Memory Lane

February 22, 2000

My essay yesterday elicited some feedback from readers. One remembers the Presidents’ Day change as taking place a little later, 1973, when she was in high school. Perhaps I’m remembering a time when the idea was being introduced, at least in Pennsylvania. I can attach the image of the sign on the porch to 1971 because that’s the only year I had to drive down Paxton Street and over that railroad bridge to get home.

I saw a Far Side cartoon once that was captioned “How the Brain Works.” It showed a workman in t-shirt, tool belt, and droopy jeans bending over a filing cabinet. He had electrical cords slung over his shoulder, some plugged into each other, some just dangling. He was rooting in a file drawer, obviously looking for an elusive piece of information to add to the tangle.

I know that’s how my brain works. I’ll be thinking about something and one detail will trigger another, which happens to be permanently attached to another, which then pulls another up along with it, like those clumps of weeds in our lawn that are strung together by underground creepers, so that lifting one disturbs others along several feet of turf.

Another reader, actually one on a list which discusses historical research, noted that I live in Harrisburg. She said that she lived here some years ago, gave me the address, and asked that if I had occasion to go near that neighborhood I check it out and report on what it looks like now.

That’s the kind of favor that appeals to the historian in me, and I made it my business to go that way today. It is only a few blocks from the first apartment my mother had when she came to Harrisburg in the late 1930s. What was once a solid working class neighborhood of modest semi-detached and row homes has declined somewhat over the last 35 years. 

Some of the mom-and-pop grocery stores have become bars (one padlocked last year after some notorious incidents). The streets are dotted with abandoned cars and some “booted” ones (vehicles owned by traffic ticket scofflaws that are parked legally with up-to-date tags but are immobilized until the fines are resolved).

The house my correspondent asked me to look at is in good repair and appears to be undergoing some remodeling — sheets of drywall were visible in the front window. It is half of a double on a street that has undergone some urban renewal. The former city junior high school in the next block, abandoned as an educational facility nearly thirty years ago and left to crumble for a while, has been turned into subsidized housing for the elderly.

This neighborhood is three blocks from the site of Bishop McDevitt High School, the school I attended from 1961 until I graduated with the glorious Class of ‘65. It is an imposing structure, built in 1929 and still beautiful after all these years, with two seventy-foot medieval looking towers that were once at the ends of the building but now, after three major additions, mark the boundaries of “Marian Hall,” or what would be called “Old Main” if it were a college.

Bishop Philip R. McDevitt built it. It wasn’t named for him until 1959. Until then it was just “Catholic High.” The site is on a hill that sits on top of a hill, Allison Hill, which rises steadily from the railroad tracks downtown out twenty-two blocks. At that point the grade gets a little sharper, and there is a round island in the roadway planted in bulbs which marks the line between the working class area of the city and “Bellevue Park,” an enclave of stately mansions laid out in the early part of the twentieth century as part of the “City Beautiful” movement. It was where the town’s new money built their homes, the old money having established themselves along the riverfront in mansions that are now either parking lots or office buildings.

Bishop McDevitt was criticized for choosing the site, which had to be purchased when the diocese already owned a serviceable building downtown, and approving the design, which was thought too ornate. He was adamant, believing that the Catholic community’s children deserved a castle with a pleasant seat to pursue learning and wisdom.

He was a man of vision. The high school, like Bellevue Park, endures, despite changes in demographics and attitudes toward parochial school education that mean the entire student body at today’s McDevitt is barely larger than the head count of one class in the old days.

Which brings me to the last comment on yesterday’s essay. Someone asked about the number given for my honors history class — 35. That’s right, as I remember it. There were 615 students enrolled when we started as freshman, of whom about 570 were left at graduation. Six percent of a class in the honors division is about right. That we were all herded into one class was typical. I once counted the number of faculty pictured in the yearbook and discovered that Bishop McDevitt operated with the same number of teachers for 2200 students that the school where I taught did for 1000.

You can get bumper stickers that say “I Survived Catholic School!” and it is often fashionable to exaggerate the supposed horrors of such an experience. I can speak only for myself, and when I do on this topic I make it clear that I loved every day I spent at Bishop McDevitt, and would not trade a moment of it away. And yesterday, after my errand to inspect South 19th Street, I drove up the hill, past Bishop McDevitt, and every one of those moments seemed to gather near the front of my memory’s file drawer, and I pulled over, and just sat with them for a while.