I wished a happy birthday to an old family friend, Anne von Schwerdtner, last week. We've been Charles Village neighbors for decades, and in the way things happen in Baltimore, our mothers were great pals, too.
My admiration for Anne began when I was about 4 years old. She secured a calendar from the Western Maryland Railway and had the picture portion framed for me. This scene of diesel engines at Port Covington on the Patapsco Middle Branch still hangs in my home.
If you search around my digs, you'll find other neighborly gifts, such as the pile of vintage shellac records that Anne's father suggested I pull out of his sideboard 40-some years ago. I still play them and think of Ernst von Schwerdtner when I do. Their Calvert Street home was full of cupboards filled with the kind of treasures a family accumulates over the years.
I also think of the night when Mr. Von, as we called him, saved my academic neck. About this time of the year in 1966, I was laid up in Mercy Hospital with a hemorrhaging stomach for nearly a month. My Jesuit teachers at Loyola High School assured me that I could make up my school work -- and don't worry. That was easy for them to say. One of my favorites, a zany English teacher named Father Frank Duffy, said all would be right if I read A Tale of Two Cities.
That was easy enough. When Father Duffy died a few years ago, he received a good obituary.
I don't remember how I made up my Latin lessons, and for some reason my trigonometry grades improved significantly after I was away from the subject for a month.
The previous September, I had begun the study of classical Greek. In the fall weeks, we studied grammar and the alphabet. After the winter break, we began reading the writer Xenophon's work, the Anabasis, a military story ideal for high school sophomores. About the time the army of 10,000 was in Persia, I was stricken. By the time I returned to the classroom, my classmates were well ahead of me -- and my grasp on the grammar learned in the fall was slipping.
My Greek teacher, a Jesuit-in-training named Jack Carrigan, assured me there would be no problem and on we sailed until the night before the big final examination. This test could not be leniently graded because it was created by Jesuit teachers in other cities.
About 7:30 on the evening before the exam, I had a bright idea. I knew that Mr. Von, who was then rounding out a career at what is now Towson University, had taught Greek -- at one time. He was home that night and offered to help. He sat me down at his dining room table, and under the light of a Tiffany-style lamp, he tutored and translated. We mashed down the missing month in about two hours. He was a fabulous coach.
Mr. Von was also a much revered Towson athletic coach (wrestling, among others) and knew how to prepare guys for what faced them. He was also a genius at confidence building. I scored an amazing 87.