History came alive for Riverside’s Blythe Park third-, fourth- and fifth-graders on Thursday when a great-grandmother of two students came to share her memories of Jane Addams’ Hull House social settlement.
“Do you see that little girl in the picture?” asked North Riverside resident Eleanor Pasquale Petersen, 81. She pointed on the overhead projector to an iconic 1935 photograph of the 74-year-old Addams seated beside with a white-frocked, hair-ribboned little girl. “That was me!”
A murmur of excitement traveled through the children, seated in the school’s auditorium. “I attended the Mary Crane Nursery School at Hull House from 1933 to 1935,” Petersen said.
Students at Blythe School study Hull House as part of the third-grade curriculum, and several classes have visited the Jane Addams Hull House Museum on Halsted Street in Chicago. Nobel Prize-winning social worker Jane Addams bought the Hull Mansion in 1889 and began her career of providing services and education to Chicago’s immigrants to help them put down roots as U.S. citizens.
“We went to school all day; we had lunch there and a nap,” Petersen told the children. “I learned finger-painting, and how to set a table.” She said her mother and grandmother also took classes at Hull House, during the ’20s and ’30s – learning how to sew and repair old clothing. “There was even a branch of the Chicago Public Library there. We had everything we needed.”
Mary Crane Nursery School opened in 1907 as one of the earliest “experimental preschools” in the country. It was named after the wife of Chicago plumbing giant Robert T. Crane. “Jane Addams told him she’d name the school after his wife if he donated the plumbing,” said Petersen. “There were tiny toilets and wash basins in the school – perfect for children.”
Hull House social worker and staff photographer Wallace Kirkland took the famous portrait of Addams, which was reproduced many times. It appeared in Life magazine in the March 2, 1961 issue and hung on the wall during the 1960s at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Children’s Services building.
“The neighborhood was filled with immigrants. There were Germans, Irish, Bohemians, Greeks, Italians, Mexicans and blacks,” she said. Her parents came from Italy as teenagers. “At that time, children age 9, 10, 11 worked in factories,” she said, adding that Addams worked to instate child labor laws.
Blythe students got a chance to hear firsthand what it was like to be a child at Hull House. They peppered Petersen with questions. Did she get Addams’ autograph? Who was her teacher? How many children were in her class? Is it true there was paranormal activity at Hull House?
No ghosts at Hull House to her knowledge, Petersen said. But she shared her memories of Addams.
“She was like a grandmother,” she remembered. When a student asked if Jane Addams knew all of their names, she said she believed so. “Her door was always open. She roamed those halls.”
That facility made her childhood special, she said, growing up as the child of immigrants in Chicago. “Jane Addams was like an angel. They called her the saint of Halsted Street.”
Photographer Kirkland took photos of Hull House with a 5×7-view camera donated to the settlement by Eastman Kodak. He developed photos in the Boys Club closet which he converted in a darkroom. In 1989, a book of Kirkland’s photos, The Many Faces of Hull House, was released by University of Illinois Press. Kirkland and his wife, Ethel were hired as social workers in 1923 and lived in the settlement apartments.
Petersen said friends visited Washington D.C. in the 1960s and saw the photo there. “I wrote a letter to the president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and asked if the photo was there,” she told the students. “And he wrote back to me!” she said, displaying a letter from Johnson, dated 1965.
Petersen said she has 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Carmen Ryan – grandmother to Blythe fourth-grader Michael Ryan – also attended Mary Crane. “I remember the snack they had there. It was cottage cheese and they’d put grape jelly inside, so you stirred it and it became purple cottage cheese,” she said, laughing. Blythe PTA volunteer Michelle Bachus is Petersen’s granddaughter and the mother of third-grader Adam Bachus.