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William J. Gehron

© 2010 by William J Gehron


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.

I 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 graduate 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 interests 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 Grandpa 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 letters 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.

I 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 architect-contractor and equate the difference to American shorthand and old world artisans. In any case, the Jacob Gehron contracting firm was started in 1893 one 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 to 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 his 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 people 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 a 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 did 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 Bible 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 assumed 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.

I 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 think. 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 brokers 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. Sometimes 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.



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 his 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 life. 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 together. 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, N.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.”

Ironically, 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 Scott 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.

I 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 before 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.

As 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 third 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.

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