Every school has what the alums regard as a Golden Age…
A period when students, faculty, and administration were working in unison to produce a good education for its graduates, with lasting memories and friendships as happy by-products of that era.
In speaking to Pembroke Hill grads, there’s surprising unanimity among them that the years 1955 to 1965 were a decade when the school – then known as Pembroke Country Day and still all-male – was enjoying such a time.
This is not to say that those who came before or after didn’t enjoy their experience there. It’s clear, though,that the disruptive and polarizing atmosphere of war and depression which marked other epochs was happily absent during that period. By 1965, when I started, Vietnam and the counter-culture were already on the horizon and the post-war consensus was beginning to fray.
I read an essay by the novelist Mark Helprin, in which he talks about his own time at a very similar prep school, where the curriculum was an equal mix of liberal arts and contact sports. His days there, during this exact same time frame, were given coherence and context because there was a “canon”- a widely accepted body of knowledge – that one at least aspired to master.
By the same token, at Pem-Day the curriculum had been fixed since time immemorial, with the grade cards unchanged from the 1920’s because the course offerings were the same. This added to the sense of tradition and continuity, as did many long time faculty members and the beautiful Georgian architecture of the buildings. (Now, sadly, all replaced!)The close bonds between those who went to school together in that era have been noted for some time by people outside that charmed circle. In 1982, the Kansas City Star ran a lengthy article, even by the generous standards of the paper 35 years ago, about the 25th reunion of the Pem-Day class of 1957 (“25 years later: Reunion recalls rebellious lost youth”, 6-16-82, K.C. Star)
The article talks about how there was a group of friends centered on that class, but with members from other schools in the area—Southwest, Shawnee Mission (“there was only one then”, the Star explained), Sunset Hill and Barstow. Known as the Bohos (for “Bohemian Hobos”), the group was thought of as wildly anarchic at the time but their exploits seem laughably mild by latter day standards.
Michael Lynch, Shawnee Mission ’56, was a charter member of this set and recounted the famous Southside Bust of 1958, where several members were arrested for the heinous crime of drinking beer in Loose Park. Lynch recalled how the police van drove them past Milton’s Tap Room, the Boho’s unofficial headquarters, on the way downtown to jail, and how they gave a big cheer as they passed.
Milton’s, the “Midtown haven of good jazz and cheap beer-“as the Star article succinctly described it- represented more than just a favorite young peoples’ hang-out. Jazz itself, with its complexity, had a more cerebral appeal than rock and roll, and thus largely defined this group. Count Basie and Charlie Parker were particular favorites.
Like so much else of the PCD ethos, this prevailing taste in music was unabashedly, proudly elitist.
As another leading member of the group, Jay Nichols, said in the 1982 Star article: “We were perceived as being extremely radical from the outside and a lot of parents of the other kids basically didn’t want their kids to have anything to do with us. . . . .It was all very tame, nice stuff from the inside. We’d drink a little beer, sit around and talk about sports cars and play a little chess. But somehow it came to be perceived by other people as being dangerous.”
Perhaps our elders’ concerns were not so much with the supposed rebellious spirit of the group but with the fact that it found its outlet in more subtle and thus more lasting and pernicious forms than the other teen age fads of that era.
Bobby socks, hot rods and rock and roll?
None of that simple minded, greasy kid-stuff for us! We were instead into “jazz, literature, strong drink and sports cars.” Ibid (The Jaguar XK 140 was a particular obsession.)
Juvenile delinquency? Rebels without a cause?
We were rebels with a cause: We didn’t want to defy The System, we wanted to game The System. We were less wise guys than wised-up guys, i.e. seeking discernment or understanding about how things actually worked.
Which is not to say that a certain amount of sarcastic or cynical attitude didn’t come out on occasion! As late as 1967 or 1968, all the other local high schools would have a student call into WHB, the local rock and roll station, with totally earnest reports on what was happening at their school, i.e. “Mary Smith was Homecoming Queen.” Or “We beat Ft. Osage for the State III A Title.”
By contrast, Pem-Day’s correspondent would always “sarc it up”, i.e. play it for irony by naming, for example, as “Student of the Week” someone who’d just had a run-in with the Head Master.
(I was so honored 50 years ago this week for putting out a right-wing underground paper. ‘Scurrilous journalism!” the chairman of the English Department, Joel Martin, Harvard ‘65, thundered!)
Instead of naming as our favorite hit song one of the bland, predictable Top 40 offerings played on WHB, the Pem-Day correspondent (Ray Goldsich ’68), would come up with an obscure R&B number-heard only on KPRS (the ‘Colored Peoples’ radio station as it then billed itself) and then only during the noon jazz hour, e.g. “Back at The Chicken Shack” by Jimmie Smith. Either that or some obviously tongue-in-check choice like Art Linkletter’s “A Letter to a Teenager”, a.k.a “We love you. Call collect.”
To give another example, the Southwest kids would play football on Ward Parkway in the median strip north of Meyer Circle.
The wetter and more miserable the weather the better, especially if they could pose for girls driving by as macho dudes covered with mud, having been tackled repeatedly.
We “daisies” (a.k.a. cake eaters), by contrast would wait patiently for the first nice day, then hold a croquet game on the same spot, followed by high tea, everyone decked out in white flannels and seersucker.
Naturally this led to some rude comments from burly young men in Camaros, questioning our sexual preference, but that only made it more rewarding.
(“Summer afternoon-summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. “Henry James)
While I’ll admit that all this may sound a little precious to outsiders, this sensibility-wry, sardonic, and self-deprecating-came as a revelation to newcomers to the school. That the privileged status that produced it had to be justified and earned was a realization that came later.
One person who recognized that cost was the late Robert D. Sutherland, Sr. my cousin. Bob was nine years older than I was but was always a role model for me growing up.
In love with cars at an early age, Bob (PCD ’61) in adulthood put together an incredible collection of vintage racing cars, in many cases scrounging the parts and rebuilding them from the ground up. He showed and raced these cars all over the United States and the world, making friends wherever he went. Although he’d moved to Colorado after college, he returned to Kansas City often and had a number of friends here, several of who are readers of this blog.
He is best remembered for organizing The Colorado Grand, a 1,000 mile road race for pre-1960 cars, held every fall on a route running through the most picturesque parts of the state. The money it raises goes to charities, including a fund for the widows and orphans of members of the Colorado Highway Patrol killed in the line of duty.
Bob supported other charities like Pieta House AIDS Hospice and the Hospice of St. John’s. After his death in 1999 from an aneurysm, his family created the Robert D. Sutherland Memorial Foundation to help people suffering from bi-polar disorder.
Another very interesting Pem-Day grad during this era was D. Brook Bartlett, U.S. District Court Judge for the Western District of Missouri. A former Assistant Missouri Attorney General, attorney in private practice, then federal judge, Bartlett’s entire adult life was dedicated to the law.
When I think of Judge Bartlett and his Kansas City Establishment background, I thought of the following passage from the Sinclair Lewis novel, Babbitt, written in 1926 after the author spent an extended stay in Kansas City studying and analyzing local society. He described the eponymous hero, George F. Babbitt, a middle class realtor, and his encounter with the old money banker William Eathorne, scion of a family dynasty in the fictional Zenith, Ohio:
“Out of the dozen contradictory Zeniths which together make up the true and complete Zenith, none is so powerful and enduring, yet none so unfamiliar to its citizens as the small, still, polite, cruel Zenith of the William Eathornes; and for that tiny hierarchy the other Zeniths unwittingly labor and insignificantly die.”
I would substitute the word “stern” for “cruel” in that last of attributes but otherwise I think that description applied to his background.
When Bartlett was at Pem-Day (he graduated in 1955), he served as judge of the Student Honor Court, and he presided at the trial of a fellow Pem-Day student charged with cruelty to animals. (The miscreant had killed a stray cat in a wanton way.)
After a full blown trial, with witnesses and a jury, the wrong doer was convicted and sentenced. The sentence imposed by the 17 year-old Bartlett, expulsion, was accepted and carried out by the school authorities.
Forty years later, Bartlett, by now a federal judge, presided over another trial, this time of his fellow Republican, Missouri Attorney General William Webster, for malfeasance in office.
At the time of sentencing, Judge Bartlett excoriated Webster. In an epic tongue lashing, Bartlett pointed out to the defendant all the advantages he had growing up as the son of a powerful GOP state senator, Richard Webster of Carthage.Judge Bartlett rejected the sentencing recommendation of the prosecutor and imposed a harsher sentence on the hapless Webster.
The fact that Webster had probably done nothing that hadn’t been done since time immemorial by his predecessors in the A.G.’s office didn’t matter in the least to Brook Bartlett. Webster should have known better, Bartlett reasoned, and thus Webster had to pay a higher price for his wrong doing. (I’ve talked to law partners of Bartlett’s when he was in private practice and they tell me he was unyielding when it came to matters of principle. One told him, in exasperation: “You’re damn lucky to be worth $20 million dollars! Nobody else could afford to be so stubborn!”)
The force of Brook Bartlett’s personality lasted to the end of his career, when he died from a lingering illness at sixty-two.
He stayed on the bench to the very end, stoically doing his job, carrying out his duty to the community which had honored him by making him a federal judge. I’d like to think that this commitment to doing the honorable thing, no matter the price, was another thing we all learned at Pembroke.
Of course, most grads from that era did not live such high profile lives, which is not to say that a quieter, less public trajectory wasn’t just as rewarding and probably preferred by most.
Steve Pack, Pembroke Country Day Class of 1960, is living proof of the old adage: “Living Well Is the Best Revenge.” Steve’s father, the late Louis Pack, started the family salvage business after World War II.
The local powers that be promised Mr. Pack that he would have no labor problems but that he would have to deal exclusively with the Teamsters. He got the hint and the business took off three generations ago and has thrived under father and son’s management ever since. Currently functioning as a manufacturer, Steve’s Allied Materials & Equipment Co. makes a kaleidoscopic variety of products, shifting from one product to another in a response to changing consumer and government demands. (Dealing with the vagaries of the federal government contracting requirements has been an essential part of the Pack family business since WWII.)
Besides his success in a variety of different business ventures, Steve has contributed tremendously to our community as a philanthropist and been a pillar of his Jewish faith.
In his days as a “Boho”, Steve was known for the beautiful women he dated, who people still talk about. He’s been married for years to the gorgeous (and funny!) Karen and has three great adult children. Finally, Steve may be the luckiest of the three Pem-Day grads of his era I’ve profiled because he alone has reached the biblical three score and ten.
I know I’ve talked about the school’s style and attitude. Maybe it’s time to bring it back to how it performed its stated function, i.e. as a “college preparatory school for boys.”
The essential mission was to prepare young men to get admitted to and to succeed at colleges and universities all over the country. Bob Sutherland graduated from Yale. Brook Bartlett went to Princeton and Stanford Law; Steve Pack got his degree from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania.
However, maybe the more important task was to build character. As our head master Calvin W. Atwood said, “Be yourself, but be your best self!” Or as a character in Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, put it: “I don’t quite know what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me, yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fiber of my being that in this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is the victory. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best as he can. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”