The Bronx Batmen

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John Jensen wasn’t the only gifted wrestler to come out of the NY Institute. Three other blind wrestlers from the school won Metropolitan AAU titles in the years from 1942 to 1948, and a couple nearly took national titles in 1944 and 1946, Their names were Jacob Twersky, Anthony Mattei, Gene Manfrini, and Fred Tarrant.

In 1944, the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind featured three wrestlers from ages 15 to 17 who would either win metropolitan titles or nearly win national titles. John Jensen, then 19, was their captain.

I call these athletes “batmen” because they were blind (some more blind than others) and so fought their battles in the darkness.

Bob Russell, a less-accomplished wrestler and academic dynamo who graduated from the Institute three years before, went on to be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame [1]. None of these superior wrestlers received such honors. Though their accomplishments may have been easier to achieve during wartime due to reduced competition, many of their greatest wrestling victories came after the war, and it was not as though servicemen had ceased to compete in athletics during the war. On the contrary, much attention and honor was bestowed upon servicemen in such competitions, and rightly so. Though the war may have provided some blind wrestlers with opportunities to rise to the top, it may have eclipsed the accomplishments of others. And these were not men who vanished after their wrestling careers ended. Each of them went on to lead productive lives as fathers, teachers, artists, politicians, and businessmen.

Some Senior Metropolitan AAU Results (blind wrestlers in bold)

Year Weight Class 1st Place 2nd Place Remarks
1942 121 Jacob Twersky
1942 (Dec) 135 Murray Edelman
1942 (Dec) 150 Chris Soukas Morris Nemer
1943 135 Edward Collins Weyman McNabb West Side Y
1943 145 Lawrence Cowell Chris Soukas Sat, Mar 20
1944 145 Lawrence Cowell John Jensen**  
1944 155 Fred Tarrant**  
1945 145 Lawrence Cowell Gene Manfrini**  
1946 155 Anthony Mattei** March 23/30?
1947 135 Murray Edelman* Eddie Collins Metro
1947 145 Gene Manfrini* Kenneth Hunte McBurney Y
1947 155 Chris Soukas Sat, March 22
1948 136 Murray Edelman* NYAC
1948 147 Gene Manfrini* Sat, March 27

** New York Institute for the Education of the Blind

* McBurney YMCA

[1] Robert W. Russell, who went on to wrestle on the Yale varsity squad and become an accomplished professor and writer, was awarded the National “Medal of Courage” in the year 2000 by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

© 2015 Kaweah

The Captain

It wasn’t just in wrestling that John Jensen was something of a leader. In April 1943, he and his buddy Fred led a sit-down strike in assembly to protest restrictions to contact with girls and limits to weekend permits. There was no rioting or shouting, only silent “civil disobedience.” Principal Frampton lost his cool and suspended the 200 boys who followed John and Fred into the strike. They were all sent home. Fred went home with John to Mount Kisco. After 19 days of suspension, they were offered an opportunity to apologize in exchange for reentry. John and Fred did not apologize, so their suspensions were resumed, and they packed up and returned to Mount Kisco. After a couple weeks, the Institute’s board of directors inquired into the suspensions and chose to terminate the suspensions unconditionally. John and Fred returned to the Bronx, no strings attached. Fred reports that Principal Frampton was extra nice after the two returned to school. Fred also reports that John’s father was not happy about John losing school time. Fred assures me that Mr. Jensen did not lose his temper, but he was very serious about his son studying to become a doctor, and he made it clear that he was disappointed in his son.

In June, John got a summer job at Aero Spark Plug punching brass cones. He quickly learned that he was not one for working in factories, however, so he quit after a month. It appears that he may have had another summer job lined up in Schenectady.

In the fall of that year, John put a wrestling meet with the McBurney Y ahead of a concert being performed by the Institute’s choir. After causing a commotion among his superiors, he managed to make it to the concert and participate fully and successfully. It was reported that “he gave the impression of intending to have his own way though secretly no doubt wished to support the cause.”

During the following winter, Dad once more gave wrestling priority over a school function: a blood drive. This time he did it in partnership with a fellow wrestler (and fellow future masseur), Arthur Torgerson. They would not give blood because it would weaken them during the tournament the next day. The two wrestlers were certain that the school could make an exception for them just this once, but then the school had possibly thought the war effort ought to trump a voluntary wrestling meet. On the other hand, compelling blind kids to give blood might seem to be a questionable policy. Still, John might not have been the most graceful negotiator. One Jean Westwick reports:

“I did say that I doubted whether they could withdraw from the trip [to give blood] at this late date and Jensen said in no uncertain terms that he certainly could. … I felt he was rather sarcastic in his way of speaking. It wasn’t really what he said but his general attitude that I considered extremely bad mannered. He is a nice boy but very spoiled and self-assured one I think.”

It’s possible that this incident might have been avoided by better planning on the part of the two wrestlers.

John could be headstrong. One might have characterized him as an “uppity blink,” though he was somewhat soft-spoken in his earnestness. A sophomore at age 18, he did not always respond well to being managed like a handicapped child, but he did have his defenders:

“John is a very retiring boy, but has the moral courage to take a stand, for what he feels is right on any issue that arises. His reticence and calm determination are often misinterpreted by people who do not take the time to understand him. I have heard him called obstinate and stubborn, but I just can’t see it. He is not a good mixer. He would rather fraternize with one or two, than to be a party of a large group. This does not add to his popularity, and some people think he is snobbish. I can’t see this either. He is definitely not a play boy, and life is a serious proposition to him, but he is far from being snobbish.

“He is happy in his quiet way, and his sweet, clear, tuneful, tenor voice is one of the cheering notes of Akerly. I frequently open my door to better hear him singing in the bathroom. …” [1]

[1] Comments from the Housemother of Akerly House, NYIEB, John Jensen student record.

Mat Men

Johnny “J.J.” Jensen got into wrestling while attending the New York Institute for the Blind. He began to wrestle competitively at a time with the Institute’s wrestling coach began to promote his team of DadSparringblind kids and drive them around to tournaments.

J.J. was dedicated, and he was good—one of New York’s best. He was made the Institute’s team captain in his sophomore year (at age 17) [1]. He even won a Metropolitan AAU title [2]. I don’t have a record of that one, though one of his biggest defeats was featured in the NY Times. He got to the senior Metropolitan final in March 1944 and got beat by the national champion, Lawrence Cowell of the West Side Y.

John had been heard to say that wrestling was his religion, and he backed up that claim by putting wrestling before just about everything else.

At one point, John began to work out on Friday nights at the 23rd Street YMCA,[3] also known as the McBurney YMCA (since 1943). He would also compete on the Y’s team [4]. At the Y, John would get to workout with several 1947 metropolitan champions: Murray Edelman [5], a Jewish-American in the 135-pound class, and Chris Soukas, a Greek-American in the 155-pound class, as well as the NY Institute’s own Gene Manfrini (145 pounds, Dad’s own weight class [6]). John’s buddy from the Institute, Fred Tarrant, also worked out at the Y. Fred wrestled at 155 pounds, and he was good enough to make the 1944 national semifinals.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

[1] Pelham Progress, 15 Dec 1942.

[2] The records on wrestling are quite sparse, particularly when one waits till 70 years later to do one’s research. I haven’t been able to find any record of Dad winning a specific tournament. The championship referenced in his school records could have been in a junior competition, which are poorly covered in the press.

[3] At 213 W. 23rd Street until it moved to 125 W. 14th Street in 2000.

[4] The only record I have of it is a reference to a YMCA meet in his school records. Mom recalls that the Y won at least one meet with Dad on their team.

[5] Or Adelman. Edelman won over a dozen Metropolitan titles and at least one junior National title.

[6] The only record of him wrestling at another weight was at 165 pounds, a week after he’d wrestled at 145. He was clearly wrestling a bigger guy, and he lost that bout.

The Institute

John Jensen was almost entirely blind from age three and attended a specialized school, New York Institute for the Education of the Blind (NYIEB). This was a residential school in the Bronx. It is still operating, but not exclusively for the blind. “Johnny” entered first grade just after his eighth birthday and graduated high school at age twenty. This kind of lag, though not typical at the school, was not terribly uncommon. The school reports serving students as old as age 21.JohnJensen

“The Institute,” as it was familiarly called, was rich in courageous kids who would travel about New York City without canes, guide dogs, or even outstretched arms. Though John Jensen was spoiled and dysfunctional when he entered the institute, he matured into a very independent student. His buddy Fred Tarrant, who attended the Institute because he was too blind to read (though in his youth could see enough to ride a bike), reports that this was not merely common; it was enforced. Fred tells me that students at the Institute were shamed out of using canes. As if that weren’t severe enough, students who walked around with their arms flailing before them were reviled as “gropers.” Treatment like this, though arguably abusive, was perhaps not ineffective for those like John Jensen who were so proud as to make pride seem, well, like a mortal sin. This was one school for the “special” that didn’t baby its students.

Academically, John was an average student. He started with mostly C’s, getting a lone D in “language” in first grade. He continued to receive C’s in second grade. He began to show progress in fourth grade, receiving B’s in language, reading, arithmetic, and geography. He managed to earn a D in violin, but who can fault him for that? In fifth grade he got a D in geography (now that’s unforgivable), but he continued to show modest improvement. In eighth grade he got four A’s and only one C.

John hovered around a B average throughout high school. At the extremes, he earned steady A’s in history but did badly in chemistry, barely avoiding a D, bombing his chemistry regents exam (with a 36) and just surviving the make-up exam in his senior year. He was hit and miss in algebra, managing an A and a 96 on the regents in his sophomore year, but then dropping to a low C in his junior year. The best grade he received at the Institute was a 96 in massage (in his senior year). Having got a 118 on “the IQ Test,” John was capable, but perhaps not the most consistent or disciplined student. Though he expressed interest in college, the Institute was not optimistic about his chances. They did not even like his prospects as a physical therapist:

John’s original vocational plan was to train for a masseur but after investigation we have found physical therapy and massage to be impractical due to the fact that licenses are not issued to the blind in New York State. There may be openings in this profession in other states but it is doubtful that it would be wise for John to leave New York. It is the opinion of those who have counselled with him that he might possibly learn to be a dictaphone operator. For John’s type it would seem that factory work should be a last resort. John, himself, has the idea that he would like to go to college although there is in the minds of many of those who have worked with him a definite reservation as to the wisdom of college training for him.

Diabetes and Diphtheria

John Neil Jensen was born in Oneonta in Upstate New York in late summer, 1924, about a year after his sister Helen was born. A fire destroyed the family dairy when Johnny was still an infant, Helen a toddler. The Jensens returned to New York City where John Sr. got work driving a horse-drawn milk buggy and Jennie managed the tenement in Greenwich Village where the family resided.

John Sr. was working his way up at the dairy, and he was looking at a promotion to foreman when diabetes struck him down. It was at about that time that diphtheria struck the neighborhood and nearly killed the Jensen boy. Though Johnny—just three years of age—survived, his vision was severely damaged. He could only see blurs within about a foot of his face. Helen fared better, but without a breadwinner, the welfare agency threatened to take Johnny and Helen from their parents. Fortunately a Jewish family in the tenement covered for the Jensens until Mr. Jensen could recover and find a job. It appears that he was still recovering when the market crashed in October, 1929.

Mr. Jensen finally found work as an estate caretaker in Booten, New Jersey. Johnny lived in isolation, his sister Helen his only playmate, his mother caring for him but not sure how to integrate him into society. After about a year in New Jersey, John Sr. got a better caretaker job in Mt. Kisco, Westchester County, New York. He would manage the gardens of a Mr. George Chapman there for many years. Mr. Chapman was a landowner and landlord who created one of Manhattan’s minor landmarks, the Merchant’s House Museum. He was quite old in the years that John Jensen maintained his gardens, notably married to a woman so young and robust he may have married her to be his nurse.

The job on the Chapman Estate was a lucky break for a diabetic supporting a family in a time of economic chaos. John Sr. fared well there, leaving his mark on gardens that would draw admiration from around Mt. Kisco and even among a few enthusiasts around the country. Little Johnny, now seven, was settling into a pattern of dependency, spoiling under his mother’s loving care.

The Bull of 23rd Street

One evening in the heart of Manhattan’s Chelsea district, a pair of young sailors are letting loose—exceedingly loose. They come across another young man at an intersection. He’s touching a light post timidly as if caressing it, and this catches the eye of one of the drunken mariners. The sailor, offended by the stranger’s gesture and spurred on by “the spirit,” reaches out to grab the stranger’s shoulder without notice, and the man turns quick as a cat, slipping a hand under the sailor’s arm and up behind his head. The force of the move pushes the sailor into his buddy who falls back and down to the concrete. As the stranger follows through, he throws the first sailor down to the ground. The stranger pauses for a second as if listening. He doesn’t seem to see the sailors, though he certainly knows where they are. His face has that vacant, blind-man look, but he has no cane. He has no dog. He has no escort. He turns to cross the street. A taxi honks as the young man crosses the twin beams of its headlights. The sailors look at each other, and they clumsily regain their feet. Now they’re stunned as well as buzzed, not knowing they’ve just stumbled across one of the premiere wrestlers in the Empire State, heading home to Mount Kisco for the weekend after working out at the 23rd Street Y. Some call him Jensen. Some call him Johnny, or J.J., the Bull, or occasionally King Kong. They don’t call him Daredevil. This isn’t a comic book.