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Chapter 4. Cleveland, 1972

1972 was a big year for news, not least because on Oct 16 Cleveland Mayor Ralph J. Perk set his hair alight with a blowtorch at a metals convention in the city, and in December his wife turned down an invitation from First Lady Pat Nixon to attend a White House dinner ‘because it was her bowling night.’ Both items made international news.

No, really, the main news was at national and international level: the start of Watergate. Nixon going to China, coining a phrase that came to mean ‘Anything can happen in politics’ (which it did later that year when he was re-elected). The last US ground troops left Vietnam although Hanoi and Haiphong continued to be bombed; and eleven Israeli athletes were killed by Arab gunmen at the Munich Olympics, the first major international act of terrorism against a purely civilian target.

Back home in Britain there was Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday in the war with the IRA, and national strikes that prompted a national state of emergency. Unemployment reached over a million for the first time since the 1930s. It was not the sort of place we wanted to go back to even though I had told my dear, sainted mother two years earlier: ‘We’ll be back in two years!”

But we’ve sort of settled in. They say the basic reason for three-year assignments in western cultures is that the first year tends to be new and exciting, the second year brings out more cranky “Why do they do it this way?” questions, and the third year you, your family and your boss decide if you’re going to stay or move on.

We are definitely staying.

Anna and I are loving it here. Its early March, 1972, and we’ve just come back from a week’s vacation to Montreal, Toronto, Niagara and upper New York State, where we’ve been snowmobiling and learning to ski cross country.

Memory Flash:  State College, Pennsylvania, late March, 1972

“We only came down for the beer! We only came down for the beerrr!” 

The old rugby song blasts out as we, the Cleveland Blues Rugby Club, alight from the hired bus at this huge university campus in central Pennsylvania (student pop. 100,000), 233 miles along the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Cleveland. 

It’s my second game with this club and my first visit to an American college where the students automatically expect me to either be a star English player who can show them some dazzling rugby moves, or be the last word on the game’s rules.

The club wanted me to be their referee when I first arrived for practice in Cleveland Heights last year. But I’m so newly-returned to rugby union (last played at school eight years previously) that I’m not up to speed with rules. And not good enough either for the A team; just the B, thank you, along with all the fat, slow and ignorant buggers huffing and puffing up and down the field for 80 minutes. (I’ve been distance running for a while now, but I’m neither fast nor strong, so I’m not complaining).

These State College guys, however, are very fit and rarin’ to go on their home field. Their enthusiasm for the game is quite remarkable, if tempered with the quaint notion that rugby is ‘quite like’ American football, in which they have failed to make the first, second or third college teams.

“Quite like” to the point of psychologically needing a huddle in which Quarterback codes can be called. But where to call codes in rugby, which is a free-flowing game of passing a slightly-larger oval ball sideways or backwards? Umm… er.   Not the scrum, where eight players bend down and push against an opposite eight as the ball comes into the hookers in the middle (“Hookers! Yeah! Told you this is a great game!” say the ‘experienced’ student players to the inexperienced).

Personally, I prefer lock – No. 8, where I’m last into the scrum and first out, hopefully controlling the ball before releasing it to the backs.     

The lineout for codes?  Where else?  As the forwards line up next to each facing the sideline, the calls can be clearly heard: “THREE! FIFTEEN!  ORANGE!  NINETY-FOUR!”     I wait to hear ‘Hut!  Hut!  Hut!’  but in vain.

It’s in those wonderful showers and in the bar afterwards where I make my unique contribution to the event: Swing Low. This is an old gospel tune, put to good (if anarchic and ultimately blasphemous) rugby use primarily at England national matches. “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” We all sing the first verse, straight, as it should be. Then it is repeated, this time with some very rude hand and arm movements matched to the words. The giggles turn to laughter as the singers try it for a second time.

Then comes the finale: the silent version: moving hands and arms to the tune in silence…… and collapsing to the floor in excruciating laughter.  

It helps to be almost four sheets to the wind to survive this. (I’ll let this Britishism speak for itself).

Thankfully, we have Peter Stroh, Cleveland son of one of America’s great brewers – and a rugger – for ensuring we have enough beer to get us home: tired, knocked about, but safe.  I forget who won the game. (Some character on The Press staff once posted a photo of me in a rugby scrum, inviting cutlines. One of the sub-editors submitted: “Whose nuts? Crushed Almonds).”  

The song that always reminds me of Cleveland rugby: Maggie May, by Rod Stewart, (released October 1971)

April, 1972: I’ve had a promotion. I am now the Press’ schools writer, replacing Marge Schuster, who has moved into management.

I’m not sure why they picked me, out of all these excellent reporters. I’m a foreigner who hasn’t had A MINUTE of education in ANY American school. My work desk is now next to that of Bud Weidenthal, colleges writer, who is a veteran of D-Day (18 months before I was born) and has been higher education writer at The Press since 1958, when he helped promote and create Cuyahoga Community College. A native Clevelander, Bud is considered the ‘dean’ of the national higher education writers.

So maybe I’m sort-of an opposite, an outsider looking in to what is a massive era of change for one of the biggest school districts in the country, with almost 150,000 students..

It may have helped that I already had experience of suburban schools and school boards. In January I had an exclusive story about the new Cleveland Heights-University Heights school superintendent as the page lead in the Suburbs section. It was the kind of intimate school leadership story the paper liked: a superintendent who applied for a higher-paying schools job in Florida less than two months after starting in Cleveland Heights. (It was an embarrassing left-over from his job-hunting two years earlier. Superintendent David Moberly withdrew his Florida application and stayed at Cleveland Heights).            

Yet it was the city’s Catholic schools which gave me my first front page splash, on April 20: “CATHOLIC SCHOOLS HEAD THREATENS FUNDS FIGHT,” said the headline, to the right of a story headlined: “Bombers Cloud Sky at An Loc,” where a Scripps -Howard writer was flying in a B-52 dropping bombs on North Vietnamese attacking South Vietnam. To the right of that was one about Vietnam protesters being arrested at an airbase near Dayton, Ohio.

Monsignor William Novicky, superintendent of Cleveland Catholic schools, said he would resort to civil disobedience if a federal court ruling banning state funding to non-public schools went ahead. “I will not stand idly by and witness the demise of Catholic schools through the attacks of insensitive courts,” he said at a mass at St John’s Cathedral, raising the possibility of marches on Washington and Columbus, withholding taxes, sit-ins at the federal court building.

Doom and gloom would go on like this for the next few years. It wasn’t the education of children I thought I would be writing about. It seemed I was walking into a world of failing school systems, lack of money, strikes and courtrooms. And violence.

The only light relief that April day was a picture of First Lady Pat Nixon looking at Ling Ling and Ting Hung, giant pandas newly-arrived at Washington’s national zoo, a gift from China.

The superintendent of Cleveland’s public schools was one Paul W. Briggs, or DOCTOR Paul Briggs as it quickly transpired he expected to be called. In that case, I told him in reply, I expect him to call me MISTER Almond. He had been head of the suburban Parma school system before being hired to lead the city’s schools in 1964 and had done a lot to steer government, state and local funding to rebuild and expand Cleveland’s deteriorating schools. From 1964 to 1978 he oversaw the construction of some 40 new or replacement schools across the city with the help of a $220 million public bond issue, added more than 100 libraries to elementary schools, was the first in the US to provide federally- funded breakfasts for poor children, opened vocational schools to minorities, and opened schools for the handicapped.

But I didn’t get along with him very well, despite his English name. He was tight-lipped and not very communicative with the media, or me anyway, even when I smiled nicely at him.

Nevertheless, he was cordial enough at the start. I wasn’t Marge Schuster and perhaps did my job a little differently, but there wasn’t time to get the measure of Cleveland schools before the long summer vacation started.

I spent a fair bit of that August driving around Cuyahoga County as the Press’ sometime ‘Bike Reporter’ filling almost-full pages about people who biked to work, new bike trails and especially about keeping kids (and adults) safe on the roads. By Aug 1 there had been 110 bike accidents in Cleveland, 39 in July alone, five of them serious. In Euclid bike accidents were up 20%; in Rocky River accidents doubled. It was the same story everywhere.

Photographer Herman Seid and I therefore got a lot of space in the middle of the paper. In one big story headlined: “Safety is neglected, bike accidents rise,” Herm and I used Robert Bush, ten-year-old son of a member of Cleveland’s Police Acccident investigation Unit, to demonstrate the five most common causes of accidents, each of which Herm photographed. First on the list of common causes was dashing into the road between parked cars without looking for approaching traffic.

Second on the list was: “RIDING TOO CLOSE TO THE CURB, the pedals striking the curb, causing the rider to lose his balance and fall into the path of an approaching vehicle.”

Writing this caused me a severe flashback to when I was about the same age as young Robert. I was 11 and walking to school across a busy rail bridge in Cambridge, England when another child cycling on the road next to me hit the curb with his bike pedal and wobbled. He put his other foot down just as a double-decker bus was slowly passing. The driver saw him fractionally in time and jammed on his brakes. But the front wheel of the bus not only went over the boy’s foot but stopped ON it.

I can still clearly remember the screaming and shouting to the driver: “Go forward!  Go forward!” from the gathering witnesses. But the driver was paralyzed by shock and couldn’t move. It seemed like minutes (but probably only seconds) before he did drive forward and released the poor boy’s foot as adults rushed to his aid. I did see the boy several months later, walking around on crutches, and heard he should recover well enough.

I’m told some Cleveland area schools saved my Press specials about bike safety, but I’m not sure what impact they had. They ran in the paper in the summer vacation when schools were out, so it was mostly the grown-ups who saw them. And how many parents were bike safety conscious when THEY were growing up – in the 1950s?

Memory Flash:  Cleveland, September, 1972

I’m in a VIP mini-bus, along with Superintendent Briggs and the entire Cleveland School Board. We’re spending much of the afternoon on this hot day visiting several newly-built schools and other educational facilities before they open for students.

I am being glowered at by several board members. At first I thought it was just because I am a reporter and they were not used to having reporters watch their every move. This bus trip was a post-vacation reunion of sorts for them, a light-hearted start to the new school year. 

And then somebody snidely asks if I’ve “paid for my bus ticket.” I laugh, but he does not. Neither do the others. I’m apparently not wanted on this bus trip, even though I was invited by Dr Briggs.  

Then I remember: “SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS TRAVEL FIRST CLASS,” the headline on my story in the Press two weeks earlier.  My lede said: ‘Less than a month after approving a ‘cut to the bone’ budget, four members of the Cleveland School Board were winging their way to San Francisco – first class at public expense.

“Board president Arnold Pinkney not only flew first class but stayed in a $45-a-night studio-room ($240 in 2022 prices) overlooking the bay at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel. His room was one of the hotel’s best.“

Etc etc.  I had worked through the board and top officials’ travel records, describing the expenses of all, including Supt Briggs.  Over the past year he had been reimbursed a total of $2,535 in visits to Washington DC, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland Ore, Atlantic City, Chicago, Fort Worth, Philadelphia, St Louis and Minneapolis.

The Press’ lead editorial two days later blasted the board for being profligate with their own expenses at the same time as ordering teachers and school supervisors to pay their own expenses if they wanted to attend professional meetings out of town.

“Cleveland taxpayers should expect their public officials to have smaller appetites. And simpler tastes in hotel rooms and airplane accommodations,” said the editorial.

In the bus that hot afternoon I don’t think anybody paid much attention to the new school facilities they had come to see. I certainly didn’t.  I was too busy defending myself from attack after attack about all the work the School Board puts in, and their need to see and talk to people around the country who are having as hard a time as they are. Briggs sat there quietly, taking it all in with a quiet smirk on his face.

 And spoke not a word.

At home on Lakeshore Blvd we at least had a TV escape moment, a weekly situational comedy that would keep us going for the next ten years: MASH, perhaps the most popular TV show in US history. Its first episode was released by CBS at 8pm, Sept 17, on a Sunday right after All in the Family.

The Mobile Army Surgical Hospital series was not the same as the movie of the same name two years earlier, but in my opinion, much better. It was bitter-sweet, a parade of quick-fire cynical gags, unmilitary doctors and nurses, a cast of appealing characters and a script that defied time and place. Nobody minded that it was set 20 years earlier in Korea because everyone knew it was really about Vietnam. At key moments in its ten-year run, when much-loved characters died, millions of Americans cried.

It is still regularly seen in reruns around the world.

Memory flash:  A tune: Suicide is Painless

The theme tune from MASH is a permanent key to the whole of our time in Cleveland. At least as an instrumental number. The lyrics may not be as well-known. The story is that Robert Altman, director of MASH the movie, wrote the song but struggled over the lyrics. He wanted something silly because MASH was black humor. Nothing he wrote seemed right in his 45-year-old brain.

So he asked his 14-year-old son, Michael, to have a go. Mike is much later quoted as saying he wrote it in five minutes while sitting on the toilet. His father, Robert, made $70,000 from it. Mike, the son, made over $1 million as co-writer.

Through early morning fog I see
Visions of the things to be
The pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see

That suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please.

A word here, too, for a movie released at the same time:  The Godfather, one of the best films ever made, IMHO, particularly as the first of a not-so-fictional series of an underground Italian-American culture I knew nothing about. But would, later.

Anna, by the way, had REAL gunshot wounds to take care of at Euclid General Hospital. She was one of four or five nurses who attended a Cleveland police officer who had been shot in the abdomen four times. He suffered grievously for a long time – as did his family and the nurses who cared for him. I know it was difficult for Anna. The officer was at Euclid General, including rehab, for almost a year.

1972 was a bad year for crime in Cleveland generally – and that included its schools, to the point that they were following some suburban systems in installing sound detection devices inside school buildings when they were closed at night, weekends and vacations. I spent some time with Sonitrol of Cleveland, Inc, a company that installed these systems, and learned it was a good news story, if a security system can really be called that.

“Cleveland school officials are particularly happy with it,” said Nov 20’s story. “For, according to a national survey, Cleveland schools in 1971 had one of the worst records in vandalism, larceny and arson of all the nation’s big cities. Of some 60 arrests made for these offences so far this year 50 are due to Sonitrol monitoring.”

Once the Sonitrol system is switched on, it seemed, any sound in the school is picked up by monitors installed in the building’s walls. Sitting at a remote-control panel an on-duty monitor could pick up the sound of breaking glass, the voices of intruders, squeaking of a door, or even its quiet unlocking. I notice I didn’t ask if the system picked up the sound or scurrying rats, but was told it did pick up a burst water main.

“In one instance three men had gone to the fourth floor of a building and removed three business machines which had been chained to the floor,” said Herman Imel of Sonitrol. “The monitor heard the bolts being removed and called police. They caught all three as they were moving to the fire escape.

“We know some thieves are aware of the system. They try to deceive it by taking off their shoes. But it doesn’t work. We’ve found ten pairs of shoes left at schools this last year.”

In hindsight I should have asked tougher questions about the cost effectiveness of this system, because Cleveland’s public schools were in increasing financial trouble.

Hold on!  What’s this story in my files? An actual GOOD story about education in Cleveland? Yes, Page One, Sept 4, 1972: “City’s third-graders among best in US in reading,” says the headline. “For perhaps the first time third-graders in Cleveland elementary schools can claim they are generally better at reading than their colleagues across the nation.

“Thanks largely to a concentrated drive to improve reading ability started three years ago Cleveland’s third graders have done considerably better than third graders last year..…..The results show that once again there are links between poor reading results, poverty and families moving around. But not nearly as much as might be expected.”

REALLY?  Do our readers not already know this?

Memory Flash,  Ohio Turnpike, Friday Dec 15, 1972

It’s nearly 8pm and I am still only just past Toledo on Interstate 90, heading east back to Cleveland. The snow is coming down heavier and it’s getting harder to see through the slowing windshield wipers. I can see cars and a few trucks are off the road in both directions. Past Sandusky fifty, sixty cars and trucks are stopped, some half buried in steep banks of drifting snow.

There are no vehicles moving on the freeway at all. Just me. No cops, No breakdown trucks. It’s scary. The ramps to the truck stops are blocked with snow. I have no communications and no idea when I’ll get home.  

This is my second business trip to Michigan for the Press. The first was in balmy September to Pontiac, where busing for racial desegregation had already started – to great opposition – but is where its Oakland schools were an economic model for Cleveland. This time I’ve driven the 180 miles to Detroit in order to get a sense of how the city school system is handling a much more severe financial crisis. A few days earlier it had filed suit in federal court asking to operate its schools for only 117 days this school year, instead of the usual 180, or to force the state of Michigan to supply the money to keep it going.

The state is demanding a balanced budget, and won’t pay. The fear is that as goes Detroit so will Cleveland. The big difference is that Detroit taxpayers have consistently turned down additional tax levies to pay for schools whereas Cleveland voters have stumped up the money. But Cleveland now has a ‘cut-to-the-bone’ budget, borrowing $8.5 million last year and another $5 million just this month. 

I’ve already had a chat with Briggs about this, and he says the situation is different in Cleveland. “We’ve come up with programs that prove to the voters the schools are doing a good, efficient job. I don’t think they have in Detroit. When we’ve really needed more money, either levies or bond issues, people have supported them here.”

Don’t get comfortable, Dr Briggs. If Detroit does get the state to pay up it would set a far-reaching precedent for the funding of all schools across the country. As he will soon find out, big changes are a-coming.

Meantime, I need to get out of this snowy nightmare. I’ve counted no fewer than 120 abandoned vehicles on the turnpike, and reach home about 11.30pm. It’s been a total of 13 hours driving since this morning to discover this was the snowiest day of 1972. Wish I’d checked the forecast before I started out.

Even so, why was I the only vehicle on the road coming back?  Because state troopers had closed I-90 at ALL entrances between Toledo and west Cleveland – AFTER I was already on it!

The year ended and I was suddenly an expert on British and American schools. At least one might think that according to what I was quoted in a Press ad as saying in a “Best Education writers are in this newspaper” full page promotion page for Bud Weidenthal and me.

“Ever since I first walked into an American school I’ve been asking why they do this or why they do that?” I am quoted as saying. “I’ve talked to Americans who just can’t contemplate change because they have never known any other way.”

“Almond has a lot of good things to say about American schools, from the good sports programs to the many new buildings to the variety of multi-media facilities. He says he is impressed with the ways American students are involved with community affairs and how they are led towards understanding what life is all about.

“It’s done in more depth than at British schools (I say). But while American schools are better at producing citizens I’m not particularly impressed with the quality of education at the academic level.” Almond thinks British schools tend to be too disciplined and that what’s needed is the right combination of British and American schools. “Maybe they’re both headed in that direction.”

Maybe it’s time for ME to get out of town.

Anna and I do just that.  We fly back to England for Christmas and New Year with our families for the first time in three years.


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From Across the Pond by Peter Almond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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