Dip Room Blues

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After missing a year of high school to a life-threatening illness, Fred Tarrant would need an extra year to earn his high school diploma. Not a great student to begin with, he found himself falling just short of the credits he needed to graduate. Unwilling to trade discrete favors with one of his teachers, he returned home in 1946, sans diploma, to Saratoga Springs to work at Tarrant Manufacturing. He started in the factory dip room, alone, hooking machine frames onto an electric lift and lowering them into huge vats of paint and thinner, afterward sliding each frame over a thirty-foot drip pan. He did this over and over while, unbeknownst to him, the lift threw sparks here and there, trying its best to set the place on fire.

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Mr. Wrestling

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For many boys at the New York Institute, the man that made self-respect achievable was one Clyde L. Downs of Downsville, Maryland.

When Clyde Downs first came to the Institute in 1929 at age 21, the Institute did not have a wrestling program, and Downs did not come as a wrestling coach. He appears to have been a general physical education coach, engaging students in a variety of activities.

Overbrook School in Philadelphia has been credited with the first wrestling program for blind kids, started in 1929,[3] the very same year that NYI hired Clyde Downs. The Institute would sometimes compete against Overbrook. The Philadelphia-based program was an all-white program, while the New York Institute was integrated. When the two teams met, the Institute’s non-white players were not able to participate, so the Institute was subjected to a handicap. But it seems that in the early years Overbrook had a genuinely superior program. A February 1937 story in Time Magazine describes a 22–5 beating handed to the Institute by Overbrook. By 1942, however, New York Institute students and graduates began to appear at or near the top of regional and national tournaments to a degree that Overbrook never had.

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The Strike of ’43

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When it came to John Jensen’s character, his failures could be as telling as his successes. Fred Tarrant recalls a night when his buddy John was heading out on a big date. Fred, though blind, could see better than John, so John had him inspect his outfit. Fred was impressed with John’s stunning white suit and red boutonnière, and sent John off into the New York night with his full approval. John returned later that night with his white suit splattered with grease, soil, and blood. He had fallen off a train platform en route to his date!

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Blind Guide: Father Sutcliffe

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Father Harry Sutcliffe

Father Harry Sutcliffe

Harry J. Sutcliffe was born in Brooklyn, New York on 10 August 1925. He was delivered premature and lost his sight soon thereafter to an incubator mishap.

The “age of radio” was a special time to be a blind kid. Amateur radio was also a fascination of many blind hobbyists, one of whom was young Harry Sutcliffe. Anthony Mannino describes Sutcliffe’s career as a “ham” operator in his April 1963 Blind American article:

At the age of thirteen the young student became interested in amateur radio, and by the time he was sixteen was a confirmed “ham” operator. He did a great deal of reading of technical material on the subject and studied under the expert teaching of Bob Gunderson, well-known teacher of the blind. During World War II there were fifteen or twenty amateur radio operators at the school, who worked for the Radio Intelligence Division of the Federal Communications Commission, engaged in recording propaganda broadcasts. Young Sutcliffe also worked for the War Emergencies Radio Services of the Office of Civilian Defense of New York, covering telephone failures resulting from attack or other emergencies. For his participation in this important work he was awarded a citation by the late Fiorello LaGuardia, then Mayor of New York City.[1]

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From Masseur to Chiropractor

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JohnJensenMassageClassAfter graduating from the New York Institute, Dad moved to Bedford Hills and then Katonah (both within several miles of home), and studied massage therapy at the Swedish Institute in Manhattan for 9 months.

At age 22, Dad followed his parents to Bernardsville, New Jersey, where his father was a caretaker on another property, apparently the exquisite Blairsden Estate[1]

At age 23 (1947/48), Dad enrolled at the Chiropractic Institute of New York [2]. He helped to pay his way by working as a masseur. Though chiropractic was surely Dad’s choice, that choice may have been influenced by his father’s dream that his son would become a doctor some day. [3]

Nick D'Amato

Nick D’Amato

Dad opened his first chiropractic practice at age 27 in the town of Rye, NY, perhaps in his parents’ apartment. He moved his practice to New Rochelle a year later. His parents and his sister moved in with him. This made it difficult to present the office as an office, but his mother surely helped however she could [4]. One of Dad’s best friends was fellow chiropractic student Nick D’Amato. Nick happened to be a brother of boxing trainer/manager Cus D’Amato, but more important, Nick was a kind of saint. To Dad, Nick was a faithful friend, and occasionally a practical joker. He helped Dad however he could, such as helping him with lecture notes. He was the friendly, helpful type. During the war, Nick had specialized in helping soldiers, many of them amputees, cope with their physical and psychological wounds.

© 2015 Kaweah

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[1] Fred Tarrant remembers visiting Dad and his family at Bernardsville

[2] 325 East 38th Street, in the Murray Hill neighborhood, presently the Indonesian consulate to the UN.

[3] According to Fred Tarrant, Grandpa had a singular, unwavering dream that Dad would become a doctor. Fred knew Dad’s parents, having stayed with the family on several occasions. He claims to have had the highest respect for Grandpa, though he admits that he liked to rile Grandpa by talking to him about controversial topics such as evolution.

[4] Fred Tarrant remembers visiting the Dad’s New Rochelle office.

Glaucoma

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At age 19, John Jensen was injured while wrestling, and the injury led to glaucoma, which took away what little of his vision remained, caused him a great deal of discomfort, and robbed him of the balance, agility, and speed that made him a remarkable wrestler.

In the summer before his senior year, J.J. was to get a cornea transplant to save his remaining eye. The night before his appointment, he awoke to find everything dark. He felt a lamp, and it was hot. The next day, the doctor determined there was too much pressure on the eye to perform the transplant. This traumatic episode set John back as a wrestler, though he continued to wrestle competitively. He attended an Olympic trial in San Francisco [1], but the glaucoma degraded his performance, as it would throughout the year to come. He tried to rehabilitate but he couldn’t get it all back. John’s days as “the Bull” were over.

John had been almost entirely blind since he was three, when diphtheria nearly killed him, took one of his eyes, and nearly took the other. As a boy, he could see very fuzzy shapes within a couple feet of his face. It was only good for detecting the presence of light. Now a man, his blindness was complete, though he could still “see” large objects by using passive echolocation (he didn’t ping for echo).

© 2015 Kaweah

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[1] Probably in spring 1944. Fred Tarrant confirms that the trials were in San Francisco. There were no Olympic games in 1944, but it appears that trials were held. Fred was too ill to compete. John managed to make the trip, but he was ill and did poorly. Fred says the illness in this case was John’s glaucoma.

Bronx Batman: Gene Manfrini

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Manfrini_1951aAnother blind wrestler who attended New York Institute and competed for McBurney YMCA was 145-pound Gene Manfrini, who won several NY Metropolitan AAU titles, competed at the 1947 National AAU wrestling championships in San Francisco, and was a standout at Columbia University where he is featured here in Life Magazine (April 16, 1951). Manfrini was four years younger than Dad.

These photos are from a spread in the April 16, 1951 issue of LIFE. Note Manfrini’s passive, relaxed starting pose. Also note the remark about his excellent sense of balance.

Manfrini may have been a bit of a late bloomer. Though he competed in the AAU nationals at age 18 and later shined while studying at Columbia, the records that I’ve found from when he was probably a sophomore at the NY Institute show him losing matches in the 125-pound class.Manfrini_1951b

More from Manfrini’s obituary:[1]

“He learned the piano, violin, and organ, and also became an honor student. On the violin, he reached the virtuosity of the Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor. His instructor went back to England and he took up the piano. He played everything from Boogie Woogie to Bach for the rest of his life. At age ten, he sang in the institute’s choral group which performed with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski at Carnegie Hall.”

“… In the fall of 1948 he entered Columbia College. He undertook “General Studies” which the college required in order to prove himself. In February of 1949, he was officially admitted because of his straight “A” average, and not because of his handicap.”

Manfrini_1952c“… Columbia wrestling coach Dick Waite said that Gene had one of the finest sense of balance that he had ever seen, and he had complete control of his body at all times. He asked no concessions because of his blindness. His only request was that the referee remained still while he was in the ring.”

“… He eventually built his Piano Tuning and Rebuilding business into the best in this country. His clients consisted of Irving Berlin, Horowitz, Arthur Rubenstein, RCA, Columbia Recording, Frank Loesser, Arthur Schwartz, Harold Arlen, Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck, Andre Kostelantz, Roseland Dance Land, Julliard School of Music, and many more.

“For years, Gene had his own music group, The Mood Men. They played throughout NYC in many nightclubs. They also played in New Jersey, Lake George, and Ticonderoga. His great love of classical jazz made him well known and loved.

“Until about 15 years ago, Gene traveled all over New York City, The Bronx, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and even Europe without a cane or a dog. His sense of balance and hearing was unequaled.

“Traveling in New York City eventually became hazardous, and after several instances of falling into holes that were left open, he began to use a guide dog. During his life he had two, Lindy and Fanny, and a bond was formed with both dogs that only a blind person could understand.”

© 2015 Kaweah

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[1] Manfrini died 23 June, 2008 at age 79.

Bronx Batman: Jacob Twersky

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Jacob Twersky, another remarkable graduate of NY Institute for the Blind, wrestled successfully for the City College of New York, and went on to a PhD and worked as a writer and a history professor. He was also a leading advocate for the blind, often arguing that blind people could achieve remarkable things and should not be discouraged from trying. Twersky preceded my father at the Institute by several years. He lived to age 93, finally passing away on 23 July, 2014.

© 2015 Kaweah

Bronx Batman: Anthony Mattei

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Another very accomplished wrestler from the Institute was Anthony Mattei. Wrestling in Tarrant’s weight class, Mattei blossomed as a wrestler when Jensen’s and Tarrant’s fortunes faded, winning the senior Metropolitan title in 1946, and losing in the national semifinals to the wrestler who would go on to win the final (as Tarrant had done).

… The valedictorian was Anthony Mattei, 17 years old, of Springfield, Queens, who will attend New York University in the fall. In addition to winning the honors, the youth has the distinction of being the first blind wrestler to have won the senior metropolitan 155-pound championship. … [1]

Not merely a fine wrestler, Mattei was an excellent student and went on to teach math for a living. Though he was not allowed to drive, he thoroughly enjoyed riding shotgun in his Cadillac with his wife at the wheel. [2]

© 2015 Kaweah

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[1] “Blind Get Diplomas,” New York Times, 22 June 1946

[2] Pelham Progress, 23 June 1967.

Bronx Batman: Fred Tarrant

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Fred Tarrant was particularly close to Dad. They were teammates, sparring partners, weight-training partners, friends, and conspirators. I exchange correspondence with Fred, as well as an occasional phone call. Fred and Dad first met when Fred first enrolled at the Institute, when “J.J.” had just turned 15. Tarrant was a couple years younger than Jensen but bigger by a weight class. He placed 2nd in the junior Metropolitan AAU tournament at age 16 and went on to place third in the National AAU title the following March at Baltimore in 1944 [1]. After that, he returned home to place 2nd in the Metropolitan AAU tournament. Tragically, Fred’s brain had taken too much abuse from his lifestyle on the one hand and dehydration from his attempts to drop pounds before his last tournament. He underwent brain surgery; he was hospitalized for the better part of year, and he lost a year of school. Because of this, Fred didn’t graduate until 1946. He tried to get back into wrestling form, but he could never recapture his former fire. His wrestling days were over.

As good as Fred was, he says that he could never beat Dad. He describes Dad as an “explosive force.” Perhaps he’s being gracious.

Tarrant was from Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. His grandfather had started a manufacturing business that Fred’s father worked in. Fred would return to Saratoga Springs after graduation to work in the family business. He started his own manufacturing business in 1969, but he could only manage to break even, so after four years of that he gave landlording a try. That kept Fred, his wife Odilie, and their two kids in the black for twenty years. They then moved to Naples, Florida, where after some time Fred got involved in municipal government. In 2005, Fred and Odilie moved to the mountains of Costa Rica. Like Dad, Fred had a hard time with the heat and humidity of the South, so he is much more comfortable at a kilometer above sea level.

As a city councilman in Naples, Florida, Tarrant once made the news by objecting to the display of artwork that he deemed inappropriate. Tarrant being blind, many people found this ironic, but of course people regularly express opinions based on accounts from trusted sources. When a blind man does so, some people don’t judge him by the same standard.

Fred, sharp as a titanium tack at age 88, has turned to writing in his retirement. He recounts the past with modest confidence, vividness, and color. There is a story of Dad falling off a train platform in New York that I have heard on a number of occasions from the horse’s mouth. It’s a pleasure to hear Fred’s account. He recalls that Dad had a date with a beautiful young lady, and he got dressed up in a white jacket and a pink carnation (yes, Fred could see color; he just couldn’t see well enough to read). The next thing Fred knew, “Johnny” had returned with his nice white outfit covered in blood and grease. Johnny had fallen off the train platform.

© 2015 Kaweah

[1] Fred was thrown my Emil J. Tomick in the semifinal. Tomick went on to win the championship.