarding department gradually slid from 85 boys in 1930 to 22 in 1935.

      Curiously, the boys seemed almost oblivious to the situation. Generally speaking, they were aware of the Depression, but saw little connection between it and the school. To them the empty freight yards, smokeless factory chimneys, and the neatly dressed men selling apples on the sidewalk, had little to do with their own lives. It was almost as though the school and the parents had conspired to shield them from an unattractive mess.

      Not that the boys needed any shielding. They had all the right instincts, and would have been happy to help those less fortunate. But it was hard to find them. In the confined world of upper-class Baltimore at this time, the average Gilman boy had little contact with the rest of the city. The nearest poor people seemed to be in a mountain school in Hindman, Kentucky. Every year bundles of frayed shirts and unraveling sweaters were dumped into bins in the common room and packed off to Kentucky. During the winter a special "Hindman School Dance" was held, with the proceeds also going to Kentucky. Nothing went to any worthy cause in Baltimore. The concept of Gilman and community service still waited to be born.

      It must be remembered that there were no visible ethnic problems at Gilman during the 1930s. Most of the boys were Protestants ( today they would be called WASPs) plus a sprinkling of Catholics. Park Heights Avenue was a distant, unexplored land somewhere west of Carlin's Amusement Park.

      The closest thing to an ethnic problem was posed by the boys who lived in the Green Spring and Worthington Valleys. It was said that you could always tell a Valley boy by his tweeds and the leather patches on his sleeves. Valley kids also seemed to know a lot about horses. The suburban boys looked upon them with a faint mixture of envy and suspicion. This was a factor that never entered the world of sports and athletics, but vaguely emerged in social life and conversation. The school did its best to homogenize the student body by dividing it into two groups called "Blues" and "Grays." The boys were smart enough to regard this as an artificial division and never paid much attention to it.

      Regardless of cliques, daily life followed the same routine for everybody-a standard mixture of classes and study hall, punctuated by lunch. At 3:15 the whole school trouped over to the gym to dress for athletics. By 5:30 they were finished and heading home, which really meant an evening of homework. Every day was the same.

      Except Wednesdays. This was the day designated for haircuts and doctors' appointments. At 3: 15 nearly half the boys raced for the orthodontist's office. These worthies operated on a first-come first-served basis, and laggards were doomed to spend most of the afternoon in the waiting room reading and rereading old copies of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.

      The only other way to a free Wednesday afternoon lay in making the "Over 70 List." This was the reward given to every boy who had averaged over 70 in his academic work during the previous two-week period. It proved a worthy goal. Freed immediately after lunch, these chosen few were on the trolley by 2:15, rocketing down Roland Avenue toward the intoxicating world of the big movie theaters on Lexington Street. Sitting in the dark luxury of Loew's Century, listening to the giant Woerlitzer organ, it was hard to believe that in just a few hours the same old grind would begin. Every year was the same, yet every year was different too. Each was studded with events and incidents that somehow gave it an individuality all its own. .. moments that would strike special chords of memory in the years to come. In 1930, such an event occurred in the Maryland Interscholastics Wrestling Tournament when Gilman's Jack Legg took on Severn's Chung Hoon in the 155-lb. semifinals. No one who saw it would ever forget. "It was an epic," Cooper Walker later wrote in the 1955 Alumni Bulletin. "Chung Hoon was a cat, lithe and quick; Jack Legg a bear, strong and cunning." After an unprecedented and unbelievable three overtimes, the "bear" finally won.

      Only once a decade does a truly great football player emerge at Gilman, and in the '30s it was Pepper Constable, playing at the peak of his game in 1931. Big, fast, and immensely powerful, he completely dominated both sides in the City game, played in the old Municipal Stadium. One scene lingers: it was late in the fourth quarter, and the players were barely visible in the gathering dusk. But there was Pepper, with half the City team clinging to him, barreling 40 yards through the line for one more score in the fading twilight.

      The decade's greatest performance, however, did not involve the heroics of Pepper Constable, but the guile of the whole varsity football team two years later in 1933. Gilman's arch-rival Tome had earned a 0-to-0 tie with mighty McDonogh, which then trounced Gilman 33 to 0. Sensing an easy victory, Tome arranged for several top New York sportswriters to cover the game. All began as predicted, with Tome pushing Gilman around easily. But they never quite scored, and midway in the second quarter Gilman through some fluke found itself on Tome's three-yard line. Two plays got nowhere. Now it was third down, and Gilman lined up again. Suddenly halfback Clark Barrett asked for the signal to be repeated. Quarterback Dickie Janney barked, "Barrett, can't you get anything right?" The Tome linemen stood up to watch this interesting exchange and Gilman's center Chris Lowndes snapped the ball to halfback Ham Welbourn, who strolled through the Tome line into the end zone for a touchdown.

      The conversation play, as it was called ever after, not only won the game, 6-0, but possibly put the whole Tome School out of business. Tome was already in dire shape due to the Depression, and it was hoped that the stories to be carried in the New York papers would give it a much-needed shot in the arm. Now there was no story, except for the epic of Gilman's triumph over a befuddled rival. Several years later Tome closed its doors.

      But the most impressive football performance of the decade came not at the varsity level, but in the season enjoyed by Miles Marrian's 118-lb. team in 1935. This remarkable "band of brothers" ran up a total of 301 points while holding their opponents scoreless. In fact, only once did any opposing back penetrate as deep as Gilman's 20-yard line, and this rash fellow broke his leg on the play. There has never been another team like it, either before or after, and its success has never been satisfactorily explained, except by a story that Coach Marrian had a mysterious access to the playbook of Colgate University, also undefeated in that unique season.

      Two new sports kindled their own special memories. Lacrosse, long a favorite Maryland pastime, was introduced in 1932 through the efforts of coach and faculty member Edward W. Brown and became an immediate hit. In 1934, Mark Kelly became the first of three consecutive Gilman goalies to win All-Maryland status.

      More surprising was the introduction of ice hockey-again a push made by Ed Brown-in 1935. Thanks to the development of artificial ice, the sport was no longer the monopoly of fancy New England boarding schools. Gilman could do it too, as was quickly demonstrated in 1936 by Bobby Bordley, a remarkable skater who glittered like quicksilver as he flashed around the ice. There was one feature of ice hockey which made it either more attractive, or less so, depending on the point of view. Gilman had no rink, and its teams had to use the Sports Center, a commercial facility in a part of town sprinkled with soda fountains and movie theaters. Nobody has ever been sure how many of the skaters really liked hockey, and how many were drawn by the side attractions of North Avenue. Little matter. Nothing was more exciting than a close Friday night game, with the Gilman crowd roaring their encouragement as the scoreboard clock wound down toward zero.

      It was about this time that McDonogh replaced Tome as Gilman's chief rival. 1t was not difficult to make the switch. Tome was obviously fading, and McDonogh--considered a band of farmers--was coming on fast. When in 1932 the Cadet football team beat Gilman for the first time in history, it was a black day on Roland Avenue. Nor did it help when McDonogh's headmaster condescendingly invited the Gilman football squad to train at his camp in the future. The Gilman trustees politely declined, regretting that the idea "was not practicable."

      These memorable moments of the '30s covered far more than sports. In 1932 there was, for instance, the sudden appearance of the yo-yo in the halls of Gilman. How it came about, who was responsible, where it came from, are questions that have never been answered, but of the fact that it happened there is no doubt. Within a single week, every boy in the Upper and Lower Schools seemed thoroughly versed in the art of making the yo-yo "sleep;' twirling it "around the clock;' and a dozen other demonstrations of skill. The fad died out as quickly as it had come. Similarly, "knock-knock" jokes came and went with breathtaking suddenness. They were sometimes highly topical:

Who's there?
Worcestershire who?
Business is the Worcestershire it's ever been.

      Even more memorable was the sudden advent of miniature golf in the spring of 1932. It was the very bottom of the Depression, and in times like these the pastime seemed an especially inappropriate bit of frivolity. Nevertheless, a course was laid out in the grove just west of the gym. In no time at all putters were sprouting everywhere, and eager foursomes of boys and masters were pitting their skills against each other. The minutes of the Board of Trustees offer no clue as to who gave this elaborate gift to Gilman. They simply say "one of the parents" made it possible. It was a bad investment. Within weeks the course lost its novelty and by mid-summer it lay abandoned in rusty ruin.

      All boats rise together on a rising tide, runs the saying, and Gilman was no exception to the rule. Whether it was due to the New Deal, or to the new defense industries which were booming as the threat of Hitler grew-whatever the reason, there was a distinct business surge in the fall of 1936. At Gilman, this took the form of an increase in enrollment, more prompt tuition payments, fewer parents seeking financial relief, and a decision by the trustees to restore five percent of the 20 percent cut in faculty salaries.

      The lift in business was accompanied by a new style in popular music, which was so much a part of growing up. The saccharine strains of Guy Lombardo and Hal Kemp gave way to the blaring syncopated beat of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw. They were the high priests of this new style, which came to be known as "swing." It was embraced by the teenagers of the late '30s as enthusiastically as their own children would seize upon rock. Even today the clarinet solo of Shaw's "Begin the Beguine" evokes vivid recollections of rumble seats, saddle shoes, bobby socks, Vitalis, cokes at the Campus Inn, a radio console in the living room, and corsages for the one-and-only at the Fifth Form Dance.

      By 1939, both the Depression and the decade were all but gone. To what degree were the Gilman boys of this period changed by these ten years? They were a little more serious. The senior poll no longer carried headlines like "most popular with the flappers" and "biggest shiek." They were beginning to be worried by the signs of war just over the horizon. On the other hand, they weren't consumed by this threat. The same senior poll voted that their favorite topics of conversation were: the European situation, 1; the weather, 1; girls, 24.

      Academic excellence remained the touchstone of the Gilman experience. The school took marks seriously. The term "preparatory school" was taken literally, with the emphasis on getting into college rather than on the challenges to be faced after admission. Every June found the school giving Fourth and Fifth Formers a week of cram courses in preparation for the coming College Boards. During this week special help was pounded into the students. For instance, one of the most enterprising English teachers, Archie Hart, had his students memorize a few lines of off-beat poets, not because of their merits, but because he thought a little name-dropping might impress the College Board markers. Conversely, courses in art and music were neglected; the student didn't need them for College Boards. Gilman's music teacher was paid only $500 a year. Art appreciation cost even less, thanks to a Carnegie grant.

      Worldly and sophisticated the average Gilman graduate was not; but he had something much more basic. His no-frills, no-nonsense education (plus a lot of exercise and homework) gave him a discipline and quickness of mind that would serve him well in the hard years of war that lay ahead. Beyond that, he would have a set of values that would make him a better citizen. Above all, the friendships he forged in this intimate, if somewhat insular world of Gilman in the '30s, would give him pleasures and satisfaction for the rest of his life.

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