Thursday, May 7, 2020

Benjamin Eli Smith and the Simplified Spelling Board

The Simple Speller booklet

At the turn of the 19th century the citizens of New Rochelle were graced by the presence of a scholar who deserves to be remembered and appreciated. The man was Dr. Benjamin Elli Smith (1857 - 1913), the Managing Editor of The Century Dictionary, said to be the American rival of the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary. Dr. Smith lived in New Rochelle from the 1890s until his death in 1913, and he was a lively and productive member of the Board of Education, a personal friend of Superintendent Albert Leonard. Dr. Smith was the motivating force behind the creation of the Rochelle Park Association, an early civic and property improvement association of one of the city's prominent and handsome suburban neighborhoods. Our Archives holds a fascinating collection of his personal papers.

Letter to Dr. Smith from Andrew Carnegie
Dr. Smith also had a role in the promotion of spelling reform through the work of the Simplified Spelling Board. A brainchild of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the Board was organized to promote the gradual simplification of English spelling. Established in March 1906, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle devoted a full page to the announcement of the Board's formation with the headline: "The American Spelling Reform Financed by Andrew Carnegie." As Dr. Smith explained, during a dinner meeting with a "spelling reformer," Carnegie put out a challenge that "if you will secure thirty gentlemen of prominence who will agree to put into practice the changes you suggest I will finance the movement." Dr. Smith and friends secured 700 names and Carnegie's challenge was met. 

Foreseeing that English would become a global language, Carnegie believe a phonetic alphabet would guarantee its world acceptance. For his Board, he asked for "gentlemen of prominence," and he got them. They included a Supreme Court Justice (David J. Brewer), the Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (James A.H. Murray), the creator of the Dewey Decimal System (Melvil Dewey), the preeminent American author (Mark Twain), the President of the U.S. (Theodore Roosevelt). It had long been noted that English spelling is beset with many inconsistencies; the most famous may be the construction "ough," pronounced variously in the words tough, through, and although. Rationalizing these inconsistencies formed the work of the Board, but progress was exceedinly slow. Yet even Justice Brewer vowed to use phonetic spelling in his opinions issued by the Supreme Court, and the New York World spoofed him with the headline: "Justis Brewer Telz How He Uzez Nu Speling in Hiz Opinyunz."

Board of Education Resolution on death of Dr. Smith

Even with the success of The Century Dictionary, Dr. Smith was reluctant to use it as a tool for spelling reform, claiming that a dictionary "is a record of accepted public usage rather than an arbitrary maker of words and spelling." However, his administration of the Simplified Spelling Board proceeded for several years, and he remained a friend of Andrew Carnegie. With Carnegie's death, the Board dissolved, and Dr. Smith's greater impact remained the legacy of his devoation fo the City of New Rochelle as a member of its Board of Education and the Rochelle Park Association. 

May 7, 2020 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archives

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Poliomyelitis Epidemic in New Rochelle - Summer 1916

Poliomyelitis, or polio, also known as "infantile paralysis" is a contagious viral disease that destroys motor neurons that control muscles. Paralytic polio is life-threatening, and survivors often experience lifelong disabilities. The 1916 polio epidemic was the most devastating in the history of the disease, not to be surpassed until the 1950s in the U.S. In June of 1916, polio cases appeared in Brooklyn that led to an epidemic encompassing all five boroughs of New York City, causing widespread panic and flight from the city. Polio cases quickly spread to adjacent areas in Conneticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. One affected city was New Rochelle.

Public health officials rushed to quarantine the contagious and quell the epidemic, but hundreds of new cases were reported weekly in communities that summer. In New York City alone, there were over 9,000 cases and 2,343 deaths. In New Rochelle, health officials reported ten cases in July clustered in a neighborhood downtown and the Pelham border; all were children under the age of three. The Board of Health placed the neighborhood under quarantine and began to build structures adjacent to the hospital for the polio cases. When the epidemic peaked in August, there were 86 hospital cases. Orders were issued for mosquito and fly abatement, but to no avail, for these where not the vectors of poliovirus. Patients were isolated; families were quarantined; and public gatherings of children were forbidden. New Rochelle schools delayed opening until October when the epidemic had passed. At that point the Board of Health established a fund to provide aftercare treatment and orthopedic braces for disabled children, and the New Rochelle Hospital established a regular polio clinic for hundreds of survivors. 

It is instructive to remember this history in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. The current situation is shocking and devastating, but medical science and public health will ultimately prevail. It is also important to remember the most famous polio survivor, a person who became President of the United States - Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR is the only elected leader in the history of the world who could not walk or stand on his own. His disability was caused by paralytic polio. FDR's struggle was arduous, but he set in motion the research that ultimately led to the Salk and Sabin polio vaccines. A paraplegic for life, FDR once said about his struggle to walk again, "I once spent two years in bed trying to move my big toe. After that everything else seems easy."

April 21, 2020 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archives

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

New Rochelle Birthdays - April 28: Robert Woodruff Anderson and Jay Leno!

Robert Woodruff Anderson

Robert Woodruff Anderson, leading playwright, screenwriter and producer, is probably best-remembered as the author of Tea and Sympathy. He was born on April 28, 1917 in New York City. Soon after, his family moved to a large home in New Rochelle's Residence Park neighborhood. Anderson attended Thornton Donovan School when it was located on Centre Avenue, just a few blocks from his house at 99 Elm Street. His fond memories of attending Junior Garden Club meetings at the New Rochelle Public Library, when it was located at the corner of Main Street and Pintard Avenue, were included in NRPL's 100th Anniversary journal. Anderson had mailed his reminiscences for the 1994 occasion. 

He followed in his brother's footsteps, attending Phillips Exeter Academy. While a student at the New Hampshire prep school he fell in love with an older woman. The experience became the basis of Tea and Sympathy. Anderson earned graduate and master's degrees from Harvard University. 

Serving in World War II, Navy Lieutenant Anderson was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for "meritorious achievement against the enemy" on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. While serving, he also won first prize in the 1945 National Theater Conference playwriting contest, topping the 697 scripts submitted by individuals representing all the armed forces. About Anderson's winning play, theater producer and contest judge Arthur Hopkins wrote, "'Come Marching Home' is the one I like best. The author should be encouraged to continue playwriting."

Anderson's most well-known play, Tea and Sympathy, made its Broadway debut in 1953, and was directed by Elia Kazan, who coincidentally, also grew up in New Rochelle. The successful play was made into an MGM film in 1956. Both play and movie starred Deborah Kerr, John Kerr and Leif Erickson. Between 1959 and 1968, Anderson's hit Broadway shows included Silent Night, Lonely Night; You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running; and I Never Sang for My Father.

During the same decade he wrote the screenplays for Until They Sail, The Nun's Story (which received an Oscar nomination), and The Sand Pebbles. His 1970 screen adaptation of I Never Sang for My Father also earned him an Academy nomination. Anderson also wrote scripts for many television dramas, as well as novels.

Married to Phyllis Stohl from 1940 until her untimely death in 1956, Anderson wed actress Teresa Wright three years later (Interestingly, Wright played the wife of Lou Gehrig in the film Pride of the Yankees. Robert Anderson's childhood home was across the street from the Gehrig's New Rochelle home at 9 Meadow Lane). The couple divorced in 1978. Following a seven-year battle with Alzheimer's disease, Anderson died of pneumonia on February 9, 2009 at his New York City home in Manhattan. 

Late-night television host Jay Leno began his show business career as a standup comedian. He performed his comedy routines around the country making as many as 300 appearances a year. Eventually, he procured a spot as guest host of the popular late-night program the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. With Carson's retirement from the show, Leno stepped in as his successor, beating out other contenders including David Letterman. Soon dubbed the "King of Late Night" by the media, Leno's Tonight Show began topping late-night television ratings in 1995 and became a dominant force by the late 1990s. 

Jay Leno

Born James Douglas Muir Leno on April 28, 1950, in New Rochelle, Jay Leno was the son on an Italian-American father and a Scottish mother whom he claims had a "Gracie Allen type of humor."

He grew up in a house still located at 69 Leland Avenue. Leno attended Trinity School before his family moved to Massachusetts in 1959 but his relatives remained in New Rochelle. His uncle, Anthony, started the popular establishment Leno's Clam Bar (AKA "Greasy Nick's") on Pelham Road (although that side of the family pronounces the name "Leeno"). He apparently has always had a heart for comedy. His fifth-grade report card read, "If Jay spent as much time studying as he does trying to be a comedian, he'd be a big star."

Jay Leno is well known for his philanthropy. He won Emmy Awards in 1995 and 2011, and has been nominated numerous times. Leno has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and was inducted into the New Rochelle Walk of Fame in 2013.

These sketches were written by Barbara Davis, City Historian and NRPL Community Relations Coordinator, and Rod Kennedy, founder of the New Rochelle Walk of Fame. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

Woody Woodpecker's Roots in New Rochelle - 120 Years Ago Today

Walter Benjamin Lantz
Walter Benjamin Lantz, animator, producer and director, was born on April 27, 1900 in New Rochelle, New York to Italian immigrant parents. His father, whose surname Lanzas was anglicized to Lantz by a immigration official, was soap maker by trade, but became a butcher when he moved to New Rochelle. The family lived at 169 Washington Avenue.

Lantz was always interested in art, having completed a mail order drawing class at age 12. While working as an auto mechanic, he got his first break when a wealthy customer named Fred Kafka liked his drawings posted on the garage's bulletin board and financed his studies at Art Students League. Kafka also helped him get a job as a copy boy at the New York American

In 1927, Lantz moved to Hollywood, where he worked as an independent producer and founded Walter Lantz Productions. His most famous cartoon characters were Andy Panda, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Woody Woodpecker. He is credited with producing the first Technicolor cartoon. 
Woody Woodpecker

It was during Lantz's honeymoon with actress Grace Stafford in 1941 at a lakeside cottage that he found the inspiration for his most famous creation. When the couple heard a woodpecker drilling holes in the shingles of the roof, Grace suggested adapting the bird as a cartoon character. She eventually went on to become the voice of the pesky bird after her husband initially turned her down because Woody was a male character. Undeterred, Grace secretly made an audition tape and submitted it anonymously. Not knowing whose voice was being heard, Lantz picked Grace's voice to do Woody and his raucous laugh. 

Walter Lantz received an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement for his for contributions to the art of animation. His Woody Woodpecker artifacts are part of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1982, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2011, Lantz was among the first notables to be inducted into the New Rochelle Walk of Fame. He died on March 22, 1994, at home in California.  
Woody Woodpecker's Hollywood Walk of Fame Star

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare - History of the Avon Bard Club of New Rochelle

Most of us have had experience with a book club or reading group, but do you know of any reading group that has lasted for nearly a century? There was one in New Rochelle – the Avon Bard Club! It was founded in 1908 as a study group devoted to the works of William Shakespeare. The club's name combines the name of Shakespeare's birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon, England with his title as "The Bard" – a masterful lyric poet. For decades the Avon Bard Club of New Rochelle provided a guided course of study to the poetry and plays of William Shakespeare in regular meetings of serious readers.

Besides the intensive of study of Shakespeare, the club created a public garden with the intention of planting all the herbs and flowers mentioned in Shakespeare's plays and poetry. The idea was conceived by Jessie Beers, the wife of William Beers of the New Rochelle appellate court, who was inspired by a visit to the Elizabethan gardens of Stratford-upon-Avon. With the cooperation of New Rochelle city officials, the club opened the garden in Davenport Park at Long Island Sound in April 1937 and cared for its maintenance for many years. In 1966, the Federated Garden Clubs of New York recognized the club with a special citation for the beautification of public parks.

The New Rochelle Public Library holds the records of the Avon Bard Club among its many archival collections. The records include study guides to Shakespeare's plays and several original essays – a fascinating glimpse of how Shakespeare was studied in New Rochelle from 1908 to 1996. One document in the collection lists all the book titles ever inspired by William Shakespeare – over 500!

Shakespeare's birthday is April 23rd. The great essayist Samuel Johnson claimed that his plays "may be considered a Map of Life" and that a person "that has read Shakespeare with attention will perhaps find little new in the crowded world – his repuation is therefore safe, till Human Nature shall be changed." Inspiring words about The Bard!

April 20, 2020 / David Rose / New Rochelle Library Archives

Friday, April 17, 2020

New Rochelle: Home to Baseball Hall of Famers - Mariano Rivera

Last, but not least in our series of Baseball Hall of Famers with ties to New Rochelle: Mariano Rivera!

"Raised in the Panamanian fishing village of Puerto Caimito - about 15 miles from Panama City - Mariano Rivera began his baseball journey playing with cardboard gloves and tree-branch bats," reads the description on the Baseball Hall of Fame website. A live arm and an athletic body brought him to the attention of the New York Yankees, with whom he signed as an international free agent for $3,000 on Feb. 17, 1990." It continues, "The Yankees won five World Series titles during his 19-season career, advancing to the postseason 17 times. Rivera was named the World Series MVP in 1999 and the ALCS MVP in 2003...In 19 seasons, Rivera posted a record 652 saves with a win-loss mark of 82-60. His career ERA of 2.21 ranks No. 1 among all pitchers who started their careers in the Live Ball Era (post 1919), and his 952 games finished also rank first all time."

In 1995, as a young ballplayer, Rivera became fast friends with Joe Fosina, a pillar of the New Rochelle community and the owner of the company that oversees Yankees' uniforms. Their friendship led to New Rochelle becoming the adopted home of Rivera and his wife, Clara. In 2014, Refugio de Esperanza, "Refuge of Hope," was opened in the former North Avenue Chuch, located next to New Rochelle's Police Headquarters and Courthouse. Clara Rivera is the Senior Pastor of the Pentecostal congregation. The 1901 building underwent a 3 million renovation funded by the Mariano Rivera Foundation.

Rivera was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 21, 2019, the first year of eligibility. He was first player ever to be elected unanimously by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. New Rochelle was quick to pay tribute with a "Mariano Rivera Day" on July 27, with festivities that included a special presentation of the Key to the City, a pinstripe parade and a culminating celebration at the Hudson Park Bandshell. "New Rochelle has been my hometown since I came here in '95," Rivera said during an interview before the ceremonies began. "New Rochelle reminds me of my hometown and has been amazing." 

The Riveras have given generously to numerous causes around the world and locally. On May 28, 2015, Mariano donated his time at a book-signing event at NRPL to help the Friends of NRPL raise funds to build their bookstore. When "The Closer" announced his retirement he said, "I would love to be remembered as a player who was always there for others." Rivera has taken those sentiments far beyond the baseball stadium.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

New Rochelle: Home to Baseball Hall of Famers - Joe Torre

Born in Brooklyn in 1940, Joe Torre followed in the footsteps of his brother Frank, signing with the Atlanta Braves right out of high school. Torre became one of the best hitting backstops in the game, peaking with 36 home runs in 1966. He earned a Gold Glove Award in 1965. Torre went on to play for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1969 and the Mets in 1974. He was a catched as well as both a first and third basemen. He was named Most Valuable Player in the National League in 1971 and was a nine-time All-Star.

He made his managerial debut on May 31, 1977, when he became the first player-manager in the majors since 1959. He became the Mets full-time skipper eighteen days later. In 1982, Torre was named AP Manager of the Year for leading the Braves to a division title. After managing the Cardinals, 1990 - 1996, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner hired Torre as his team's manager. As the 31st manager in Yankees team history, he joined Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra and Dallas Green as the fourth skipper to wear both Yankee and New York Mets uniforms. Torre's Yankees made the playoffs every year under his tenure. He led the Yankees to 6 World Series appearances during the 12 year span, winning 4 World Series Championships. The 2000 title was the 26th overall for the Yankees, the most of any team in professional sports.

In 2008, Joe was hired by the Dodgers, where in 2010 he ended his career as a player and manager. From 1982 to 1984, he worked in the broadcast booth and in 2011, began his career as a baseball executive in the Commissioner's office.

The Yankees retired Joe's uniform number 6 on "Joe Torre Day," August 23, 2014, and honored him with a plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. In 2014, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Joe and his wife, Ali, first moved to Westchester in March 1996, when they rented a large 1980s home at 60 Premium Point Road, located in a gated waterfront neighborhood. When asked by Westchester Magazine if it was a difficult move, Ali Torre responded, "It was a big adjustment for me, since I grew up in Cincinnati. But we moved into New Rochelle and we just befriended so many great people...We were very fortunate to meet a lot of great people through that experience." After winning the 1996 World Series, the Torres bought a home in Harrison.