Chalk-Dust Memories: The 1940s

In 1943, I was in my second year at SI. We had Greek class first period each morning. Mr. Joseph Geary, SJ, then a scholastic, was our instructor.

One Monday morning he came to class a bit early and announced: “No matter what I say, do not turn in any homework for the rest of the week.”

He left the room abruptly and returned a short time later.

On Thursday morning of that week, he opened the class with by announcing, “I do not know what is going on here, but no one has turned in any homework so far this week.” He then turned to Martin Woods, one of the best Greek students in the class, and asked him if he knew what had happened.

Martin said: “Mr. Geary, on Monday you told us not to turn in any homework this week.”

With a huge smile on his face, Mr. Geary said, “Oh no! My twin brother was here this past weekend and got to class before I did.” His identical twin brother, John, was a scholastic at Bellarmine down the Peninsula.

— Joe Stevenot ’46

• • •

In 1946, my freshman religion teacher was Fr. Charles Largan, SJ. Fr. Largan had a hearing problem and wore an old-fashioned hearing aid of that time which consisted of an earpiece with a wire band across the top of the head, much like a hands-free cell phone. At the end of the band opposite the earpiece a cord ran under one’s shirt, or cassock in the case of Father, and ended in a microphone-amplifier, clipped on the shirt front. Occasionally a fly would buzz around Fr. Largan’s chest near the microphone, and he would wave his hand around his ear attempting to swat the fly. Hilarity ensured.

Each classroom had a two-way communications system to the school office, which consisted of a black box hung up high on the wall. During each period, a voice would ask, “Attendance, please,” and the teacher was expected to reply with the names of absent students. Of course, Fr. Largan couldn’t hear well enough, so some wise guy would point up at the box, even though no one had asked for attendance, and Father would dutifully report the absences. And, as you might guess, when the office did ask for attendance, no one would call Father’s attention to the request, which would drive the office batty.

As one might imagine, a few of us matured to the point that these sophomoric (or is it freshmanic) actions were later regretted. At a reception for the Class of 1950 not too many years ago, who should show up but Fr. Largan, and thanks to the wonders of modern science, he had undergone an operation that restored his hearing. With a few of us gathered around him, Father told us, “I remember you guys and all the tricks you used to play on me.” But he said it with such good grace and a twinkle in his eye that we knew we were forgiven.

— I.P. “Bunk” Sicotte, Jr. ’50

• • •

During my freshman and sophomore years at SI, I had a part-time job of running the telephone switchboard at USF. As a result, I got to know not only all the Jesuits who were associated with St. Ignatius High School, but also, to some degree, most all the Jesuits associated with both St. Ignatius Church and USF.

In September 1946, my mother died suddenly. My father had her body prepared for burial at Carew and English, a few blocks away from USF. The evening before her funeral Mass, the rosary was said for my mother. I was totally taken by surprise when Jesuits started appearing for the rosary. I didn’t even know that most of them knew that my mother had died. My guess is that there were well over 60 Jesuits who said the rosary with us for my mother. A number of those Jesuits barely knew me. I shall never forget the spiritual support that they gave my father and me.

—Donlan F. Jones ’48

• • •

During Oakie Days, we would break the dress code by wearing old clothes and gather in the field at lunchtime to show how we were dressed down. The school grew concerned about our unofficial practice and clamped down on us, threatening to send home anyone who didn’t dress properly.

When it was time to order our class rings, we noticed the design had changed. The new design made it look like a girls’ school ring instead of the design we were used to. A group got together and found someone to redesign the ring and take orders, which the administration did not appreciate.

— Tom Bertken ’50

• • •

At the old SI on Stanyan Street, we had to walk up 15 stairs to reach the entrance to the school. From this vantage, you could see into one of the new homes across the street. Inside was a young lady who took her shower every morning at 7:30 a.m. Ordinarily, there would be no one at school that early, and she was in the habit of undressing in front of the curtainless window, showering and then drying off. Mysteriously, students began arriving at school at 7:30 each morning. Mrs. Harrington, the principal’s secretary, walked up the stairs one morning, looked at us, looked across the street, and said, “Haven’t you boys ever seen a naked lady before?” How could we answer that? If we had said, “No,” it would show that we were not men of the world. After hearing only total silence, she walked inside. Fr. Gerald Leahy, SJ, the prefect of discipline, wrote a note to our neighbor suggesting she buy shades. All of a sudden, the show stopped.

— Jack Riordan ’44

• • •

Mr. Carlin was my favorite teacher. In his first year teaching at SI as a scholastic, we used to like to fool around with him. We named him Nilrac — that’s Carlin spelled backwards — and everywhere we went, we wrote “Nilrac was here” on the blackboard. He took it in good humor.

Fr. Raymond Buckley, who taught chemistry and physics, stood about 5 feet tall. We respected him because he was really tough. My mother was active in the school in those days, and she had an ulcer as did Fr. Buckley. They would speak to each other about home remedies. After class one day he asked me, “How’s your mother’s stomach today?” I responded, “That’s pretty personal, Father!”

In those days, we had corporal punishment. If any trouble occurred between students or between a teacher and a student, the ROTC sergeant would say, “I’ll see you in the armory at 3 p.m., and we’ll settle it with gloves on.” Whatever disputes we had, we used our fists. Most of the time, the teachers won, but once in awhile, one of the big Irish football players would win.

— Dick Raffetto ’44

• • •

No one had an automobile in those days. We all had rationing stamps during the war and people used to trade gas for sugar and meat. We took streetcar 31 to school, which went by Turk and Stanyan. The motorman drove the streetcar and the conductor stood in back and collected fares. If the streetcar trolley came off, the conductor got off, put it back on the wire, got in and rang two bells. One time, in front of SI, someone pulled the trolley off, and the conductor got out. As soon as he hit the wire, someone rang two dings, and the driver went off, leaving the conductor behind.

— Jack Goodwin ’49

• • •

We used to have ROTC every Wednesday where we marched in a parade in uniform, which included a white shirt and black tie. One day, we were told we weren’t going to have a parade but physical exercise instead. They said, “Everybody, take off your coat.” Here is this vast sea of white shirts, with the exception of one guy. He had taken a white shirt, cut out the collar portion that was visible, and wore it with tie under his uniform coat. When he took off his coat, he exposed a t-shirt with large blue and white stripes. He stood out like a sore thumb.

One day, I was thrown out of class for spelling a word right. Fr. Joseph Dondero, SJ, taught sophomore English. He asked the class how to spell “acknowledgment.” He went around the class, and when several students spelled it correctly, he said, “That’s not right.” I quietly borrowed a dictionary from the guy next to me, raised my hand and told him respectfully that the word had been spelled correctly. He threw me out of class and sent me to the principal’s office. I told Fr. James King, SJ, that I was thrown out of class for spelling a word right. I didn’t want that class to go through life not knowing how to spell that word. [Editor’s note: The Miriam Webster Dictionary shows two alternative spellings for the word “acknowledgment,” either of which is correct.]

— Claude Boyd ’45

• • •

I really had a strong desire, even as a student at St. Cecilia’s, to go to SI. I knew I would know a lot of fellows there, and they helped me when I ran for student body president. One day, after I had made an announcement regarding class pictures, Fr. King said, “Mr. Molkenbuhr, pitchers are what you put water in. Pictures are portraits.”

I played football for one year under coach Red Vaccaro. He was a driver. Boy, you had better be pushing all the time. One time he went out on the field, and he saw a guy laying on the ground. He gave him a kick and told him, “You’re not hurt. Get up.” He got up! Alex Schwartz took over coaching the next year in 1942. He was an all-coast end for USF, first string all conference there. He sure inspired us. He was clean cut and a real gentleman.

My classmates and I talked about what service we were going to enlist in after we finished school. The four years at SI were the best I had. Even though I had to transfer three times on Muni to go there, it was worth it. My mentor was a scholastic, Cornelius “Con” McCarthy. He encouraged me to run for president of the student body, telling me, “Val, you can do it.” SI had other really fine Jesuits, holy men, such as Fr. Cody.

I took ROTC from Sgt. Storti, and that helped me when I joined the Marines. He was a short guy who gave us instructions in weapons and drilling. I was a battalion commander, and my good friend Jack Schimelpfenig ’43 was in charge of the whole ROTC unit.

— Val Molkenbuhr ’43

• • •

One of our history tests was administered by our ROTC sergeant. Before he came in, someone wrote out a cheat sheet on the blackboard all in Greek. When the sergeant started to erase the board, we told him he couldn’t because our Greek test was next. He didn’t have a clue what was going on. We all did well … too well. The priests knew we had cheated but didn’t know how. They asked the sergeant how he could let an entire class cheat. As I recall, we all had to retake the test.

Later that year, the day before Christmas vacation in 1949, I found myself in Fr. “Skipper” Largan’s religion class. Someone brought to class one of the very first portable radios, about half the size of a toaster. Shortly after the opening bell, the strains of Christmas carols filled the room. Father was somewhat deaf but heard the music. He just could not identify the origin. He was aided in this by our pointing to the public address system. He closed his book and told us that as long as the office was going to pipe in music, we might as well enjoy it. Unfortunately, a commercial broke in.

At the second commercial, Father got up and left the room, and someone placed the radio on a windowsill. The class then quieted, and we looked very busy. Father returned, said nothing, just opened his book and resumed class with perfect aplomb. The very next class, Fr. Pierre Jacobs, SJ, picked off the culprit immediately as he walked into chemistry. But that is another story.

— Bill Kennedy ’50

• • •

The Jesuit Educational Association conducted an evaluation of SI between March 4 and 8 of 1946 and submitted the following in its report:

“One of the most notable things about the high school this year is the lack of tension both among the students and among the faculty. As a result the pupils are apparently working harder with better results and the faculty is much more content than it was last year…. At the same time St. Ignatius’ high scholastic standing is being maintained. Graduates entering the University of California last year obtained the highest rank of all those entering from private schools. Two students won awards in the Westinghouse Science Search Tests. In other national and local contests the representatives of the school have given a most satisfactory account of themselves.”

The report did offer this mixed evaluation of one teacher: “Mr. ––––– has matured considerably during the past three years, but he is apparently unable to adapt himself to the mentality of first year high school students. I doubt that he has any enthusiasm for the subject, and certainly has not communicated any to his pupils; rather, he dampens their enthusiasm by refusing to answer questions.”

As to discipline, the report faulted SI for its lack of proper playground facilities: “As a consequence pupils are allowed to come into the school building before classes begin in the morning and to remain in it during the two recess periods. The result is bedlam in the corridors. I hate to think of what it is going to be like if an additional 300 freshman are admitted next year!”

The report also noted the difficulty teachers had “settling the boys down when they have entered the classroom. The boys are supposed to be quiet when they enter the classroom, but that is an almost impossible regulation to enforce … after shoving one another around in the corridors.”

The report also mentioned the contents of one bulletin board, which “for some unknown reason contains the picture of some woman swimming champion!”