In honor of my teacher, Ada Chirles
NEW YORK — Through a couple of old classmates at De Witt Clinton High School, who tracked me down via social media, I was able to find my first journalism teacher, Ada Chirles.
I've told many people she had the greatest impact of any of my teachers, setting me on a 45-year career path that continues at MLB.com. I never had the opportunity to tell her. Until today.
Imagine how pleased I was to discover she's alive and well, and at 91, living about 10 minutes from my mother and brother in an apartment in Riverdale, N.Y., still a beautiful neighborhood in the north Bronx that abuts the Hudson River. From her apartment she has a beautiful view.
I'm in New York between Hall of Fame inductions last weekend and my daughter's wedding up in the Catskills on Aug. 9. I'm visiting family in the Bronx only six months after my father's death. My mother's 87th birthday is tomorrow. We're celebrating that with my brother and kids downtown tonight.
Old friend Steve Winters gave me Ada's number last night. Figuring there's no time like the present I rang her up this morning and went right over for a visit. She is spry and personable and very bright. She remembered me like it was yesterday even though I haven't seen her in at least 40 years.
She was the faculty advisor of the Clinton News and the journalism teacher. I'm fond of saying when I realized I wasn't going to replace Mickey Mantle in center field for the Yankees I had to find another path to spend a career in sports. Even then I could write and I joined the sports section of the paper in 1966. My first assignment was to cover a fencing match.
By my senior year of 1968-69 I was named Sports Editor and started writing my first columns. My brother, Steve, followed in the same position two years later. Miss Chirles, as she was called, was a tough taskmaster. She'd sit you down at her roll top desk and tear your copy apart. The newspaper was a Columbia School of Journalism award winner every year and for good reason. She ran the New York Daily News information bureau for 25 years, earning her undergraduate and Master’s degrees at Hunter College in downtown New York, during her off hours. Needless to say, she ran a very tight shop.
I reminded her about the time she assigned me a story to be entered in a citywide competition. I was uninspired and did a subpar job. She sat me down at that desk for the next hour and went to work on the story. With numerous corrections on paper she told me to rewrite it. All I did was follow her directions. We won the award: Best Sports Story in the Bronx for 1968. The trophy is still sitting on the shelf of my mother's apartment.
She didn't recall the details so many years later, but she was thrilled to hear of it.
One of my first columns came in the wake of the killings in 1968 of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. As a teenager I stood on line for hours outside. St. Patrick's Cathedral to pay homage at RFK's casket. At the end of that year, the Public School Athletic League banned the rifle team from school competition, stating "a gun is not a toy" in rendering that decision, a statement that still resonates today. I wrote a column, supporting the PSAL decision.
The paper came out and the next day I went to gym class, which was about 500 strong and all guys since Clinton was an all-boys school back then. Instead of encountering basketball pick up games and the like as usual I found the entire class seated on the floor while the gym teachers railed about my column. I knew I had picked the right profession.
Subsequently a letter of dissent was mailed to our newspaper office, from a gun club, of course. Ada advised me to print that as my next column. I didn't want to do it. She said, "You're doing it!" We did it.
Ada broke out a bound volume of glossy newspapers from that era. To my surprise, there were the columns.
I found out today a few things I didn't know about her. She's of Italian descent and her real name is Ciarleglio. The name was changed to Chirles when her father immigrated through Ellis Island.
"When he started to pronounce it, they stopped him and said, 'It's Chirles. You're an American now. That's your new name,'" she said.
She was the last of seven children. All are dead now save for a 98-year-old brother, living in a nursing home in Sonoma County, Calif. She wasn't married in my high school days and never has been.
"It wasn't for me," she said. "I had my family, all you kids, all boys."
She traveled the world and her apartment is filled with artifacts from those excursions she took alone to places like Italy, Ireland and Peru. She's a woman well ahead of her time. Fearless, a woman after my own heart. I love strong women.
"I guess I was," she said sheepishly.
Recently, a new colleague at BAM asked me If I had earned my undergraduate degree in journalism. I didn't. It was in English Lit. I learned everything I needed to know about journalism from my teacher in high school, I told her.
I had many good teachers through my years in high school, college and graduate school, but nobody, but nobody in my life had the impact of Ada Chirles. I'm just glad we both lived long enough for me to tell her that.