Maurice Engel ’45

Maurice Engel, Class of 1945
My father came to Oakland from New York City, the Lower East Side, at the time of the 1906 earthquake. He settled in what is now Chinatown. My mother came to visit from Philadelphia and stayed. He built the first supermarket in Oakland, a 4-story building with apartments upstairs and the store downstairs. It had a groceteria, a deli, and fresh foods. That was novel at the time. He lost it in the Depression. When I was at Tech, we lived on 40th Street between Telegraph and Webster.

Most kids in the neighborhood went to Tech. It was mostly white middle class kids, including a lot of Italians, and some black and Chinese kids. It drew kids from Temescal and the hills. I was one of only a few Jewish kids. In fact my father bought Tony Martin his tallit for his bar mitzvah! My father had lived for a while with the Smiths who were Tony Martin’s (Alvin Morris) godparents. Tech was considered kind of a tough school compared with Oakland High and Fremont. We were Depression era kids and a lot f the fathers didn’t have jobs. With the war, all of a sudden, there were jobs. It kind of saved us. Tech High was a very good school academically and it had the best shops¬ an auto shop, an aviation shop¬ where kids worked on airplane engines. Tech was noted for its athletics and for scholarships. Al Kyte was the coach of the basketball team. His claim to fame was that he could sink a bucket from mid court. The playground was open all summer and he ran it.

We had excellent teachers at Tech like Elena deFremery who taught Latin. There is a deFremery Park in West Oakland named after her family. When it was time to think about college, she went to my parents and offered to pay for my college education. My parents were too proud to accept her offer. She could have been governor of the state. She was so smart. I remember Anga Bjornson (I think Bjornson Hall in Oakland may be named after her family) who taught civics. She talked with us a lot about the war. She could have been a lawyer. Doc Hess, who later became principal at McClymonds, used to administer corporal punishment with a paddle. He was beloved by the kids despite that! There was a different attitude towards discipline then. A lot of kids were hit at home. Doc Long was head of the Science Department. I remember him saying, “Someday you’ll be able to take a thimble full of nuclear energy and power the Queen Mary with it.” I don’t remember having any teachers who weren’t good.

My English teacher was Jessie Smith. She oversaw Scribe News, the student newspaper. I was the editor-in-chief my senior year. High school newspapers were ranked in those days. We had an “All American” rating which was a big deal. The print shop was down near the Board of Education and every week we’d go there, all the editors, and they’d already have typeset our pages. We took the “slugs” and formatted our pages, the editors each doing their section, and then they’d print it. If you worked on the Scribe, you were excused from English class. The only piece I remember writing was my editorial about FDR’s death. Most students were heartbroken. I was taking ASTP (Army Special Training Program) down at Lake Merritt when the news broke that FDR was dead. He was a big hero to us. When Roosevelt gave a fireside chat, you could hear it on everyone’s radios as you walked around the neighborhood.

The Depression hit us hard. My mother was the only one with a job in the family. She had a WPA (Works Progress Administration) job as a stenographer. My father lost everything and couldn’t find a job because there were no jobs, but he told us to give 50 cents and a meal to anyone who came by asking. I worked hard in school because I understood that academics would be my entrée into the middle class.
My high school years were the years of World War II. It was a very patriotic time. You were proud to be an American. Assemblies were patriotic in theme and the flag flew out front. I remember kids like Chuck Hedlund leaving school to enlist. Because so many men had gone off to war, a lot of kids had jobs. Southern Pacific hired us kids (13-14 year olds) for 50 cents an hour on Saturdays and 75 cents an hour on Sundays to lay track and clean up. I remember the troop trains passing through and once one of them pulled up to the Oakland Mole (the Oakland Long Wharf) as I was trying to hit a spike. I kept missing, and when I finally hit it, they cheered. I was so embarrassed! We were happy in a way that we were in the war. Since news of casualties was kept from the home front, we didn’t realize how bad it was, so people were very enthusiastic. I remember my friend Frank Serra whose dad had a cleaners on Broadway and 40th. A story was going around that his dad was an admiral in the Japanese Navy and one day he just disappeared. Their family was taken off to an internment camp. We didn’t really question Roosevelt. He said that this war was the right thing to do and we believed him. There were scary moments like when the Japanese shelled Point Lobos. A lot of boys left school to enlist. 17 was the age, but some lied to get in. I tried to volunteer but was told to go home and finish high school. I was nearsighted. We all had maps on our walls with pins stuck in them to show where the American troops were.

We had an active ROTC unit. I was a captain and carried a saber. In ROTC we learned how to shoot a rifle on a range near the boys’ gym. There were over 100 kids in ROTC. We’d march around with old British Enfield rifles. The big attraction was getting to play with guns. Sergeant Okie seemed like he was 100, but he was probably in his 50s. Girls weren’t in ROTC, but I remember Rosemarie Ginnocchio was “Commissioner of War Activities” at Tech. We had war bond drives quite often.

Kids hung out at Fenton’s, which was on 42nd between Broadway and Piedmont where the post office is now. They had a juke box there. We listened to Spike Jones’ “Der Fuehrer’s Face” over and over. A song was 5 cents. Chris’s Hot Dogs was right across the street. And the Bulldog was on 47th near Tech. It sold snacks and flavored ice drinks. Kids used to cut class and go there.

The war ended just before we graduated. Thera Samuels and I were the class valedictorians. I graduated and a few days later, I started at Cal. It had 3 semesters then. A semester at Cal cost $18.50. When I went to Boalt Law School, it cost $50 a semester. Most kids didn’t go to college. I have kept a few friendships– with the Rego twins, Eugene Newman, John Canestro, and Eleanor Wilkinson, but I moved on pretty quickly.