Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Short People

Instead of “hello,” I get, “You really are short,” as if I had lied in my memoir about being the schoolgirl in the first row, first seat, feet never touching the floor. Or maybe readers who meet me for the first time imagine the intervening years would’ve boosted me nearer their eye level. But age has been whittling me down, making my dream of average height always out of reach.

Today, at 4’9” (formerly 4’11”), I’m at peace with my stature, and even a bit haughty, thanks to the Short Persons Support website. It was there I discovered celebrity compatriots, as well as advantages. Are you aware my petite pals and I are less likely to break bones in falling or die in auto crashes, and that we live longer than tall people and even benefit the environment by taking up less water, energy, and space?

For a clear picture of where I stand compared to others, I’ve included some photos of me in the midst of friends and family. Also, I’ve adorned this post with a few well-known short persons. See if you can identify them -- or peek at the photo captions provided at the end.

In truth, I’ve never felt handicapped as a short woman. Yes, I do have to sit on a child’s booster seat to get my hair shampooed, and I have a hard time at the movies if someone longish fills the seat in front. And at the Jewel, I have to call on taller customers to pick Fiber One off the top shelf. But compared to other possible flaws, my lack of height is a yawn.

In fact my skimpy inches have been an advantage in one area: romance. I never had a problem attracting males, especially the short ones. In high school, any lad who had not attained full height by freshman year, sought me out. And in between my two marriages, when I was divorced and available, my height once more became a magnet, winning me all blind dates under 5’8”. “I’ve got the perfect guy for you,” a friend would say and I knew what she meant. And when I ran ads in the Chicago Reader noting my height along with my religion, love of dogs, jazz, and WBEZ, you can guess what pulled them in.

As I recall, there were merely two work-related incidents where my size caused me grief. The first was in 1980 when I was a press aide for Chicago Mayor, Jane M. Byrne. I was stationed at a ceremonial event -- some ribbon cutting or unveiling -- and along with distributing press kits I was to fend off the glut of reporters who typically pounced on the diminutive mayor the moment she stepped from her limo.

I took my usual stance: both arms extended out to my sides (like a lower case “t”) trying to hold back the crowd of reporters while opening a path auto to dais. But I was a hopeless as the kid with his finger in the dike: Nothing, especially this pint-sized press aide, could stop the rush. Television cameramen, photographers, reporters with their microphones thrust before them, easily pushed me aside and flooded the Mayor. Afterwards, back at City Hall, I overheard Her Honor tell Steve Crews, the press secretary at the time, “Don’t send Elaine to events anymore. She can’t handle it.” I didn’t blame the mayor; she was right.

It took 20 more years for my height to once again affect job performance. I had retired from my city post and public relations career and took a seasonal job at the Gap -- for a kick, for the discount. Denims there were stacked to the ceiling: classic, boot cut, wide leg. Size 2 all the way up to 14. Thousands of blue jeans piled one on top of another. If my customer was a tiny 2, no problem, but anything heftier, and I had to turn to another salesclerk or customer. “Could you please, would you mind?” I would gesture helplessly. And with a chuckle, they would comply.

Admittedly, my height, and lack thereof, has been a recurring theme in my life – sparked I’m certain by my beautiful mother’s concern about her only daughter’s chance at happiness considering a lack of inches from top to bottom and a few excess ones ‘round the middle. Here’s a small bit, skimmed from a chapter in "The Division Street Princess" that proves my point. While I am in the bedroom I share with my sleeping brother, Ronnie, I overhear this conversation taking place in the living room:

“I think we should take her to see someone.” It was my mother talking.
“You’re nuts,” Dad said.

“She’s the smallest girl in her class,” Mother said. “Maybe there’s something wrong that a doctor can fix.” From your lips to God’s ears I thought, repeating a Yiddish expression I had often heard my mother say.

“There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s perfect the way she is,” Dad said. His rebuttal didn’t surprise me for we were a family of shorties: Neither he nor my mother reached 5’5”, my 12-year-old brother Ronnie was short for his age; and I -- my father’s princess -- was the runt of the litter.

I lifted myself on my elbows the better to hear the rest of their conversation. Surprisingly, I was rooting for Mother. If a doctor could fix me up, give me a pill to make me taller, like the rest of my classmates, maybe then people would stop patting me on the head as if I was a pet. Whenever I saw a palm headed for my crown, I’d duck and steer the hand away. I wanted so much to be normal size, not this midget who gets lost in a crowd. Not this baby who has to sit on the Yellow Pages to reach the kitchen table. Not this dwarf perched at a classroom desk, feet never touching the floor.

I fell asleep before I knew who won the evening’s skirmish, but by morning I learned Mom was victorious. Yea! I thought to myself, the doctor will give me some magic pills and I will grow tall, slim, and beautiful.


“Well,” the doctor said to my mother as we sat in the examining room, “she is shorter than her age group, but her weight is just right. According to the intake sheet you filled out, I see that you, your husband, and your son are short people. It’s unlikely your daughter will grow much taller than either one of you. I don’t recommend hormone injections at this time.”

Mother turned to me, took my face in her two hands, kissed my forehead, and said to me loud enough for the departing physician to hear, “I knew you were perfect just the way you were.” I was happy to get her kiss and hear her sugary words. But in my heart I knew Mother’s efforts to transform her only daughter were far from over -- just temporarily stalled.”

Photo Captions

*School photo: First seat, first row, on the right. Feet in dark socks not reaching the floor.

*Edith Piaf, 4’8”

*Women and Children First Bookstore, May 25, 2006: Cousins Neil Shapiro and Renee Elkin on either end, my brother Ron on one side and my daughters Jill and Faith on the other. Note that my grandson is quickly catching up.

*Donna E. Shalala, 4’9”

*At the Teresa Roldan Apartments on Paseo Boricua, July 20, 2006: With Paul Roldan, Ald. Billy Ocasio, and Jose E. Lopez.

*Robert B. Reich, 4’10.5”

*Borders, Los Angeles, July 25, 2006: With Romie Angelich, Melanie Hutsell, and daughter Jill Soloway.

*Judy Garland, 4’11.5”

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Love In The Schools, 1983

In 1983, when I was communications director for Chicago Public Schools’ Superintendent Ruth Love, and when support for the schools sagged, I conceived the idea of a citywide alumni association that would involve local politicians, civic leaders, business executives, and everyday citizens who would inspire students, raise money for the schools, and improve the image of public education. Thus, the Chicago Public Schools Alumni Association (CPSAA) was born, lived briefly, then died.

I got to thinking about the CPSAA last week when stories of First Day of School dominated daily news. Also, my memoir, “The Division Street Princess” reveals the impact of Lafayette Grammar School; and this Saturday night, Sept. 16, my Roosevelt High School Class of ’56 will celebrate our 50-year reunion. So public schools have been top of mind.

When I hatched the CPSAA in 1983, the media, parents, and school reformers were bashing the system; but I had a different view. After all, my two daughters, Faith and Jill, were college-bound Lane Tech graduates; and in my CPS job, I saw many outstanding teachers and students.

I pitched my idea to pals – who were also products of public schools -- and they enthusiastically climbed aboard agreeing to be part of a steering committee. For her part, Supt. Love, recognizing a PR opportunity, as well as a potent group of allies, gave her blessing.

Despite Dr. Love’s support, I wanted the CPSAA to be independent of the School Board because I believe this would provide greater credibility. And I wanted membership to be citywide – an alumni association that didn’t differentiate between North-, South-, or West- side schools. In the end, I believe my two stubborn and na├»ve visions aided the organization’s downfall.

The CPSAA quickly grew from a steering committee to a prestigious 31-member Board of Directors headed by Richard Gray, Allen M. Turner, and Daniel Levin. Other prominent names included Judge Seymour Simon, Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, Judge David Cerda, Allison Davis, Leon Despres, Hedy Ratner, William Singer, Dori Wilson, and Joel Zemans. We also added a 43-member Advisory Board with equally stellar names, and a 17-member Honorary Board of Directors that led with Congressman Frank Annunzio, included Mayor Harold Washington, and ended with Congressman Sydney R. Yates.

Once established, we published a quarterly newsletter that included descriptions of exemplary schools and programs, interviews with education reporters like Linda Lenz and Casey Banas, and messages from school leadership; hosted luncheons to honor National Merit and National Achievement scholarship finalists; sponsored special events for alumni -- like the April 10, 1987 basketball match between DuSable and Roosevelt high schools’ champs of the 1950s; and explored ways to build membership and achieve goals.

But as the CPSAA grew, I began to sink. A year after launching the organization, I had left the school system for a PR job with Jasculca/Terman, a public affairs firm, and no longer had time or energy to handle tasks. (This was before speedy computers and Internet access could have eased the load.) So in 1987 the association hired Harriet O’Donnell to be its first salaried executive director. Under her leadership, and in offices generously donated by a board member, O’Donnell moved the CPSAA forward.

By now, Manford Byrd, Jr. had succeeded Ruth Love as School Superintendent, and Michael Rotman took over from Richard Gray as Chairman of the CPSAA Board. Under a committee headed by Theodore H. Wright, the group launched a drive to build membership to 5,000; and O’Donnell added a mentor program, “anti dropout” public service announcements, student talent shows, a recognition ceremony for outstanding students, and other activities. She also acknowledged alumni’s pull to their old schools by organizing workshops to help establish individual associations.

But despite O’Donnell’s deep commitment and vision, as well as ongoing financial support from some members of the Board of Directors, plus a Chicago Community Trust grant, the CPSAA was never able to gain enough members or funding to sustain itself long term. O’Donnell kept the organization going for several years, but eventually closed its doors. (Sadly, O’Donnell died in 2003, leaving behind a legacy of exceptional good works for dozens of organizations.)

Today I wonder: If the CPSAA had been an official Chicago Public Schools program, could it have survived? And what could we have done to keep alumni enthusiastic about a citywide group, while still encouraging their loyalty to alma maters?

Now, 23 years after our starry eyed photo in the Chicago Tribune spelling out our title, the school system -- under the leadership of CEO Arne Duncan and the watchful eye of Mayor Daley -- is praised and emulated. Yes, critics remain, but parents do send their kids to city schools and vie for spots in gifted and classical schools, and scholastic academies. As further evidence of the changed climate, Dennis Rodkin and Amy Rainey, writing in the October issue of Chicago magazine, recognized 30 Chicago public schools in their list of 140 city and suburban winners.

Despite the CPSAA’s failure to survive, it did produce a major achievement: it proved that a diverse group of people – some powerful, some everyday folk – could band together to help a struggling school system. So hooray for our old schools, and hooray especially for public school alumni everywhere.

Postscript: Good news for “The Division Street Princess:” The instructional coordinator of William P. Gray Elementary School, at 3730 N. Laramie, on Chicago’s Northwest side, has ordered a set of the books for 8th grade Language Arts teachers to use in their classrooms. This confirms my view that my memoir, although written for adults, can also appeal to young readers. In fact, “The Division Street Princess” is in the running for an ALEX award, which the American Library Association bestows on 10 books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Homecoming: South Commons 1969

In 1969, one year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and when riots erupted in parts of the inner city, my husband and I and our two young daughters moved from suburban Glenview to South Commons, a 30-acre, urban renewal complex at 28th St. and Michigan Ave. on Chicago’s Near South Side.

Friends and relatives called us crazy, but that move changed me. The 31-year-old unhappy housewife I was back then turned into a newspaper editor, musical theatre producer, and community activist. Almost overnight, I shed bored and lonely and donned euphoria.

I got to thinking about the 10 years I spent in South Commons after I had written my Aug. 31 post declaring the years described in my memoir, "The Division Street Princess,"as the most influential in my life. While the impact of my childhood above the store still holds true, South Commons is the place I hold nearest my heart -- the answer to all my dreams.

In many ways, the move to South Commons was a homecoming because we had previously lived nearby at Prairie Shores, when my husband was a resident at Michael Reese Hospital. But once he completed his tour, a job at an Arlington Heights hospital and the natural path of a Jewish doctor and his young family, prompted a move to a tract housing development more than 20 miles from the city.

For many – especially my mother – our suburban three-bedroom raised ranch with yard and attached garage on a cul-de-sac ringed with skinny baby trees, was heaven. For me, it was not. I felt fish-out-of-water, unable to connect to neighbors who were my age, religion, and background. I missed the city and would regularly sit on a bus for 1-1/2 hours to reach State and Madison.

Fortunately, my husband switched medical specialties and won a residency in Chicago that required a move back. When I learned about South Commons, a “new town” just a few blocks from our old Prairie Shores apartment, that aimed to integrate races, incomes, and ages in a mix of for-sale townhouses and rental low-, mid-, and high-rise buildings, I wanted in.

From my first step into the South Commons community center, where some boisterous activity was underway, I felt at home. As soon as moving boxes were unpacked, I plunged in, becoming a volunteer for Rev. Ed Weisheimer, a Disciples of Christ minister who led the ecumenical South Commons Church and organized community activities.

On a Selectric typewriter, I tapped out weekly issues of the Commons Commentary, rolled dotted pages onto a mimeograph machine, and delivered copies that had been piled onto a red Flyer wagon, to an eager audience of readers. I was a writer, editor, and publisher – skills unknown to me that blossomed freely in South Commons’ fertile soil.

I believe my family thrived, too. My husband played leads in The Sorcerer, Pirates of Penzance, Carousel, and other musicals produced by our amateur theatre group; and he flourished in his medical career. At times, though, I imagine he longed for the housewife he had married only nine years earlier. But she had disappeared, and in her place was a woman barely recognizable to the two of us.

Our daughters Faith and Jill caught the show biz bug, too, while acting in the chorus of these musicals and in rag-tag productions they created in our courtyard playground. (You can read Jill’s take on South Commons in her book of essays, Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants.)

Local and national publications put our neighborhood under a microscope: The Chicago Daily News claimed, “South Commons meets big test” (Oct. 17, 1969). The Christian Science Monitor said, “The experimental ‘new town’ in Chicago’s South Side is a model for cities seeking to reverse urban decay.” (April 23, 1971). The Chicago Daily News praised, “the integrated way of life in South Commons” (Sept. 29, 1972), and The Chicago Sun-Times described, “A sense of community at South Commons” (Sept. 10, 1972).

Much later, I was gratified to learn that along with my own family, and the journalists who penned those stories, other South Commons’ residents praised the community’s positive impact. In 2002, Tony Brooks, (you can read his reporting in the Aug. 4 archive of Chicago Sports Review) a young black man who had lived in a South Commons rental apartment in the 1970s, organized a reunion he targeted “to the kids who grew up in one of the best neighborhoods Chicago has to offer.” Although I was decades older than Tony and his peers, I attended the gathering and listened as Tony and his old South Commons friends shared my view that our experience had been a blessing.

Some former residents, who had moved out of town and missed the reunion (including my daughters) sent e-mails relating their memories. Mardi Teale, one of my best South Commons friends, who worked on the Commons Commentary, and with her husband, Jim, painted scenery or designed costumes for the musical theatre troupe, wrote from Arizona: “The best part of life there was the community spirit – people of all ages and ethnicity living, working and playing together. Of all the places we’ve lived, South Commons provides the best memories of all.”

My family remained in South Commons until 1979, long after many of our neighbors had left, after Faith and Jill were nearly the last white children in the K-6 branch of Drake elementary, after the early dream of integration had faded. Some of the middle-class black and white families left because they refused to send their children to “big Drake” for 7th and 8th grades where they would mix with the kids of nearby public housing. Others moved for typical reasons: because they needed more or less space than their South Commons residences provided, for affordable suburban homes, or for job opportunities elsewhere.

Forever touched by my South Commons experience and encouraged by its developer Daniel Levin and architect Ezra Gordon, I entered the very first Masters of Urban Planning Program at the University of Illinois Chicago. I wanted to learn what had happened to the noble experiment. What worked, what failed? I interviewed parents who had welcomed social integration for themselves, but rebelled at using their children as laboratory subjects in the public schools. Their stories form the basis of my master’s thesis.

Today, the Near South Side is bursting with new real estate and a mix of residents, and South Commons remains a centerpiece. My former homestead is all grown up now, no longer a “social experiment,” simply a lushly landscaped oasis in the city, 2-1/2 miles from Chicago’s downtown.
The dreams of wild-eyed urban pioneers -- like Tony Brooks, Mardi Teale, me, and so many others – are tucked in scrapbooks and photo albums. But every so often, especially when I hear old ‘70s tunes, like this one from Barry White, I go right back to those very special days:

The first, the last, my everything
And the answer to all my dreams
You're my sun, my moon, my guiding star
My kind of wonderful, that's what you are
I know there's only, only one like you
There's no way they could have made two
You're all I'm living for
Your love I'll keep for evermore
You're the first, you’re the last, my everything

Photo Captions:

No.1. From Chicago Sunday Sun-Times, Midwest Magazine, June 28, 1970.
No. 2. Our South Commons townhouse.
No. 3. An issue of the Commons Commentary, Feb. 16, 1972.
No. 4. From The Herald newspaper, April 25, 1973.
No. 5. South Commons’ kids in the courtyard. Jill at the drum, and Faith to her right.
No. 6. Friends and neighbors, from left to right: Friends Linda, Faith, Vaso, Jill, and Gina.
No. 7. From Lakefront Outlook, May 1, 2002.