A “FIFTIES”  CH  REMINISCENCE

By Jeff McGann

During the war we moved from Manhattan into Forest Hills and my sister and I went to PS 101 from kindergarten up.  We joined The Church-in-the Gardens when my parents became aware of the existence of the newly organized “Boy’s Club of Forest Hills” at their “Community House” on Borage Place.
As soon as I reached the minimum membership age of eight, they enrolled me.

I will always be grateful for that.

From 1949 until 1959, the “CH”, as everyone called it, was a second home that I shared almost every day with dozens of other brothers and sisters.

In the “Fifties,” Forest Hills was a unique and wonderful place for children to grow up, and the CH was our sport, social, and cultural pivot.

The Boy’s Club had been founded by Dr. Laurence Miscall, a prominent Forest Hills heart surgeon with two sons.  Realizing that the boys had nothing to do after school and on weekends, he sponsored the club for Brian and Larry and their friends.   First meetings were held in the attic of his home across from PS 101, on the corner of Slocum Crescent and Russell Place.

As “Doc” Miscall reminded us annually on “Awards Day” he hoped that the Boy’s Club would provide a place to keep boys busy and out of trouble…a place where they could participate in sports and learn gentlemanly traits such as sportsmanship and leadership.  It was to be a character building program in preparation for college and adult life.

When the club quickly outgrew the attic, an arrangement was made with the Church to locate it in the Community House.  Membership was on a non-sectarian basis, and fees were minimal to encourage enrollments.

I still remember my first day there.  It was just after my birthday, May 17, 1949.  My father and I were given a tour of the facility and I was awed by the size of the swimming pool and basketball court.  Many of the boys we saw were “founding” members of eleven or twelve, or more, and seemed huge to me.

We were introduced to boys as we encountered them but I particularly remember Stanley Peck in a friendly and confident manner assuring my father that “they would take care of me” there.

Physically the CH and the Gardens have changed little.  If you close your eyes today and imagine the streets without cars parked on them,  that was what the community looked like.  We had cars then, of course, I guess they were always “garaged”.  The few vacant lots that existed then have been built on now, and the new houses have blended seamlessly.

The community looked so much like an English village, in fact, that many movies and early kinescope TV scenes were filmed in and around the Forest Hills Inn in Station Square.

Arthur Meurer, father of Ross and John and an early CH “Chairman” was an English racing car aficionado who operated a variety of Jaguars, Morgans, MGs and Austins.  He was often prevailed upon by directors (including Alfred Hitchcock) to drive one of them through the background street scenes for authentic English flavor.  He would let us ride in the car sometimes and we always got a big charge from knowing we were going to be in a movie.

Movie making, we soon learned, was a tedious and repetitive activity.  Many times a scene was ruined by the noise of a LIRR locomotive chugging through, or a TWA Super G “Connie” roaring out of LaGuardia.

It was more fun just to ride around town with Mr. Meurer with the top down.  The right-hand drive little convertibles made it look like the passenger was driving.  When we stopped for lights, pedestrians could be heard exclaiming, “Look at those kids driving that car!”

We would all get a big laugh and Mr. Meurer would rev up the engine and “burn rubber” for us when the light changed.  He’d then zip around the perimeter of the West Side Tennis Club as if it was a track.

At the CH itself, there was a cement tennis court behind the gym where the church annex stands now.  We played baseball there but I don’t remember anyone playing tennis.  On a recent “nostalgia visit” the rest of the CH still seems pretty much the same as it was except that someone has apparently shrunk the pool and basketball court.

Although Forest Hills was the undisputed American capital for tennis, and we all were players or fans, it was never a CH activity probably because there were so many other venues nearby.   There was the “West Side” and there were also public courts where Luby Chevrolet is, more courts at Yellowstone Blvd. and the foot of Burns Street, and on “Metro” near Ascan Avenue.

In the CH, true to Stanley Peck’s promise, they looked after me.  Although I was a liability as a “little kid”, they included me in swimming lessons and games and made sure that I got some “court time”.

Basketball in those days barely resembles the game of today.  I think there was a “jump ball” after every basket, and a foul drew at least two shots (underhand of course).  The second shot could be “waived” by the captain in exchange for “possession”.  This was articulated by a hand wave signal to the referee who would then let that team bring in the ball from out of bounds.  The big guys always let me give the waive/wave signal which was an exciting and important responsibility for me.

At the command, “Tell him we waive the shot, Jeff”, I leaped into action—hand a-waving.

Later, as I became able to dribble and pass, I gave up the position of waiver/waver to the newest kid after me.

To the delight of Stan, Henry Hof, the Burch twins, Billy Meyer, Brian Miscall, and others, I was often egged on by mischievous Billy Barnes, to run right through the legs of Mike Sughrue.

Mike was our answer to George Mikan, basketball’s star of the day.  A gentle giant, “Suke” was at least six and a half feet tall and had knees like hockey pucks.  Suke wore a leather padded wire facemask over his steel rimmed glasses adding to his intimidating appearance.

Suke went on to become a loyal fixture on the CH basketball scene as scorekeeper, statistician, and more, for many years.

There was another set of twins there besides Bob and Dick Burch.  The Toomey brothers moved away soon after I joined.  Billy Toomey, however (no doubt bent on showing those of us left behind what he could really do), went on to appear on a TIME magazine cover after winning “gold” in the Olympic decathlon event in 1968.

I’m sure he learned to swim at the CH and I remember him coming back to play against us on a rival team from Port Washington.  He had a great “set” shot.

The CH wasn’t only basketball of course.  There was swimming, boxing and wrestling, and baseball.  We were encouraged to learn the manly arts of self-defense.  Much emphasis was put on character building activities and endeavors.  Sportsmanship, honesty and fair play was stressed and sore losers and crybabies were looked down on.  “Flinching” was a big no-no.

Fairness in all things was de rigueur and we were introduced to self-government with the establishment of the democratically elected and operated seven-man Boy’s Club Council, the President of which was de facto President of the Boy’s Club.

Misbehavers were summoned to appear before the council where they would be confronted and could defend themselves.  Usually stern warnings sufficed as punishment.  The council had the authority to suspend which was a torturous punishment because we all loved the place and couldn’t wait to get there every day.

Although I did not know him, I remember hearing about the tragic death of Scott Kenny, one of our earliest members. He had been hit by a car in Station Square.  In his memory, the Scott Kenny Award was established.  It was to be given annually to the CH seventh or eighth grade boy who demonstrated the most “helpfulness to the CH” coupled with sportsmanship and leadership qualities.

“Sportsmanship” was explained to me by the big guys as a concept that included, but was not limited to; not arguing with the ref, not throwing the bat after a hit, and being a good loser.  “Courage” was not flinching or crying.  “Leadership” remained somewhat more undefinable…either you had it or you did not.

The Scott Kenny award always seemed to me to be given to the greatest guy out of a bunch of really great guys…Dick Birch, Stanley Peck, Brian Miscall, Webb Wade…those guys “had it” and were my heroes.

Tragedy struck the Boy’s Club again with the death of Bobby Birch.  In his memory, his family established the annual Robert Burch Memorial Award for the high school boy who demonstrated helpfulness to the CH and “high standards of scholarship.”  That was a fitting tribute to their son who had those qualities and more.

Early recipients: Ramsey Moran, Henry Hof, Frank Spitzer and Andy Montgomery were impeccable choices and along with the Scott Kenny Award winners were wonderful role models.  We younger kids really looked up to, and tried to emulate, those boys.

Institution of those awards was a stroke of genius by whoever conceived the idea as they promoted and rewarded decency and good behavior.  The curious thing about those awards was that nobody really went out to win them.  Not outwardly or consciously, anyway.  No one talked about it before the big announcement on Awards Day and I never heard anything in the way of second-guessing the selections.

Some years there must have been many excellent candidates and, I’d wager, numerous names came into consideration by the committees.  Often, there was a pleasant surprise on Awards Day.

There were some discipline problems and some unique solutions too.  The Council took care of serious stuff but there were some daily situations that called for immediate handling if “order” was to be maintained.

One of the earliest “coaches” was Lou Hause who was really more of a drill instructor.  After school we raced to the CH to quickly dress (black sneakers mandatory).  We had to be on the court, lined up in size places in front of him for “jumping Jacks”, first in a session of mindless calisthenics that could render one rubbery (to Lou’s glee) after a few minutes.

Latecomers were ordered to the front for a “whack”…Hause’s trademark disciplinary tool.

A “whack” consisted of the “whackee” bending over and grasping the fronts of his ankles and being smote on the behind by Coach Hause’s right hand  which was about the size and texture of the Flatiron Building.

The degree of the offense dictated the number of “whacks” and the three most terrifying words for me in those days were, “MCGANN! BEND OVER!”

The arrival of our new coach, Dan Buckley, in the early ‘50s was like a breath of fresh air for the Boy’s Club.

Immediately likable, “Mr. Buckley” as he was always addressed (some of the seniors later dared to call him, “Mr. B”) was a professional coach, and a “man’s man” kind of guy who would clearly take no guff.  I never saw him raise his hand, and rarely heard him raise his voice, yet he commanded absolute respect and obedience from all of us.  He was a definition of “leadership”.

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