E4: 1925-1929 (The New Trier Years)
My year at Howard school was a real spoiler: now I would have a daily, and very long, trip (of nearly a mile each way) to New Trier. True, one can ride on the North Shore (student fares for trips less than 5 miles: 50 for one dollar); but many Wilmette kids walked, West-Siders at any rate, and I was no exception – rain, shine, snow, or whatever. (I tried the bike one time, but someone damaged it there, and I never used it again to N. T. Bicycle use seemed to be out of style anyway.)
My course programs over the years fell into place more or less naturally: four years of English (required), two years of history (required), four years of mathematics (two required) two years of a Latin, three years of German, and one year of physics. The English turned out to be a dud (except for the senior year; drama and a snap course in journalism). Grammar, having presumably been learned by all was given virtually no attention; the extent of almost all the works were literature – poetry, which I find boring, essays, also mostly boring, and insipid romantic stuff. Except for the A’s in the last term, I got B’s in English. But history was worse: both teachers were terrible, making the subject as stilted and boring as possible. My efforts were minimal, and the payoff was too– straight D’s. Latin had a great appeal, especially because of the emphasis on grammar and language structure. Grades here: straight A. I stopped Latin after two years so that I could get as much German in as possible. Had I been very ambitious, I would have taken French as something new to me, but I was lazy and German promised to be easier, even though Spanish was taken by most kids because it was touted as the easiest language. Despite the German teacher’s short comings (a real battle axe, she), I did very well (probably because of my prior knowledge and the ease with which I handled the grammar and sentence structure). All grades in German were A’s, of course. And, since mathematics proved easy for me I did A work in it throughout, also.
It must be noted that I did not enter high school with expectations of being an outstanding scholar. After the freshman year, when my D’s and B’s kept me off the honor roll, my inferiority complex was still very much alive. As a sophomore I did make the honor roll, since history was absent, but I backslid as a junior. But I got a big boost by making straight A’s (there being no history and English being more [interesting?], and better taught than before). I had had the mathematics head for geometry (as a sophomore), and took to the subject well, probably because of the concise reasoning involved that appealed to me. After I had had solid geometry from him as a senior, he probably realized that I was one of his best students at least over a period of some time. This connection paid off well during my next era.
But the best of luck that I had occurred in my senior year, when a new German teacher, Mrs. Hilda Walker, took over. She was absolutely tops in every way and also highly perceptive, since she realized that I had an unmovedly good grasp of the language, with a “natural” affinity for it stemming from my early immersion in it, and of course a thorough mastery of the grammar, etc. This gave her some ideas about how I might put my German to good use, and these would figure in an essential way before the year was over.
Most students satisfied a science requirements by taking biology (easiest, it was said); most of the rest took chemistry. My program was too much along other lines for three years, and by then I realized that physics would probably be easy for me in view of my mathematical capabilities. And so it was. My teacher, Mr. Windoes, provided me a good view of the subject which I was able to use to good advantage later.
So much for academics. New Trier did have much more to offer of course. Although I had broken down some of my aversion to physical activities with the help of the baseball at Howard, my interest in athletics was still pretty low; there was no baseball, and I tended to shun new things. In the organized gym activities I went through the motions with little enthusiasm, until I discovered the mats.
Here I could turn somersaults, and do them well, even with a running start and a springboard. My caddying had ended early in my freshman year, and so I played less golf (now on a public course for a fee). As a junior I developed a friendship with a boy who played tennis and offered to teach me. So I learned to play that game a bit. Of course, having learned to swim, I got a season ticket at Wilmette Beach each summer and made considerable use of it but [sic.] these activities were actually relatively sporty. Many boys got into varsity athletics (horribly time-consuming). Those who didn’t qualify and most other boys engaged in intramural programs, involving track, basketball, football, etc., etc.
But none of that appealed to me. There were activities much more attractive to me – in the (afterschool) clubs. In due course, I joined the Radio Club, the Chess Club, and the German Club, becoming quite active in each. These clubs provided a primary source of contact with other students having interests similar to mine. Here I developed some close friendships, not only with Wilmette kids, but with residents of the various villages. And, curiously, I tended to have less and less contact with my old classmates from Stolp and Howard. Never been much of a mixer, I always had a few friends, carefully selected, and with them I developed strong ties.
The strongest of these ties was with Morton Mergentheim of Winnetka, whom I met as a sophomore, and who taught me to play chess. I got reasonably good at this game though never as good as he was, and we played frequently. During the summers we often went swimming in Lake Michigan off Winnetka. Mort was one of the few N.T. classmates with whom I maintained contact for many years (actually until his death in 1979). More about that appears elsewhere. A strong tie through chess was developed also with Carlyle Duncan-Clark, son of a Chicago newspaper editor; he turned out (later) to be a public relations man – during WWII serving as General Eisenhower’s censor in Europe. In later years he often sought me out to discuss novel ideas which [he] had. The most interesting was a voting system he had invented in the early 1950s. It used cards and a punching machine for voters to specify their choices (instead of paper or machine balloting). He apparently initiated the system in California ultimately; later it became widely used all over. (He had offered me a piece of the proceeds, personally if I had promoted the system in the Chicago area, but that never materialized, and I did not hear from him again.)
Most of my other contacts came about through the radio club, for I had become a “ham” in my sophomore year, and I received much guidance from the club and fellow hams in it during the rest of my New Trier years. Although I was beginning to develop an interest in music of various kinds during my high school years, I did not get involved in any group, possibly because band, orchestra, and glee club clearly represented time-consuming activities, and I felt that I had no more time to spare.
It is noted elsewhere that I made a practice of listening to popular music on the radio. By far my favorite dance orchestra was Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. During this period “hambands”* played at the Granada Café on the south side of Chicago and his music was broadcast each night from about 10 PM until the wee hours. I found a couple of Winnetka boys who were similarly entranced by the Lombardo style and I developed friendships with them which lasted most of my college years.
It should be mentioned that I did not date girls while at New Trier. The main reason for this was that I was still pretty shy and afraid of being embarrassed by a likely refusal had I asked a girl for a date. But there were other reasons. I was forbidden to go to movies or to dances; hence there wasn’t any place for me to take a girl on an evening date. Furthermore, I didn’t have access to a car and public transportation was very limited, serving only a small part of N. T. Township. Finally, money was scarce, as I’ve indicated, I had plenty of other ways to spend my time, and I didn’t miss dating too much. Sundays were pretty well taken up by family and religious activities, discussed elsewhere.
Unfortunately, there was no college counseling in these years. I knew that I should make an effort to go to college after graduation, soon to occur, although I got no encouragement at home. My father undoubtedly expected me to go to work to enhance the family income. He had broken up with Art after a fight (in which Art claims to have been punched in the ear and permanently injured) and was working for one of Art’s competitors. My mother was no longer working, since Gertrude’s health was on the decline and she needed to be cared for. Still, I felt that a good field for me would be electrical engineering, because of aptitude in mathematics and physics. Northwestern was nearby and appropriate, but I didn’t take any steps in the matter, mostly because I really didn’t know what to do.
But the lady luck smiled during my final semester. My German teacher, Mrs. Walker, made a proposal to me, having learned that I had no college plans. She said that I should try for a U. of Chicago freshman scholarship in German, based on a competitive examination to be held in the late spring (of 1929). I agreed to try and she coached me, on the basis of her earlier experience with the U of C exams. These could be technical, trick grammatical questions, translations both ways, and it required an essay to be written in German, on a topic assigned then (not earlier). Anything but a top performance on the early parts would disqualify the examinee; of the few not so eliminated, the essay was definitive. She knew that I would have no trouble with the first parts and so concentrated on the essay. I could assume, she said, that the topic would have to do with German history, customs, and literary people (i.e., those whose works were in the usual high school curriculum). So I should prepare with her help, subsections on these subtopics, assuming that I could work much of what I had written in somehow, modifying here and there if need be to produce continuity and, of course volume to the actual topic assigned. This was a pretty big job, and required that I memorize all the stuff that had been prepared. Hooray for my early Bible verse days!
I knew that my mother was prejudiced against the U of C, because Art had attended the Theological Seminary there briefly and had then lost whatever religious beliefs he had had. So when the time came to go to the U of C for the exam, I was so dubious about the whole thing, that any nervousness that I would normally have felt and that might have caused me to flub the exam was absent. How fortunate! A classmate, Connie (not too bright), went down with me, although Mrs. Walker had told him that he’d never have a chance, since I would be competing.
I breezed through the exam in the morning; luckily; was able to use a lot of the stuff I had prepared. We were given lunch, and then had to wait until late in the afternoon for the results. Connie and I discussed the exam, and he brought up questions on some of the tricky parts. It turned out that he had fallen into traps, and so clearly his chances were nil. The participants gathered in Mandel Hall on schedule and the presentation of results began. First, the runners-up were identified. (I wasn’t named!) Then there was a partial scholarship to go to the second place winner. (Not me!) Finally “a full scholarship will go to Roy Wilcox, from New Trier High School.” (Who dat?)
On the program at the commencement, my name was missing from the list of graduates who had received scholarships, it was also missing from the list of members of the “Honor Society.” (How come, since my average was 3.4 despite a couple of disastrous years?) But the kicker was this: a special announcement was made during the proceedings that Roy Wilcox had entered the competition at the U of C and had “brought home the bacon.” I was then asked to rise (for applause). Then, when attention was called to the list of the elite members of the Honor Society, an apology followed. Through a mix up the name Roy Wilcox, Society member, had been omitted; again I arose; again applause. (I was the only graduate who got any special mention!) Goodbye, now, to the inferiority complex.
The summer of 1929 was spent at Lake Harbor, Michigan newly acquired summer resort of the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle. My mother had an office job there and I was offered a job to repair or rebuild a telephone system which the property had had but apparently had been maintained badly. When we arrived, however, I learned that the management had wanted the telephone work done earlier; I had not been notified. No other suitable work was available, and so I was provided a room and board for the duration of the summer. This seemed a pretty good deal, and so I accepted. There were swimming, golf, a chance to develop some new friendships, some of which lasted a while, and, as noted elsewhere, a chance to learn to play the saxophone.