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Excerpt for A Ramble by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This book is dedicated with great affection

to all my family past, present and future.

Cover medallion by Carl Paul Jennewein, Sculptor

PART I

Family Background

The other day I received a telephone call from my sister Grace who lives in

Florida. (As I write this I must report Grace’s death on October 1, 2008. There is

more on this later.) What struck me about our conversation, some times heavily

weighted in Grace’s favor, was her reference, not infrequent, to our mother and

father. In one thought she expressed how lucky we were to have such good

parents, but in the next breath she was chiding them for not telling us about

what lay beyond the front door of the home where we had grown up in Pelham,

New York.

Confusing? It was somewhat. Yet it did get me to think later about my

immediate family and those who had preceded them. Who were they really?

Where did they come from? What were their hopes and aspirations or their

faults as Grace had suggested in that conversation? And beyond that, who was

I and what was I all about? In addition to Grace, our children seemed to want a

full profile of the Gehron family though the years.

3I think I was a placid baby who turned into a relatively placid man. In turn, I

wasn’t terribly inquisitive and so delving into family history did not seem to be

‘down my alley’. I never really tried to explain, document, study or analyze the

origins of my being here. This is not to say I didn’t know something about my

family background but I wasn’t really as curious as I probably should have been.

Following on the heels of that call and my daughter Anne’s occasional plea for

some background about my mother, father and their families, I decided to begin

writing. She stated, I thought quite correctly, a chronicle might be in order

especially since beyond Grace and me there were not many left around who

had any real historical perspective about all of this.

So here I am, a little like Clement Clarke Moore, with pencil in hand to write a

story for our children which like A Visit From St. Nicholas will be a blend of fact

and fiction -- I can’t be sure of each and every fact. Some things I do know for

certain, others may be assumptions but I hope this attempt will prove fruitful for

all.

For me it all began on August 5, 1924 at the Lenox Hill Hospital in New York

City. In those days, even if you lived in the suburbs, you never put full faith and

trust in the local doctors. Certainly, when a delivery was due, only the best care

would do and nothing could top the doctors, nurses and hospitals of New York

City – provided, of course, you could afford it. At that time in my family, money

was not a major concern.

My father, William Gehron (interestingly no middle initial or name), was a

relatively successful architect who held a senior position in the old, and to me,

elegant architectural firm of Arnold W. Brunner and Associates. Their offices

were located at 101 Park Avenue, a business address my father maintained

throughout his life even after he had eventually taken over the firm. He was a

4graduate of Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University. He matriculated in

1912 after some tough years of study. It is easy to imagine the time he must

have put into his studies for, as he told me many times, when he arrived in

Pittsburgh to study architecture he didn’t even know how to spell the word. But

from the beginning he loved the work and in his time was considered an

excellent student. Because of his unique sketching talent, he was known as the

‘Shade and Shadow King’. In those days such an accolade was quite a badge of

honor. Pen and pencil were important tools in the business world then because

renderings frequently sold the concept of a building. Hugh Ferris an

architect/render was in his prime then and his drawings are still a wonder to

behold. His sketches sold potential clients on building a building. I have some

prints of drawings my father did as a young architect in New York trying to

supplement his initial, modest salary and they compare quite favorably with the

work of Ferris. It was a skill he carried with him throughout his life. He refined

his technique from a somewhat mechanical black and white, pen and ink

production in his early years to charcoal and free flowing water colors for

pleasure in later years.

My father was at no pains to tell me how he arrived at Carnegie Tech. This

story may be in some part his fiction or mine but the essence is certainly true.

My father’s father, Jacob Gehron, was a German immigrant who arrived in New

York City in 1882 and moved on to Williamsport, Pennsylvania where he opened

a lumber mill and hired out as an architect-contractor. As I write this the firm,

Jacob Gehron & Sons, was in business until a few years ago. Jacob Gehron

was never a wealthy man. He had a wife and nine children to support, (three

girls and six boys). He may have reached the comfortable level. In any case,

he did well enough to support his family and give male members of his clan one

or another role to play in the firm but he was in no position to promote the

5interests of any of the nine beyond that. From my father’s stories about this

period, I have to assume he worked with some of his other brothers as a

carpenter on various of Grandpa Gehron’s jobs. One day he said (it may have

been a number of times), he was nailing some stripping on a roof when he

looked down to see on the ground a well tailored gent gesticulating and issuing

orders to the construction foreman. “Who is that,” he asked one of the older

hands who promptly informed him, “That’s the architect”. It was my father’s

claim that he much preferred to be that fellow on the ground to the one on the

roof and so he determined to pursue a career in architecture. It was not to be

easy. When his father came from the old country he carried the credentials of

an architect-contractor a position he won through the customs of the time in

Germany and brought with him to the United States. But in the early 1900’s

architecture in America was becoming a professional business in which a

degree to be licensed and to practice was a requirement. For my father this

meant a college degree and such an education required money. I don’t know

the ‘ins and outs’ about how all this became possible. I do know, however, that

Grandpa Gehron couldn’t afford to send his son to college but in the wings there

was a wealthy Williamsport citizen who could and did. Whatever the

arrangement, he evidently had faith that William Gehron had the right stuff.

Thus, in his very early twenties, being the only son to do so, he left Williamsport

for Pittsburgh to embark on a lifelong career as a ‘New York Architect’.

I have mentioned Grandpa Gehron and this might be an appropriate point to say

something more about this Pennsylvania family with some very fleeting

recollections I still hold in my mind.

Grandpa Gehron was born in 1852 in Eberstadt, Germany. I remember that

from time to time my father would jokingly refer to some bastard-like problem in

the family lineage. Only recently did I discover that this actually involved

6Grandpa Gehron. I had thought that any ‘hanky-panky’ probably had occurred

much, much earlier. Suffice to say that Jacob Gehron was born under the

surname ‘Flat’ or ‘Pflat’ and was adopted by his uncle George Gehron and his

wife. I don’t know what to read into this but it seems that Jacob might have

been born out of wedlock.

Whatever the mystery surrounding his birth, from his youngest days until his

departure from his native land in the summer of 1882 Otto von Bismark must

have dominated his life and that of his adopted family. Bismark in 1862 took

charge of Prussian policy in 1862 and in 1871 created the German Empire

controlling its domestic and international policies until his dismissal in 1890.

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III, nephew of Napoleon I, in neighboring France

would have been no stranger either. He proclaimed himself emperor in the year

of Jacob Gehron’s birth but his empire would end disastrously in 1870-71 in the

Franco-Prussian War. These were years of growth strains and pains for

Germany and the turbulence of these times with uncertain enemies or allies in

England, Austria, Russia and Italy may have prompted Grandpa Gehron to look

beyond the boundary of the Old World to the New. Suffice to say, I can never

recall a word from my father as to what led his father to decide to emigrate when

he did.

Certainly a factor in those unstable times was that at age 23 he married

Margaretha Daechert a local girl who was two years younger than he and by the

time he decided to leave there were three children to account for – Matilda

Gehron born in 1876, George in 1877 and Jacob the following year.

I know my father worshiped his parents and for all the years I can remember he

was very solicitous of their welfare. Being the only son to pull up stakes in

Williamsport he kept them aware of his own situation through postcards and

7letters at regular intervals. He did so until their deaths, Margaretha in 1928 and

Jacob in 1936. Although they never came ‘East’ to visit, my mother and father

did go to Williamsport and it was on one of those trips that I met both

grandparents for the first and only time.

I have a more vivid impression of Grandpa than of his wife. I presume that

during that brief stay at the family’s only residence at 1413 St. James Place it

was because I saw more of him than of her. As I recall, his place of business

was just out the back door. It was a large lumber mill complete with railroad

tracks, woodworking machines large and small, piles of firred and unfirred wood

in what I remember as a building resembling a large airplane hangar. Outside

was a great sawdust pile. It was a busy place where the work was conducted by

people who seemed instinctively to know what they were doing. You had the

feeling that Grandpa Gehron made it work without working.

I reveled in the place. I was given the job of moving small piles of sawdust from

the cutting area to the big sawdust pile via a cart that was pushed by hand along

one of the rail tracks. The smell of fresh cut wood, the ease of moving sawdust

and doing a man’s job suited me just fine. I could not have had a better time.

Grandpa was always around somewhere. He wore a dark rather formal

business suit with black shoes the top of which reached above his ankles. His

suit was old fashioned unlike the Eastern cut of my father’s clothes. He looked

old world as did Margaretha who also dressed in black. Both were good natured

people around the house but that might have been simply do to the fact that

Williamsport was home to all the Gehron family except my father and all wished

at one time or another to pay their respects. For me, when I wasn’t ‘working’

there were a sufficient number of nephews – I can’t recall nieces – to fill out my

day in amiable play.

8I mentioned earlier that the firm of Jacob Gehron in my eyes was a busy place.

As I review Grandpa’s obituary I can see why. It notes that since the business

was launched in 1893 it held many important contracts in and around

Williamsport. I’m not familiar with any of them but among those cited were the

Williamsport Wire Rope Company plant; Williamsport Hospital; Elk’s Lodge;

Independent Order of Odd Fellows’ Club and the Rialto Theatre. What I do

know is the firm, through Grandpa Gehron, built up a lasting reputation for

honesty, integrity and quality. I am sure that these characteristics are a

reflection of another important part of Grandpa Gehron’s life – his religious

convictions. While my father was not very religious in a formal sense, he was

very proud of his father’s church activities and made a point of mentioning them

rather prominently when Grandpa’s name came up in our conversations.

Appropriately, his religious faith was based on the principles of Martin Luther a

near German neighbor born four hundred years earlier. Luther lived, studied,

proclaimed and died in Saxony a region but a hop, skip and jump from

Eberstadt. His influence was keenly felt in Germany since the Lutheran

churches originated as territorial churches, subject to the 16th century local

princes and became in effect state churches. Luther, by the way, among his

many accomplishments married a former nun, Katherine von Born, in 1525 and

raised six children. But I digress. I do know from his obituary that Jacob

Gehron “had been a member of the Emmanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church for

many years and was a leader in the congregation.”

That same obituary noted that Grandpa was a prominent contractor in

Williamsport where he settled after having immigrated to this country and

followed his trade as a carpenter. Earlier, I referred to him as an architectcontractor and equate the difference to American shorthand and old world

artisans. In any case, the Jacob Gehron contracting firm was started in 1893

9one year before he gained US citizenship. The business was eventually

incorporated in 1923 with Grandpa as President-Treasurer permitting him to

keep a firm hand on the tiller. Four sons joined with him in this process. He

remained active in the business until his death at age 84. Surviving him at that

time was a daughter and five sons – all but my father living in Williamsport.

Other survivors included two step-brothers and a step-sister, 18 grandchildren

and 8 great grand children. Margaretha had died 8 years earlier at age 74.

I wish I could convey some fuller impression of Grandma Gehron but in those

days women spent the larger part of their lives at home doing those things that

keep a family together and running smoothly. On that solitary visit to

Williamsport I just remember her being around the house. With the nine

children she brought into the world over a seventeen year period she obviously

had her hands full. She lost two of those children prior to her own death.

Minnie born in 1886 died at age 14 and Henry, who lead a fuller life but ended

up being an alcoholic died two years before her own death. There is a Gehron

family genealogy and it reports a lack of information about Grandma Gehron

and her background. So all told, unlike Grandpa Gehron who established a

business and was actively engaged in the community, Grandma Gehron

remains but a shadow and more the pity.

As if to bring this contrast between a visible Grandpa Gehron and shadowy

Grandma Gehron into sharper focus I have before me an editorial written not

about her at the time of her death but about him at his – the community

recognition factor. It appeared in the Williamsport Gazette and bears quoting in

full. Titled “Jacob Gehron, Builder”, it reads as follows:

Williamsport recognized in Jacob Gehron one of its substantial citizens. He was

by profession a builder. His nature was such that this description fitted him

better than did that of ‘building contractor’. He was so completely interested in

10his work and put so much into it that one felt building meant far more to him than

the business interests involved in it. (As an interesting aside here, my mother

had placed on father’s grave the words “He loved his work” -- a chip off the old

block?)

Mr. Gehron took a quiet but useful part in various community activities and was

widely known and respected. As he passes from among his friends and

neighbors, leaving a highly respected name, he leaves behind him sons who

paid him the compliment of making his work the pattern of their own life work.

That is a tribute which many men desire, but which few receive in such measure

as did Mr. Gehron from his four sons.

The four sons, of course, were those who played a role in Grandpa’s firm:

George, Jacob, Jr., John and Carl.

I have not speculated on what led Jacob and his spouse and three children to

settle in Williamsport. I gain the impression that they knew where they wanted

to go on arriving in this country and wasted no time in getting there.

Williamsport, the seat of Lycoming County in central Pennsylvania, is situated

on the Susquehanna River. It was settled in 1772 and gained city status in 1866

some 16 years before the arrival of the Gehrons. The Columbia Encyclopedia

reports that the city grew with the development of the lumber industry in the 19th

century and that could have been a major factor in a carpenter’s decision to

settle there. I would also assume that some earlier immigrants from Eberstadt

made it their abode and had extolled it’s virtues through word of mouth or

correspondence or through hearsay. Pennsylvania, itself, was a magnet for

11people of German descent from the founding of the colony of Pennsylvania. It

offered persecuted sects including Lutherans religious freedom, a la William

Penn, and let those immigrants retain, to a considerable extent, their language,

customs, architecture and superstitions. The term Pennsylvania Dutch is from

the German Deutsch and refers to the people of German descent who migrated

to the area in the 18th Century. All in all it was a logical place for German

immigrants in the late 1800’s to establish themselves -- a home away from

home. The fact that Jacob Gehron and the first generation of his family settled

permanently in Williamsport makes clear the soundness of his initial decision.

Interestingly Jacob and Margaretha ended up being stick-in-the-mud

Williamsporters remaining there for the rest of their lives except for one recorded

visit to their hometown in Germany in the summer of 1907. Why they elected to

make that trip to Eberstadt at that time is not clear. But Germany was then on

the brink of being Europe’s vexatious power with France, Russia and England

then creating the Triple Entente which by 1914 faced Germany and its allies in

World War I. They may have felt a crisis building and if they were to go home

again, it was likely to be then or never. Yet it may simply have been a

sentimental journey since it was exactly 25 years after their departure from the

old world.

I have briefly mentioned my father, William Gehron, in describing the Gehron

family background. It is probably appropriate at this point to place him in

sharper focus. Jacob and Margaretha’s six additional children, two girls Sophia

and Minnie, and four boys, Henry, William, John and Carl were all born in

Williamsport. William was the seventh to arrive and first drew breath on July 9,

1887. I don’t know much about his early years. However, father used to make

a point of having been around and recalling – which I doubt – that great blizzard

of 1888. I’m sure as a very young child he heard stories about that great storm

and in later years relived it through them. But clearly he had little or no

immediate knowledge of it. I suspect in a big moderately well-off family his was

12a relatively normal childhood. They did stable a horse and I have been told that

much fun and games surrounded that four-legged beast. The riding ability

acquired in those days, straddling a horse bareback, may have emboldened my

father to apply for a commission in the cavalry in World War I. In any case, he

seemed to hold fond recollections of wild rides through local streets and fields.

There weren’t many other childhood stories that I can recall. I really cannot

recall any mention by him of his early education before attending Carnegie

Tech. However, from an application for a commission he submitted to the U. S.

Army Signal Corps in 1917 he did spell out his schooling. He went to

elementary school – he gives as the name of that school the Williamsport Public

School – from 1893 to 1903 and states that he did graduate. But interestingly, in

response to high school equivalent on the application, he does list the

Williamsport High School which he attended in 1904 and 05 but notes that he

did not graduate. It seems clear that he withdrew from high school to join with

his older brothers in Grandpa Gehron’s business. From 1905 to1908 his

employer was Jacob Gehron, Contractor and he describes his job as ‘in charge

of building operations’. I would have to assume that any entrance exam he took

to get into Carnegie Tech was based on knowledge he acquired in the field as

opposed to any formal schooling. For the record, his weekly wage for the three

years he was with Grandpa Gehron was initially $15 and topped out at $40. The

latter was probably very good pay for a 20 year old in those days. It may

account in part for his quitting high school knowing there was good money to be

had in working for his father.

I imagine as a young boy he was an average athlete as he was when he

attended college. He was never really interested in playing sports perhaps

because much of his time was devoted to pitching in doing various chores for

the family firm long before he left school. He did tell me that when he arrived at

Carnegie Tech he tried out for the football team but the first day of practice he

was so broken and bruised that he quit after retiring from the field. He evidently

13did play class football and basketball at Tech and he was on the Design School

track team. However, all that was a far cry from any varsity sports. He did

maintain an interest in Carnegie Tech football in his years after graduation

attending several games in Pittsburgh and taking me along on one occasion. A

big occasion I might add as it was the only game – I think I have this right – in

which Carnegie Tech bested Notre Dame the great football powerhouse in those

days.

All this sport commentary reminds me again of his application for a commission

in World War I for it asked that he describe his proficiency in some thirteen

sports ranging from very good to very poor. Chess, horsemanship, sailing and

tennis were activities in which he was very good, he reported. Good were

baseball, football, gymnastics and marksmanship. He put billiards, boxing and

motorcycle in the average category and listed fencing and polo as very poor. I

have a feeling he was never involved in at least half of those activities but then I

may be wrong. I do know that later he became a good canoeist and made some

wilderness journeys with a fellow architect and good friend Arthur Gilkerson. He

also embraced sailing later in life. But generally speaking, sports were not his

thing.

What was his thing was the architectural world in which he found himself. I’ve

already mentioned his drawing skill. He was a diligent student in college where

he ranked in the top ten percent of his class and reveled in architectural and

structural design and mathematics. He took his first major step in that direction

on October 7, 1908 when he left Williamsport for Pittsburgh to begin his

freshman year at Carnegie Tech. The date can be pinpointed since he received

as a going away present a book of the Bible dated and simply inscribed –

mother and father. Years later he penciled a note on the book’s flyleaf: ‘This

14Bible was given to me the day I first left home when 21 years of age to go to

Carnegie Institute of Technology to school”.

At the time he was beginning his formal architectural training Teddy Roosevelt

was coming into the last year of his final term in office. Under his leadership,

the United States was passing through a decade of progressivism in which the

‘captains of industry’ were denounced by Roosevelt as ‘malefactors of great

wealth’ and a ‘square deal’ essentially for all was the objective. Much of what

Roosevelt sought to do was to be thwarted by his hand picked successor

William Howard Taft who held the Presidency throughout father’s time in

college. However, it was a heady time in America’s history as government

moved to protect the rights and well-being of the average man and William

Gehron surely sensed that.

Once he arrived in Pittsburgh, he seemed to look east and while there were

sentimental attachments to Williamsport it was New York City that seemed to

captivate him. He spent the summer of 1910 with the New York architectural

firm of Dennison and Hirona as a draftsman and building superintendent. The

following summer he was with Ernest Flagg performing the same tasks. Those

two summers were probably instrumental in his arriving at a final decision to

practice architecture in New York.

Even though he was earning money in the summer months to help pay his way

through college, money was always a problem. He told me many times that

among other things he worked as an usher at the Pittsburgh Opera House. I

don’t know if his financial guardian angel in Williamsport supported all or less

than his four years of education. I suspect he paid for tuition but board and

incidentals probably had to be covered by father. However, he managed

financially; he gained his A. B. degree in Architecture in 1912 as planned. I

15assumed he went home to Willamsport after graduation but he didn’t stay long.

In September of that year he joined some college friends, including, I believe,

Arthur Gilkerson, to travel for six months through England, France, Belgium,

Germany, Italy, Spain and North Africa. The trip was as much an extension of

the study of architecture as one of pleasure. His surviving sketchbooks from

that period are full of drawings of artistic and cultural landmarks with detail after

detail of columns, ceilings, doors, windows, fountains, fences – all sorts of

things. And much of what he saw and sketched was reflected in some of his

subsequent work. There are also whimsical sketches of people, animals,

inanimate objects such as carriages or just a shoe that he found joy in drawing.

These remind me of some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s drawings done just for the

sheer fun of doing them. Some of father’s we have mounted and placed on the

wall of our home.

There is no way to tell whether that small band of friends sensed the

catastrophe that was about to embrace Europe and undertook their extended

journey before disaster struck. Whether perceived or not, it was a timely trip

and certainly numerous things they saw and drew disappeared in the

destruction that followed in the ensuing four years of war.

When he returned to New York early in 1913 he joined Arnold W. Brunner at

101 Park Avenue. The firm was engaged in some major projects including the

design of the Stadium of New York City College, the Students Building of

Barnard College and the Public Ledger Building of Philadelphia. Father was in

charge of making the drawings and supervising the construction of these

undertakings. I gather, within a short period of time, he actually held an interest

in the company. He was to remain with the firm until Brunner’s death in 1925.

16I have trouble visualizing my father in the military since that form of discipline

would have been alien to his nature. But I take it that he was drafted sometime

after the U.S. entered World War I in April of 1917. With a great degree of

patriotism and some source of regret he had to disengage from the passion of

architecture to that of soldiering. Here the records are thin. However, I did

come across a U. S. Army form which states in part the following: “Know ye,

that reposing special trust and confidence in the fidelity and abilities of Sergeant

William Gehron I do hereby appoint him Sergeant First Class, 808th Aero Repair

Squadron, A.S.A. of the Army of the United States, to rank as such from the first

day of November 1918.” It was issued at the direction of Major General Kenly,

whoever he might have been.

But I am getting ahead of the sequence of the most important event in my

father’s life – his marriage to my mother. Grace Patricia McDermott was born in

New York City on March 11, 1898 the third of four daughters brought into the

world through the marriage of James McDermott and Irene McDonald. Of the

other three children Marion was the oldest followed by Irene and Josephine --

called Jackie.

That year was an auspicious time in American history as the Spanish-American

War began and concluded within its twelve month span. Not only was the

Spanish Empire essentially dissolved but Cuba was freed under U. S. tutelage

and the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico ceded to the United States.

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia the United States emerged from the

war with new international power. That new found authority probably was in part

responsible for America’s eventual involvement in the First World War.

Unfortunately, the lineage of both the McDermotts and the McDonalds is very

obscure. The former were of Irish extraction, the latter Scottish, but also Irish, I

17think. When family members arrived here, I know not. The McDermotts might

have come in the 1850’s when, following the Great Potato Famine, almost two

million Irish left for the United States. I feel fairly certain that both ‘Pop’ and

‘Nanny’ McDermott, as they were known to me, were born on this side of the

Atlantic. I generalize because the McDonald side as I recall, like a number of

immigrants to this country, made their way here through Canada. It seems

some McDonalds spent some time on Prince Edward Island before pushing

south. Some may have remained there. The route through Canada to the

States was not an unusual one as many desirous of leaving the old country

simply took the first passage out and Halifax was a prominent stop for vessels

plying the Atlantic in those days. Being Scots – if that was the case – was

another reason to establish roots in Canada. I’m inclined to believe the

McDermotts went straight to New York. In any event, both families ended up

living in lower Manhattan as that is where Pop and Nanny met and married. At

the time of my mother’s birth they must have been living on the Upper West

Side for according to my records mother was baptized in the Church of the Holy

Name at 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue which must have been the

McDermott’s local parish. It is still there today.

I have a much more vivid recollection of Nanny than Pop. Pop was cultured and

articulate without much formal education. His father died when he was eleven

and he had to work to help support the family. I imagine he was typical of his

class of Irishman for he loved city politics and being with the boys in the local

political club and ale house. He was a thin, affable man who despite his limited

education was well read and knowledgeable rather a contrast to his wife who

was quite reticent and reserved. He seemed eventually to find employment in

real estate and insurance. I say this for I came across a letter he wrote in June

of 1936 to my mother on the occasion of my sister Grace’s graduation from

Pelham High School – actually the paper was for office memos which carried

the letterhead of William N. Callahan Company insurance, bond and real estate

18brokers at 51 East 42nd Street. I presume that was his general field of endeavor

throughout his adult life. His handwriting by the way was flowing and precise.

His words were poetic. I believe he must have had some good years for I

recollect a visit by him to my mother and father’s house at 66 Highbrook Avenue

in Pelham. He arrived with daughter Irene who was at the wheel of a brand new

Ford two door sedan complete with rumble seat. It was, I think, a gift to my Aunt

Irene from her father -- very jazzy for those days. Just to have a car was stylish.

On the other hand, the letter to which I have referred held a small post transcript

that read: “Rene will attend to a small gift. Wish I could do better.” I think he

meant Irene would find some token for Grace on her graduation, Pop could not

afford much. Things were probably not going well for him at the time. I believe I

should quote here the entire text of that letter, which was addressed to my

mother, since it really is the only item of reminiscence I can find that lets Pop

speak for himself. On the outside of the envelope in pencil my father wrote:

“Letter from Pop – one of the last he has written.” The return address was 623

West End Avenue, Apt 2. It read as follows:

(June, 1936?)

Dear Grace

Irene wrote me to tell me of Grace’s graduation. I am indeed sorry I cannot

attend the evening it occurs but I wish you would convey to Grace my kindest

felicitations on this glorious occasion. It is the climax of four years of study and

the ecstasy is hers and also yours and Bills and I know you both are proud

today in anticipation of the event. I remember well the preparation for you girls

on a like occasion and it was then and only then that we realized that you were

all grown up and that a different view of life was ahead of you. And how well

you all met it and how happy things have been for all of you. Let’s hope such

will be the consummation of their lives and that God will guide them through the

years and that every hope you cherish will be realized which I am sure it will be.

19Sometimes we become serious on occasions of this kind because of the raising

of the children from childhood to adolescence but it is but a stage of life through

which we all passed and how happy were we at those gatherings. So take on

again childhood dreams and enter into the occasion with the same gayety that

was yours at graduation and then come down into the years that followed and

see how lovely your life has been replete with happiness. So we wish just so for

Grace today and on through the years until the end. This is my tribute first to

Grace second to you and Bill and little Bill. Have a good time and be a girl

again.

Love

Father

There was another notation at the end: Excuse the stationary. I wrote this in

my room.

I would guess that Pop was born in 1865 that tumultuous year in which the

American Civil War came to an end and Lincoln was shot. He was one of three

children but the only son which may account for his early introduction into the

working world.

His marriage to Nanny may have been successful at first, but it eventually ran

into trouble. I surmise that their marriage took place in 1894 when Nanny was

eighteen years old and Pop was twenty-nine. My first awareness of problems

was when I was about five. When mother and father went off to Europe I spent

some time with them in their apartment somewhere in New York City’s

Washington Heights. Later research suggests the apartment as being # 55

Payson Avenue which as it happens is just down from where young Bill now has

20his apartment in New York. It was an unhappy stay for me as there was much

bickering and it usually ended when Pop retired from the battle by leaving

probably to join the boys at some convenient watering hole in the neighborhood.

Of course, that was some thirty years into their marriage but it was the bridge

between earlier years when they were touched with some happiness and

unhappiness and the last years when Pop walked out. It must have been

shortly after my visit with them that Nanny according to Aunt Jackie called her to

say she thought Pop was seeing another woman. I don’t know if he did but I

would guess Nanny might have challenged him and on that note he decided to

leave her. Nanny, Aunt Jackie said, took it quite well. The girls and particularly

Irene who was unmarried and living at home, were devastated. Irene worshiped

him. I gathered from discussions between my mother and father after Pop’s

decisive act that he may, for a time, have had a fling – Atlantic City, New Jersey

was mentioned – but eventually he hit the road downhill and within half a dozen

years he passed through illness to his death in 1936. It was all very sad for he

had alienated his wife and children and had no one around who cared about him

except my father who paid his hospital expenses and those of his funeral and

burial.

Nanny lived on for years after his death and this might be an appropriate place

to put her in some sort of focus. By deduction I have to guess her birth year to

be 1876 around the time Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone and

Thomas Edison, in the following year, the phonograph. I understand from Aunt

Jackie – and I should explain here that as I wrote this she was alive and well

and we had chatted about some of these things – that Nanny’s mother died

when she was two and Nanny had gone to live with the family of her mother’s

sister. Whatever her domestic situation, lower Manhattan was her playground

from infancy to her youthful marriage. I know nothing about her education

although I assume there was some schooling involved. I do know that she was

steeped in Catholicism for the church was a major force throughout her entire

21life. I have a feeling her mother may have been Irish Catholic and the mother’s

sister with whom she grew up had her stay the course culminating in a Catholic

Church wedding which made the eventual breakup of their marriage quite

shocking in those days. Nanny was short and somewhat stocky. Her

interesting face and shy manner may well have attracted the attention of Jim

McDermott. In the years that I knew her, Nanny didn’t elaborate on much but

she was always quick to defend the church no matter how obscure or trivial a

matter on its teachings or tenets might be. If Aunt Irene was around – and she

usually was since they lived their lives together – she would second those views.

Although Nanny was an unassuming woman, she was very nice and it was

always an occasion for me when she would come to our house for dinner. It

wasn’t that she’d say much – she wouldn’t. But just the fact of her presence

was pleasant and, fortunately, as the years passed she usually was

accompanied by Aunt Irene who was a welcomed addition. Those evenings

would many times end in some degree of acrimony since my mother, who was a

non-practicing Catholic, would goad Nanny into endless and frequently

senseless arguments about the church’s stand on one thing or another. I

always marveled at their willingness to leave the fray only to return to combat

again inside a fortnight or so.

Nanny was a good mother who throughout her life remained close to her

daughters. Since she and Aunt Irene lived but a stones throw from both my

mother and Aunt Jackie, they saw a lot of them. Aunt Jackie was married to

William Barnes and they lived with their five children in New Rochelle, N.Y., the

same town where Nanny and Irene shared an apartment. Pelham was just a

town away. Aunt Jackie said that Nanny was very saddened when Aunt Marion,

who married Just Humez, moved to Detroit where the business he was in for a

lifetime, McBeth Evans Glass Company, now defunct, was located. There were

no children from that marriage but they seemed to enjoy each other and their life

22together. I’m sure that was a source of satisfaction to Nanny who felt them to be

far away.

I have said that Nanny seemed to accept Pop McDermott’s departure with

stoicism and grace as painful as I am sure that event was to her. But I don’t

think she, or her daughters for that matter, ever, in their heart of hearts forgave

Pop. She might have felt that given the eleven years difference in their ages,

the older Jim didn’t understand his younger wife. But however she tried to

rationalize their broken marriage, I’m sure it was a hurt that she carried with her

through the subsequent twenty-six years she outlived him. Nanny was 87 at the

time she died peacefully in her sleep in 1962.

One can say all is well that ends well and that could be the case in this tale of

failed marriage. Aunt Jackie told me that Pop and Nanny are buried side by

side at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N. Y. Joining them there is

Aunt Irene whose death deserves some elaboration given its circumstances.

We are all aware of the violence that surrounds our lives. As long as there have

been sins so has physical force been used to harm. Yet I am not aware of any

life on either side of the families I have so far addressed here that had been so

taken by a violent act except that of Aunt Irene. I make exception to death

caused by war for I know of at least one relative on the Gehron side who lost his

life in World War II. What I have in mind is a life taken in the normal pursuit of

our daily lives by a malicious act on the part of another. Irene McDermott at age

89 was the victim of murder.

Rene, as Pop McDermott used fondly to call her lived quietly and frugally in a

second floor apartment in a house at 542 Webster Avenue in New Rochelle,

23N.Y. She and Nanny had resided there for years and after Nanny’s death in

1962, Irene who sought no disruptions in her life, contentedly stayed on in their

comfortable suite. In her later years she had a day worker come in on a regular

basis to clean and do other chores that Rene could no longer tackle at her

advanced age. On August 19, 1986 the woman she normally expected did not

show at the apartment but a substitute did. There is no way we shall ever know

exactly what happened to gentle Irene but the ‘health-care worker’ as the press

referred to her hit her over the head with a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream

Sherry and strangled her with her own rosary beads. The aide then fled the

scene taking some of Irene’s meager personal items with her. She was arrested

by the police and after four frustrating years the justice system found the woman

guilty of second-degree murder, grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen

property and sentenced her to twelve years in prison.

The Gannett Westchester paper of July 20, 1990 reported the defendant’s tall

tale and I think it bears reporting here since it is so patently ridiculous but gives

some inside into Irene’s violent death. The story said that the woman…

“Testified that she killed McDermott after they became involved in a scuffle.”

The aide, “who said she was 18 or 19 at the time of the death, added that she

had been under severe stress at the time. She said that after McDermott called

her names and struck her with a bottle in the stomach, she fought with

McDermott and accidentally struck her in the head with the bottle.” She

continued, “McDermott began screaming as blood flowed from her head and

she tried to calm McDermott by wrapping a beaded rope (the rosary beads)

around her mouth. Somehow, she told the court, the rope slipped down to

McDermott’s neck. McDermott then went limp and she cleaned up the kitchen

and took the bloody McDermott to the bedroom.”

24Ironically, Aunt Irene, who made hardly a ripple in the world beyond her,

became the object of much attention in a community that was shocked by the

nature of her death. As Aunt Jackie said to me, “At least, now she is at peace.”

She was a very holy woman and if dedication to her faith -- she was a daily

communicant - - is the road to heaven, Aunt Irene is surely there.

As a sidebar to Irene’s story, I would observe that she worked many years as a

secretary but lost out on a good portion of her Social Security because she had

lied about her age on originally taking the job. She went for youth over security.

Not unheard of when you are a young woman.

I’m not fully aware of just how father and mother met but Aunt Jackie thought

she remembered and her recollection is certainly as good as any. While my

father was working for Brunner he was living with three or four other bachelors

in an apartment on upper Riverside Drive (458 perhaps was the address).

Mother’s family was living more or less around the corner on Claremont Avenue.

The year was probably 1917. It seems that one of the gang of four – a Bob

Scott as Aunt Jackie recalled – was going with my mother and at some point

introduced her to my father. Mother at the time was 19 and father was 30. I

gather that mother had just completed school – Aunt Jackie mentioned business

school acknowledging in the same breath that mother didn’t like school – and

had taken a secretarial job with a downtown firm. She was very attractive and

talented. She sang in the church choir and her voice was such that some

thought was given to a singing career. There were a string of beaux of whom

Bob Scott seemed at the time to hold the edge. Father was distinguished and

successful. Clearly, they were drawn to each other. I don’t know what

prompted him, other than to eliminate his rival for mother’s affection but father

approached Pop McDermott, according to Aunt Jackie, to warn him that Bob

25Scott might try to elope with his daughter. Pop thanked my father and promised

that he would keep an eye on things. On Friday, November 9, 1917 mother did

not return from work. Pop and Nanny were frantic. It was not until the next day

that they heard from their daughter. A telegram came addressed to Mrs. James

McDermott, 91 Kenmore Place, Brooklyn, dated November 10, it read:

Dear mother just married Bill. Left for Boston on 5 o’clock boat. Will write you

tonight on boat. Love and kisses Grace

Was father’s warning to Pop a cover for his own intentions? Who knows?

Anyway, it seems that they made arrangements to be married at Saint Nicolas

of Talentine Church in Fordham by a priest, Father Zeiser, with architect friend

Louis Adams and his wife as witnesses. They then traveled to Boston as a

newly married couple. Whatever concerns Pop and Nanny had they clearly

accepted the arrangement for I have a copy of an announcement that read:

Mr.and Mrs. James H. McDermott announce the marriage of their daughter

Grace Patricia to Mr. William Gehron on Saturday, the tenth of November One

thousand nine hundred and seventeen New York City.

I don’t know where mother and father spent Friday night but I venture a guess it

was with the Adams’s working out plans for the events that were to unfold on the

following day. How long they considered the idea of eloping I do not know but

given their feelings at the time it was probably spontaneous. With the marriage

cast in stone by Nanny and Pop’s belated announcement Grace Patricia

McDermott and William Gehron were to share their life together until his death

on November 11, 1958 – forty-one years later almost to the day.

26I have already noted that the United States was at war by the time of their

marriage. It was not long thereafter that my father found himself in the military.

As a newly married man I am certain he had to be drafted. At some point,

maybe even from the outset of his service he sought a commission but it was

not to be. Sometime, shortly after his induction, he found himself on active duty

in Washington, D. C. Initially his young bride remained in New York. Aunt

Jackie seemed to remember them living in Fordham immediately after their

return from Boston and that is quite likely as the Adams may have lived there

and mother and father found the area attractive. Even today people remember,

for instance, that St. Nicolas Talentine Church and parish were elegant in those

days.

I found a letter he wrote to mother from his new post dated Sunday night, April

14, 1918 – actually it was written on Cosmos Club stationary. Could he have

had entry to that distinguished group? It mentions missing her and hoping she

would soon be with him. Before the war ended in November of that year she did

join him and according to Mother they were in an apartment that across

backyards looked upon the Taft or Harding residence, I forget which. That same

letter makes clear that the newlyweds were having their skirmishes. Father had

evidently received a letter that angered him and he responded saying,

“...I don’t mistrust you because I know you will keep all the promises you made.

And if you don’t then you are not worthy to be my wife. And I don’t want you,

because if I could not trust you when I am away I could not love you with true

love. And that is the way with me if you can’t trust me to write to a friend while I

am away. Then you can’t have the true faith that goes with true love dearest,

because truth, faith and love are incompatible. It is not possible to have true

deep lasting love, without having faith in the one you love. I addressed you in

my letter in the same manner you addressed me so you can see how it feels to

get a letter like that from the one you love. Hereafter dearest you must think

27before you act and remember that other peoples feelings are just as sensitive as

your own and that they also have a heart....”

He concluded on a more affectionate note:

“...I am so lonesome for you tonight. I was alone all day. I did not talk to a soul,

I don’t think. But I am looking forward to seeing you soon dearest. With all the

kisses in the world, from Bill.”

It included a follow-on thought:

“Good-night Gracie dear; goodnight love one XXXXX...”

I should point out here that such domestic quarreling was part and parcel of their

life together. Such disputes were not as dominant in their life as Nanny and Pop

McDermott, but they were not just rare occasions. Mother had a quick Irish

temper and father, while slow to anger, could eventually explode. I remember

once coming to mother’s rescue when father picked up a giant China urn from

the living room fireplace in the Pelham house and threatened to crown her over

the head. At another time, fed up with mother’s habit of cleaning house in the

evening, he threw the vacuum cleaner, mops and brooms down the hall stairs.

And yet another time, an argument at the dinner table culminated with father

heaving glass and china to the walls and floor. All this suggests a pretty stormy

marriage but while there were disputes, they were largely offset by pleasant

periods of calm and love and most took place in a much less highly charged

atmosphere than I have just described.

28As a very young boy I was, of course, impressed by my father’s soldiering in the

Great War. When I used to ask him about it he would tell me that he had been

at the ‘Battle of Union Station”. That conjured up all sorts of romantic ideas

about his heroics until eventually I learned that his military career was spent at

Washington’s Union Station with the Construction Division of the Army Signal

Corps where as sergeant one of his primary responsibilities was to insure that at

the close of business each night the station’s window shades were at a uniform

level. About his military career there is really nothing more to add. With the end

of the war on November 11, 1918 he must have been quickly mustered out of

service. And just as promptly, I am sure, the two of them returned to New York.

Mother settled into being a housewife while father picked up his T-square again

at 101 Park Avenue. Mother whose health was rather frail in these years was

soon pregnant and in 1919 brought my sister Grace into the world. They were

city dwellers at the time, just where I am not sure but perhaps still in Fordham.

For many of the City’s better-heeled, however, a new trend was catching on – a

retreat to the quiet of the suburbs – and they got caught up in that movement.

Father bought some land in Pelham within walking distance of the New Haven

and Hartford Railroad station. The line was the principal public transportation

link to the City. Actually, the New Haven was at one end of the block and a

second rail connection to New York – the old and the now long defunct Boston

and Westchester – was at the other. Clearly, this was an ideal spot for anyone

who wished to commute to work in the Big Apple. He designed his own house

on the property and two additional dwellings to the left if you stood looking at it

from the street. The Gehrons moved to 66 Highbrook Avenue at the end of

1921. I found an invitation with a drawing in color of a house with front door

open and a message, ‘Come on over” beneath surely done by my father’s hand.

Inside it said, “…to the Gehron’s housewarming party Saturday evening January

14, 1922… Bring some spirits.” He talked his structural engineer, Al Crossett,

into buying the house next door and his New York lawyer, Donald Robb, the

29third dwelling. The three houses still stand side by side to this day and in my

book they are the best looking on that or surrounding blocks. I should add that

there was a falling out with the engineer and the curtain covering the dining

room window that looked out on his property was always closed for the sum

total of all the years we lived in the house. Robb, the lawyer and his family,

lived there for many years and remained friends. Eventually, though, he found

his hobby, composing music, more compelling than the law and eventually

moved his family to Arizona where he taught at the University.

This may be an appropriate place to describe the house at 66 Highbrook

Avenue. I would not know how to give the outside look of it with some kind of a

name such as colonial or tutor. It was my father’s adaptation. It was not

imposing in size but conformed to the size of the surrounding houses. As you

looked at it from the street, there was a drive way on the left with a separate one

car garage toward the back of the property. The garage doors were of heavy

wood, sturdy and carried carvings as did the solid front door which was situated

at the center of the house. Initially, before the addition, you entered a center

hall. To the right was the entrance to the living room with a large fireplace and

solarium both of which ran the length of the house – front to back. You entered

the sun room as we called it through a large door frame off the living room. At

the back end of the room was a wide door to the outside backyard. To the left of

the hall there was a dinning room at the front and off that, to the rear, an

entrance to the kitchen. The kitchen contained a breakfast nook and a door

leading to the basement. The feature of the kitchen was a restaurant type

refrigerator which at that time I had never seen in any other house. Stairs to the

second floor rose directly from the center of the hall and were wood never to be

carpeted. At the top of the stairs, to the left was a bathroom. Another left led to

the then master bedroom which looked to the front of the house. From the

center hall again, a turn to the immediate right led to a small bedroom which I

occupied. It looked out on the back yard with a door to an outside porch which

30ran above the solarium. It was never really used for any purpose except to keep

open on spring and summer nights. A turn to the right from that room led to a

larger bedroom which faced to the front of the house. I cannot remember if it too

had a porch door. In any case, that was Grace’s bedroom. A door on the right

side of that room led to stairs up to the attic. I can’t believe there was only one

bath originally, but I am not aware of another either down or upstairs. The

addition changed all that. From the center hall on the second floor directly to the

rear of the house a new master bedroom was created with a master bath. It was

a large room with a walk in closet and a string of large windows along one wall.

The room contained two large beds with hand-painted back boards done by one


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