This is my father, Girard College class of January '47.
On Sept. 9, 1938, my grandmother took him on a streetcar ride from Cantrell Street in South Philly to the Girard College campus. They went through the gates and to the small guard house just inside, where the guard made a telephone call and my Dad looked out at Founder's Hall, thinking it must be a palace.
A few minutes later a woman came along, and my grandmother introduced her to my Dad. The woman remarked to my grandmother, a divorcee with another son three years older, how polite my father was. He blushed.
They went to a building just to the right of Founder's Hall, in the shadow of a grove of trees, where he was measured and given a uniform, shoes, the whole kit. Then my grandmother said goobye and explained he'd be staying there, to go to school and live.
This would be his Home.
His brother couldn't join him, because he was too old for the entrance requirements, but he'd have lots of new brothers at Girard. In those days, that was literal truth: Girard boys were wards of the school, even the ones who had mothers.
He cried. His mother told him it would be an adventure. He believed her.
He was almost exactly the same age my son is right now.
When I was little, we'd go to Founders Day, strolling around the campus while my Dad stopped to chat, shake hands and/or reminisce with what seemed like every other guy we passed. The wives embraced my mother, greeting each other like cousins, and they exchanged brags while we kids rolled our eyes.
He'd take us inside the breathtaking chapel, where despite the carved admonition THE LORD IS IN HIS HOLY PLACE KEEP SILENCE BEFORE HIM, he'd whisper to me, proudly, how the chapel was non-denominational so all the boys could pray together. He'd point out how there were no crosses, no images of Christ, how he made his Sacraments at the Gesu Church and how he and the Jewish kid in his bunk used to joke they must really be brothers because they looked so much alike, dark-eyed and tanned from summers at the Girard camp.
When we didn't go along, my Dad would bring home Hum Muds wrapped in waxed paper, and we'd dunk them in milk. As a kid I wore his letterman's sweater, a steel grey G sewn onto scratchy scarlet wool.
Now he's old, one of the many elderly alumni Girard is losing every day. These days when I take him to Founder's Day, we sit in the Armory at ever-smaller tables of his brothers, who all kiss me on the cheek and tell me how much I look like my mother. I try not to cry as he struggles up the long, turning staircase inside Founder's Hall, walking through the rooms full of Girard relics, pointing himself out in photographs, naming his friends. I pull out the bound volumes of the campus paper from the 1940s, and pick out his name so many times I lose count.
Because "Russell Johnson" asked, this is why I can't be truly objective about what happens at Girard College and to its students, any more than I could be objective about any other member of my extended family. That statue of Stephen Girard is as close to a paternal grandfather as I ever got.
To be clear: Nothing I write comes out of personal animus toward Autumn Adkins Graves, whom I've never met. Rather than having an axe to grind against her, I admire the brains and balls it takes for a black woman not even 40 years old to be chosen to lead a school like Girard.
I find myself identifying with her in many ways, not just because we're the same age but because back in 1937, neither of us would have been welcome in the Girard family that so unconditionally embraced my Dad.
Yet I'm concerned by what I'm hearing, especially comments about how it's becoming "Autumn Adkins Academy" and "You have to spend money to make money," and most damning, from a current student: "Girard College does not feel like home anymore." I understand that some staff layoffs are part of department restructuring, but there are other issues.
I disclosed my conflict in the earlier post because I teach my Media Ethics students to be truthful when something could compromise their objectivity. I didn't go into all the gory details because, as I teach my News Writing students, we are not the story. I will continue to ask questions, seek information, and analyze the many documents now coming my way because that's what I teach my Investigative Reporting students. I'll continue to provide a place here for those who care about Girard to share their thoughts because that's what a blog is for.
You can either understand, or not. It doesn't change what I do.