The Good Ole’ Days
Chapter 4: Henry Hocknell, “Maker of Men”
by Neil Clement
“As the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.” Pope Moral Essays, Epistle i, L, 150, 1732.
“Mom, when I get paid for my paper route this week, I’m going to join the new YMCA!” She was always so encouraging. I can just hear her saying, “That’s a
good idea, Neil!”
Now folks, we’re talking about a major decision here. The 50 cents represented a whole week’s pay for delivering 75 morning Inquirers before school in the
I even have to confess that I was jealous of Jack Micallef for years when I heard that he got paid one whole cent per paper. He worked for the Bulletin
company. I hope Jack sees this because I’ll feel better getting this off my conscience; it’s not Christian to be envious.
My recollection is that we were lucky the DuPont Company built and subsidized the Y or who knows how much the membership would have cost. I would
probably have been shut out completely. I might never have met Henry Hocknell.
He was the Youth Director in charge of tall kinds of stuff. “Henry,” drove an old gray coupe. On rainy days, he’d pack a bunch of us inside and drop us off as
he drove up G Street on his way home at night. That’s the kind guy he was.
All of us, our neighborhood gang, spent most of our free time at the Y. There were gymnastics, a craft shop, the game room with pool and ping-pong tables,
movies, Indian Pow Wows, clubs, Father and Son banquets, and lots more!
A fond memory I have is of playing checkers on day in the game room (that’s where the Sa-Ja-Re was held) with a buddy who asked, “What do we do now?” I
looked down at the board and saw that we were at a stalemate because we had both moved our checkers up evenly and were unable to move forward. I had
never seen it either so we called Henry over.
Guess what Henry did?
He called all the kids over and said, “Look at this checker game. I never saw anything like this. Neither guy can move. Wow! That’s amazing.”
To this day I can recall that little “moment in the sun”; being young and skinny, not built well like some of the big guys, it was neat to get that attention and feel
important for a minute.
Years later it dawned on me that Henry did that on purpose to build us up, to make us feel important. It was a little thing, a long time ago, and I can’t recall who
my partner was. I sure remember how I felt though that day!
Henry was a super gymnastic teacher. I base my compliment on the fact that he could teach me the front roll and the headstand (without a coordinated bone
in my body) and at the same time he could mold the great tumblers like Limey James, Bud Koehler, Herby Miles, Dave Springer and so on. Those of you folks
who saw the Silver Statues perform in the old Dingling Bros. Circus at the Y will remember how good those guys were. Henry could do it all.
Our neighbor at the Clement School on DuPont Road, old John Belitza, told me last month that he could never get over how Henry could do all those moves
on the high horizontal bar at the “old” Y. Since I couldn’t even jump up and begin to wing on the high bar, I agreed with John 100 percent.
As I look back over my life and think about the people who influenced my life – people like Mrs. Cote (Miss Heaps when she was trying to teach me Biology),
and Miss Gladys Stecker at Lafayette School – Henry Hocknell is right up there in my Big Three.
Here’s an example of Henry’s style: when the new YMCA held its dedication ceremonies, Henry selected the youth who would raise the flag that first day. He
lined us up in the gym and said, “Neil, I want you to raise the flag for us.”
I was so shocked that I stuttered and stammered and said, “Henry, I can’t do that!” All those big guys next to me in the gym shorts and their rippling muscles
and great builds looked at my bony chest and must have thought I was the “before” in the Charles Atlas beach commercial. I was sure he’d pick one of them
and never even hoped I could be picked.
I told Henry that he would have to pick someone else because I would be too nervous. Henry wouldn’t listen; I raised the flag.
Over 50 years later, I recently walked by the Y and looked at the flag pole out front. The scene from 1939 or 1940 flashed back to me as real as life. I could
see this scrawny kid in shorts who was shivering on the windy day as he raised the flag.
As I turned away, I thought, “Henry, you picked the kid who most needed a boost that day, didn’t you?
Henry sure knew how to bend a twig.
Special to “The Sampler”
April 18, 1990