Along Lucky Thirteen
Albright, Our Home From Home
Yvonne Voigt Molloy
My education along Thirteenth Street, from Kindergarten through College, began at Albright College. My parents Ethel Osmond and H. William Voigt were well-loved professors who met at Albright which was then called Schuylkill College. My mother had been Dean of Women and a Home Economics instructor and my father was Dean of Men and an English professor. They were a fine looking couple who married in 1922 and bought our house just a half-block from the college at 1519 Fourteenth Street. So, all six of us children were professors’ kids. Since childhood, we knew Albright by heart. It was our family’s domain, our home from home, our grand natural playground. In spring we climbed Albright’s cherry trees and played softball in the grassy baseball diamond. We roller skated with daring all round the winding college paths, up and down the steep hills, jumping our skates onto smooth 13th Street.
In the autumn, Papa took us to Albright football games always getting in for free. We sledded down our favorite campus hills in winter, aware of every icy bump and stayed sledding day without end. At Christmas time, friendly Home Economic students let us help bake heavenly-smelling Christmas cookies. We trooped the college halls, meeting students who were writing news stories for The Albrightian.
The Voigt Children attended each May Day celebration, cheering as Albright’s Queen of the May was crowned with a wreath of lovely white spirea. But one of my earliest and fondest memories, since I was a tot, is attending the Greek plays that my father presented on the steps of the Merner-Peiffer Hall of Science. I swear! This sparked my first desire to be in theatre.
We already knew many professors and staff who socialized with our parents including: French teacher Miss Garlach, Home Ec teacher Miss Innis; Robert Work, librarian; Dr. Gingrich; Harry Masters; Dean Walton; Marcus Green; Dr. Hamilton; and Dr. Albright, himself. Later at school, I grew acquainted with staff children like John Gingrich, Tom Masters, Mary Hamilton and William Heck.
When our beloved father died of myocarditis and lobar pneumonia on February 26, 1937, our world was changed suddenly and utterly. Mother tried to resume her Albright teaching position so that she could provide for us six children who were aged two to twelve. The college refused, informing her: “Your place is at home with all of those children.” Mother never walked by or on the campus again. The professor who took over our father’s position offered her half of his salary, but she refused his assistance.
As we children entered Thirteenth Street schools, where many teachers not only knew our parents but had had them as professors, we continued to enjoy Albright College.
I was three years old. It was 1933. And I was allowed to go to Brother Alvi’s kindergarten class at Thirteenth and Union Elementary school. From my earliest days, I had begged, “I want to go to school, too.” And believe that I received special permission because of my parents’ connection to Albright.
So, while I was three, four and five, I was the happiest scholar in miss Fehr’s kindergarten. To me, Miss Fehr was very fair, the fairest teacher of them all. She had long blond hair swept into a French twist, framing her beautiful face and laughing eyes. Like all female teachers then, she was unmarried. If women did marry, they would lose their jobs as teachers. Miss Fehr would have been kicked out. It seemed we were her children.
In my child’s estimation, Miss Fehr was kind, high-spirited and gorgeous. What an ideal personality for teaching. In her atmosphere of fun and practical learning, we soon learned much more than singing the alphabet song. Next to the slidey board, there was a grocery store that boasted model groceries and play money. A favorite of all the children, it taught us practical arithmetic in a playful manner. Miss Fehr taught with imagination, using music, storytelling and poetry. Her teaching style was a great influence that lasted throughout this student’s life as a teacher, mother and theatre artist.
First grade brought us a hairpin schoolmarm named Miss Paul who believed: “Life is real, life is earnest.” Even at six years of age! She lined us up in front of school, girls separated from boys, who had to remove their caps as they entered. She taught through fear making me feel more shy. Miss Paul told us to bring in hard boiled eggs so we could dye them for an Easter project. Of course I forgot. Just as she was lecturing “keep your mind on what’s important,” Papa strolled into the classroom carrying my forgotten eggs. At that moment, Miss Paul smiled the first and only smile I’d ever see, shining up to my professor dad. Soon I was painting my Easter eggs heavenly blue as I whispered, “Thank you, Papa.”
My all-time favorite teacher along Thirteenth Street was Miss Mattern. She presided over fantastic nature study classes that included real praying mantises on the ceiling and a beehive buzzing with actual honey bees.
Fifth grade was passing classes for the first time and Miss Yoder who got married but was allowed to stay teaching since it was 1940. I began free violin lessons at school. And I was selected as the narrator in the Annual Christmas pageant, entoning: “And there was in the same country shepherds abiding in the field . . . and they were sore afraid . . .” Every teacher praised my speaking voice, further encouraging a serious interest in theatre.
If these sound like simple times, it is true, we were very innocent. Our parents expected us to love school by, to work hard and “get all e’s for excellent.”
Every day after school we played school on our front steps. I taught the students—Patsy, Natalie and sister Deedee—in wicked imitations of teachers. Miss Iback: “Long live the dumb.” Miss Strunk: “Quick-lay and Quiet-lay.” And Miss Marshall: “Your best is none too good.”
My sixth grade classmates feared Miss Lucia M.C. Reedy—the Terror. As soon as she laid eyes on me, she announced, “I expect great things from you with Professor Voigt for a father, God rest his soul. Your brother William was one of my best students. And your brother David as well.”
Uh-oh, I thought. I’m being compared to my older brothers again. At the end of a strong year of memorable teaching, she amazingly wrote in my autograph book, “Here’s to the best student I have ever taught.”
During grade school, we had three influential arts consultants. Miss Swoyer belonged to the Berks County Historical Society and was a talented art instructor who taught us Pennsylvania German design. Miss Horton was a dragon lady who taught Parker penmanship—much needed now in an age of computer-bred scrawlers. She had us write endless loops and accordion lines—up-down, up-down, up-down—on our fingertips with pen and ink. For what reason? We still wonder why. And I managed to receive a penmanship award. But ever after, I’ve been grateful Miss Horton, Miss Swoyer and to Miss Geiger who taught us to read music and to sing like birds.
I passed from a caring grade school to Northeast Junior High on Thirteenth Street, of course. Principal James Ambrose Shook met us in his auditorium and explained the rite of passage. Sadly, I realized that I had to stop acting like a tomboy and grow up. “Apply yourself,” Mr. Shook urged. “Think of what college you’ll be attending, what you’ll become, what career, what contribution you’ll give to the world.”
He went on to proclaim: “Every Thursday, all students will attend Song Assembly and every Friday, a regular Assembly. Also, each homeroom will present a one-act play during Assembly.”
He had us learn the academic songs that we’d need to know when, not if, we went to college. There was Yale’s song, Boola Boola (our Papa knew that from Yale Divinity school); the Albright song, and the Penn State song that Mother often sang. We even sang To Juniata College Dear—Mr. Shook’s alma mater song.
From infancy, all of us Voigts were headed for college. It was part of our family’s great expectations. Then suddenly I was taking College Prep, which meant Latin with Mary Jane Taylor. She married while we were her students. Fortunately for us, she was allowed to continue teaching.
At first, I felt like an outsider in Latin class. I hardly knew what a foreign language was, let alone a dead one, except for a smattering of Pennsylvania Dutch heard everywhere in Berks County in that era. But very soon, I was happily learning amo, amas, amat, Britannia est insula and Adeste Fideles with great feeling. During seventh, eighth and ninth grades, I grew to adore Latin and how the English language originated from Latin roots.
We girls were separated from the boys while they had print shop and wood shop. The girls had sewing the first half of the year and cooking the next. As a former Home Economics professor, my mother bitterly criticized our teacher for having us slowly sew a blouse or dress from small-size patterns without considering how rapidly twelve and thirteen year old girls developed and grew. “I can guarantee this blouse won’t fit you when you finally finish it.” Mother warned. “That lovely dimity cost the earth.”
Mother railed against the inept cooking instructor for having “four girls at a table each performing the smallest step in applesauce preparation. You should learn independent cooking and bake yeast breads.”
There was the music department where I played violin in the orchestra and accompanied the glee club. I started taking on a violin Mother bought at one of her many auctions. Mother was addicted to auctions. She had auction fever. Inside the violin it boasted the credential: Stradivarius, Cremona, Italy. But we all knew it was a fake. Mother secured a real violin teacher at Wittier’s Music House. Mr. Hallman told me I had to relearn violin. It seemed that all I’d gained from Mr. Chiaparelli’s free lessons was a habit of holding the fiddle like a lazy country fiddler and bad pitch. Mr. Hallman’s lessons instilled intense nervousness when playing in public.
As a result of my new lessons, I joined a string trio with cellist Bob Perry and pianist Rod Ash. We were hired for to perform at banquets for $30 a performance. I could not continue, however, as I was too nervous to play beautifully enough.
I preferred to accompany Northeast’s Glee Club. When I failed to manage the Hallelujah Chorus, Rod Ash encouraged me to take from his piano teacher Byron Nunemacher. Byron had me relearn piano so that I was classically trained. Yet another extreme makeover. My wonderful mother wrote one of her famous letters to Mrs. Charles F. Miller: “Yvonne can no longer take piano lessons because of her physical condition.” Mother explained it to me: “It is the truth. You have the condition of being physical, and we don’t want to hurt Mrs. Miller’s feelings.” Somehow Mother managed to pay the new teacher much more. $1.75 an hour, following Mrs. Miller’s mere $1 an hour.
I loved Northeast’s emphasis on the arts. Our teachers had us stand up in front of class reciting Shakespeare and reams of poetry by heart. I dared to audition for Mr. Shook’s annual poetry contest with: “Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten love . . .” I’d heard that Poe was Mr. Shook’s favorite poet and learned it all by heart. I was mortified not to be chosen, but I still remember that poem. And many others.
I soon got cast in our homeroom play as Sadie in Sadie Socks the Saboteurs: a Thrilling Comedy in One Act. Grace Faust, my Elocution teacher, had us perform plays at Albright College. We thought they were hilarious, and Miss Faust’s solos were fantastically funny. My mother somehow found the wherewithal for lessons at 75 cents an hour.
All too soon we graduated to Reading High, known as the Castle on the Hill. But we called it the Jail on the Hill because it was crowded and rule-ridden. We could only elect one activity. I chose Orchestra with the full-blooded American Indian, Mr. Fred Cardin. He directed the orchestra and was also a music instructor teaching us robust Oklahoma Indian calls and songs from the musical Oklahoma.
Then came Yale, which made up for old Reading High, the Jail on the Hill.
As my mother perused Papa’s alumni literature she noticed that Yale Music School offered summer sessions to talented high school and college students. “A cat may look at a king.” She shouted. “You’re a talented high school musician. We’ll try for a scholarship at Yale. Where your Papa went.”
She urged Mr. Nunemacher and my new violin teacher, J. Walter Reider to compose recommendations. So when I was sixteen going on seventeen I traveled by train to Norfolk, Connecticut. I received outstanding musical instruction along with art, speech and theatre classes with the best teachers in the land. This cat sure did look at a king. What a marvelous mother to scrounge up fifty dollars for the six week course. Yale made my life in Reading endurable. I spent three glorious summers with talented friends who were destined for the Ivy League and professional music schools. I had world famous teachers who were my friends and mentors. Hugo Kortschak had me relearn violin technique yet again. “You must hold your wiolin with your chin, so your left hand is indiwidual. Und play the Mozart Konzert as if each phrase is a fine piece of poetry. Musical poerty.” Virgina Mackey taught pianists how to teach piano. Betsy Chase taught us living art history. And I was introduced to Irish Theatre with our dramatic reading of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.
Returning to Reading High and their stringent rules was quite a letdown. For instance, I was put in detention my one and only time, for leaving my fiddle overnight in the locked orchestra room. “So unjust.” I thought as I sat among all the kids who were going nowhere (one of Mother’s expressions).
Another of Mother Voigt’s sayings was: “You and Vi are going places. Always try for auditions and scholarships.” So, in my senior year, I applied for the Mary Hunter Mayer scholarship and receive a four year scholarship to a college of my choice. My choice was to: get a B.A. degree from Albright College in three years, then to Penn State master’s program for one year. I also entered the Why-I-Like-the-New-Hammond-Organ-at-Reading-High contest and won. Fifty dollars. I’m sure I was the only student to enter that one.
My excellent twelfth grade English teacher, Marietta Johnson, urged the seniors to enter writing contests. I tried for the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Will Democracy Survive? Contest, with the winner receiving a four year scholarship to Penn State. My uninspired treatise landed me in second place. Sadly, there was no second prize. Lois Rothenberger came in first, but she never went to college at all. I was just furious. I would have died to move away from home and go to Penn State. After all, my mother graduated from Penn State. In 1918, the first year it was possible for women to graduate. Brother Bill drove Mother and me to her 30th reunion. The alumni festivities made up for missing the senior prom, which was held the same weekend we enjoyed State College. No one had asked me to the prom anyway.
Moving along Thirteenth Street, I embarked on my education at Albright College the day after graduating from Reading High in June 1948. Mother believed, “It’s smart to finish Albright in three years. That way you get to go away to college to my alma mater, Penn State, or Yale Music School, or even to Radcliffe.”
Summer session was totally unlike the college experience I’d envisioned. No travel, no living in a dorm, no sororities, parties, or clubs. It entailed getting freshman requirements out of the way and, “taking as many credits as allowed.” Mother said. “And more!”
I met one professor that summer who made it worth my while. “Be aware.” Dr. Edith Douds, our English Comp professor, said, “Write continually from what you know.” She encouraged students in her gently Mississippi accent, “You have many stories to tell, many things to say worth saying, about lives that are worthy of expression.”
For three years I was swept up in the college experience of the budding artist with the requisite extra activities, parties, Domino Theatre Club, German and French Clubs, fraternities, chorus and orchestra.
Hans Nix was director of Albright’s orchestra and became my violin and piano teacher. He was one of the most outstanding characters on the rather bland Albright campus. Hailing from Bavaria, he was my introduction to the temperamental musician. The first time he saw my violin he shouted: “This is only zigah box, this violin. Your mother get cheap von auction. It is to laugh. She denk iss gut. It says Stradivarius, aber is nur fake, naturlich. Nun, your mother is only poor vidow voman. She hev not got a lot of dollahs. Alzo, I get violin for gut price von Chermany. Von Bayern, Bavaria ver I am coming vun. Three hundred dollars only. Zounding besser as zigah box.”
My sister Dingle and I played so many recitals in Mr. Nix’s ensembles, but I never got used to it. When I played solos at Hangen’s Music House recitals I got butterflies and the Mozart Sonata and Celtic Lament sounded horrific. Mr. Nix greeted me at the following lesson with: “Vor Vy, your bow isss chumping up and down when you play fiolin zolo at recital? You are nairvous. Himmel Herr Gott Kruz Malone Donnerwetter und a Marin. Konnen sie nicht? The audience are zo Gott damn stupid. Audiences don’t know a damn about musik. They do not hev the musik zitting on der laps. Und at recital, they only hear their own dahling kinder spielen. They don’t know a damn thing!”
At this time college campuses were flooded with World War II veterans on the GI Bill®. My brothers Bill, Dave and Al took advantage of this like so many American vets. I found myself chatting easily with khaki-clad vets as if they were my brothers. They were older than the general ministerial student population and I found their tales and experiences fascinating. Albright was an Evangelical college, so every student was required to take five religion courses including Old Testament, New Testament and Philosophies of the World.
Also mandatory, but not always enjoyed, was Public Speaking and it had a significant influence on me. Annadora Vesper was a very tall and striking professor who encouraged us with: “If you have something to say worth saying, write it, rehearse it and stand up confidently. Activate your verbs with gestures. Outline in your mind. Do not read it, oh so boring. You’ll lose your shyness, forget bashfulness. Speak as though you’re talking dramatically to one good friend. That’s the secret of getting through to the public.”
“This year I will be directing the play Good Bye My Fancy. I urge you to audition as it is sure to improve your Public Speaking. And we need all kinds of stage technicians.”
The vets passed on theatre because they had jobs and young families. Or, like my brother Bill, they were a member of the 52-20 Club—the US Government paid veterans twenty dollars a week for 52 weeks per year. Bill said he tried to get employment as a machine gunner which was his job in WWII and he scoffed at my winning a part in the Spring play. “You’re stuck rehearsing for six weeks in a play no one wants to know about. And they don’t pay you!”
It was only a college presentation in Albright’s white chapel, but I had found my calling in Theatre. My first decent character part was Miss Shackleford. I always and ever got cast as old bats like the vicious harridan as in Thunder Rock where I made audiences cry with: “The salt of her tears they yet remain!”
In my third and senior year I was selected as the lead in Jean Giraudoux’s The Mad Woman of Chaillot. I was nineteen and in my element with the college theatre critic writing that I was “a joy to watch.”
I became friends with Dr. Edith Douds and Annadora Vesper who gave me a college-paid job in their office, correcting their classes’ English compositions. Too few students took theme writing seriously and neglected to revise their papers as required. So I had to correct their corrections, scribbling C.U. on their themes. This meant correction unsatisfactory.
I often schlepped those papers to my other jobs along Thirteenth Street. There was The Druggie where my sister Thalia and I were soda jerks. We concocted divine Dolly Madison ice cream sodas, sundaes and pigs. A pig cost thirty whole cents and consisted of six scoops of ice cream plopped in a piggy-sized bowl. The Druggie was a popular high school and college hangout where I learned to relax and socialize while working and not be shy like a violet.
Annadora treated me like family and advocated for the arts. She played cello to my violin in a trio at our church, Nativity Lutheran on Thirteenth Street. Where else? Annadora’s young husband had been a pilot, killed in the war. So I babysat for her five-year-old son Pilot when she went courting with Mr. Shirk, Albright’s Coach.
After she married Coach Shirk he was voted Mayor of Reading and she was Lady Mayor Annadora Shirk. When she became pregnant, she took a sabbatical and who do you think she recommended to replace her while she was on family leave? I did not need a resume. I received the offer on my wedding day, just after completing my year’s graduate study at Trinity College, Dublin.
So, seven weeks after our wedding and honeymoon on Inishmaan, I returned to Thirteenth Street to teach Public Speaking and direct the Domino Club at Albright College. More education along Lucky Thirteen!
I found that I wasn’t as proficient a Professor of Public Speaking as Annadora. Football jocks and fraternity brothers weren’t keen on perfecting their schoolwork for me. While I hated grading their dull speeches, I shone at directing dramas and introducing the campus to Irish plays. The Domino Club presented Riders to the Sea, Aria da Capo and The Playboy of the Western World with enthusiastic casts. I toured in a very dramatic reading of The Christmas Carol that featured the head of Albright’s English department, Dr. Jim Reppert, as Scrooge.
After only one semester, my educational times along Thirteenth Street came to a quick fade. I flew back on a snowy day in late January 1954. Back to Dublin Theatre and my new husband, the talented actor and comedian John Molloy. John had applied for a visa with the aim to work in New York, but he couldn’tt secure it due to his history of tuberculosis. So we both prospered in Irish Theatre, radio and television. I look back in appreciation of my Thirteenth Street educational sojourn.