Ferndale, Michigan: A Teacher and A Coach.
School Year (1923-1924)
My train left for Kalamazoo with a Detroit stopover around noon. Cheney decided to stay in New York to see some friends. We pulled into Detroit about 11:30 a.m., and immediately I found the interurban car that ran out through Ferndale. Ferndale was four corners at 9 Mile Road and Woodward. The streets were sandy and the sidewalks few. I inquired at the four corners about the location of Lincoln High School and was told to just follow 9 Mile west about a quarter of a mile and I would come to it. As I walked in the front 9 Mile entrance, I was asked if I needed information. I said, "Yes, I would like to see Superintendent Harris." "He is not in his office,” was the reply, “but Maurice Cole, the high school principal is here. Would you care to see him?" "Yes,” I said, so for the first time I met Mr. Maurice Cole.
Maurice and I held an interview. He wanted a man to coach basketball and track and teaches history. I was confident I could do the job and told him so. During my visit with Mr. Cole, I learned that his sister was Laura Wancheck, who lived in Gobles with her husband, Albert, and taught the elementary grades in the Gobles schools. I also learned that the Mrs. Cole living in Gobles was Maurice and Laura’s mother.
Before too long Superintendent Harris arrived, and after a brief conversation the Superintendent told me that he and Mr. Cole would recommend me to the board, that the board seldom if ever turned down their teacher recommendations, and that I could feel certain that a contract would follow. I was to receive seventeen hundred dollars for a ten-month school year. They were allowing my study at Boston to count as one year’s experience. The starting salary was fifteen hundred dollars. I immediately wired the superintendent at Crystal Falls of my decision, which he didn’t like. As I took the interurban car back downtown to Detroit I thought to myself, they had me pretty well scouted before I even got to Ferndale.
My train arrived in Kalamazoo just as it was getting dark. As I got off, it felt good to be back. I walked up to the college with my one suitcase, entered “old 46,” and said to Phil Vercoe, my senior year roommate, "Do you think there is an empty bed in the dorm?" It was sort of an accepted custom for alumni to come back and pile into an empty bed for the night, and if the owner of the bed came in he merely looked for another one. I stayed on the campus a couple of days and then went home to Gobles for a several-days visit.
After the senior exams were over, I returned to the college campus to see Ruth graduate. In the meantime, my teaching contract had come in the mail. Ruth had signed up to teach in Bloomingdale, a village five miles west of Gobles. After the commencement exercises Ruth’s parents loaded her belongings in their Model T and prepared to leave for their home in South Haven. They expected me to go with them and were rather surprised when I told them I was taking the train to Marshall where I would be barbering during the summer. Before leaving Boston I had contacted a barber in Marshall, Michigan, located about twelve miles east of Battle Creek on the New York Central line. Monroe had worked in the barbershop the previous summer, and the boss said as long as Monroe wasn’t coming back I could have the job. I would have liked to have gone back to South Haven to barber, but I found out by writing letters that the shops had already hired all the barbers needed.
It was just another one of those summers. Marshall was then and still is a city of about six thousand people with one main business street, two theaters, and a nice residential section of good citizens. We barbered six days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. I got the thirty-five dollars a week plus half over fifty dollars, which seemed to be the accepted wage scale for barbers. Of course, my take was a lot less than it had been the previous summer for Marshall was no summer resort. It was a job, provided me with enough money to live on, and financially prepared me for my teaching job in Ferndale. I roomed in a large house right on the main street, which ran east and west. Ruth came down to Marshall by way of train to Kalamazoo and a bus. She stayed two days and three nights, rooming with a family who had a room to rent. That was the only contact I had with the western side of the state all summer.
I’ll never forget the August of 1923 in Marshall. I was awakened one early morning an hour before the sun was up with a paperboy crying on the street, “President Warren G. Harding is dead.”
I left my job the last week in August because I had to report to Ferndale for a teachers meeting on Labor Day at 2:00 p.m. After spending that last week in August between Gobles and South Haven, I packed my suitcase and Sunday I took the 5:45 p.m. train to Kalamazoo, got a train for Detroit, found a hotel room, up early Labor Day morning, ate breakfast, and took the interurban car out to Ferndale, where I spent forty-two years in the public school system.
Ferndale, at the corner of Woodward Avenue and 9 Mile, a village of about 8,000 with its sandy dirt streets, was as unattractive in 1923 as could be imagined. Then why did I choose Ferndale to start my teaching career? Well, for one thing and probably the most important factor, it was a suburban community on the north boundary of Detroit. Where Detroit left off at 8 Mile Road, Ferndale began. I have always been a city man. I like the bright lights, the crowds of people, and the opportunities that city life provides. There are the Detroit Tigers, the river with all its boat traffic in 1923, the colleges and libraries, the movie theaters with their fine stage productions of the 1920's, and the playhouses that staged the most beautiful musical comedies. I have ridden the Bob-Lo boats, the Put in Bay, the City of Buffalo, and the City of Cleveland, and many of the other boats that used to ply the waters of the Great Lakes. Baseball at its best was at my fingertips, and there was nothing I would rather play or see than a game of baseball. I have seen them all: Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, in the 1920's to all the greats in the 1970's, the World Series of 1934, 1935, 1945, 1968, the All Star games played in Tiger Stadium. All these desirables were great attractions to me. You could take a bus or interurban car and be in downtown Detroit in about twenty minutes.
So when I got off the interurban at the corner of 9 Mile and Woodward that Labor Day morning 1923, with a suitcase in each hand, and walked up the sandy 9 Mile Road west to Lincoln High School, I started a completely new venture that didn’t terminate until forty-two years later when I stood before a large group of people at my retirement reception in 1965.
Our instructions from Superintendent Harris were to report to a general teachers’ meeting at 2:00 p.m. on Labor Day and to be ready to start the classroom work the following day. As I walked into the entrance of Lincoln High School the halls were deserted. As I put down my suitcase, I heard voices coming from a room on my left. I walked into the room and introduced myself to three men and a woman whose names were Chet Nelson, science teacher, Al Wiitanen, math instructor, Gerry Gaskill, shop teacher, and a very charming young lady whose name was Florence Crissman, English teacher. After a brief chat at which time I learned that Florence Crissman had gone to Kalamazoo College for a short time before transferring to the University of Michigan, that Gerry Gaskill was married, and Chet Nelson and Al Wiitanen were in the same boat as I was in, no place to sleep that night. Chet and Al invited me to go room hunting with them after the general teachers’ meeting. I was more than pleased to immediately find fine companionship in a completely strange community. I was informed they had some names and addresses of families who had rooms to rent to schoolteachers, so I went into the two o’clock faculty meeting with confidence that I wasn’t alone in searching for a place to sleep that night.
The superintendent introduced the new teachers, and there were many of us since the high school was built in 1920 and we were a very young faculty. Then he gave a welcome talk before we divided up into groups according to the building in which we taught. Of course, I was very attentive. With notebook and pencil, I took down the main points of the opening day meeting. Afterward one of the older teachers (three or four years’ experience was considered an older teacher in Ferndale in 1923) said to me, “You can always tell those who are teaching their first year, they take notes.” A few years later I could easily understand her thinking.
When the meetings were over, Chet, Al, and I set out room hunting. “If we find a house that can house all three of us, would you want to room with us?” asked Al. "Sure," I said, so we concentrated on addresses that might house all three of us. After looking at a couple of places we found ourselves on Beaufield Street at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Clayton Burns. Clayton was a Ford man and Dora, his wife, a housekeeper. They had two rooms for rent upstairs, and Beaufield Street was only about a block and a half from Lincoln High. Not one of us had a car since Chet and Al were only beginning their second year of teaching, so car parking was not a problem. We asked her if she could fix one room into a den with a lounge in which one could sleep and then two would sleep in the other room. Dora said, "I never thought that I would get men teachers requesting rooms, but I can arrange it that way for the three of you." Chet and Al, both University of Michigan graduates, had roomed together the previous year, so they said I could occupy the den’s lounge and they would sleep in the other bedroom. We contracted for room and board by the month, eating our lunches at Ray Croton’s delicatessen shop across the street from the high school on 9 Mile Road. We three celebrated that evening by going to a show in downtown Detroit.
Up at 7:00 a.m. for breakfast and at school by 7:45 a.m., I was to experience my very first classroom situation. Now, the difference between a new teacher today and in the 1920's is training. In my Kalamazoo College course of study I took a class from Dean Severns called “Pedagogy,” defined in the dictionary as “the art, practice, or profession of teaching.” We had a textbook, and once during the term we were given a topic to prepare and on a given day stand before the class as the teacher of that subject. Then we were required to visit three classes at Kalamazoo Central High School to view their methods. That constituted the training I had to start my teaching career. My schedule called for two classes in American history, a twelfth-grade subject, a class in European history, an eleventh-grade subject, a class in ancient history, a tenth-grade subject, and a class in ninth-grade physiology. Four preparations and study hall for a beginning teacher who was to coach basketball and track was a real challenge.
I had observed just enough of the teaching profession to allow me to come to definite conclusions as to the type of a teacher image I wanted to portray. In high school I had had a history teacher who had a daily outline on a paper that she held in her class book. She walked around the room always with her nose in her class book and we knew and felt that she didn’t know her subject well enough to present it. That was not the type of teacher image I wished to create. Then too, I had sat in high school classes when the instructor did not have good discipline, and I couldn’t understand how one could have a learning situation in the classroom under those conditions. Therefore the classroom image I wanted to develop was one where the teacher at least appeared to have a firm grasp of the subject being taught, and had the respect of the members of the class to warrant good discipline and a learning situation. At the same time, I did not try to impress my students with the idea that I was a walking encyclopedia. If I didn’t know something I was going to tell them and we would look it up. So with this preclass room philosophy, I entered my first class that Tuesday morning with some nervousness but yet a feeling of confidence. The subject was American history, and I had about twenty senior students. They were very cooperative, probably knowing that I was just fresh out of college. These students as well as those in my other classes proved very interesting and friendly as days passed. That first day we had short twenty-minute periods, which allowed enough time to get acquainted, get the names of the students, say something about the text to be used, and make the next day’s assignment.
If I had studied as hard while I was in college as I studied those first two years teaching, I would have undoubtedly been on the dean’s list. I would get up at 5:30 a.m. to review what I had prepared and learned the night before in order to go into the classroom with confidence. After making the next day’s assignment, I would throw the text on my desk and by sitting on the desk, walking around the room, writing on the blackboard in a very informal way, we would discuss the subject of the day. While I tried to be tolerant with students who would crack a joke now and then to produce a good laugh, no one was allowed to make my class a joke. Over a period of years My name “H. B. Wilcox” developed into “Hard-Boiled Wilcox.”
It was customary at that time for the P.T.A. to give a reception in the gym for new as well as old teachers. It was held in the evening when parents could find time to attend. Refreshments were served and Superintendent Harris introduced the new personnel in the district. While I enjoyed meeting the adult members of the community, nevertheless it gave me a feeling that they were looking me over. Due to being a Kalamazoo College graduate and the fact that the college is a Baptist affiliate, many people reasoned that my religion was that of my college and invited me to become a member of the Baptist church. I did attend a few Sundays, but I learned that there was a Methodist congregation meeting in the “Odd Fellows” Hall located on Woodward about three blocks south of 9 Mile Road. Al Wiitanen had accepted the superintendent of the Sunday school and asked me to teach a class of high school boys and girls. I readily accepted, and for twenty-five years I was a Sunday schoolteacher in the Ferndale First Methodist Church. The following year, 1924, ground was broken to start the building of the present church on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Leroy. I was a member for forty-five years before we transferred our church membership to the Royal Oak First United Methodist. During those many years I organized the first youth fellowship, coached the church basketball team, participated in the many church functions, held several official positions and greatly benefited from all my church activities.
The fall weeks, crammed full of activities and hard work, passed in no time, and as I took the train home to Gobles to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, brothers, and sisters. I became fully aware that the basketball season was upon us, and that meant more hard work and long hours. While in Kalamazoo I called a Kalamazoo College friend who had been one of the stars on the college basketball team. He said, "Come over to the house and we’ll talk it over." He gave me a small book on basketball that discussed the defense and offense, with diagrams showing the position of the men on the court. Having a profound interest in the game while in college, I felt very confident that I could handle the coaching job, and with this book on basketball I built my offense and defense. The coach whom I succeeded had not had a winning season, but he did leave me with some boys who had previous experience.
Now, high school athletics in the 1920's was considerably different than they are in the 1970's. There was no other coach of basketball in the school system than myself. The call went out for all who were interested in making the team to report to the gym at 7:00 p.m. because we held our practice sessions in the evening. About fifteen boys reported, and they made the Ferndale Lincoln High School basketball squad for the year 1923-24. From this group of boys I had to mold the varsity and reserve teams. We started each day’s practice with the fundamentals, which many of the team members didn’t like. The big interest was just shooting baskets. We played such schools as Royal Oak, Birmingham, Rochester, and Imlay City. We had a sixteen-game schedule, and after the last game was played with Birmingham on the Ferndale floor, Ferndale stood fourteen wins and two losses. The only team to beat us was the Birmingham squad, which won two hard-fought games, the last one by two points.
Coaching at Ferndale in 1923 was a lot different than it is in 1970. As a basketball coach in addition to my academic duties, I had to build the schedule, buy the equipment, contract for the referee, supervise the ticket sales, and hundred and one different duties that today are all the responsibility of the director of athletics. So when my landlady, Mrs. Burns, said to me, “Mr. Wilcox, why don’t you move your bed over to the high school that will save you walking back and forth” she was merely reminding me that for six days a week I was practically living in the building. We did most of our traveling by interurban car. For example, when we played Rochester we boarded the interurban about 5:40 p.m., walked to the high school, dressed for the reserve game, and were ready to play at 7:00 p.m. It was the rule that anyone playing in the reserve game could not participate in the varsity game, so I held out my seven best players for the varsity.
The varsity game got under way about 8:30 p.m. It was 10:30 p.m. before the boys were dressed and ready to leave the school. Then we had to eat, which meant it was nearly 12:30 o’clock before we got off the interurban at Woodward and 9 Mile. By the time I got to my room on Beaufield and in bed it was after one o’clock. If it had been a rather close game I would lay in bed unable to sleep as a result of replaying it. This wouldn’t have been too bad if all these situations were on Friday nights, enabling me to sleep in on Saturday morning, but when the game was played on Tuesday night and I had to be in the classroom by 8:00 a.m. Wednesday, it was pretty tough on my physical self. When that last season game was played, I breathed a sigh of relief for I was glad it was over. My stomach had begun to bother me as a result of the nervous tension.
Coaching track was not as hard a task since there was little or no audience participation. Ferndale didn’t get an athletic field until a year later, so our track meets were all on foreign fields. Because the school system was growing by leaps and bounds, a man by the name of Cal Knox had been hired to teach in the science department the second semester. Cal was a University of Michigan man and had done the broad jump on the track team. He volunteered to come out and work with the boys in the field events while I handled the running events. The property across the street from the high school on 9 Mile Road was vacant so we used it for the field events while I used the dirt road of 9 Mile for the running. This only lasted to the spring of 1924 because you could see houses going up all around the school building. Things were moving so fast that the new addition to Lincoln High was to be finished by September.
The spring months have always been my favorite time of year. In the school business it was and still is contract time. While I felt I had done a very acceptable job in both athletics and academics, I was pleased when Maurice Cole, our principal, came in the room where I had a desk, sat down and began to chat. "Have you enjoyed your first year of teaching?" he asked. "You have done a good job, and we want you to return next year." My answer was, "I would like to return provided the salary is right." "Well," he said, "you would get the maximum raise of two hundred dollars." "That sounds reasonable," I said, "and you can count on me being here next year." While I had worked to no end, coaching, etc. without the additional pay coaches receive today, I was pleased that my services were appreciated.
Little did we realize what lay ahead of us next year, because Principal Cole was retiring from the school profession. He had been studying law at the Detroit College of Law night school and had made up his mind to take the bar examinations and if he passed, which he did, he would set up a law office in Ferndale. Maurice and I have been friends all these forty-nine years that I have been in Ferndale. He graduated from Alma College, a member of the M.I.A.A., and has since served on its board of trustees. He has been very active in Ferndale social and civic affairs. He is a charter member of the Ferndale Exchange Club organized in May 1924, a club of which I have been a member since April 1926.
Volume two is my (Rick) autobiography. I was born during 1940 during an era of little crime and house’s outside doors were never locked. There were no school buses and kids could stay after school and used the playground for activities The Children’s mothers were not concern as they knew eventually they would be home for supper.
I graduated from Adrian College, a private college in south-east Michigan. I met my wife at a college dance during her first week of college. At this time I was a sophomore. We were married on my transit to Europe (U.S. Army). When she finished her senior year she flew to London the following day (after graduation) where we were united as husband and wife. We spent a lot of time with a German family and travel all over Europe. We overcame some hard times.
My story also includes our Alaskan cruise and traveling throughout Alaska including Dawson City, Yukon. Both my story and my Dad’s stories highlight the enduring values of faith, love, and service.