Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

« David J. Schmidt Collection

Radnor in 1951

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

Fifty years after being designated a special township, Radnor was still a quiet, almost bucolic place. There were some differences from other Main Line communities, although for most residents of Radnor those differences weren’t necessarily for the better.

There were 13,779 people living in Radnor Township in 1951. Lower Merion was almost five times its size and even in the middle of the 20th century was more developed. Wayne was a small town which could have been the model for what any small town would like to be.

There was some industry, such as the Wayne Steep Works, but much of it was related to the trains that traveled up and down the Main Line. People rode them to work. Most families were comfortable, although there were both rich and poor in the township.

In 1950 there were 5,762 wage earners in Radnor Township. Of these heads of household, only 620 of them earned more than $10,000. As democratic as that sounds, that 12 percent of Radnor’s work force were pretty much at the top of salaries in those days. Those whose living came from investments or means other than employment weren’t included in these figures. Perhaps a better way to show the relative social standing of the community is the rather telling fact that of the roughly 1,000 people from Radnor who served in WWII, close to half of them rose to officer rank.

Lovely houses, built at the end of the previous century, were the root of the community. Many other houses had joined them, but the structure of Wayne was set by Childs and Drexel. It may have been Louella at one time the first planned community which hadn’t succeeded – but the Wayne Estates defined the town and who lived there.

Surrounding Wayne, which was really a village in the best sense, were rolling hills. Some of these were farmed as they had been since the late 17th century, and some were part of the estates of the wealthy. Some of them were both at the same time farms owned by the upper classes but worked by farmers such as those who’d worked this land for nearly 280 years. Androssen, home of the Scotts, was the largest and best known of them.

It wasn’t that Radnor Township was backwards. It was an affluent area where electricity and the telephone came early. By the 1950s it was a Philadelphia suburb, but it didn’t have to think like one. But it couldn’t avoid what was happening: more people and more congestion. Although the population in 1950 was under 14,000, in four short years that had jumped to 17,500.

Radnor’s 50th wasn’t as big a deal as the centennial will be. Sure, Richard W. Barringer, who was the township secretary as well as secretary of the Radnor Historical Society gave an address at the anniversary celebration on March 13, 1951. It was a Treatise: Major Influences in the Evolution of a First Class Township, heady stuff, full of good material, but certainly too dry and long to appeal to many today. For most people then, perhaps as now, history wasn’t something they thought about. Alice Pitt grew up in Radnor and graduated from Radnor High School in 1943. She was a young matron of the Main Line when Radnor Township turned 50.

For her, the anniversary wasn’t particularly noted. “There it was nothing to change then, Radnor was just what had been, so I don’t think people paid as much attention,” she said. Having said that, the Radnor Historical Society member remembered something. “History must have been of interest to some then, because the historical society was started in the late 1940s. But then it never occurred to me to ask about history,” she said.

For people living then, the center of life was the home. There were few restaurants and they were for special occasions, such as birthdays and graduations. “You did more entertaining in your home you didn’t go out to restaurants they way you do today,” she said. “Then you invited people in to parties and dinner. That was our social life.” Granted, there were those who were busy being more social, and the wealthy were different then as now. “The people who really had money sent their kids off to boarding school,” she said. “They often had their own social life. They definitely were the country club and horsey set. Wayne was where they sent the butler to shop,” Pitt said.

In the 1950s the biggest difference was how the area looked. Philadelphia at least looks much the same as it did then, and life in a metropolitan area has much in common today with life then — the subways, the sidewalks and the sounds. But for Wayne and Radnor the changes have been more than dramatic. It’s a different place with different people and lots of them. For residents such as Alice Pitt and Ginny Keene who grew up in a community where 100 seniors in the high school was a fair class size, today’s suburbia is a different place. “We grew up in a place where you knew almost everybody, where doors weren’t locked,” said Keene. “It really was a special place.”

A part of Wayne and Radnor society that was top of the line was the education system. At that time there were three elementary schools and one high school. In the 1950 school year Radnor was the first school on the East Coast to have a German exchange student, Barbara Gurr. She was brought to Radnor with funds raised by the Radnor members of the International Student Committee. Pete Howell is head of the Alumni Association and returned to Wayne to live in his father-in-law’s house in 1951. “The school was small by today’s standards, but remember you knew everyone in Wayne when you walked down the street,” he said. “For the size of the school we did pretty well through the years,” he said.

One area that was doing really well in the early 1950s was sports. Warren Lentz had just become the Radnor High School football coach, and would coach teams to results beyond what would be expected from such a small team. Although they didn’t win in 1950 or 1951, his teams were able to beat Lower Merion once or twice in a rivalry that was so intense it occasionally made national news. Lower Merion was a continuous powerhouse, and it was a rare but special moment when Radnor won a football game.

But there were other sports, and in those Radnor High School shone. The girl’s basketball team, the Raiderettes, finished their fourth straight undefeated season in 1950, but on Jan. 11, 1951 lost their first home game since 1941. The team recovered, returning to undefeated status for the 1951-1952 season

The boys’ basketball team won the fourth district Basketball Championship; the boy’s tennis team was undefeated, as was the girl’s field hockey team. The whole town rallied around the high school teams and supported them loyally.

In a poll by the school newspaper, 60 percent of teens thought 10 p.m. on weeknights was an appropriate time for dates to end, and midnight for the weekends. For them social life was local. The girls were wearing scarves with short-sleeved sweaters. They all might attend movies, school dances, or parties at friend’s houses. The Main Line Drive-In opened in 1949 in Stafford and was a noted hangout.

Alice Pitt recalls her days a decade earlier at school, but it hadn’t changed much. “We went to school together and still play bridge,” she said. “Everybody stayed around. Some kids went to Baldwin and Shipley but socially they were still in our group,” she recalls. “The people who lived on the Main Line tended to stay were they were. All up and down there wasn’t any line drawn,” she said. “For us the only different group were the one’s who lived in Garrett Hill and that’s because they had to take a bus to school and the rest of us walked to school,” she said.

For the middle class it was possibly as good as it gets. “We thought it was a nice community, and that’s where you lived and stayed,” said Pitt. Philadelphia was close enough by train to work in and to take advantage of its offerings. One popular event was the Friday matinee performance by the orchestra. These were essentially performances for Main Line patrons, who’d taken the train into the city, lunched before the concert and perhaps met for drinks after.

But that was for the adults. Kids didn’t go into Philadelphia for dates, although they might go to special events, such as seeing Frank Sinatra perform. “Going to Philadelphia was something special then in fact when you went there you wore a hat and gloves because that was what you did when you went out,” said Pitt.

But Philadelphia was also far enough away that the area was buffeted from the less desirable aspects of big city living. It was very much the best of both worlds. In the ensuing half century things have changed because of just that others have sought the refuge of a small Main Line community, although in doing to they have lost the charm of that era. What strikes Alice Pitt the most is how crowded Radnor has become. “It was mostly open country beyond Wayne,” he said. “In fact even in Wayne it was open, once you got past the first two or three blocks.” In the 1950s the spaces between the Wayne Estate houses had been developed. “The town was filled in with little houses which are now being replaced with big houses on small lots,” she said.

As a young matron in the early 1950s life might be good, but it wasn’t without its challenges. “We were still getting over WWII then, the war had only been over for five years,” she said. Add to that a police action in Korea which was on the minds of many Radnorites. Many, if not most high school boys went off to college, but there was a draft to worry about. There was an understanding that as a citizen you owed your country something. Many WWII veterans, having been released from active duty perhaps as late as 1947 were just getting their civilian lives sorted out, or careers started. Many of them, particularly those with special skills, such as pilots, could and would be called back to active duty. Radnorites mourned the loss of three locals; Alain A. Fueher, Pasquale L. Pompa and John Veckley, Jr.

In spite of that, Radnor in 1951 was a place of peace, perhaps at the height of its glory in an era just coming under the control of what Tom Brokaw has called the greatest generation. They were people who grew up under the specter of the Great Depression and understood civic pride and responsibility. They went to war and died or came back determined to make their lives good and their children’s better. Values meant something other than the price of objects at a discount store. For those privileged enough to live in Radnor it was the beginning of a long and wonderful run.

James Michener probably caught the essence of life on the Main Line in a Holiday Magazine article in 1950: “When people across the world yearn for a home in America, they must, often picture the middle-class home, such as those along the Main Line. It’s secure. It’s quiet, clean, filled with modern gadgets. Children from this home go to fine schools, enjoy unusual benefits. There is a healthy social life, and an enviable political efficiency.”

When the Radnor School District celebrated its own centennial in 1997 they produced a book called A Century of Sprit, Radnor High school 1987-1997.

The book was edited by Wayne resident Helen Stephenson Weary, who is quick to cite the 200 students, alumni and teachers who contributed to the book. She calls teacher Jim Talone the force behind its creation. One particular tribute in the book is as much a tribute to Radnor citizens as to the man it recalls.

Bobby Barr
Any Radnorite who participated in sports during the late forties and fifties remembers Bobby Barr. He was as much a part of the Radnor scene as any of the students or staff. A former Radnorite recalls, “I do remember Bobby – he was the envy of all the kids. He sat on the bench with all the big shots, the team, coaches and the good looking cheerleaders:”

Bobby Barr was born in 1921, a Down’s Syndrome child at a time long before the National Disabilities Act. But rather than spending his life institutionalized or cloistered at home, Bobby became an integral part of the Wayne community thanks to the patience and perseverance of his mother and the friendship of postman Tony Mann, who walked his postal route twice a day through the streets of North Wayne with Bobby at his side.

Bobby spent his early mornings at the high school. Paul Teel invited Bobby to some of the band rehearsals and occasionally let him conduct. Joe Forrest and Marty Gill had Bobby run errands, deliver attendance slips, and do small chores. Students responded enthusiastically: they all liked Bobby and respected him. It was very rare that anyone teased him. His five-foot frame, encased in a neat tweed jacket, exuded too much dignity.

In the afternoons, when mail delivery was finished Bobby returned to the fields of Radnor to help with the athletic program. Between Jules Prevost, athletic director, and Frank Konieko, his assistant, Bobby found a welcome at practices and home games. Konieko said, “From 1946 to 1951 Bobby would arrive punctually at 2 p.m. and depart at 5 p.m. He performed innumerable services gratuitously…. During those years he took care of the field house at North Wayne and assisted in coaching football, basketball and tennis. He was the best assistant coach I ever had. His unfaltering spirit for Radnor never wavered. He always spurred the boys on to give their best. Everyone respected Bobby. As a result we never had a losing season when Bobby was helping in this capacity.”

Bobby Barr got a standing ovation from the student body the day he received his athletic letter for his contribution to the sports program. He wore it on his white letter sweater with as much pride as any member of any team. Out of his disability came kindness and courage, and it was partly this spirit that made participating on one of “Bobby’s teams” a special memory. (Reprinted with permission from Radnor School District)