Parting Glances: Memories of a Near-Forgotten Past. Pt. 1

BY CHARLES ALEXANDER

Detroit's ancient, seven-story Cass Technical High School was replaced with a new $127 million structure five years ago; and an era of excellence in education and art -- 21st Century post modern -- began.

The original building dated to 1918, and was linked by a third-storey bridge to an adjoining Commerce High School that is also no longer there. In the 1950s the CT commercial art program was among the finest in the country.

I was fortunate to study commercial art there, and to play cello in a string class offered by the school's music department.

With a CT portfolio a student was almost guaranteed admission to any American fine arts undergraduate school. (Three of my classmates went on to achieve fame: Carol Wald, with a Time magazine cover; Alvin Loving, one of Detroit's well-known Black artists, and Bernard Johnson, Josephine Baker Troupe dancer, and Broadway costume designer.)

Too-long-neglected Black artist LeRoy Foster was also a CT graduate. And, of course, Lily Tomlin, with whom I had my picture taken last month at a fundraiser for Ruth Ellis House. She was the honored award recipient.

When I attended CT the commercial art and music departments were located on the sixth floor. We "creative" students were allowed a great deal of latitude. After all: everyone knows artists are eccentric (and just possibly, er, you know, 'that way').

My homeroom and English teacher was Mr. Lawrence T. Ray. (I suspect he passed me -- a "sensitive" but indifferent student -- because I wrote gender ambiguous poetry. After three years he probably guessed I was a bud on the "family" tree.)

Mr. Ray had close-cropped, snow-white hair. His patrician features were offset by black horn-rimmed glasses that he used to dramatically punctuate his lessons. "All right, class. Take dictation," he'd insist, with a searching squint and a provocative jab stage center.

Heaven help any student who was not prepared to discuss gerunds, split infinitives, or predicate nominatives. To my lanky friend Joan McGonagle, who usually stammered her answers, he prodded, "Come on, Joanie. Crank it all out."

I kept mental notes on Mr. Ray. I knew he commuted weekends to Torch Lake; that he was known on occasion to drop into a nearby Third Avenue bar for a nip; that he had been a chorus boy in the 1920s, dancing in Broadway musicals with debonair screen actor Clifton Webb, whom he carbon copied in speech and manner. (Mr. Ray even designed the CT/Commerce bridge.)

I overheard both my theater arts teacher, Miss Bea Cooper, and an uppity school secretary, Mrs. Rohrs, call him a "grand old fag" behind his back. Of course there was no way of knowing. It was all speculation. Outside of class, he was cordial and dropped no hint of private proclivities.

Those of us CT seniors -- about a half dozen -- who were gay played an on-going guessing game. We "knew" why Miss Bates of Pen & Ink, Wash Drawing couldn't make it with good-looking, perennial bachelor Donald Thrall of Graphic Design Four.

We thought we knew why Mr. Shuholtz (who lived into his mid-90s) of Art History spent his free time sunning in Windsor's Dieppe Park. We thought we knew why certain lazy students got passing grades in Biology from swishy Mr. Rau, and we knew "all about" the rather butch Home Ec department head.

The truth is we didn't know diddly. But it was important that we somehow forged allies, real or imagined. "Gay osmosis," so to speak.

It was a simple equation: If they're gay (or might be) and are respected members of the community (aren't all teachers?) well, then maybe there's a chance at our future respectability too.

With no one to get advice from or firsthand experience -- no role models -- we had to make do with "queer say," luck, and a few well-placed hard knocks.

Most important: we were resilient. Young. Marketable. And talented!

Charles Alexander is prolific both as a BTL columnist (700-plus columns) and as a well-known LGBT community artist (1000 Face Book images). He is a Spirit of Detroit Award recipient and an Affirmations LGBT CENTER Jan Stevenson awardee. Connect with him at Charles@pridesource.com.
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