Dorothy Meyer Remembers Arboretum Heights

Dorothy Meyer remembers Arboretum Heights, or Green Hill as it was formerly called, and a whole lot more

In a 2012 interview, the late Dorothy Meyer recalled some of the highlights of a lifetime in Jamaica Plain: a one-room school, cows grazing in her neighborhood, mayors, governors, cabinet members, presidents, five-star generals, a duke and duchess, a future Pope, a December 7th Pearl Harbor hero, and a German Zeppelin just hours before crashing, were some of those memories of Arboretum Heights and the world at large from the same Lila Road house in Jamaica Plain.

42 Lila Road

Dorothy V. Meyer moved to 42 Lila Road, Jamaica Plain, in 1933. She remained there until her death in 2016, observing everything going on around her and remembering most of it.

Dorothy’s parents, Arnold and Hilda Meyer, lived on Robinwood Avenue in 1930 when she was born. Arnold worked for Western Union on Congress Street in Boston. Hilda, originally from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, worked at the Canadian offices of Western Union. When those Canadian offices were closed in the early 1920s, Hilda and several other former WU employees were reassigned to Western Union offices in the United States. Most transferees moved smoothly to their new locations. Hilda, however, came to Boston where she and a colleague were prevented from joining the Boston office. The right to move across the Canadian border was being tested, so Hilda and a friend were detained for three weeks on an island in Boston Harbor until her case was heard. It was ultimately decided in Western Union’s favor and Hilda was finally assigned to the Boston office, where she would meet her future husband, Arnold Meyer, the assistant manager there.

In 1933, the Meyers rented the Arboretum Heights house at 42 Lila Road until they were able to buy it. Arboretum Heights, as it was known then, was originally named Green Hill, and was separated from Moss Hill by Louder’s Lane. Dorothy’s brother John, five years her junior, still lives there.

The Westchester Road Portable School No. 167

 Westchester Portable School. From Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives.

Westchester Portable School. From Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives.

The anachronism of a one-room schoolhouse in a “modern” Jamaica Plain never left Dorothy Meyer. Known as the Westchester Road Portable School, it served from the early 1930s to 1941, when it was replaced by a permanent school building. To the great disappointment of neighbors and alumni, the new school was named by Mayor James Michael Curley, the Joseph P. Manning School. The Portable School came into existence at the request of the residents of Arboretum Heights, which was perceived as slightly less affluent than nearby Moss Hill. The Heights’ kids had to navigate four daily crossings (students came home for lunch in those days) of the Poor Clares roundabout to get to and from schools in the Jamaica Plain flatlands. Despite long pleadings for police protection at the crossing, the City refused for budgetary reasons. As an alternative, they offered a portable, one-room school, if land for the same could be found among the estates bordering the streets to be served by the school. Those streets included: Louder’s Lane, Lila Road, Westchester Road, Whitcomb Avenue, Arborview Road, Malcolm Road, Allandale Road, Elwell Road, and such other streets on Moss Hill that chose to participate.

The large Bowditch, Sears, Slocum and Brandegee estates had not yet been sold off to developers, so abundant land existed, although much of it was situated in Brookline. Mrs. Brandegee, widow of a wealthy Boston wool merchant, generously offered a piece of land at the edge of her estate. Her estate included the land now known as Allandale Farm, all the way up to the Nazareth School, which was built on the former Slocum estate on Pond Street and which is now known as The Showa Women’s Institute. The Portable School was positioned on Westchester Road, bordered by vacant land and the Home for Italian Children. The children’s home was built to cope with the 1918 influenza epidemic, and is now known as the Italian Home for Children, providing therapeutic programs for children, adults and families with emotional, behavioral and educational special needs.

Consistent with many public works during the Curley administration, little is known about the construction of the Portable School. It did, however, live up to its name years later when it was sold and moved, when it was replaced by the new Manning School. Equally little is known about its final destination and use, except that the buyer paid $50, plus moving costs.

Once the Portable School was up and running, the Moss Hill families decided to keep their kids in private schools, including the St. Thomas Aquinas School.

Dorothy completed grades one, two and three at the Portable School with Miss McIntyre in grade one, and Miss O’Shea for grades two and three. She noted that there was no kindergarten and children could enter first grade provided they were five years old and had a smallpox vaccination certificate. The school was a fully-accredited Boston public school, administered by the Agassiz School, with which it communicated via a pay phone. The teacher opened the school every morning and got the fire going in winter. Dorothy’s younger brother, John Meyer, attended also and he was there during the changeover to the permanent Manning School. He later attended Boston Christian High on Huntington Avenue.

Dorothy was constantly dismayed at the failure to mention the Portable School in obituaries of “famous” graduates. What she considered a remarkable – albeit out of place and time – life experience in modern Jamaica Plain, somehow was forgotten when former students passed away. She couldn’t understand why the unique, one-room school experience was ignored.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dorothy never forgot General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s comment about managing a World War II invasion site some 62 miles long on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He said he was able to do it because he went to a one-room schoolhouse with one teacher for eight grades and learned to keep busy, as Dorothy did, while waiting for their class to be taught.

The Joseph P. Manning School

The City responded to the permanent school needs of the Jamaica Hills Association. The Association was formed by the residents of Moss Hill and Arboretum Heights to articulate those needs. The result was the building of the Joseph P. Manning School in its present location, at 130 Louder’s Lane, in 1941. However, when it became operational, the Moss Hill families objected to their children having to cross private property to reach the school, so the Bowditch family donated land for a footpath from Moss Hill Road down to Louder’s Lane. The path is called Moss Bank Footway. In its earlier years it became a shortcut for Volkswagen Beetles as well, so vehicle barriers had to be erected on the path.

The residents along Louder’s Lane also formed an association to try and halt the permanent school and the trespass on private lands by students and others trying to get to the new school site. They were able to get Louder’s Lane made a one-way street heading up to the school to discourage easy access. They soon found that didn’t work, so they reversed the one-way direction away from the school, as it exists today.

Phillip Rasmussen

 Phillip Rasmussen at flight school. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Phillip Rasmussen at flight school. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The new school remained unnamed for a long time but the popular choice for it was to honor a 22-year-old Army Air Force pilot who was among the few American fighter pilots to get in the air on December 7, 1941. As the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor began, Phillip Rasmussen, of 73 Westchester Road, ran to his plane and became airborne to engage the swarms of attacking enemy planes, managing to be one of the few who shot down a Japanese fighter plane that day. When he returned to the ground, he discovered hundreds of bullet holes in his plane and that he was still in his pajamas! Rasmussen, unable to find work in the Great Depression, had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1938. On that fateful day in 1941, when he found himself at Pearl Harbor, he never hesitated to engage the overwhelming enemy force. He survived the war with many medals, including the Silver Star, and served a full career in the Air Force, the successor to the Army Air Corps. He was easily the most popular local choice for being honored with a namesake neighborhood school. Rasmussen’s father was a relatively well-known painter of murals in churches and theaters. The family was Danish and they were long-time residents of the area. Many on the Heights, including Dorothy’s brother John, were already calling the new school “Rasmussen,” but Mayor Curley, at the last minute, decided to name it for a personal friend of his, thus disappointing a large segment of his Jamaica Plain constituency.

Joseph P. Manning

Mayor Curley named the Joseph P. Manning School for a friend of his who was the largest cigar manufacturer and tobacco distributor in Massachusetts. Manning (1867-1944) lived at 80 Pond Street, on that stretch of road overlapping the Jamaicaway, until it branches off to head up to Moss Hill. The beautiful former Manning home has recently been reconditioned and is now a condominium.

The Hindenburg

On May 3, 1937, the German passenger airship, Hindenburg, left Frankfurt, Germany, on the first of ten planned round trips between the United States and Europe. The flight plan included a landing at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, on May 6, 1937. The 804-foot-long, hydrogen-filled Zeppelin was behind schedule when it passed over Boston around noon on May 6th. Dorothy Meyer remembered walking home for lunch break from the Portable School and seeing the huge airship silently gliding over Boston. Her father saw it too, and they hopped in the car to go higher to Arborview Road to get a better view. Unfortunately they didn’t have a camera to record the event.

Hindenburg over Boston, May 6, 1937. Courtesy Boston Public Library

Since World War II hadn’t started yet, the Nazi swastika painted on its tail aroused little reaction. That, of course, would change in a few years. As the Zeppelin slowly flew over Boston, little did anyone suspect that at 7:25 p.m. that evening, the Hindenburg would crash as it attempted to land at Lakehurst, losing 35 of the 91 passengers and crew; thus ending all hope for transatlantic airship travel.

Maurice J. Tobin

Maurice J. Tobin, Secretary of Labor, 1948 to 1953. Courtesy Wikipedia

Boston Mayor, Massachusetts Governor, and federal Secretary of Labor Maurice J. Tobin lived at 30 Hopkins Road, on the shady side of Moss Hill. President Harry S. Truman appointed Tobin as Secretary of Labor from 1948 to 1953. His kids attended St. Thomas Aquinas School through grade three until the new Manning School was built. He then transferred them to the new school. Dorothy remembered Governor Tobin, always a fastidious dresser, taking his children on the annual Halloween trick-or-treat tour of the neighborhood, and even then he would be nattily attired with his perfectly blocked homburg hat in place. Tobin’s grand entrance to the 11 o’clock mass at St. Thomas Aquinas church was something to behold. Tall, handsome and with perfect posture, he strode down the center aisle to his first-row pew, dressed in a beautiful, velvet-collared, black Chesterfield coat.

Stanley C. Wollaston

Stanley Wollaston lived at 78 Westchester Road. In 1951 He was appointed executive assistant to the Secretary of Labor by President Truman, who overrode the Civil Service rules by issuing Executive Order #10220 for the appointment, such action being in full compliance with the code of federal regulations at the time. Wollaston’s many duties included screening visitors to Secretary Tobin. He later served as assistant regional administrator in the Employment Standards Administration.

Harry S. Truman

When Secretary Tobin passed in 1953, President Harry S. Truman was an honorary pall-bearer at his funeral in Boston. President Truman, an avid walker, was known to have strolled around Boston while he was here in the much less security-conscious society of the 1950s.

James Michael Curley

Dorothy remembered her professor at a Boston University course called “The Big City,” which was about Boston’s big-city bosses at the time. Those named bosses were considered wicked, but Curley, the professor said, was excluded from the book because he was simply a scoundrel.

James Michael Curley, four term Mayor of Boston. Jamaica Plain Historical Society archives.

She vividly remembered a band waiting to greet Curley at South Station when he arrived following his release from the Federal Prison at Danbury, Connecticut. When asked about the trouble that put him in Danbury, Curley supposedly announced, “I’d do it again,” delighting the gathered Bostonians who always gave him a pass in return for his concern about their welfare and for sharing the spoils of office.

Eugenio Pacelli

Long before white smoke from a Vatican chimney confirmed it, prescient Boston Catholics were predicting that this austere Papal Nuncio, Eugenio Pacelli, would one day be Pope because of his family’s history of ties to the Papacy.

Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, 1939 to 1958. Courtesy Wikipedia

During an extended tour of the United States in 1936, Pacelli stopped to participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for the expansion of the Home for Italian Children, founded in 1919, at the former 10-acre Gahm Estate at Whitcomb Avenue and Centre Street, on the side of Arboretum Heights in Jamaica Plain. Dorothy’s class in the Portable School heard about his presence from the mailman who told their teacher that the “next Pope” was nearby. They left school and walked over to the site and witnessed the event. Her teacher said they had just seen the next Pope.

That night, Dorothy’s father said no one could know the next Pope until the famous white smoke was seen above the Vatican during the centuries-old Papal selection process. Nevertheless, Cardinal Pacelli’s election did indeed come to pass a few years later. He reigned from 1939 to 1958 as Pope Pius XII.

Cardinal Richard J. Cushing

Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Cardinal Richard J. Cushing, a long-time Kennedy family friend, proposed a Kennedy memorial on land at the end of Westchester Road owned by the Daughters of St. Paul. This scheme died aborning once the sponsors took a serious look at the potential traffic problems arising from such a plan.

Kevin Hagan White

Kevin Hagan White, Mayor of Boston, 1964 to 1984. Courtesy Wikipedia

This popular 51st Boston mayor served for 16 years from 1968 to 1984. He presided over major changes to Boston’s skyline, waterfront, social attitudes and politics. He lived at 77 Westchester Road with three siblings, next-door to Dorothy’s aunt, who knew the family well. The Whites’ house was owned later by the Jamaica Plain roofing contractor, Everett Penshorn.

As noted earlier, Dorothy was dismayed at the failure to mention the Portable School in obituaries of “famous” graduates. Kevin White, however, a classmate of Dorothy’s at the Portable School, once commented during a campaign that he went to school “in a one-room school, on a dirt road with cows grazing nearby, in Jamaica Plain.” She remembered White as a nice kid who wore glasses and later claimed he had dyslexia. His father was on the Boston City Council.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor

Dorothy’s mother, Hilda, went to the old Faulkner Hospital with a minor ailment one day and as she was leaving, a motorcade pulled up and out stepped the former King Edward VIII and his American wife, Wallis Simpson, then the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They were visiting Simpson’s aunt who was a patient at the Faulkner.

Following the Duke’s famous abdication, they lived in France and the Bahamas for most of their remaining years with occasional visits to England and the United States.

Dorothy moves on

Following her years at the Portable School, Dorothy moved on to the Burroughs Street campus of the old Agassiz School, where she completed grades four, five and six. From there it was on to Girls’ Latin School and an undergraduate degree at BU. She then earned a PhD in Administration, Planning and Policy at Boston University. Dorothy was in charge of Model Cities in Cambridge. She was a member of the National Education Association and served on the Teachers Education & Professional Standards Board. She was President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and was a Professor at UMass Lowell, as well as Newton College.

Dorothy retired after a long and satisfying career in education. She was especially fond of her work at Wellesley Junior High School. She was a member of the Jamaica Hills Association where she maintained a lively interest in her neighborhood. And she was very proud of the fact that few other Jamaica Plain residents could claim such a long residence in the same neighborhood, never mind the same house!

Dorothy died January 18, 2016, and is interred at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.

By Peter O’Brien  (Revised, January 2016)

Editorial assistance provided by Kathy Griffin