Riceman

by

11/08/2002

74 West 124th Street ny 10027

Neighborhood: Harlem

When you walked through the door that first time in September, you became a Riceman …always a Riceman … never a boy, kid, lad, young guy … just a Riceman.

Founded in 1938, and in 1940 relocated to a six story red brick building on the corner of what was Lenox Avenue and 124th Street, it was, and is, an Irish Christian Brothers school, the only all-boys Catholic high school in Harlem. (It is named after Edmund Rice, who founded the Order in Ireland in 1806.)

In 1952, my freshman year, it had a student population of about 850 Ricemen. There were twenty-six teachers, 18 of them Irish Christian Brothers, the balance male teachers.

I made it into Rice for two reasons, both related to my brother Karl. Thirteen months older than me, Karl was already a Riceman, and one with a good reputation. (A preceding brother’s reputation was important.) The second reason was that there was a descending scale on tuition and while Karl’s tuition was a substantial $11 a month (ten months a year), mine was $9. Back in 1952, that was a lot of money for our immigrant parents, but they were determined that we would continue our Roman Catholic education … and in the process become men … Ricemen.

It was a crowded and active building. The Brothers lived on the third floor; there was a gym on the top floor and a swimming pool in basement. Stuffed in between were classrooms, a lunchroom and a chapel. It was like a beehive: busy, active and purposeful. The mascot was a pirate and the teams called Rice Raiders. The school motto was Sequere Christum: Follow Christ.

Classes were large; 170 of us graduated in 1956. Discipline was swift, often physical; and once meted out, forgotten. Detentions were memorable but of short duration. The Brothers were tough, fair-minded and demanding of respect for themselves, for fellow Ricemen, for the community. You always knew your standing.

The Irish Christian Brothers were the heart and soul and muscle of the school. They were always there and always available. If not teaching, they were coaching, guiding, building, repairing, counseling, encouraging. They were generally chalk covered and wore habits more often than not, clean but frayed and very lived in.

And the education was continuous. Latin was important and so was drafting and mechanical drawing. English and History and math and all subjects, it seemed each one was taught by a zealot who felt his subject was the most important thing you’d ever learn.

Sports were also an important part of Ricemen’s lives. It extended the school day and strengthened the school ties. There were just three sports each focused on speed, efficient use of cramped space and minimal equipment. All that was needed were basketballs relay batons, swimming trunks, t-shirts, jock straps, shorts, sweat socks and sneakers.

Everyone played basketball. If you weren’t on the freshman team, or the Junior Varsity or the Varsity, you played intramural basketball. The sound of dribbling in the gym competed year round with street noise and in the winter, the banging of the steam radiators.

There was also swimming and track and field, with a strong focus on cross-country.

Hobbies and clubs were limited, but there was a great focus on the verbal and written arts. Debate, Oratory, Yearbook and Newsletters, probably a reflection of the Irish love for the language.

One morning in my sophomore year (age 13), I entered the school as all of us always did through a side door. (I am not certain if the school even had a front door. For sure, Ricemen didn’t use it.) It was the first Friday of the month of October and the day that tuition was to be paid. From under the stairwell, an older, taller than me, out of uniform kid, obviously not a Riceman, emerged and with a switchblade in hand demanded my money. As soon as I got over my shock, I gave him the 50 cents of spending money in my jacket pocket … certainly not my tuition money in my pants’ pocket. I knew that if I lost that money, my Mother would have harmed me even more. He took the money and bolted out the door. And I ran up to the third floor to the principal’s office. Brother Wright saw how shaken I was and asked me if I could identify the culprit. I told him I could. He went into his desk drawer took a sap (blackjack) out of it, slipped it into the pocket of his habit and said, “Let’s see what kind of a day it is in the neighborhood.” We spent an hour walking the streets, looking at folks and not finding the perp. When we came back, Brother Wright insisted on giving me the 50 cents and told me to forget about it. I gladly did.

My particular weakness was talking, talking out of turn or ad libing and then getting caught at it. My punishment was frequent and involved lots of quiet time spent doing chores or some form of solitary stuff. I spent time, quite a bit of time paying off my detentions painting basement pipes and hallways and on Saturday, doing kitchen duty, cleaning dishes and helping with lunch. (I didn’t realize it then, but it too was part of my education.)

I dreaded the parents’ conferences, which always involved only my Mom (unfortunately the family disciplinarian), since my father worked at night. I was always worried one of the Brothers would tell the truth and then I knew the punishment at home would be even more severe. Mom always asked every teacher, “How is he really doing?” and “Why does he spend so much time in school.” And the answer invariably would be, “He’s doing well… he just needs a bit more time with us.” What a relief.

My graduation was in 1956. It was in the Hunter College auditorium, a big day for all of us. (Totaled together my parents probably had about six years of formal education.) As the graduates were getting ready to process into the auditorium, Brother Wright pulled me out of line, put his arm around my shoulders and told me “You are going to receive the school’s General Excellence Medal tonight. Not necessarily for being the brightest (I wasn’t), or the most athletic (I wasn’t), but for being the most determined.” I think that for a number of following months, my folks thought it had been awarded to me by mistake.

In the late 70s I was working with a fellow with a photographic memory. One of the things he would ask his colleagues was, “Who is the most famous graduate of your high school”? I suspected that it would be a basketball player or a track and field star. Since I didn’t know, I called Rice late one afternoon and a Christian Brother answered. I identified myself and asked the question. Brother Synan immediately replied, “I remember you. You took more books out of the library than any other Riceman, then or now.” But he hastened to add to my relief that in his opinion, the most famous graduate of Rice was Dean “the Dream” Meminger.

Dean was a Riceman who became a first round draft pick of the NY Knicks in 1971 and played with all-time greats such as Willis Reed and Bill Bradley, among others. He went on to become one of the pioneers of the Women’s Professional Basketball League in the late 70s and early 80s and among other roles, coached the professional women’s New York Stars in 1979 and 1980. Brother Synan went on at length about Dean’s leadership efforts in elevating the status of women’s college and professional basketball.

In 1989, Rice celebrated its’ fiftieth anniversary as a high school. As part of a year long celebration, one of the Brothers organized the entire student body into a gospel choir. And on a Saturday evening in the spring, 4,000 people packed St. Patrick’s cathedral for a celebratory Mass. It was riveting … More than 400 male voices singing sacred song and a congregation that rocked the church. I was fortunate to have directly participated by doing one of the Scripture readings. Quite a pulpit for a Riceman.

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