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Shelby White

Oral history interview conducted by Sady Sullivan

October 24, 2013

Call number: 2008.031.3.013

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SULLIVAN: So, for the sound check, if you could just tell me what you had for breakfast.

WHITE: What did I have for breakfast? I had fresh orange juice, I had steel cut oatmeal with bananas and blueberries. That's it. That was breakfast. I didn't even have coffee, come to think of it, this morning.

SULLIVAN: Oh, would you like, before we--

WHITE: Well, if I feel like it, I can always ask Jennifer to bring me some.


WHITE: I might do that after a while.

SULLIVAN: OK. Let me know.

WHITE: But I've got water, so that's fine.

SULLIVAN: OK. Great. So this is good. And I'm not going to take notes, I sometimes jot things down if I have a follow-up question and I don't want to interrupt.

WHITE: OK. So, how does it work if I want you to stop for a minute, because I need to sneeze or something?

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. Well, sneezing is fine. But if you want to stop just let me know and I'll stop it.


WHITE: OK. Fine.

SULLIVAN: OK. To slate the interview, today is October 24, 2013, I'm Sady Sullivan with Brooklyn Historical Society and if you would, introduce yourself.

WHITE: I'm Shelby Baier White, born in Brooklyn, now living in Manhattan, and that's the story.

SULLIVAN: Great. And for the archives, what's your year of birth?

WHITE: 1938.

SULLIVAN: Great. So, let's start there. Tell me about where you come from.

WHITE: Well, I came from Flatbush; I'm the typical immigrant daughter, first generation American. My parents met in America, they came here when they were children. My grandparents, my maternal grandparents, came from someplace near Kiev [Ukraine] and my paternal grandparents came from someplace in the Polish Russian border. They both came in about 1910, I've been able to find their records, which is very, very exciting because both sets of grandparents came 2:00directly to Brooklyn. They never went to the great melting pot of the Lower East Side. And then my parents met when, my parents came when they were both around 10 years old and then they met because they worked for the same garment center manufacturer. My mother was the bookkeeper, my father was the salesman. So, we are the quintessential Brooklyn, Jewish, immigrant family.

SULLIVAN: And do you know, did your grandparents move to Flatbush area? Is that where they settled?

WHITE: No, my grandfather lived in, I don't think they called it, I'm not sure, they lived, not in the Flatbush area, I wouldn't know what it was called in those days, but my grandmother, my father's mother, lived in what is now, I guess, Brownsville, in a tenement. They, she had a rather sad life. She came here with four children, had a fifth one in America, her husband died when he 3:00was 36 years old, she was left with five kids and a small pushcart. So, and she lived in the same, same tenement all her life on Georgia Avenue. So, I think the building has since been destroyed, I tried to find it and I couldn't. So, that was her, she was a, had a hard life.

SULLIVAN: And where was the, the garment place that, where your parents met?

WHITE: On 34th street, 35th street. The typical gar-- it was a men's pants manufacturer called L.B. Rosenblatt. Louie Rosenblatt, and he was a second generation, probably, American. And he had a pants manufacturing business. My mother, who was very good in math and today probably would have been a CPA or something, was, in those days, a double entry bookkeeper. And she did very 4:00well. She went to what was, we would have, I guess, called a business school in the, after she graduated from high school, so. And my father never had more than a sixth grade education because he had to go to work. So.

SULLIVAN: And do you know what schools they went to in Brooklyn?

WHITE: No, absolutely not. No. I'm glad I remember the ones I went to.

SULLIVAN: So, where, when did your parents move to Flatbush?

WHITE: They moved probably the year I was born, so that would have been around '38. We lived in the same building all my life, 33 Crook Avenue, it's still there, it's a block from Prospect Park right near the Parade Grounds and our subway station was the Caton Avenue entrance to the, the Church Avenue BMT. So, and, so, my world was bounded by Prospect Park, Flatbush Avenue, Church Avenue, 5:00Ocean Avenue and then the cultural institutions that were my, my entry into the world of learning, the Brooklyn Public Library, the Botanic Garden, Prospect Park, so. That was my, my world.

SULLIVAN: So, I'd love to hear more, more details of that. Can you describe your, your neighborhood and building?

WHITE: Oh, yes. It was a, the block that I lived on was only two blocks long. Crook Avenue is a small street, it starts at Ocean Avenue, and it ended at the Parade Ground. We lived in a six-story red brick building that is still there, and I, oh maybe about 10 years ago, I decided I'd sort of see what the building looked like. I hadn't been back there in many, many years, so I drove past, there was a woman coming out of the building and she saw me looking around and the first thing I noticed was that we had had wonderful oak, sort of, doors and 6:00now they'd been replaced by, I guess, some sort of glass security door. And the woman saw me looking around she said, "Do you, are you lost? What do you want?" And I said, "Well, I used to live here and my mother used to live here a long, long time ago. My mother moved out in the '70s." She said, "What did she pay for rent?" And I said, "Well she probably paid about $86 for her apartment a month." And she said, "Eight-six dollars a month? We pay that a square foot now!" So, I didn't go inside, but the building looked pretty much the same because it's an area that high rises never came to. It's still all brick buildings, about six stories high and I remember my brother played stickball on the street there, and that was, that was, there were still a number of private houses, which I think are long gone, and we were not too far from Lefferts 7:00Mansion, which has since moved, but we used to pass Lefferts Mansion all the time, so, that was part of my, my childhood landmark and there was a big chestnut tree, I remember, which I think died in the chestnut blight. So. So, I was absolutely thrilled when I discovered that the Brooklyn Historical Society had the Lefferts Papers, which I would love to really be able to look at one of these days, but.

SULLIVAN: A lot of them are online in that digital humanities site [http://www.brooklynhistory.org/exhibitions/lefferts/]. And can you describe the, the people in the neighborhood and who you would--

WHITE: There were varied people in the building that I lived in. We didn't know all of our neighbors, but there was a wonderful lady from Savannah, Georgia, who talked a lot about Savannah all the time and there was Mrs. Kane who was extremely elegant, my mother thought, and my mother always thought, oh this is a woman who looks very good all the time. There were the Eisners, they had a 8:00daughter my age who I played with. There was Dr. and Mrs. Ehrlick, they had a daughter, Madeline, who I played with. It was basically not that many families and they were all, they were doctors, some of them, businessmen like my father, that was it. And my father ended up staying in the garment business all his life until he died, just about. And they moved out of that building in about 1974, so they lived there for a very, very long time. And, when they left, the neighborhood had become a little more risky to live in. There was a lot of crime, there were, men came after my father with a knife and they just decided, much as they had loved living in Brooklyn, it was time to leave. So, they did.

SULLIVAN: Where did they move to?

WHITE: They moved to Manhattan. Yeah. Which I had moved to when I got married, 9:00so, they lived not too far from me when they moved.

SULLIVAN: And so, when, when you were a young kid, what was your, sort of, range? Could you go anywhere?

WHITE: It was a pretty safe neighborhood in those days. In fact, what I remember is that when I was very small, maybe three or four years old, my mother would just tell me to ride around the block on my tricycle. Something today that would probably end up having her be called an abusive mother, but we certainly didn't think that was anything. And we, I remember, my mother had a sort of regular routine. She'd put me in her stroller, we'd go to Flatbush Avenue and she would pay her electric bill, and she'd go to the Brooklyn Union Gas Company and she'd pay her gas bill, she didn't write checks. Everything was done with cash. She'd go to the butcher, there were not a lot of, there were no chain stores, there were the sort of, there was Schrafft's, I guess, was the local chain restaurant of the day, and for a special treat we would go to 10:00Schrafft's. And I always remember that my mother liked to order a toasted cheese ha-- toasted ham, a ham sandwich on toasted cheese bread. That was a big specialty for her and coffee, or something, so that was where we went. There was the local bakery, there were two bakeries. There was Dubins, which was kind of where you got the Jewish rye bread, and then there was Ebbinger's where you got the most delicious cake. And if I could have one wish it would be to have an Ebbinger's black watch cake again. Because they were delicious. And they came in these special, sort of, green boxes with brown squares. They were kind of green squares outlined in brown. So, those were the local bakeries that we went to. And those were on Church Avenue. And then there was a wonderful Wormrath's bookstore on the corner of Flatbush and Church Avenue across from Erasmus Hall High School and next door to the Dutch Reformed Church, which I think is probably one of the oldest churches in the United States. It was very 11:00early settled by the Dutch. And Wormrath's bookstore was wonderful. When I was about eight or nine, I used to be able to go once a week with my father and get a book, or maybe it was once a month, and get a book. I remember buying these books that had wonderful illustrations like Hans Brinker and things like that. So, it was a wonderful area. Then there was a big cafeteria on the corner where Erasmus students used to go called Garfield's. And there was a coffee shop called Ellman's. And in winter, you could walk down Flatbush Avenue and for about five cents you could get something called a charlotte russe. Now, a charlotte russe was extremely special, it's a sponge cake with real whipped cream. And you have to remember, refrigeration wasn't as prevalent then, so having real whipped cream was a big deal. And you could also buy egg creams for about four cents, so, there were wonderful things you could do in Brooklyn. And 12:00then for special treats, we would go to Coney Island to Nathan's for a hot dog. We didn't have television until 1948 and we got our first television, which was very exciting. And our neighbors would come and they'd watch the test pattern because, I don't know if people know what a test pattern is, but most of the time there wasn't programming. So, in order that your television still worked, it was all black and white and I think we had something called a 12 inch screen, so it was very tiny, but in a huge, huge box made by the Dumont Company and nobody else on the block had a television set. They would come and sit there and watch what was the test pattern, which is what the networks would show so you knew your TV was still working even though there wasn't programming 24 hours a day. Then there was a wonderful sporting goods store that I remember on Flatbush Avenue called DeViga's where we could go for sneakers and there was, I think, the store that was called Stride-Rite, for shoes and there was a Sears 13:00Roebuck opened at one point and that was very exciting because it was the first time we had, sort of, a big store in the area. And then the local pharmacy was on Caton Avenue and St. Paul's Place. It was called the Caton Avenue Pharmacy. It was above the subway station, so you'd hear a lot of rumbling all the time. And my father would go there every morning for breakfast, because he would then take the subway to the garment center. And it was one of the ones, kind of drugstore that we used to have that had a soda fountain, so you could get an egg salad sandwich and an ice cream soda or something like that, chocolate ice cream soda. And then the big, big treat was that we were able to have tickets to Dodgers games. My father and his brother shared a box and I would get to go occasionally, so that was extremely exciting. The Dodgers were our team. And I was a rabid Dodger fan. It was very sad when they left Brooklyn. So. What 14:00else can I tell you? We knew the borough president, he was a long time borough president of Brooklyn named Abe Stark and I think he and Marty Markowitz came out of the same borough presidents' school. They were very friendly, but in addition, Abe Stark had a clothing store on Pitkin Avenue. And my father would buy his suits there. So, that, there was also a kosher restaurant called The Little Oriental which was a place where we could go for lunch, or for dinner sometimes, and they had, I thought, dreadful kosher food, but I didn't, I didn't particularly like the kosher food. It was things like stuffed derma. Horrible stuff, I thought. And let's see, what else can I tell you? There was a, one Chinese restaurant on Church Avenue that we thought was quite, quite exotic and probably today wouldn't pass muster as a place that people would like to go to, 15:00but they served things like egg foo yung, which we thought was very exotic, as I said, and, so, that was the world.

SULLIVAN: And you mentioned some of the, the cultural institutions. The BPL [Brooklyn Public Library] and the [Prospect] Park, what were, tell me about those?

WHITE: Well, I went to public school, so in, my fourth grade teacher was an avid bird watcher and she would take out, her name was Esther Sawyer and she would take our class, I went to PS 139, she would take our class to bird watch. We went to places like Plum Beach where I learned about things like the semi-palmated plover and I loved bird watching and I guess I was gifted enough because I had good eyesight, so I was the first one to always see the birds. And I'd say, "Oh, look, there's a semi-palmated plover." So, Esther Sawyer invited me to go with what they called the BBC, The Brooklyn Birding Club, and I 16:00would go and there was another boy in my class, LeRoy Jones, and they would, she would take us kids with her on these bird watching trips through Prospect Park. So, that was extremely exciting. It was, opened up a whole new world to me of things that I just didn't know in terms of people actually taking field glasses and looking at birds and these people were very knowledgeable. They didn't actually look in the bird book; they would just see the bird and they would say, "Oh, page 123." And this was probably the field guide to birds that they were all referring to, but they all knew about it, so it was very exciting. And then Prospect Park was sort of the place that I went. As I got older, I went horseback riding in Prospect Park, there were some stables, I guess on Ocean Parkway, one was called Teavans and I rode at the stable called Teavans. And 17:00my friend, Ellen, who lived in the same building I lived in rode there, too, and we would go every week and take our riding lessons. So that was very, very exciting because you could ride in Prospect Park. Well, also we rode in rig, Teavans had a, the stable had a rig and we rode in Prospect Park and we rode in the rig. Prospect Park had wonderful riding trails in those days. We would go rowing in the lake, so, and I, I always joked that I had my first cigarette in Prospect Park, but that's what it was in those days. So, Prospect Park was very special. Then as I got older, I was able to take, I guess, the trolley car in those days, to the Brooklyn Public Library and I could read and research and do things, so that was a great, great treat for me to be able to go there. I just found that's the most incredible building to walk into. Walking up those steps, I had no idea that the New York Public Library existed or any other. I had 18:00nothing to really judge it by, I was just, thought it was amazing. And I think, when I go back there, today, I still think it's amazing and I'm thrilled that it's kind of had a revival, so that was good, and then we would occasionally go to the [Brooklyn] Botanical Garden, but I didn't know enough about the plants to really appreciate how special it was. And the Brooklyn Museum as well. I didn't know enough, so I went there, but I wasn't that knowledgeable to really appreciate what I was looking at. But they were special places and I knew that.

SULLIVAN: And the Lefferts house?

WHITE: I never went inside it, but I just would see it from outside and I knew it was very old and I always liked looking at it. With its big chestnut tree. So.

SULLIVAN: And did the park, I know that the horse trails are, are not really 19:00there, but in other ways, does, did it look different?

WHITE: It didn't look that different until they put, what changed the park, and now it's gone was the skating rink. The, because we used to skate on the lake and then I guess, under, at some point, they destroyed, basically destroyed the waterfront to put in the big skating rink which is now gone. It was a very unattractive building, I thought, so at the park though, when I came back to it many years later, it had been neglected and so that was very sad when I saw that the trees weren't being taken care of and things, but when I was there, when I was, when I did, when I went to Packer [Collegiate Institute], we played field hockey in the park and so I remember going there all the time to play field hockey, but but what happened, is the park that I remembered had been sadly, 20:00sadly neglected and now, first with Tupper Thomas, and now with, forget, what's her name, Lloyd, I'm sorry, I can't, Emily Lloyd, it has really come back and they've done a wonderful job of refurbishing and revitalizing and the park is wonderful again. I think people understand how beautiful it is. But, I took it for granted. I didn't know that [Frederick Law] Olmstead, I didn't know the name, I didn't know anything. I just thought, well, yeah, we have a park, so, you don't know that you're in a landmark when you're in it as a kid and it's a block from your house. You think that the special things are further away and that you have to, to, what you have is kind of ordinary, so it was, would have been hard for me, in those days, to understand as I do today what a treasure 21:00this was. I just assumed that everybody could go a block and have an amazing park. I just didn't know. And my parents weren't, I think, that aware of how special it was either. So they didn't say things like, oh, today you're going to the greatest park in the world. They just, yeah, you're going to the park. Be careful and don't fall. Don't fall in the lake or something. So, we just took it for granted. We just didn't know.

SULLIVAN: And was it, would it feel, when you were there horseback riding or skating, did it feel busy or crowded, about how--

WHITE: It was, there were people there, I never felt that I was, it was overcrowded, but I never felt that it was, there was no one there. It was used. The parks were used and certainly when we played field hockey, there, there was busy. It was always busy. Yeah, all these places were busy. There were people in the museums, people in the library, and I also went to Union Temple which is 22:00across the street from the Public Library and that was a, for Sunday school, so I went there every week and I thought that was a beautiful building. And that's a little sad, to see that that's kind of fallen on hard times, as a temple, but it was, and, in those days, the grand, the grand arch [at Grand Army Plaza] was, you know, we thought that was pretty special. That we did. You know, and well, I think it was, I thought that Brooklyn was wonderful when I grew up there. So.

SULLIVAN: I'd love to hear more about your education. So, was PS139 where you started school?

WHITE: No. I started in PS92 which was a few blocks from my house and then my mother thought that PS 139 was a slightly better school and I supposed I 23:00shouldn't admit this now, but my aunt lived close to PS 139 and in those days you had to live in a district in order to be able to go to the school. And since it was the same last name, my mother was able to say that we lived in the building where my aunt lived and I was able to go to PS 139 where I had the wonderful Ms. Esther Sawyer who took us birding. But Esther Sawyer was more than just a bird watcher. She also believed that we should be, we should look at art. And she was the first one to take me to things like the Spanish Historical Society up on 150th Street to see the Goya's and she took us to the Cloisters, so it was quite amazing as kids to be taken up to these places and I really felt that they were, it opened my eyes to things that I didn't know existed. As I said, my parents didn't have huge education, we didn't know a lot about art, things like that, so 24:00this was my entry, was the fourth grade teacher, Esther Sawyer. There was also a wonderful principal at PS 139 named Mr. Dickler. Mr. Dickler was a mathematician and he had devised his own method of teaching math called casting out nines. Or maybe he didn't devise it, but at least he taught all of us and to this day, if I have to do a math problem in my head, I will use the casting out nines method. Don't ask me to explain it.

SULLIVAN: I was going to say, what is it? I need to know now.

WHITE: Well, it went, let me see if I can give a simple example of how you would, oh, it would be hard, I'd have to do it on paper I suppose. If you, you, it was basically a way of checking your addition and subtraction and I don't think anyone would need it today because everybody uses calculators. But in those days, if you were doing say, multiplication, and you wanted to be sure you were right, you would do something where you would add up the sum of the, the 25:00multiplicand and you would then see how many nines there were and somehow you would figure it out. And, the only other, I know one other person who also learned and he told me recently when I was talking to him and we discovered years later that we'd both gone to PS 139, that he still remembers the Dickler method. He was an amazing man, Mr. Dickler. He really taught us kids. He thought we should know math and certainly, today, everybody talks about people being turned off of math, but certainly in the fourth grade at PS 139 and the fifth grade, you weren't turned off math at all. And from there, I went to PS 246, was a junior high school which is, then was changed the name to Walt Whitman Junior High and there I was lucky enough to have an amazing history teacher named Vito Genarro. So, I was extremely lucky in those years to have 26:00teachers who were extremely influential in my life who taught me things about art, about history, about math and then I went to Packer. I, I went briefly to Erasmus and my mother didn't feel I was getting a good education there, so she suggested and we went and applied to Packer. My mother met some other girls, they'd gone there, and she thought this was a good thing, so I went to Packer and that was a transformation for me because I really learned to love education. I remember all my teachers, Miss Denning, my Latin teacher, Madame Champhrica, my French teacher and most of all, Miss Gina Giddings, my chemistry teacher, because I thought that chemistry was the most amazing thing in the world and that I would go to the same college that Miss Giddings had gone to, which was Mount Holyoke [College], and I would become a chemistry professor like she did. But when I got there, I really decided I liked history 27:00more, so I studied history, but, my teachers in Brooklyn were amazing. And we had a wonderful head master at Packer named Dr. Schafer who taught us an ethics class. That was what he did. And Packer was wonderful. We had this chapel every morning and we'd go in, we'd sing hymns and I still have my red hymnal from Packer, we sang, it was very much an Episcopal school and today everybody worries a lot about having religion in the school, but as a girl who had grown up in a very Jewish oriented home, it was a great thing that I learned about other religions and what the Episcopalians did and I, I saw nothing wrong with it. And, it was, it was a very good experience, I felt, to go to a place that was so different from what I had known.

SULLIVAN: And did your religious education continue?

WHITE: Not after I went off to college, no. I went to school until I graduated 28:00from the Sunday school or I guess it was the confirmation, which I never attended. But I did do the whole, all those years of Sunday school, yeah. So, but going to Packer was a transformation for me because I really learned about education. I learned that I wanted to be able to study and that I wanted to go to college because I came from a family where the girls traditionally didn't go to college, so to me, that was something I wanted to do and that girls, if they did go to college, went to, I had a cousin who went to Brooklyn College and my mother wanted me to go to an out of town college and my, I remember my, some of my aunts being highly critical that my mother would spend the time and money to send me away to school. They thought it was a waste. So, different time.

SULLIVAN: Was the fact that Mount Holyoke is an all-women's college, was that 29:00part of an interest?

WHITE: Well, Packer was an all-women's college in those days, so I didn't know any better. I went to all girls' camp, all girls' college, all girls' high school. That was what you did. That was, that was the world, a lot of the Ivy League schools were not open to women in those days, so it wasn't an option. I could have gone to a big state school or something like that, but if you wanted what was considered an Ivy League education, you had to basically go to an all girls' school. So, it wasn't a big deal. That's the way it was.

SULLIVAN: And I'd love to hear more about, it's so great that you remember these teachers so well, and do you know about their lives, or where they were coming from?

WHITE: Well, interestingly, no. Although one day, fairly, maybe about the last five years, I was on a, I went with a group of people to bird, they were, sort of, people from the Audubon Society, I guess, and I, we were in Central Park and I mentioned, and they said, how did you get involved in bird watching and I said 30:00that I had this wonderful teacher Esther Sawyer, and this woman said, "Oh, she was famous! She died a few years ago." So, that was very interesting to me that she was considered a world-class bird watcher. And very, very well known in the bird, in birding circles many years later, so I guess her enthusiasm was trans-- transmitted to me, but there was no wonder because she was such an amazing bird watcher that, you know, 50 years later people still knew her name. So, I don't, I can't say that I knew a lot about their backgrounds and things, all I know is how influential they were in my life. Now, Miss Giddings, her niece was in my class at Packer, so I, and I do still occasionally see my classmates, so I knew she grew up in Brooklyn, Miss Giddings, and she had gone to Mount Holyoke, so that was what made me decide to do that.


SULLIVAN: And, can you tell me about the transition from, from Walt Whitman Junior High to Packer?

WHITE: It was, it was a transformation as I said, but I have to say that when I was at Walt Whitman, I was in what was called the special progress class, an SP class, and the standards were extremely high, so when I got to Packer, it was another level, it's true, and even when I got to college, I realized that the Latin class, the French classes were on such a high level that, for example, when I got to Mount Holyoke and I did whatever we had to take a test to be placed in a French literature class, and I was, I skipped the first two years of college French Literature and went right into the third year based on the 32:00learning, the education I'd had at Packer from Madame Champhrica, my wonderful, wonderful French teacher, who always laughed at my French accent, but could never fault my French grammar. So, Packer was a remarkable place in those days. It was very traditional, it was extremely high standards and the chemistry, the math, all of that was just very rigorous and I worked very hard at it.

SULLIVAN: Can you describe the, the building and the classroom and--

WHITE: The building looks exactly the same as it did, so do the classrooms, they then bought the building next door and I am pleased to say that I was able to give a gift to make the link between the two buildings which is named after my mother, so, it's very much the same except that I think the 33:00education today is very different. There's much more emphasis on diversification, it's co-ed, I, I just think it would be hard for me to know what, how the education differs today, but I suspect that it's much more modern in terms of what they're learning. We really learned, I think, much more, some along a British education lines and I think that's, that's changed today. So. But I remember that we, we had very, we had to prepare for the SATs. We did, the public schools took Regent Exams and at Packer, you didn't, so they didn't teach to those kinds of tests. It was on a level that was much better, I think, because they didn't have to make sure we could under-- do well on a regional test. That was not of interest to them. They were interested in the college boards and we did learn, we did have to take those exams and things, but not the 34:00regents. So.

SULLIVAN: Can you tell me your, sort of, typical school day at Packer from when you would get up in the morning?

WHITE: Well, I'd get up in the morning, I'd take the subway to, I think it was the Pierrepont Street Station, but I can't be totally sure, I'd meet my friends, we'd go to the coffee shop and we were, I'm embarrassed to tell you, we smoked in the coffee shop, although I didn't actually, in those days, I hadn't really started, but I was the one who kept all the cigarettes, so we would keep, we would go to the coffee shop. Then we'd run up the steps to chapel because we had to be there on time and so the morning started with the chapel service. I think we would usually end up singing the Packer Alma Mater, which something along the lines of what spirit lies, I can't remember the ne-- well, I, think, if I can't remember it now, but it was with spirit in our Packer lives / so 35:00binds us part to heart than in each alma mater / each girl must do her part. So, I think they must have changed that by now, because it was all about girls. So, and then we would have classes and we had gym. Gym was a very big part of our lives and we wore these hideous bloomer uniforms. So, and then I always played field hockey so we'd go to the Park for the field hockey after school. It was a very typical day for, sort of, 9am to 3pm I would remember. I don't remember a lot of after school activities that we did, although I, as an after-school program, went to two different things. One was, when I was younger, I joined a group called the Campfire Girls and we met in a church on Ditmas Avenue. And if you were a Campfire Girl, you did different tasks and you got beads for doing things. So, if you could light a campfire you got a bead, 36:00or if you helped somebody, you got a bead, I didn't do that for too long. And then I heard about a group that was called Junior Achievement, which was in Brooklyn. And I joined a group and we started our own candy company called The Jandy Candy Company. We would buy candy wholesale and then we would repackage it and sell it, so, we, that was my first entrepreneurial, I also learned about philanthropy when I was in Brooklyn. Because my mother and father were very much, I think it's very much a Jewish tradition to be very philanthropic, no matter what you had there was always someone who had less, and although we didn't have a lot, we, I was, my mother was on the board of something called the Hendricks Street Day Nursery and what I remember was, when I was a Campfire Girl, we had a doughnut drive every year. And what you'd do, is you'd go around, ring doorbells and try and sell people doughnuts. And I remember going, 37:00this is my first philanthropy, I guess I'd have to say, to ring the doorbell and they would say, well we don't have any children, we don't need doughnuts, and I would say, "Well my mother works at a day nursery and they have children." And I sold 50 dozen doughnuts and was able to give them to the day nursery. So, that was my first ever philanthropic experience. But, I grew up in a home where charity was considered part of life and in those days, as far as my parents, a lot of charity was directed towards the local temple that they, my parents, belonged to and my father would go to industry specific dinners such as the UJA [United Jewish Appeal - Federation], Garment Center Dinner and we'd, we were told that this was, you know, I grew up believing that you helped others. And that you gave back, so, philanthropy really was very much part of my growing up.


SULLIVAN: How old were you when you doing the doughnut sale?

WHITE: Campfire Girls?


WHITE: Probably 12.

SULLIVAN: Oh, that's a, that was very, very clever to--

WHITE: Yeah, yeah, it worked very well. I sold a lot of doughnuts. Fifty dozen, I remember.

SULLIVAN: And, so, sort of getting into detail type things, what was the dress code at Packer at that time?

WHITE: The dress code, we did not have uniforms, and in those days we were, I remember we wore kind of, well, let me think, going, ear-- a little before that, when I was at Walt Whitman I remember very well I belonged to a club, there were a bunch of girls, and we started a club called The Magnets and we had team like sweaters that were blue with shocking pink trim with magnets written across the back. And there were about 12 of us and we'd meet in a different person's house 39:00each month for our Magnet meeting. I have no idea what we thought we were doing, but it was just a way to get together and have a good, good time and as I said, there were about 12 of us. I remember most of them. It was Iris, and Phyllis and Arleen and they were all from varied backgrounds. Arleen's father was, worked as a postman, he delivered mail, Phyllis' father owned a store that sold carpeting on Flatbush Avenue, so we were very varied group. And so, I remember in those days it was, they, they had, we had felt skirts with poodles on them. So, that was kind of, and we would wear our felt skits with our Magnet sweaters and we wore white buck shoes or saddle shoes with white socks. Don't ask why that became fashionable, but it was. And then when I was in Packer, crinolines were coming in, so that was kind of interesting, because we all would 40:00try and wear as many crinolines as possible under our skirts. And the dress code was pretty much skirts and twin sweaters. That kind of thing with circle pins, so that was what we basically all wore. I remember I had a cornflower blue cashmere sweater. That was, I thought, was the living end. So.

SULLIVAN: The Magnet sweaters, would you, would that have, did you, would you have done the Magnet writing on the back or?

WHITE: No, we would have ordered them with felt letters, so it, there were places you could go. At Packer, we actually had white blazers with the Packer emblem which we wore for certain things, I guess for certain ceremonial days that, it was, but there wasn't a mandatory dress code at Packer and we didn't have uniforms. So.

SULLIVAN: And would there--

WHITE: Except for those horrible gym uniforms. With the bloomers.

SULLIVAN: Was there different styles, was it, what was the social scene like at Packer?


WHITE: The social scene for me was very limited because frankly, the most of the girls lived in Brooklyn Heights, so they had their own society. They had a, a sorority and in those days there was a lot of discrimination and the Jewish girls weren't invited into the sorority. So, the social life for me at Packer was very, very limited. I had a few friends, we would go to each other's houses to do our homework, that kind of thing, there wasn't a lot of social life. I didn't date or anything like that, there were no boys, I didn't do any of that. The girls who were part of the sorority group, they were all much more social, they all had their little debuts and things like that, because in those days, there was the, the coming out parties and that was not part, I was not part of that world, I was absolutely, knew very little about it. So, you'd have to get 42:00someone who, to, there were these debutante parties and it was a big deal, but it wasn't, the Jewish girls were just not invited.

SULLIVAN: And would you, you said, you mentioned confirmation, did, was there bat mitzvahs at Union Temple?

WHITE: No, there weren't. Bat mitzvahs came much later. There were confirmations. My parents didn't believe, that was not a European tradition, so I was not confirmed or bat mitzvahed. My brother was bar mitzvahed. That I remember.

SULLIVAN: At Union Temple?

WHITE: No, he went to temple, another temple, Shaare Tora, which was near Flatbush Avenue. And that was a conservative temple. Union Temple was a Reform temple and I went there because I had some friends who went there, so I asked my parents if I could go and they said yes. So.

SULLIVAN: And did your parents go to one--


WHITE: They went to Shaare Tora. They were members there until they moved to New York. So. I believe that Shaare Tora has since merged with another temple and I don't really know what's happened to it.

SULLIVAN: And, so, in, in your house, what was the, the religious feeling and education?

WHITE: The religious feeling was of tradition, so Friday night candle lighting, Sabbath service, my mother would always light the candles, we didn't do a lot more than that for religious, in the home, religious observance although it was a strictly kosher home. I didn't observe the kosher laws when I went out nor did my parents, but as my parents had come from Europe and that was the tradition, they never wanted people to come to the house who couldn't eat in their house. So, we observed the holidays, Hanukah, Passover, my parents went 44:00to temple for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they went for memorial services, it was pretty routine. Nothing, but it was much more the ritual than the theory or the teachings of the prophets or anything like that, it was much more this is the way we do it, this is the religious service and that was how we observed. And if was more if I would ask a question, it was always, "My mother did it that way." So, if I would say, "Well, why, why do have to eat this?" It would be, "Because that's what my mother did." It wasn't anything where there was a lot of theory or intellectual thinking about it.

SULLIVAN: And would you, would you see your grandparents?

WHITE: Ah, sadly, sadly, my mother's mother died before I was born, and my 45:00grandfather, my mother's father, died when I was eight years old, so before he died, I would see him but he never spoke English, so I never got to know him. And my father's father, as I said, died when he was 36 and my father was six. My father's mother lived into her mid-50s, so they died very young, my grandparents. And the two that survived didn't speak English, so I didn't get to know them very well. But, I did see them, we would go to see my grandmother on Fridays or something and my grandfather lived with my mother's sister. So, I would see him and sometimes he would come to babysit and I thought, always found this very intriguing because he had false teeth which he would put in a glass and so you can imagine for a seven year old kid, seeing teeth in a glass was 46:00absolutely, I mean, my brother and I would sneak in to look to look at the teeth in the glass. So, that, that was kind of my memory of my grandfathers. The teeth in the glass and also my grandfather presiding over Passover Seders, and being very strict about us having to go through all the ritual and my mother and her sisters giggling like school girls and my grandfather getting very upset, so those are kind of my memories, but, unfortunately, as I said, neither grandparent spoke English, so, and I didn't speak Yiddish, so I never got to really know them. That was a time when my mother really thought that if you spoke Yiddish, you would be stigmatized, so she didn't want us to learn it. I 47:00think that was kind of the way it was. Today, you probably would want to teach your, the language that you spoke, but my mother, as soon as she learned English, stopped speaking the Russian that she had known as a child, but then she had to speak Yiddish because that was what her parents spoke. So.

SULLIVAN: And did, did some of that Yiddish or Russian filter to you?

WHITE: The Russian was gone. I, I certainly understand the, the colloquial Yiddish to some degree, I can't speak it, but I certainly know the Yiddish expressions. Many of which have permeated all of our culture today, so, everybody knows about chutzpah and schmattas. Yiddish is a wonderful language, I think schmattas is a wonderful, descriptive word. And I think that Yiddish has, has come into a lot of the worlds, schlep, you know it's a perfectly descriptive word, "I schlepped my packages."

SULLIVAN: It is, it's very perfect.

WHITE: I mean, we all just, you know, people, I hear people who have no idea, 48:00probably, that it's a Yiddish word, say, "I schlepped to Brooklyn last week to see an exhibit." So, that was, this was part of my growing up. These words are not unfamiliar to me, shall we say, and I do understand a lot of Yiddish. But I couldn't speak, it. Which is too bad. But, that was the way it was.

SULLIVAN: And so, can you describe the Packer neighborhood? Brooklyn Heights? What was going on around there?

WHITE: It looks exactly the same as it was then, I think, so I didn't spend a lot of time there, because don't forget, I was commuting, so I would go to the school, but the neighbor-- Brooklyn Heights has really stayed the same. And so, when I was there, recently sitting around, I think it's, today it's a little livelier than it was in my day. You know, there are more outdoor restaurants, things like that. But, it's pretty much the way it was. It hasn't changed, Brooklyn Heights. Thank goodness. In fact, a lot of that area, Eastern 49:00Parkway, which was, I suppose the Fifth Avenue of Brooklyn, or maybe the Park Avenue, those buildings, we thought they were really magnificent. I didn't know what Park Avenue buildings looked like, I thought Eastern Parkway was the ultimate thing and if we could live on Eastern Parkway, we would have been very special. And that whole are, Grand Army Plaza has stayed pretty much the same except for unfortunately, the Richard Meier Building [One Grand Army Plaza], which really does mar it and I'm surprised that it was allowed to be built because there was such an intact ensemble of buildings, and now you have something that's really changed it forever, I'm afraid. But, these areas didn't change, Eastern Parkway, my neighborhood where I grew up in Flatbush, they are all the same. And in a way, it's sort of wonderful that they didn't change that 50:00much. Because, and now, today, people really appreciate those wonderful neighborhoods. I think the part where my father lived, those tenements are gone, but not the rest of it. Not where I grew up. And not all the wonderful buildings, private houses on Ocean Parkway, on Ocean Avenue and Cortelyou Road and Ditmas, all of those still exist and they're wonderful and I think, today, people really appreciate them. Sadly, some of the great restaurants of my youth are gone. My favorite one was a placed called Lundy's which was in Sheepshead Bay and it was a huge, huge seafood restaurant where you could get wonderful lobster and shrimp cocktail and ice cream that was served in silver cups. And that was a real treat and they served hot biscuits. So, that was a wonderful place to go. We would sometimes go there for Sunday lunch. And that was fun.


SULLIVAN: What other, sort of, entertainment, special activities, would you do?

WHITE: Movies. Saturday movies. The RKO Kenmore on Flat-- on Church Avenue near Flatbush. We'd go for double features, the RKO News, because that's how we got our news. There wasn't so much television news in those days, so I would go with my friends to the RKO Kenmore to double features. It cost twenty-five cents as I recall.

SULLIVAN: And, so your father was working in Manhattan, did your mother stop working when--

WHITE: Yes. When she got married. It was the era when a man would say, "My wife doesn't have to work." And I, it was a mark of status that you could afford to keep your wife home or to have your wife stay home. And so, that was the tradition. Plus, there would have been no one to take care of me and my brother if my mother wasn't at home because I don't think that was, my mother would not have had anybody come in to take care of her, she did all, everything herself. 52:00I think we did have a lady who came in and cleaned once a week, but otherwise, my mother did everything herself. In the days before washing machines and we didn't have a dishwasher, we didn't have a washing machine, there was a lot of housework to be done. You couldn't easily get frozen foods and things, so my mother went shopping every single day, practically to the grocery stores and the vegetable store and the butcher store and the fish store. And it took up most of her time.

SULLIVAN: As a family would you go to different boroughs or did you mostly stay in Brooklyn?

WHITE: No, we stayed in Brooklyn. As I got older, when I was in high school, my mother and I would sometimes go to New York and we'd go to the Plaza Hotel for tea. And tea sandwiches or else we'd go, we had three places we went. We'd go to Lord and Taylor's which had a restaurant called The Birdcage, we went to B. Altman's who had a restaurant called The Charleston Garden and we would go, and 53:00sometimes we would go to Long Shops in New York. But, basically, we were in Brooklyn and we didn't go into New York that much. Occasionally my father would, we'd go to a steak restaurant called Johnny's. Frankie and Johnny's, I think it was called and it probably still exists. And then there was an Italian restaurant which still exists called Patsy's. But we were pretty limited to Brooklyn. That was my world.

SULLIVAN: And did you, what was your sense of the Brooklyn Neighborhoods?

WHITE: It wasn't as defined as people today have, neighborhoods that I've never heard of. So, we knew about Borough Park, Sheepshead Bay, Flatbush, Brooklyn Heights, Brownsville, those were the neighborhoods that I remember. I didn't have a sense of little specific places. Oh, and there was Williamsburg, but Cobble Hill, things like that, that was not part of my language. And there are 54:00many neighborhoods that people mention today I have no idea where they are.

SULLIVAN: And would you go, so that and North Brooklyn, like Williamsburg, did--

WHITE: I didn't have a sense of that. I really didn't. So, I knew where my relatives lived, but that's about it. And how to get there. But I didn't have, I knew about Sheepshead Bay because that's where, I knew Brighton Beach, I'd go to Brighton Beach with some of my friends, we'd go to the beach there and it was a wonderful beach. We'd go swimming in the summer. And you could go and just spend the day there. And swim in the ocean. So, it was pretty good to be able to take a subway to the ocean. I guess people still do it, but that was what we did. Yeah.

SULLIVAN: So, when you graduated from Packer [in 1957] and went to Mount Holyoke, what was that transition like?


WHITE: Academically, it was not as rigorous, I felt, as Packer had been. I was thrilled to be able to go someplace where there were trees and grass, so being in an out-of-town college, I loved it. It was just living in a dormitory with other girls. I felt it really exciting and fun to be, be able to be there, but as I said, academically, I didn't think that it was a big change for me. I was lucky when I got to Mount Holyoke to have some friends from Brooklyn, so, who I met. I met people from Brooklyn there who became my friends, so I had people to come back and forth with, that kind of thing. But, it was a, it was a wonderful experience, but as I said, academically, the change from Packer to Mount Holyoke was not huge because Mount Holyoke was, was great, but Packer had been such a 56:00good education that I found the intellectual activity about, not, not that different. I mean, obviously I was certainly learning more and more and more, but the academic world didn't change that much. For a lot of people who came there, it was a huge transformation. They'd come from public school on Long Island or something like that, and they were, found it overwhelming. But, as I said, Packer prepared you so well for college that I didn't find that a big change. And I loved being in a dormitory with other wo-- other girls, you know, it was a great, it was great for me. I loved it. It was a real change from the world I knew, which was, as I said, very centered on family, on Jewish education, Jewish culture, so this was a big eye-opener for me of another world that existed that I didn't know a lot about.


SULLIVAN: And what was it about history that, that grabbed you away from chemistry?

WHITE: I was good at it. I don't know, I just sort of suddenly decided that I liked knowing more about the world and so, history was something that I gravitated towards. And when I went to graduate school, that's what I, at Columbia, that was my field, was history as well. So. I left the chemistry behind.

SULLIVAN: And can you tell me more about your, your friends, the Brooklyn friends and other friends at Mount Holyoke and that community in general?

WHITE: There wasn't a real lot of that, no, there's, I was much more, I wasn't that much a part of a community in Brooklyn people. I had a few friends who lived in Brooklyn who I knew from, got to know from college, but it wasn't a big community. There wouldn't be a lot to say about that.

SULLIVAN: And where, what about the other students? Where were they from and--


WHITE: All over. My, my classmates who I was close to in my dorm, one was from Minneapolis, one was from New Rochelle, my roommate was from Valley Stream, Long Island, so, it was, from all over.

SULLIVAN: And, so was there, were there challenges to coming from a bustling city to a--

WHITE: No, I loved it. No, no, no. I really, it was, I didn't find, some people may have found it too bucolic, but I had never lived in an area where you could go outside and you weren't on the sidewalk. So, I loved being in that, what was sort of a rural area. I didn't mind at all not having stores and 59:00things like that. Because Mount Holyoke was, the village of South Hadley was a very small, it was a small town. And you were very limited, but I didn't mind that at all. Not at all.

SULLIVAN: And how was the transportation between, how would you--

WHITE: Car, usually, sometimes train, sometimes bus. It was, it wasn't a big deal. Yeah. My roommate actually got a car in our junior year, so I would drive with her sometimes. But, transportation, no. That wasn't a big deal. You took the train, you took a car, you took a bus. It was not a--

SULLIVAN: And would you family visit you?

WHITE: No. No. My parents never, they didn't really feel comfortable coming. The only time they came to Mount Holyoke was to see me graduate. They, they never came. That was not typical. The other parents really did come a lot, but 60:00my parents never, they didn't even bring me there the first, for my freshman, I mean, that was a little strange, I guess in retrospect, that I went there by myself as a freshman and had to do everything, get my dorm room set up, everything. But, I didn't think it was any big deal until I realized that nobody else was there by themselves. And everybody else's parents had come with them. I just remember my parents saying, "Well, you better pack your trunk, you're going to college." So I packed a trunk and went to college. And then I got there and I said, "Hey, wait a minute, all these other kids have their mothers and fathers." So, I guess it made me pretty self-reliant.

SULLIVAN: And then coming back to Brooklyn after having lived up there, was it, did you have, sort of, a new lens on Brooklyn at all?

WHITE: No. It was, it came back, you were back where you were. I had gotten married really about a year after I came back from after I graduated from 61:00college, so I didn't spend that much time in Brooklyn when I got back because I got a job right away and I was going to graduate school at night, so I was really, I mean, I lived at home with my parents, it would have been unthinkable that I didn't, but then I met the man that I married that first year I was out of college and so, I didn't stay in Brooklyn after that.

SULLIVAN: And what was the job that you had right after college?

WHITE: I was very fortunate. I got a job as the production editor for the Journal of Biochemical and Biophysical Cytology at Rockefeller, then Rockefeller Institute. So, basically, I was the, in charge of all of the copy editing for this journal of, as I said, of Biochemical and Biophysical Cytology. And in those days, Rockefeller Institute was kind of a strange place because 62:00there were all these brilliant scientists and then there was the publications department which was sort of a lot of women. And we women were never supposed to mingle with any of the brilliant male scientists. And, in fact, there was a women's dining room where you ate because Detlev Bronk, who was then the head of Rockefeller, didn't feel that women and men should eat in the same place. So, I had a very, what shall I say, very rigid schedule. I'd get up in the morning, take the subway from Brooklyn to Rockefeller, do my work and then run as fast as I could to get a bus to go up to Columbia to take my classes at night then I'd have to take the subway back to Brooklyn. So, I didn't have a lot of time to do a lot. So, I can't really say what Brooklyn was like because it was just like a place I slept.

SULLIVAN: Right. And how did you and your husband meet?


WHITE: Ah. How did, we met in the oddest way possible. One of those days when I was running out of Rockefeller to get the bus to go up to Columbia, apparently he had just moved from Massachusetts to New York and he had a job and he had gotten an apartment uptown because he was working on Wall Street, and he was driving uptown with a friend who he had met at his job, you see, he didn't know him that long, and the car stopped at a light as I ran across the street. And he saw me and said, "Oh, she doesn't look bad." Apparently. And this was the one person who we both knew in common. Because this, this was, the other man in the car was someone I had met at a friend's wedding.


WHITE: And so, my husband, then became my husband, said, "Hey, give me her 64:00number. I'll call her." And he did, and that's how I met him.


WHITE: He saw me crossing the street. So it was all because he stopped for a traffic light. And was with the one person we both knew, because he had only been in New York for about six months.

SULLIVAN: That's so lucky.

WHITE: Yeah, it was one of those things. He had come from a small town in Massachusetts and he'd been in the Navy and he'd gotten out of the Navy and gotten a job on Wall Street. Well, I guess he got out of the Navy and went to graduate school at Wharton [School of the University of Pennsylvania] and then came to New York. Got a job in New York.

SULLIVAN: So, what did you think when you got this phone call?

WHITE: I didn't know I had gotten the phone call because my mother apparently got the call and she didn't tell me. Because apparently, she didn't think that someone who called me under those circumstances was someone she was going to tell me about. Because he had seen me crossing the street. And then he called 65:00again when I happened to answer the phone and he explained the situation. And said, would I like to meet him for a drink, and so I said, yes. And so, that was, so I di-- as I said, I didn't know the first call had come, even. But.

SULLIVAN: And what kind of, what kind of dates would, would those early dates be?

WHITE: Well, let's see, the first date was a, I mean, we did normal stuff, although he thought Brooklyn was a very funny place. He didn't know Brooklyn at all having come from a small town in Massachusetts, he, he found Brooklyn very strange. He, he didn't get it at all, shall we say. I think both my husbands, because my first husband sadly he died when he was very young, and then I remarried and my second husband was from New York as well. And he would say to me, I remember when we first started going out he said to me, "Shelby. Athens had 500,000, 50,000 people," or something like that, "And Brooklyn has a 66:00million. Look what Athens produced, what has Brooklyn produced?" And I would have to think very hard and say, "Well, we have the Dodgers, we have the Brooklyn Museum and I would go through and he, he was not impressed with what Brooklyn had produced compared to Athens even though Athens had far fewer citizens. So, that was my, that was my husband's and Brooklyn.

SULLIVAN: Actually, speaking of the Dodgers, I wanted to ask you more about that. About--

WHITE: I was young, so, I couldn't tell you that much about, about them in terms of technical things. But, certainly we all knew about the names of the players, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, I don't, yeah, I'm not a big sports fan, but I, it was fun to go to those games and I just knew that the Dodgers were my 67:00team. And, as I said, it was the big deal when Jackie Robinson was first played for the Dodgers because it was the big transformation of crossing a color line that hadn't been crossed before and, it was, it was, it was a great team, so I just, I can't remember all the players and things, but we would go there and I, I do remember when the Dodgers lost the pennant, I was coming home, it was, must have been 1955, I was coming home from Walt Whitman and people were yelling in the streets that they had lost and it was one of the saddest days imaginable. Because the game had gone the wrong way, it was, sort of a legendary game and it was, we would listen to the games, if we didn't go, we'd listen on the radio and there was a wonderful announcer named Red Barber and he would make it sound so exciting, you know, he'd be yelling "It's going, going, gone!" and in a way, 68:00listening to it on the radio was more exciting than certainly watching it on television which was extremely boring because you'd see a bunch of guys standing around scratching themselves and then occasionally throwing and hitting a ball. But, it was, it was great. The Dodgers were a great team. And I do remember, though, there was a big sign in Ebbets Field for Abe Stark's clothing store and I think you got a free suit if you hit the sign, or something, so that was, that was a big deal to, that was part of the legends of Brooklyn, I suppose. So. I don't know, if this is going to help your oral history, maybe some people remember more, some less, but those are some of my, my memories which you have jogged by asking some questions. And--

SULLIVAN: I think, let's see. Are there other Brooklyn institutions or spaces 69:00that you would go?

WHITE: Well, as I said, there were the restaurants, the shops, the, you know, the, the Wormrath's Bookstore, the library, all of those things. Most of which are gone, those bakeries, the Chinese restaurant, those kinds of things. The riding on Coney Island. Coney Island, that was great. Trying to think if there's other places. It wasn't a big world in those days. You did, it was a small world, but it was nice. It was great. It was very comfortable to grow up there.

SULLIVAN: And you mentioned a bit about this but, what was it like socially in terms of different kinds of people from different places, race, ethnicity, religion, did you feel--

WHITE: Where? When?

SULLIVAN: In Brooklyn, did you feel that people were--

WHITE: Mostly the people in Brooklyn that I knew were Jewish. It was very much 70:00a Jewish neighborhood. I had a few friends who were not Jewish and then when I got to Packer it changed my world a lot because that was quite the reverse. The Jews were the, very much the minority, I think there were three or four Jewish girls in my class. So, it was a very big change for me. But, it was fine. It was, as I said, though, it was quite a, it was sort of understood that as a Jewish girl, you didn't participate in a lot of the things that were open to the other girls. So, if I suppose, you might say, it was my first awareness of discrimination and the kind of world of which is, I think, dying today, of WASP, the WASP world. I didn't know what it was, even. So, but I learned about it. And it was fine. So, I had friends. All types of friends. It was never, never something that I paid that much attention to, but clearly, as I said, the 71:00Brooklyn that I grew up with was a very Jewish centered Brooklyn. And then when I got to Packer and to Mount Holyoke, my world was much broader because it was different, that's the way it was. And I didn't feel that I had to stay in the Jewish world, I felt I could just, incorporate everybody into my life which is exactly what has happened.

SULLIVAN: And, were there other neighborhoods that would have, you know, I hear about an Italian neighborhood, or, you know--

WHITE: They may have existed, but I didn't know about them. No. I really didn't. The area where I was, was so much a Jewish area. If there was someone who wasn't Jewish, and there was a girl who lived in a house on my block and her name was Kathleen Boynton and that was the first Catholic person I'd ever really met and I remember going to her house and seeing a cross on the wall and 72:00this was a very big change for, I, something new to me. I had never seen that before. So, I grew up in a very small, limited horizon. But, also, in a way where my eyes were opened and there was never anything that said don't go to those, don't go, don't look. So, I, I grew up in a narrow world but without blinders. So, I was really receptive to whatever was out there.

SULLIVAN: And throughout your life and travels, do you think, what is the, what is the understanding that you think other people have of being from Brooklyn?

WHITE: I think it's changing because in, certainly in the '70s if you came from Brooklyn, people thought you came from a really terrible place, and if you say today that you came from Brooklyn, people don't understand what it was like, so 73:00I think I saw Brooklyn as a going through a transformation and certainly Brooklyn Heights was very different from Flatbush. If you lived in Flatbush, especially in the Jewish Community, people aspired to move to Long Island. Just as I understand, if people lived in the Bronx, they moved to Westchester. Whereas if you lived in Brooklyn Heights, that's where you wanted to live. You didn't want to go anyplace and as I said, we, we didn't really think too much about the other areas. But, my friend, I mentioned my friend Ellen, and Ellen and her parents, her mother was from Birmingham, Alabama. And they were the first people I knew who moved to Manhattan. And they moved to Park Avenue and that was something I, I didn't even know what Park Avenue was, so I discovered a new world when they moved there, because Ellen would invite me to come from 74:00Brooklyn and I realized that this was a very different atmosphere. A very different ambience, everything was different from the world that I'd grown up in. But, the, the, as I said, I think if you lived in Brooklyn in those days, you'd, your aspiration was to move out. And if you lived in Flatbush, but if you lived in Brooklyn Heights, you probably were going to stay in Brooklyn Heights. That was, that was as far as you wanted to go.

SULLIVAN: Why did Ellen's family move to Park Avenue?

WHITE: Because I think the thought it was more elegant, more, if you were richer, it showed that they were richer. Yeah, it was kind of a status symbol I would guess. But we didn't even know there was a Park Avenue to move to, so, it was a, I grew up in a very limited, in that sense.

SULLIVAN: And, so I guess my final question, how are you, you've spoken to this 75:00already, but just, I'll ask, ways that you feel connected to Brooklyn today?

WHITE: Well, this was where I grew up. I feel very connected to Brooklyn. I love going back, I just have great memories of it. Nothing bad happened to me in Brooklyn. Everything that happened in Brooklyn was good. It was where I learned about the world, so I have no bad experiences. There's one thing I did think I should mention and that, because I was growing up in Brooklyn during the War, don't forget, and my father was an air raid warden and this is an area, I don't know if too many people talk about this to you, but Brooklyn had a whole network of air raid wardens and my father was one and he kept a gas mask in the closet and the air raid wardens would meet and have these meetings once, I guess once a month or sometimes there'd be some signal that would come and my father 76:00would grab his mask and run out the door. And I did go with him to a meeting once, it was on, in the basement of a building on Caton and Ocean Avenue, I guess. And it was a bunch of men sitting around and they were actually pre-- would plan how, what they would do in case there was an attack in Brooklyn. So, this was a big part of my childhood was my father's involvement with the air raid wardens. Because my father had been too young for World War I and too old for World War II, so he was, he wanted to do something for his country, obviously, and the way that he could do something was to be an air raid warden.

SULLIVAN: And so, did that, did that give you a sense of, of fear that this was coming?

WHITE: No, I was, I was too young to be fearful. I was very small then. I was maybe four of five years old, so I was much too small to be fearful. I just thought that was what they did. But I just remember that and I think it was 77:00kind of something that I should mention because there was this wartime participation even if you were in Brooklyn you were very aware there was a war going on and that was what someone of, like my father, who was, as I said, unable to because of age, serve in the Army but many of my cousins did, so my childhood memories are of lots of cousins in uniform, things like that, and the War was, the War, the rationing, was a big part of my early years. And one of the reasons I suppose that I, my parents, wanted me to go to summer camp because you would get out of the city and away from the danger, you could get fresh food, there was rationing going on, it was, it was a wartime atmosphere. So, you were very aware of it in those, in those days. And, as I said, I was aware of it because of my father and the gas mask which was kept in the hall closet.

SULLIVAN: And the air raid wardens, would that have been organized by a city 78:00thing, or were they self?

WHITE: I believe that was probably a federal project to be an air raid warden, but I can't tell you that. I really don't know if anyone's ever even done any work on what the air raid wardens did during World War II. It might be something you might even want to find out about, because they certainly played a role in preparation for attacks, things like that. Because we know that there were black outs, things of that nature, and so I, I think it would probably be interesting to know exactly what my father was doing as an air raid warden. My, my vision is, as a kid, he's running out the door with the gas mask, and then I went to one meeting with him and it's a bunch of men sitting around holding their gas masks. So, but I assume there was much more of that going on and so, I think my father was, as I said, wanted to do something and that was what he 79:00could do and I did have cousins who served in the Army and they'd come home on furlough and we'd see them in their uniforms and it was all extremely glamorous, probably, to me.

SULLIVAN: So you didn't have a sense, as a, as a small kid, of there being worry because of the--

WHITE: Well, no, no, I mean, the, the uniforms were glamorous. No, I knew there was a war. Oh, no, no, no, no. And Hitler and growing up during that era, we were very worried, but we felt safer in America and certainly my father was very aware and I remember, even though I was very small, him talking a lot about Hitler, about following the, the advance of the German Army, so he knew when our family in Poland was destroyed basically. And I remember that as a very dramatic moment of my childhood, hearing my father say that's probably the last of our family. And so, we, we had no idea what had happened to them, but, just 80:00by watching where Hitler's troops had gone, my father was able to know that. And I do remember that. Oh, no, no, no. I don't want to convey that there wasn't that, because there was rationing, there were all these things. It was a very, very tense time. No.

SULLIVAN: And where was the camp that you would go to?

WHITE: Oh, in the foothills of the Catskills.

SULLIVAN: Did you start from that young of an age?

WHITE: I was sent to sleep away camp when I was probably four and a half.

SULLIVAN: Oh, wow.

WHITE: Five, yeah.

SULLIVAN: And th-- how long would that be?

WHITE: Two months.


WHITE: Yes. Two months, one visiting day. That was it. No phones, no cell phones, no nothing. You went. And the camp I went to was a Jewish camp, kosher camp, we had Friday night services and I was in a bunk with about 30 other kids. 81:00I liked it.

SULLIVAN: And typical camp activities or?

WHITE: We swam, we played, we played games, I suppose, we did running around, a lot of running around, and a lot of swimming. And hiking around, but I was young, so we did the first camp, I was very young. As I got older and went to summer camps we did the normal softball, volleyball, swimming, that kind of thing, archery, canoeing, row boating, the usual camp stuff. Lots of making of necklaces with beads. And also we would gather leaves and we would spray them on to things. So that you'd have the outline of the leaf, that kind of stuff. Copper bracelets that we etched.


SULLIVAN: Do you have, do you have family and friends in Brooklyn still, and friends from these different times?

WHITE: Not, not from those times, no. Everyone that I knew of family moved out of Brooklyn, as I said, in the '70s, Brooklyn really became pretty dangerous in some ways and had fallen on bad times. So, almost everybody that I knew moved out. I still am close to my cousins from Brooklyn and I have one cousin that I see quite a lot who, in fact, you might even want to talk to for oral history, because he's Sam Roberts who's The New York Times reporter. And he has great memories of Brooklyn. Probably much better than mine. But, he was part, you know, his mother and my mother were very close and we have remained friends, and when we were growing up, he was much younger, so, we didn't spend that time, but now as we're older, we're friends and we talk a lot about our Brooklyn, 83:00remembrances of Brooklyn. His are quite different from mine, obviously. So, he would be someone you might want to even talk to.


WHITE: And I'm happy to make the introduction.

SULLIVAN: That would be great.

WHITE: Yeah. Because he has, as I said, he has very good memories of Brooklyn. He and his sister, so, I've one friend who I had kept for a long time and now we've kind of drifted apart from Brooklyn, who was part of, who I met at Mount Holyoke. But, I kind of drifted away from a lot of people who I knew there. And my family just really all moved out.

SULLIVAN: And what are the things, obviously, like Brooklyn Public Library and are there other places that you, that bring you back to, to visit?

WHITE: Well, now that I have a foundation we give to Brooklyn institutions, 84:00that's one of the things we do, so it would be Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Public Library, Prospect Park, BAM, Brooklyn Historical Society, so, I feel that I really want to support the Brooklyn institutions. Of course, the paper of those days, the Brooklyn Eagle is long gone, but we avid, we were avid readers of the Brooklyn Eagle. So. No, it's part of my childhood. I just wish I could bring back the Dodgers. So.

SULLIVAN: All right. Is there anything else that I didn't think to ask?

WHITE: I don't think so. I don't know what made me think of the air raid wardens but, as I said, you've been kind of making me think of things that I'd, so growing up during World War II, that was, that was a big thing. And it would be probably interesting to know what the role of those wardens was. Because I just don't know myself.


SULLIVAN: Do you remember when the war ended?

WHITE: I do. I mean, I remembered the, I remember hearing about the war ending, I don't really remember it that well. I remember everyone was very happy about it. That I remember. Yeah. I can't say there was anything particular about being in Brooklyn when the war ended, though. That wasn't--I would say, that in those days we were much more the circle that my family moved in was much more relative centered and so the world was a much narrower world than say, today, people tend to move around, but almost everybody that I saw was a relative. I don't think my parents had friends. I think they just had relatives.

SULLIVAN: And so, would they do, what kind of social things would happen with 86:00the relatives?

WHITE: They'd go to bar mitzvahs, weddings, bris. That was a lot of the social world. There wasn't as much time for socializing either, because, as I said, we didn't have washing machines, we didn't have a car, we didn't have a lot of, you know, so, you tended to be with your relatives. So it would be family dinners, that kind of thing. We'd go to visit other relatives. That was it. Basically, we were very much, a very narrow world in a sense. My parents, I shouldn't say that. My parents loved going to the theatre. So, from an early age, I knew about the Broadway theatre, and got to see wonderful things like "Oklahoma," "Annie Get your Gun," things, you know, I saw shows and my parents liked going to shows. So, so that, and when I was in high school in Packer, I had a, we had a wonderful thing, the French teacher decided to take us to see Can-can, 87:00which was very risqué, I now think back.


WHITE: But we went as a class to see Lilo in Can-can.

SULLIVAN: That's so fun.

WHITE: Yeah, it was great. So, the Broadway Theatre was a big thing for my parents, and my mother played the piano so we'd have home entertainment, my brother played the piano, I took piano lessons, I was terrible, but my brother and mother were pretty good, so we'd have music at home, listen to records, we had one of these big record players with those black discs, you know, the old fashioned records. So, we, everything was sort of very home centered. We didn't go out a lot, we didn't have a lot of money to go out, so, wasn't the same sense of cultural involvement or involvement in the life of the city that, 88:00say, I have today, where I know more people, I know much more about what goes on in the city, my parents, as I said, they were immigrants. They didn't have that sense.

SULLIVAN: Were they involved in, in politics?

WHITE: No, no. They were, as I said, they were just really, trying to raise their families, they were hard working, very, very ethical, I would say. It was, you know, it was a very, I would say, I had a very good childhood. Nothing traumatic. And Brooklyn was part of that. It was a wonderful place to grow up. And it's great that it's coming back as a place people want to come to. I have a friend from Michigan, and she lived in Manhattan for the entire 89:00time she was married, whatever, had her children, and she's just moved to Brooklyn. And the reason she did? Her children moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan and they grew up in Manhattan. So. OK.

SULLIVAN: All right. Well, thank you so much this is great.

WHITE: Well, I hope this was what you wanted.

SULLIVAN: Yes, absolutely.

WHITE: OK. All right. Great.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Shelby White

Shelby Baier White was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1938. Her parents, both of Jewish heritage, had both immigrated to New York as children circa 1910. White grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn near Prospect Park and the Parade Grounds, where her family lived from 1938 - 1974. She attended PS 139 and later PS 92 for elementary school and PS 246 Walt Whitman Junior High. For high school, she commuted to Packer Collegiate Institute in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood until graduation in 1957. White attended Mount Holyoke College and graduate school at Columbia University. White has served on the boards of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Institute for Advanced Study, New York Botanical Garden, New York University, Bard Graduate Center, and The Writers Room. She is president of the American Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority. She also serves as chairman of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications at Harvard University. White has written a book, as well as financial articles for leading publications. Shelby Baier White has been listed as one of the country's top philanthropists.*

In this interview, Shelby Baier White talks about her childhood in Brooklyn with inspired recollections of Jewish community in Flatbush; names and memories of neighborhood businesses and restaurants; influential teachers in both public school and at Packer Collegiate Institute; and enjoying Brooklyn institutions like Brooklyn Public Library and Brooklyn Museum. She remembers the impact of World War II when she was a small child. White describes the recreation and sport she enjoyed in Prospect Park and Ebbets Field. She also recalls her religious education and the family's religious practices, as well as her participation in clubs and camp. Interview conducted by Sady Sullivan. Scope note by Sady Sullivan.

The Voices of Brooklyn oral histories: Civic leaders series features a dynamic range of narrators. Many are well-known public figures and others are well-known in their communities. This ongoing series focuses on Brooklyn history and the experiences of these narrators often reference their outsized contribution to how New York City citizens live, work, and conduct business in the five boroughs. The oldest narrator in this series was born in 1921.

"Officers & Staff." Leon Levy Foundation. http://leonlevyfoundation.org/category/the-foundation/officers-staff/


White, Shelby, Oral history interview conducted by Sady Sullivan, October 24, 2013, Voices of Brooklyn oral histories: Civic leaders, 2008.031.3.013; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Brooklyn Dodgers (Baseball team)
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Packer Collegiate Institute
  • White, Shelby


  • Air raid warning systems
  • Business enterprises
  • Children
  • Cultural facilities
  • Discrimination
  • Education
  • Emigration and immigration
  • Games
  • Jewish neighborhoods
  • Jews, American
  • Parks
  • Religious life and customs
  • Teachers
  • World War, 1939-1945
  • Yiddish language


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Brooklyn Heights (New York, N.Y.)
  • Brownsville (New York, N.Y.)
  • Flatbush (New York, N.Y.)
  • Prospect Park (New York, N.Y.)


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Voices of Brooklyn oral histories: Civic leaders