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. Continue reading

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.

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The Bronx Batmen

Read more about this in Men Without Fear, available at Amazon.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Gotham Hospitality

I had a grand time in the Big Apple touristin’ around with Brenna and checking out my dad’s old haunts, etc.

Brooklyn Bridge

Having a time on Brooklyn Bridge

Brenna and I got completely overwhelmed and overrun in Brooklyn during the Independence Day festivities, which was perhaps the most authentic NYC initiation I could hope for, fireworks be damned. We did have the pleasure of crossing the Brooklyn Bridge for some famous Brooklyn ice cream, and we also walked by the location of the building where my great-grandfather Niels Jensen lived and worked as a hotel “engineer” at the time of his death.

Brenna and I also had the honor of getting caught walking the “wrong way” in Central Park. The Met was amazing. The Empire State Building tour was hectic but worthwhile in some perversely inexplicable sense.

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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.

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