A Philadelphia public school that beat the preps and the 1940 NYPD class that excelled with no legacies

Every high school class has organizers, those busy, enthusiastic souls who run for student council, plan proms and after they graduate, are drawn to suggesting alumni events. The latest test for me to remember classmate names was on Saturday night at Central High School’s 211th class’ 75th member birthday party.

The original graduating class in 1959 had some 210 students; 46 have died. Ours was not the most remarkable class in the school’s history. A list of notable graduates from all classes is here.

In fact, it was good that some of the 211th weren’t there – Rev. Jeremy Wright, for example, who was rebuked by President Barack Obama. Or Kermit Gosnell, an abortion doctor, justly serving time for hideous acts.

There were special moments. Standing together for a class picture, Classmate Richard Donald Smith, who is blind, entertaining with a flute rendition of our school song. It was that kind of night.

Central was an all boys, public high school in Philadelphia, when I attended. There was a brutal entrance exam, also known as an I.Q. test, and the minimum score was 115, and the average was 125. There were 15 other public highs and 16 Catholic high schools in the city, all of them easier and more fun. We went to Central because our parents “suggested” we compete for entrance, and so we braced ourselves.

On Saturday night I commented our school classes then were not that difficult – nothing like what we expected. Yet, we did learn some things. Enough, so that about 95% of the class went to college. Dozens won full scholarships to U of P, and dozens more to Temple. Our class members went on to be lawyers, judges, scholars, CEO’s, artists, musicians and one stodgy newspaperman.

Philadelphia has a glut of exclusive private high schools, catering to the Main Line, and in 1959 those were not the institutions that would readily admit the many Blacks and Jews at Central. The prep schools were primarily for members of the upper class. At Central we were the boys from the row houses, children of the working class or mom and pop stores.

Central grads have historically been far more successful than the entitled elite of the city’s prep schools. One reason is exposure to the middle class, not isolation. Another is the respect learned of a classmate’s abilities, despite their heritage or wealth.

Which (at last, dear reader) brings me to the New York Police Department Class of 1940.

Because of the Depression, only 300 new police offer candidates were set for that class, and the usual admission policies were abandoned, since so many thousands had applied.

The class to graduate in 1940 would be admitted based on only two things – the result of a physical test and the score on an I.Q. test. Some 70 percent weight went to the mental and 30 percent to the physical. Unlike in the past, there was no weight given to interviews, legacies, friends within the department or political pressure.

Forty years later in 1980 they held a reunion. That class had produced four police chiefs, four deputy commissioners, two chiefs of personnel, one chief inspector and one commissioner of the NYPD. It was the most successful class up until then and now, and its members came from the city’s lower and middle class, acting as a team, studying and working together.

A noted 1940 NYPD academy grad, Gertrude Schimmel, became one of the first two women promoted to sergeant and ultimately the first woman to be named a police chief.

Captain Gertrude Schimmel in 1971

When Schimmel joined the department on June 5, 1940, female officers could not be promoted above the rank of entry-level policewoman, and they were not allowed to go out on patrol.

However, in her early years with the department, she worked undercover to break up gambling operations. She later joined the Youth Aid Division, which found temporary shelter for children whose parents were unable to care for them.

A sign of the times, for example, in 1943 policewomen were issued a black shoulder bag with space for a holster but also a makeup kit. “Use the gun as you would your lipstick,” Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia said. “Don’t overdo either one.”

“With a voice that could crush rocks and a conversational style colloquial, voluble and occasionally profane, she was the Ethel Merman of the Police Department,” Anna Quindlen wrote in The New York Times when Schimmel retired in 1981.

But she also had  a difficult schedule, and usually took a double shift, 4 p.m. to 8 a.m., three times a week, so she could be home, when her two sons left for school and when they returned.

At Schimmel’s retirement, she was deputy chief, a rank  promoted to in 1978, and commander of the Community Affairs unit.She had a sense of humor and humility.

“I myself never answered a call on the radio and ran up five flights of stairs and called the ambulance,” she said. “When I was starting in the department, women didn’t do that. And by the time they did it, I was already promoted. I’m sorry I missed that, but you can’t have everything, right?”

Born Gertrude Tannenbaum on Dec. 9, 1918, in the Bronx, she was the youngest of a family of immigrants from Austria. Her father, Asher, worked in a clothing factory, then owned a small egg business. Her mother, Ida, died when she was 16, leaving her with household responsibilities. She was an outstanding student at Morris High School.

Have you ever wondered how a group of seniors would sound, recalling their school song 57 years after graduation?

3 thoughts on “A Philadelphia public school that beat the preps and the 1940 NYPD class that excelled with no legacies

  1. A reminder of how valuable an education can be, especially for those intelligent young people who are hampered by lack of funds. I had never heard of Gertrude Schwimmer so I thank you for including her in your piece. I would like to know more.


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