High School Years, 1927-1931

From the unpublished autobiograpy of James McNitt, 1992

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James McNitt's text Bill McNitt's annotations
Once into High School, I started to develop along certain lines. History and Civics posed no problem, and French and English usually brought high marks. Only Algebra, and later Trigonometry, kept me off the honor roll as a rule. Manual Training was not my forte. After a month in Metal working, I was transferred to Print Shop, where I could get by.  I even had a semester of Auto Mechanics. Gym, Music and Art brought out no signs of development along those lines. In my junior year I added Spanish to my continuing French studies. Public Speaking in my senior year brought a D when I made the mistake on our written exam in saying that the course hadn't helped me very much.

Grand Rapids South High School in 1931   

South High School in 1931

South High had a diverse group of students; working class folks and minorities sent their children to South, as well as a few pockets of well-to-do families. 

As mentioned earlier, South High School was located at the southwest corner of Hall Street and Jefferson Avenue SE. The Gerald R. Ford Job Corps Center of the U.S. Department of Labor currently occupies the building.

South High, as its name indicates, served the south end of Grand Rapids. It was a red brick building built in 1913. In the same building was South Junior High, comprised of the 7th and 8th grades. 

The 234 members of the Senior Class were assigned to Session Room 217, under the supervision of P. L. (Pop) Churm. There were not that many desks or seats, so they had to be shared. The names indicate a mainly Anglo-Saxon background, with a good representation of Dutch, several Polish or Russian Jews, and a smattering of Syrian, Italian and others.

Percy L. "Pop" Churm

The text at left was not originally part of this autobiography.  It is from a story Dad wrote in 1974 about one of his high school classmates - U.S. President Gerald R. Ford.
There was in school a small group of Young Pioneers, a Communist oriented bunch. I had access to their newspaper, but it was badly written and full of the usual clichés about capitalist imperialism. They were treated with scorn and derision and were once hauled from class to scrub out signs painted on the sidewalks outside of school regarding a May Day rally.
1 was part of a group which organized the 4-C Hi-Y, affiliated with the YMCA. There was already an existing Hi-Y club, but for some forgotten reason it did not meet our needs. This entitled us to YMCA privileges such as swimming.  I was president for a year of La Coterie Francaise, a French club at which all meetings were conducted in that language.

Four-C Hi-Y yearbook page La Coterie Francaise yearbook page Student Council yearbook page

  • Four-C Senior Hi-Y yearbook page
  • La Coterie Francaise yearbook page
  • Student Council yearbook page (includes both Dad and Gerald Ford)
Dad and Glenn had been looking around for a place to open a store. They finally decided on the small town of Conklin, some twenty miles west of Grand Rapids. Here in 1928 they opened a sizeable place with groceries, meat, and dry goods. Conklin is an unincorporated village in the northeastern part of Ottawa County and 21 miles northwest of Grand Rapids.  It was a station on the part of  the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad that ran between Grand Rapids and Muskegon.  

My grandfather spent his early years in northeastern Ottawa County and had some second cousins living around Conklin.

The village never grew very large.  Today the downtown district of Conklin consists of a grain elevator, a post office, a video/general store, a John Deere dealership, and Fenian's Irish Pub.

It was decided that I would stay with my aunts to finish out the school year. Technically their house at 107 Logan St. was in the Central High School district, but nobody ever objected. This completed the tenth grade for me. I normally would have had to go to the Conklin school, but this ran only through the tenth grade. The township board agreed to pay my tuition to South High instead of to Coopersville High, where most students went for their last two years. This meant that I was to stay with my aunts for the rest of my high school days. In the summertime I would come to Conklin and help out in the store.

Glenn, James, and Walter McNitt with their grandfather, Roando Merrill

Glenn, Jim, and Walt McNitt with their grandfather, Roando Merrill, ca. 1928

It was about two miles from the Aunts' house to South High. Some mornings Aunt Leena could drop me off on her way to work, depending on her shift. More often I would walk both ways. One cold afternoon I froze my ears before I reached the house.
Sometimes I carried my lunch, but more often I would eat at one of the nearby restaurants, usually Bill's just across the street. Although I do not recall it, it is said that future President Jerry Ford worked there.

Bill's Place

Bill's Place ca. 1930

Click here for information about President Ford's work at Bill's Place 
Speaking of Jerry Ford, I have chronicled elsewhere that while I was acquainted with him, we didn't travel in the same circles. He was well thought of as the captain of the football team and an Honor Society member, but nobody in his wildest dreams would have predicted that one day Jerry would be President.

As captain of the 1930 South High team, he [Gerald Ford] led a great squad to an undefeated season. The season culminated in a Thanksgiving Day game with traditional rival Union, from Grand Rapids' west side. Heavily Polish ethnically, they had a big, strong team which was also undefeated. South Field, in use this season for the first time, was packed to its 12,000 capacity. The stage was set for the BIG GAME, a battle for the mythical state championship.

The game was anticlimactic. Snow fell steadily, accompanied by bitter cold. In the stands the seniors and others in the student section had been issued squares of colored cloth intended for making mass displays. They offered only a little protection as head coverings against the mounds of snow as it collected on our heads and shoulders as we huddled together. On the field conditions could only be described as miserable. No effective offense could be launched, and neither team penetrated beyond the other team's 10-yard line. It ended almost inevitably in a 0-0 tie. Union was later to forfeit the game due to their having used an ineligible player.

Casrtoon from the yearbook

Cartoon from the yearbook

The text at the left was not originally part of the autobiography.  I have excerpted it from the Dad's 1974 story about Gerald R. Ford as it tells how Dad (and many of his classmates) spent Thanksgiving Day of their senior year:

More on this game appears here.

He [Gerald Ford] and I were in a Public Speaking class together.  I chose as my subject for one speech the hypocrisy of "amateur" tennis, with its under-the-table payments to outstanding netters.  Ford, possibly interpreting it. as an attack on sports in general, took issue with my stand.  I hastened to assure him that I had no wish to demean the sport as such, but that I felt the payments should be out in the open.

This is another excerpt from Dad's 1974 story Dad about Gerald R. Ford.
My best friend in high school was Paul Vonk. His father, Gerrit, born in the Netherlands, ran a paint store on the west side. There was an older brother, Cornelius, then away at college, as well as Martha and John, both younger. I was often at their house on weekends, sometimes going to church with them. Paul ran on the cross-country team and occasionally placed on the track team in the 440-yard run.

Paul Vonk

Paul Vonk

Paul Vonk went on to a career in academia culminating in his service as President of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, from 1967 to 1975.
In my Junior year at school one of our assignments in English class was to write a lengthy story. My novel."The Children's Rebellion", which involved a march on Washington, was well received. The following year I was invited to join the staff of The Pioneer, a monthly literary magazine. I wrote several stories which were published.

Pioneer yearbook page

Pioneer yearbook page

No copies of "The Children's Rebellion" have survived.  Here are links to PDF files of some of Dad's writings that appeared in The Pioneer:
Early in my Senior year our faculty adviser, Miss Thelma Anton, stopped me in the hall. She said Leo VanTassel, who had been slated to be Editor-in-chief of the magazine and yearbook, had decided to run for class president, which automatically eliminated him. from the editorial job. She asked me to take the job. Although I realized I was totally unprepared, I accepted.

Thelma Anton

Dad's 1974 story about Gerald R. Ford adds a few details:

Joining the Pioneer staff the previous year as a writer, I had gained minor fame due to a flair for words and a lively imagination. A shy, introverted youth, I mentally questioned my ability to fill the difficult and demanding job, but I stammered an acceptance.

Miss Anton was a 1922 graduate of South High School, so she was only about nine years older than students in the class of 1931. After finishing college she worked elsewhere both as a teacher and a librarian before returning to South High as an English teacher in 1930. 

The job took up much of my time in my senior year, first on the Pioneer, then on the Pioneer yearbook. As a result of the position, I was sent to Cleveland, along with Bernard Cary, the business manager, Patricia Coe, the circulation manager and Miss Anton, on a school publications seminar. We were treated to a program of readings and songs by Carl Sandburg.

Photographs of yearbook staff Yearbook staff page

Yearbook staff photographs and staff page

The first issue of The Pioneer after Dad took over contains a welcome to the new editor and notes that "The sudden withdrawal of Leo VanTassel from the staff to enter Senior politics, made it necessary for James McNitt to assume the rather complex duties of editor-in-chief without any opportunity for special training and practice."

Pioneer staff members who filled minor positions received one credit per semester for their work.  Dad and others who filled major posts received two credits.  In addition, 1 to 6 extracurricular points were assigend to various poisitions on the staff.

Shortly after our return, I underwent a mandatory test on English grammar, which I failed, probably due to its coming so soon after the seminar. As a result I had to take a class in grammar during my final semester. In a way it was a good thing. I was not actually weak in the subject, so was able to sail through the class with a minimum of effort.
The magazine turned out all right, but there was some criticism of the yearbook. It was the bottom of the Depression; money was very scarce, so the book had to be cheapened in several ways, principally on the cover. I had to choose a theme, and came up with the idea of a deck of cards. It was pointed out that some deeply religious parents might object, so a compromise was made on the game of chess. When Jerry Ford became President many years later, the books became quite valuable, one auctioning for $475.00. One dealer currently lists a copy of this yearbook with a price of $5,000.
In June, 1931, the class graduated, the first to do so from a newly constructed auditorium. My grades put me in the upper sixth of our class. I don't recall too much about the graduation. At the Class Day exercises I was dressed, as were the other boys, in a blue jacket, white flannel trousers and black and white shoes.  It was a stiflingly hot night, and whenever we rose, the wooden folding chairs tended to stick to the trousers and come up with us.

Commencement program James McNitt in yearbook James McNitt's Senior photograph

  • South High School commencement program, 1931 (PDF file)
  • Yearbook entry for Dad, 1931
  • Senior photograph of Dad, 1931