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The pandemic drums are beating again.

As I type this (just after Thanksgiving), I’ve been seeing more and more media reports of increased concern about Asian flu. (Exhibit A: The staid New York Times, on Nov. 17, reporting “Bird Flu is Spreading in Asia, Experts (Quietly) Warn.“)

Last time a pandemic threatened the world, which would have been around 2009 or so, my place of employment prepared a mammoth contingency plan. My copy’s been sitting in a file cabinet ever since; I guess I oughta dust it off and see what it says. (It will also be good to have handy so I can throw it at the first person who exclaims, “We need to make a contingency plan!”)

Anyhow, we had a pandemic almost 50 years ago, right around this time of year. So we’ll pack up our tea and tissues and head there this week.

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The Cazenovia, N.Y., Republican goes for the seasonal spin, December 25, 1968. Front page made available by nyhistoricnewspapers.org.

According to Wikipedia, the Hong Kong flu of 1968-9 began causing trouble in the Far East in July 1968. It came to America in September — brought home by returning Vietnam War veterans — but did not spread widely until December, when it became front-page news.

An archived U.S. government site says the Hong Kong flu killed about 34,000 people in the U.S. between September 1968 and March 1969. For context, that’s 10 times higher than the U.S. death toll from the 2009 flu pandemic, but only about half as many deaths as the 1957 Asian flu pandemic.

(Of course, all of these events are dwarfed by the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, which killed 500,000 to 675,000 people in the U.S., including one or two of my great-grandparents and doubtless others on the family tree.)

For most people who got it, the Hong Kong flu produced three or four days of discomfort, with high fever, chest tightness, general body aches and fatigue.

In most places, the flu affected society in relatively small ways. The Cazenovia news article shown above (that’s in the Syracuse area, by the way) noted that school absenteeism had risen to 17 percent, and holiday mail in town had seen minor delays because eight Post Office employees had been off work at the same time.

Other areas seem to have sounded the alarm more loudly. The Massena, N.Y., Observer of Dec. 19, 1968 (that’s in the far northern part of the state, on the Canadian border), quoted the American Red Cross as calling it “a disaster situation.”

Officials in New York City estimated one in every 16 New Yorkers had had the flu in the prior two weeks, with 300,000 of them currently at “the most critical stage” of the illness. School absentee rates of 30 percent were reported in the Pittsburgh area.

(Perhaps the highest-profile flu victim: Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was resting in Phoenix. Reports of flu are also frequent in sports reports from late 1968 — victims included Bill Russell, Dave Bing, and 20 members of the Minnesota Vikings — though it’s not specific whether these were cases of Hong Kong flu or just regular ol’ grippe.)

People over 65 were at the highest risk of dying from the disease. No surprise, then, that my 82-year-old great-grandmother was the first one at 1107 Hope Street to get a Hong Kong flu shot. (Everyone had already gotten regular flu shots in early November.)

She took the pencil into her own hand to document it:

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December 13, 1968.

Although some news reports at the time said flu vaccine was reserved for the elderly, my grandparents (in their mid-50s) and my aunt (college-age) also managed to arrange Hong Kong flu shots that holiday season.

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December 16, 1968. My grandma, Corine…

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December 17, 1968. My grandpa, Bill (a.k.a. WHB) …

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December 23, 1968. And my aunt, Elaine.

The stuff must have worked, as my grandpa’s calendars through March 1969 give no indication of anyone being sick.

Will we do so well again this year, or in the year to come? We can hope, anyway.

If not, I’ve got this big contingency plan I can read while I’m flat on my back…

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As you might remember from my town report post, I’m kind of a municipal-minutes geek.

Show me the official record of some local government board going about its business, and I’m fairly likely to read through it, looking for curiosities, flashes of human personality, and bits of street-level history. They’re always there.

(They’re discussing the town’s first hotel? That’s interesting. There was a problem with people getting hit by cars at that intersection in 1967? Hm, never knew. Jerome from Ward 7 and Pam from Ward 12 disagree often and at length? Every good board has its pair of chronic opponents.)

So, it pleased me to discover that the Stamford, Connecticut, Board of Representatives keeps an extensive online history of its meeting minutes and resolutions — going all the way back to the formation of the board in 1949.

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November 18, 1974. The voting machine appears to be in good working order.

I’ve repeatedly bemoaned the fact that the city’s newspaper, the Stamford Advocate, doesn’t seem to have much of an online archive. But the city’s government seems to have gone in the opposite direction, making historic records available in remarkable profusion.

I’d rather read old newspapers than old government minutes, because government minutes don’t have sports scores or ads for long-gone brands of beer.

And, newspapers are a better community record in terms of capturing lots of people’s names and deeds. The people who appear in government minutes tend to be the people around the table, plus city department heads.

(I find no record, and know of no indication, that my grandpa and his family ever went to one of these meetings. For one thing, many of them started around the public-unfriendly hour of 9 p.m. For another, at least some of them were broadcast on Stamford’s radio station, WSTC — and you better believe I’d listen to one of those old broadcasts if I discovered it online.)

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July 1, 1974. They met until 2 a.m.! I wonder if WSTC signed off at 1 a.m. as a matter of routine, or if the guy running the board just took off his earphones at that point and said, “The hell with this. They don’t pay me enough.”

Still, a look through the municipal minutes of the ’60s and ’70s — the period captured by my grandpa’s remaining calendars — brings up all kinds of places and topics my grandpa would have known well, and even one or two that I knew well:

– Resolution No. 803, of Feb. 7, 1972, changed the name of Springdale Park to Michael J. Drotar Park. This was a park with a Little League field, a short walk from my grandparents’ home. When the four walls of 1107 Hope Street got too constricting and Little Kurt needed to go run around someplace, he would sometimes go to Michael J. Drotar Park and bat some Wiffle balls around.

– A bunch of minutes from the late ’60s refer to the construction of a “THIRD HIGH SCHOOL.” This became Westhill High, where my grandpa saw Count Basie perform, and where a bunch of high-school track runners saw my brother perform (he disagrees with my recollection, but I still insist that’s how it went down.)

– I found a bunch of references to sewer projects, also; I didn’t look long enough to find the one that finally got 1107 Hope St. off its old cesspool, but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.

– The city-operated Cove Island Park, where my grandpa took a lovely picture one humid afternoon in 1975, shows up in several sets of minutes, usually so the board can approve the cost of capital improvements there.

– Same deal with the schools my father attended. In June 1973, the board voted to apply for a grant to build classrooms and a multimedia center at Springdale School. In July 1974, they did the same for a project to modernize the auditorium at Stamford High School.

If you’ve ever been back to a school you attended and been astonished at how little of it looks familiar … well, these projects would have had that effect on my dad, if he’d had occasion to revisit his old schools. (I don’t think he has.)

– The board welcomed teenage pages at different points, one of them being future Stamford mayor Dannel Malloy. Malloy is one of several political names from the Board of Representatives minutes who also show up in past editions of Hope Street. (Others include former Mayors Julius Wilensky, Frederick Lenz, Louis Clapes and Thom Serrani.)

And then there’s the randomness, the weirdness, and the signs of the times:

– A resolution of March 7, 1966, inviting the New York Stock Exchange to move to Stamford.

– A brief squabble on Dec. 4, 1972, regarding a still-unpaid bill for improvements made to the Stamford Italian Center in advance of President Nixon’s visit there more than two years before.

– A resolution of April 4, 1973, supporting a meat boycott planned for the following week. (That got mentioned in a long-ago Hope Street post as well.)

– The official creation of a Stamford Bicentennial Committee at the meeting of Sept. 10, 1973.

Also from that same meeting, one example of the intermittent disagreements and outright hissy-fits you’ll find in these minutes. 7th District representative Armen Guroian is the man of the hour here, but if you’ve ever been to these kinds of meetings you’ve heard this speech or something close to it:

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– A resolution of Jan. 6, 1975, calling on the FCC to hold hearings over radio station WNCN’s move from 24-hour classical music to rock and pop. (According to Wikipedia, the switch was indeed short-lived, lasting only about a year. More info from an independent source is here.)

– A resolution of May 3, 1976, supporting human rights in the U.S.S.R. and petitioning Leonid Brezhnev to end persecution of Jews and other groups.

This led to an excellent exchange between two board members that December, after the board passed a resolution calling on the city Finance Department to create a pension-related trust fund:

MR. MILLER:  The Chair would simply observe the Chair doesn’t know whether any of these people have any obligation to do this because the Board has passed this resolution.

MR. SHERER: Brezhnev didn’t have the obligation to follow us either.

A little dry, perhaps … but we municipal-meeting junkies take our laffs where we find them.

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On November 30, 1964, “the most notorious liar in the country” came to speak at Stamford High School, and my aunt was among 2,000 to 2,500 people who came out to hear him.

From the sound of it, she found him pretty believable, and still does.

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November 30, 1964. The Yankees take outfielder Leon “Duke” Carmel from the Mets in the Rule 5 draft, the first direct transaction between the two teams.

There’s not much I need to say to introduce you to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (The “most notorious liar” smear was issued not long before this date by J. Edgar Hoover, who needs no introduction either.)

Instead, I’ll set the scene by noting where King was on Nov. 30, 1964.

At 35, he’d just become the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and was scheduled to go to Stockholm in about two weeks to formally receive it. (A film clip of his Nobel acceptance speech can be seen here, for anyone wanting an idea of what King looked and sounded like around the time he came to Stamford.)

In December 1964, King also began to join civil rights protestors in Selma, Alabama, culminating in the famous marches of March 1965.

Still in the future were King’s involvement in housing-related protests in Chicago; his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War; and his support for striking black public works employees in Memphis, which immediately preceded his assassination in April 1968.

As of late November 1964, King was also the author of four books, with his most recent, Why We Can’t Wait, being published in July of that year.

And — in an honor that was most certainly noticed at 1107 Hope St. — King had begun 1964 by being named Time magazine’s Man of the Year.

Two excellent retrospective stories by the Stamford Advocate fill in some of the specific historical blanks from Nov. 30, 1964.

King’s Stamford appearance was arranged by religious groups as a fundraiser for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. When the high school auditorium filled with people, an overflow area was set up in the gym.

Before the event, King held a press conference at the city’s Jewish Center. This is the most likely source of a brief United Press International piece that ran on page 44 of the New York Times the following day, indicating that King intended to ask for a meeting with Hoover to discuss their disagreements. (Hoover had called King a liar after King claimed that FBI agents did not intervene on behalf of Southern civil rights demonstrators because the agents were themselves Southerners.)

A bomb threat was called in before the speech, and protesters standing in frigid temperatures outside the school branded King a Communist. But neither one stopped the event.

King’s speech was filmed by John Maher, a high school student from nearby Darien. Unfortunately, while copies of the film were circulated in Darien schools and also offered to King, no copy is known to survive.

The Advocate’s retrospective story does not capture King’s speech extensively either — simply indicating that he spoke on topics of civil rights, inequality and segregation.

“There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society where a segment of that society feels they have no stake in that society,” King is quoted as saying. “I am firmly convinced that if democracy is to live, then segregation must die.”

My aunt does not remember much in the way of specific phrases. But her other memories are still strong. So we’ll let her tell the story for a while:

Yes, I remember seeing Martin Luther King Jr.! It is one of those memories that is seared into one’s mind. I went with our MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship). I think I had seen a poster that MLK was going to speak at Stamford High School. Because I was interested in Civil Rights, as was our Minister, the info was passed on to the MYF. A small group of us decided to attend.

What a life changing event! I have heard others say that MLK spoke in poetry, and he really did! I quickly started scrawling down some of his poetic speech on the program I had of the event there. Somewhere in my closet, I still have the program.

Anyway, he spoke in a booming voice and looked 10 feet tall, so when he walked out in the aisle by me, I was surprised to see that he was actually shorter than I had thought.

Anyway, back to the stage upon which he stood to speak: he was surrounded by a close circle of black men in hats with arms folded. I wondered why this was, and later realized they were there to protect him. I believe one of those young thin men was Jesse Jackson.

(Editor’s note: Most online sources suggest that the not-yet-Rev. Jesse entered King’s orbit around the time of the Selma protests. If Jackson was in Stamford with King, that would have been at the very start of their connection. My aunt also remembers King leading the Stamford audience in a chant of “I Am Somebody,” a phrase that later became associated with Jackson but was used in multiple speeches by King.)

MLK was a minister, so there was a collection of the sort that is taken in church. I gave all of the money I had on me (probably not much) because I was so inspired. (Me again: A pile of collection baskets is visible in the photo that accompanies the Advocate story about King’s speech being filmed.)

Most of the audience was black, so our small mostly white MYF group was a minority–something that was new to me at the time, and the black people only looked at us curiously for a short minute.

I believe this experience helped to shape my career. I attended Southern Connecticut State College because they had a program in education for urban youth, and I student taught in the New Haven inner-city schools. I was student teaching at one of those schools when MLK was assassinated. Everyone was devastated. We all were instructed to go home that day, because the situation could become dangerous. After that time, the tone of the inner city neighborhoods changed from hopeful to angry. However, I did go on to get my MSSS (Masters Degree in the Science of Social Service) from Boston University.

At the time I made the decision to attend the MLK event, I had no idea that he would become so famous, or have such influence on myself and the world!

 

 

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Once again I find myself writing about a name you only read in obituaries nowadays.

(It’s a lonely business, like clearing the leaves off a grave, but not without its pleasures all the same.)

This week we ring the bells of memory and follow my grandpa into a once-proud community institution that was already dying when he went to visit:

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December 16, 1969.

I’ve written about department stores before, almost three years ago, so I won’t unleash the full torrent of my crap on you again. (My views have not changed.)

Suffice it to say that C.O. Miller’s was another in America’s seemingly endless roster of once-beloved downtown department stores.

Founded by Charles O. Miller in 1868, it moved through several downtown locations before settling into a bent-wedge-shaped brick building at 15 Bank Street in 1933.

(This photo spread of C.O. Miller’s posted by the Stamford Historical Society provides an interesting glimpse inside what an American department store looked like in 1917, as well as a look at Mr. Miller himself.)

Stamfordites of a certain age remember the store fondly … the walking outside on crisp winter days; the dignified absence of breathless Black Friday geekery; the white-gloved elevator attendants.

People of other ages — like, my age and younger — don’t remember it at all, because the ’60s was the last full decade C.O. Miller’s would survive. It closed in 1973 or ’74 (sources differ), and had been a discount-store shell of its former self under out-of-town owners for a period of time before that.

Although some urban renewal took place in the general vicinity of 15 Bank Street, the distinctively shaped C.O. Miller’s building is still there — a short distance from Mill River Park, former home of the previously explored Pink Tent Festival.

(It’s also a few blocks away from 307 Atlantic St., which I’ve just discovered is where The Jerry Springer Show tapes its episodes. Whaddya know.)

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Mmmmm, falafel. (Yeah, I snagged this from Google Maps. The former C.O. Miller’s building is at left center. I believe there was a nearby warehouse where the giant parking garage is now.)

I couldn’t guess at this juncture what walking cap, scarf, bottle of perfume, or pair of gloves brought my grandpa to C.O. Miller’s. No doubt the store was bedecked in Christmas abundance, or as much as it could muster at that point in its history.

He went shopping in the afternoon, just a few days before the shortest day of the year. Perhaps the sunshine was feeble and the air chilly on Bank and Main streets when he exited with his purchase, whatever it was.

Perhaps he looked around and thought, “I’m not coming back here.” And then, like so many others, he didn’t.

These are the sorts of small decisions, repeated thousands of times over, that turn one-time community pillars into names you only read in obituaries.

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You learn some interesting things writing a blog like this.

Things like this: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — a classic engineering school, and mostly not thought of as an athletic powerhouse — has been fielding football teams (not quite continuously) since 1886.

This week we hearken back, through my grandpa’s hand, and revisit a rare and noteworthy highlight from a particularly difficult stretch for the school’s football program.

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October 23, 1965. Future Mets pitcher Al Leiter is born in Toms River, N.J.

A Homecoming win is always a nice thing, if you’re into high school or college football.

(My high school was more likely to be a patsy than a victor in Homecoming games; we were the sort of school other teams wanted to play on their Homecomings. The one time in high school that we won our Homecoming game, the other school went out of business at the end of the year.)

Anyway, RPI’s victory over Middlebury College on Oct. 23, 1965, must have sent the Homecoming crowd in Troy home happy.

But, looking at the records, this one meant a lot more than your average win: Going into the game, the Engineers hadn’t won a football game in more than six years. Most of them hadn’t been tremendously close, either.

Following a 21-0 win over Union on Oct. 17, 1959, the RPI gridders lost their last four games of 1959 (scoring a combined two points); all eight games in 1960; all seven apiece in ’61 and ’62; all six in ’63; six in ’64; and four more to start the 1965 season.

(In football-speak, they did manage to kiss their sister at one point, earning a single 20-20 tie against Nichols on Oct. 10, 1964.)

The nadir of this stretch had to have been an 82-6 pasting by Vermont — at home in Troy — on Sept. 29, 1962. For comparison’s sake, the RPI squad only managed to put 76 points on the board in the 1961, 1962 and 1963 seasons combined.

So after the final whistle sounded on Oct. 23, 1965, there must have been some serious celebrations in the dorms, frat houses and beer cellars of Troy.

The student paper, The Polytechnic, got in on the act a few days later with an above-the-fold tease and five pages of coverage:

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The Engineers wouldn’t win another game in 1965, but would post records of 5-4 and 4-4 in 1966 and 1967 — positively Lombardian by RPI standards.

(Rejiggering the schedule had something to do with it. Haverford College, a team that hadn’t been on RPI’s schedule during the down years, conveniently showed up in time to get walloped 57-0 in 1966 and 61-14 in 1967. A lot of events in 1966-67 made people think the world was turning upside down; RPI football winning a game 57-0 must have been one of them.)

The one remaining question, for Hope Street purposes, is whether my grandpa or my dad actually happened to be there for the big day.

The answer appears to be no. My dad only attended a few RPI football games over the years, and those because membership in school organizations required him to. He was not in the house for RPI’s only win of his five-year tenure:

I did not see the game, but I know it was a great excuse to party that night, although no excuses ever seemed necessary.

My grandpa’s calendar doesn’t record any trip to and from Troy that weekend. And if my dad wasn’t at the game, my grandpa surely wouldn’t have gone either.

So the calendar entry for Oct. 23, 1965, is simply a reflection of my grandpa’s amazement at a noteworthy and long-awaited event.

Would wonders never cease?

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