My School Days in Hyde Park
HPHS President Alice Schlessinger, formerly editor of LAB NOTES, U-High's Journal, has suggested that Society members might be interested in the recollections of Paul H. Nitze, class of 1923, recollections he wrote for that journal in 1985.
In 1910 my father was asked by President Harper to join the faculty of the University of Chicago as head of the Department of Romance Languages and Literature. We moved from Berkeley, California, to the Del Prado Hotel on 59th Street, on the lakeshore side of the Illinois Central Railroad tracks, in the fall of that year. I remember it as being a glorious place with high ceilings, sunny rooms, an enormous veranda with rocking chairs.
I was three; I had a friend who was four and much more grown up. I admired him immensely. Emily Kimborough, in her book about growing up in Chicago, has an amusing description of us staying at the Del Prado Hotel-the Nitze family, their charming daughter Pussy, and their spoiled, objectionable brat of a son. I am sure she reports accurately. Pussy was in second grade in the elementary school while I was being a pest around the hotel. The next year we moved to a house on what was then Blackstone Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets.
That summer our mother took us to Fish Creek, Wisconsin, to escape the heat of the Chicago summer. We drove up with the Guenzels, friends of my parents, in a glorious red Stanley Steamer. The roads north along Sturgeon Bay were merely two ruts with grass growing between them. Every ten miles or so the boiler would over-heat and blow the safety valve. Mr. Guenzel would have to climb under the car and insert a new one.
Father stayed behind in the Blackstone Avenue house with a fellow member of his department, Clarence Parmenter, both of them having opted to teach for the summer quarter. Father could become so intent on what he was talking about that he could be absent-minded. Parmenter wrote Mother a letter describing Father pouring maple syrup on his head while he scratched the breakfast pancakes.
The year 1912 we spent in Europe, where Father was doing research on the Grail Romances. When we came back to Chicago, we moved to 1220 56th Street, between Kimbark and Woodlawn.
In 1914 Father again took us all to Europe. We were mountain climbing in Austria when the Arch-Duke was murdered in Sarayevo. Father became worried when Austria mobilized against Russia and decided to take us to a safe country,-Germany. We arrived in Munich on the morning Germany declared war on Russia and World War I began. We finally got back to the United States by a Holland-American liner during the battle of the Marne.
It was not until 1915 that I became a regular student at the Elementary School. My life there did not start off easily. My mother was ahead of her generation in many things. She smoked, loved to dance, entertained with gusto, had an enormous circle of friends, but she was also a romantic. She insisted on dressing me in short pants and jacket and a shirt with a Buster Brown collar and a flowing black tie tied in a bow.
At school, at ten o'clock every morning, we had a break for roughhousing and letting off steam. Every day one of my classmates, Percy Boynton, would say insulting things about my get-up. I felt obliged to hit him, whereupon he would beat me up. This went on for a time until I found a way to solve the problem: one night I took all my collars, tore them into pieces, and threw them out my bedroom window into the alley. The next day I went down to breakfast without a collar. My mother asked me, "Why no collar?" When I explained, her only comment was, "I had no idea you felt so strongly about them."
But my problem was not restricted to my classmates. In order to get to the Elementary School, I had to pass Ray School , the public school between 56th and 57th. One afternoon, walking home from school, I stopped to watch some Ray School boys playing marbles. One of them stood up and asked me what I was looking at. When my answer was not to his satisfaction, he pushed me back over one of his friends who was kneeling behind me. Then they beat me up.
I found out that my tormentors were members of the Musik brothers gang. They were the sons of a tailor down on 55th and considered themselves bosses of the entire area bounded by Woodlawn and Kimbark, 55th and 56th Streets. The neighboring block on the other side of Kimbark was dominated by the Scotti brothers gang. The eldest Scotti offered to defend me against the Musiks. I became an enthusiastic member of his gang. He was thin, almost emaciated, slightly red-haired; he was my first experience of charismatic leadership. He had a technique of binding the loyalty of members of his gang by getting them to become his partners in some outrageous act. One day he suggested that the workmen who were building some houses on the other side of 56th Street usually left their toolbox on the site overnight. He told me we could use those tools. That night, without a second thought, I lifted the tools and handed them over to him.
There was a third gang on the block between 57th and 58th run by the Colissimo brothers. On weekends we would sometimes have football games between the gangs on the Midway. One team or other would grossly cheat and the game would break up into a free-for-all fight. Years later, after I had gone east to school and college, but had come back to Chicago for a vacation, I asked about the Musiks, the Scotties and the Colissimos. They had been caught up in the more serious gang life of those days in Chicago and had been either killed of jailed. None of them were known to have survived as useful citizens.
The South Side of Chicago contained many different worlds. One was the University world inspired by President Harper, one of the great men of his day. In physics the stars were Michaelson, who lived on 58th Street. Professor Milliken lived across the street from us on 56th. Glen Milliken was in the class ahead of me, but undertook to lead me into the world of science, its theory, its experiments and practice. West of us lived Professor Dixon, a Nobel Prize winning mathematician. One block to the East lived James Weber Lynn, one of the stars of the English department. James Breasted, the famous historian of Egypt and the ancient world, lived on Woodlawn. Others that I remember were Thorstein Veblen, the economist, Gordon Laing, the classicist, and Thomas, the sociologist. The University Medical School attracted a distinguished group of doctors, including Dr. Sippy who lived on Woodlawn. The Sippys were the only people we knew who had an automobile. In fact, they had two. Everyone else, to get downtown, would walk the eight blocks to the Illinois Central Station and take the train.
There was also a distinguished Jewish business community that lived around 47th Street or even closer to town. They included the Rosenwalds, the Mandels, the Blocks, the Gidwitzes and the Feuchtwangers. One of the Feuchtwangers ended up as the distinguished moving picture director, Walter Wanger. There were newspaper people, artists and lawyers. Finally there were a number of not so distinguished people, but people who seemed to represent the real world, the Chicago of those days. That real world was physically represented by the soot from the South Chicago steel mills and the odor of the stockyards which would blow at us whenever the wind was from the west. The Ray School and Western High with its 4000 students, twenty-five percent of whom were black, seemed to me to be the real world of Chicago in those days. James Farrell's Studs Lonigan presents an accurate picture of that world.
Athletics was, of course, very much a part of our lives. I played soccer, basketball and baseball, with vigor but no brilliance. The school organized a variety of activities to widen our experience. On various weekends we were taken to visit one of the steel mills, then one of the meat packing plants in the stockyards, then the Standard Oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, then a paint factory and the factory where they assembled the Essex automobile, a brand long since abandoned.
We were members of a Boy Scout group doing our daily good deeds. We sold War Bonds in 1917. We acted out current events. We acted in plays, learned to cook, to set type, to use wood and metal lathes and other machine tools, and to knit. It was an advanced and experimental form of education. I guess it did most of us no harm and for many it opened up larger horizons. There were, however, gaps. I learned no American history and I never learned to spell, but that was undoubtedly my fault, not the school's. I just wasn't interested in spelling. For some, however, the school did not provide the proper discipline.
In my second year at U High, I found myself sitting at an adjoining desk to Dicky Loeb in a French course. Dicky was older and in the class ahead of us. He seemed to me to be charming but soft. During the final examination I noticed that he was cribbing from what I was writing. Nevertheless I was shocked when it came out that he had joined Leopold in the infamous murder of the Frank boy.
I have left out one important aspect of those years, the impact of World War I upon our emotions and our thoughts. The Nitze family is entirely of German ancestry. Until the war, I had spent about half of my life abroad, much of it in Germany. The people I had known in those pre-war years in Germany, and also in Italy and Austria, were warm, loving, and much more emotional and outgoing than my contemporaries in Chicago, particularly those who were not part of the University enclave. My family was firmly on the side of "Keep America out of the War." In 1917, when the United States entered the war, we switched our views, but doubts remained. My classmates and I were asked to call at houses in our neighborhood and try to sell Liberty bonds. I was utterly surprised when a number of those I called on agreed to buy them. I sold $5000 worth of bonds which seemed to me to be an enormous amount.
But even at the age of ten and eleven the unutterable tragedy of the battle of the Somme, of the continuous struggle for Verdun and the mysterious battles on the Eastern front left a lasting impression. When President Wilson announced his Fourteen Points it seemed that a gleam of hope had appeared in a destructive and irrational world. When the armistice was announced our parents took us to a friend's office high up above Michigan Avenue from which we could watch the parade. But later when the surrender terms and the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty were announced, I felt bitterly disillusioned. In our current events class we acted out the signing of the Versailles Treaty. I was given the role of Walter Rathenau, who signed for the Germans. Later, Keynes' "The Economic Consequences of the Peace" confirmed my worst suspicions of that treaty.
By 1923, I had accumulated enough credits to have a chance at being accepted at the University that fall. Father wisely decided that this was a bad idea; I was not only too young, but a University professor's son. He correctly judged that I would not be accepted as an equal so he sent me off to Hotchkiss for two years of growing up. There I didn't learn that much that I hadn't already been exposed to at U-High, but I did have a chance to catch up in maturity-whatever that means-with my peers.
Paul Nitze went on to serve in various roles in the U.S. government-among them: as Vice Chairman of the US Strategic Bombing Survey (1944-46), for the State Department (1950-53), as Secretary of the Navy (1963-67), as Assistant Secretary of Defense (1973-76), and was named special advisor to the President on Arms Control in 1984. For over forty years, he was one of the chief architects of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.
On January 19, 2001, just one week before his 94th birthday, the USS Nitze was named for him "to sail around the world and to remind us of the contribution you have made to our country"-so said William Cohen, Secretary of Defense.
Main | our building | who we are | historic buildings | churches | Hyde Park History | monuments | parks | newsletters-The Big Wheel | HP Presbyterian Church | Tarzan | Ferriswheel |