Tuesday, January 31, 2012


In the fourth installment of the Slate series from last September (or, as I'm now calling it, PermaRec 1.0), I spent a bit of time discussing the case of a student named Doris Abravaya, whose main card is shown above. Her full student record, which you can see here, told a heartbreaking tale of a very difficult childhood, typified by this entry:

May 2, 1933: Social worker, Mrs. Sklar, at Hebrew Sheltering and Guardian Society, came to see AK [Miss A. Kotter, the school's job placement counselor] about Doris. Doris's mother is insane and in Mental State Hospital. Father is paralyzed and crippled and a drunkard. Three children [including Doris] live in home of Mrs. Talianksy, obtained through the Society. There is severe unemployment in this home. When funds for Doris cease, on June 12, she will be entirely on her own. Doris has low mentality and is very timid and unstable. She constantly fears becoming like her mother. Children see mother often because father takes them there whenever he is intoxicated. Mrs. Sklar asked AK to try to include Doris in June graduation because not graduating would be such a disappointment.

There's more, most of it along those same lines. I was happy to see that Doris eventually got a clerical position that paid much better than the standard garment jobs that the school usually arranged for its students. Still, I worried for her, if it's possible to worry about someone who (a) you've never met and (b) is probably deceased already.

I wasn't able to find Doris's family during my research for PermaRec 1.0. But now, thanks to the work of volunteer researchers Catherine Bloomquist and Samantha Bulgerin, I've recently made contact with three of Doris's descendants -- a niece (who was named after Doris) and two daughters.

When Catherine and Sam pointed me toward the people they believed to be Doris's family, I was hesitant. Doris's story seemed so sad, and some of the things written in her student file were so harsh -- I feared that I might be stirring up bad memories.

But this wasn't the first time I'd faced this kind of decision. My rule for the project had always been to push forward and hope for the best. So I went ahead and contacted Doris's family.

And I'm really glad I did. Doris's niece and daughters have been fascinated by her student file -- in large part because it describes a girl who sounds very different from the smart, strong woman they knew. As it turns out, Doris had a good life despite the challenges she faced early on. I was -- I am -- extremely happy to hear that.

So far I've only had preliminary back-and-forths with Doris's family, but her daughters sound eager to tell her full story. And they live in the NYC area, so I hope to be able to meet with them in person soon and learn how Doris overcame her early hardships. I suspect it's going to be a very inspiring tale.

Sunday, January 29, 2012



The top photo shows Donna Mitchell holding the report card of her grandmother, Anna Contino. Below her is Jane Montalto, who's posing with the report card of her mother, Florence Gattuso.

I interviewed Donna, Jane, and their respective families on Saturday. They were all incredibly gracious about welcoming me into their homes and sharing their stories with me. I hope to feature them in a future article for Slate.

Donna and Jane are among a bumper crop of Manhattan Trade families I've recently made contact with thanks to the efforts of volunteer researchers Catherine Bloomquist and Samantha Bulgerin. Several of these new contacts promise to be very special -- I'll have more info on some of them over the next few days. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

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If you read the entire series of Slate articles last fall, you may recall that one of the most prominent characters appearing in the report cards -- aside from the students themselves -- was Miss A. Kotter, who ran the school's job placement office and often had some very sharp commentary for the students.

I was curious to know more about Miss Kotter but couldn't find any other information about her -- not even her first name (she signed letters "A. Kotter").

But now, thanks to some spectacular sleuthing by volunteer researcher Catherine Bloomquist, I know quite a bit about Miss Kotter. Her first name was Althea and she had two marriages (one of which ended in a Reno divorce -- classic!). That's her at the top of this entry, although her name was Althea Borden by the time that photograph was taken.

Interestingly, it turns out that Miss Kotter (which is how I'll always think of her, even though I now know her full name) was relatively young when she worked at Manhattan Trade. She was born in 1906, which means she was in her mid-20s when she was recording most of that stern feedback in the students' files -- not all that much older than the students themselves. I had pictured someone in her 40s or 50s. She obviously took her job very, very seriously.

Miss Kotter died in 1971, but I spoke yesterday with her niece, a retired newspaper editor who lives in North Carolina. She had no idea that her aunt had once worked at a school. She said Miss Kotter later went on to run the personnel office of a business -- a natural-seeming progression from her position in Manhattan Trade's job placement office.

Also: Miss Kotter had a son who's still alive. The niece is getting in touch with him to see if he'd be willing to speak with me for a future article. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

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Hi there. Remember me?

After taking a few months off (in part for logistical reasons and in part because I just needed a little break from this very intense project), I'm happy to report that I've plunged back into Permanent Record. I've made new contact with several students' families and have leads for a bunch more. This research will form the basis of a new batch of articles that I'll be doing for Slate throughout this year, the first of which will probably run in about a month. Think of it as PermaRec 2.0.

I'm even happier to report that I had a major breakthrough last Friday, when I spoke on the phone with 95-year-old Rose Vrana (née Baggini -- that's her report card shown above, which you can click on to see a larger version), who attended Manhattan Trade in the early 1930s. This is the first time I've found a student from my report card collection who's still alive -- a tremendously exciting development!

As you might expect, Rose doesn't use a computer, so I couldn't e-mail scans of her report card to her or give her the link to the original Slate articles. Instead, I've made printouts and dropped them in the mail. She's a little confused by all the fuss I'm making over her and doesn't fully grasp what PermaRec is all about, but I'm hoping she'll understand a bit better and agree to let me interview her once she receives the materials I'm sending her.

I didn't find Rose by myself, incidentally. She was located by a volunteer researcher named Catherine Bloomquist, one of several Slate readers who took it upon themselves to start assisting me after reading PermaRec 1.0 last fall. Several of these volunteers hit varying degrees of pay dirt, and I'm grateful to all of them for their sleuthing efforts and their incredible spirit of generosity. But Catherine and another reader, Samantha Bulgerin, really hit the mother lode, tracking down literally dozens of leads. Among their many discoveries is this: One of the students may have gone on to design Mamie Eisenhower's 1953 inaugural ball dress! (I'm still waiting to hear back from that family -- stay tuned.) Thanks so much, Catherine and Sam -- you've completely reinvigorated the project.

More soon. Or at least soon-ish.