It seems kinda weird that I would be looking back fondly on walking to school, but I am.
Old guys like me typically lament how the brutal walks to school shaped them. They reflect on snow up to the eyeballs or the steep hills, mileage, and other perils that walking to school might inflict. But I want to say it was and is a truly special thing, being able to walk to and from school every day. It is one thing that only Wauwatosa could have given me so completely.
From elementary school through senior high, I walked to school every day, and usually with the same pack of guys. We started as soon as we could walk alone which back then, was in afternoon kindergarten. Dave, and Kevin and me, and sometimes Pete, and sometimes Andy would all meet at my house on the way to school; each of us backpacked or clutching homework, prepared in our own way and ready to attack.
We were all going the same way – but we were all uniquely finding our own paths and singular timing. We went down Woodland to Forest, up Hillcrest to Church, then Warren down to school. Or maybe we went a different way – Woodland to 76th, and a straight shot from there to either elementary school, junior or senior high. There were myriad options laid out before us, every day, suggested in the simple structure of the city’s streets and our proximity to our schools.
We rode bikes when we could. We laughed and talked about everything. We grew up protected and served, for sure. We knew a lot of the neighbors along the way and often met more of them. We saw others also trudging along, also exploring life and relationships in their own ways. It was idyllic for sure – it was all ours, it seemed.
Favorite Tosa memory: Biking all over the place and being able to take the bus anywhere for a quarter. Eating home-made ice cream at Nieman’s or going to White Hen to buy candy. Summer movies at the Tosa theater, and the summer programs at the library. Picnics in the parkway. Marching band. There are really so many, it is hard to choose!
Which neighborhood were you from? I lived near 81st and Woodland for 17 years. Loved that central location, and the proximity to the schools.
One word to describe Tosa? Home. Always – it will forever feel like home to me, though I haven’t actually lived there in over 30 years.
What would you change about Tosa? I don’t think I would change anything…it would be more about retaining the character and individuality of the place. Protect it from big corporate interests exploiting the things that make it a warm and special place to be, even in those horrible winters! No to strip malls and chain stores, yes to more unique and authentic places of character, run by locals for locals.
What school did you attend and who was your favorite teacher? I went to East, and T.O. Rondeau was a pretty special teacher. I got to see him a couple times before he died, and still keep in contact with his family. But there were many great teachers before and after him as well – Tosa had an incredible school system.
Who we walked home with, depended a lot on what we were doing. Certainly, by high school, extra-curriculars and sports and girls all got in the mix as well. I started going home with Paul and Brenda and sometimes Ingrid, who all had the same afternoon timing as me, but was still arriving every morning with the same crew I had started with way back in kindergarten.
The routes we wove through the Tosa streets over the years were simple and direct – but could always be varied enough to keep it interesting and different. 81st to the library, and over once more for junior high. Woodland to 76th covered elementary as well as senior high for us but could be varied by the block. Over time, we tried each and every route and as a result, saw more of our city and the people who made it every time we left our own homes.
So maybe the walking partners’ names changed some along the way, as would the way we got to and from school and even the neighbors themselves. But the regularity and dependency of a solidly scheduled, sidewalked school-walk with friends, was a constant through every season, every year.
For about thirteen years, I had no idea there was anything special going on. Lincoln became Longfellow, and Longfellow became East and I just kept walking to and from school with the guys. And later, with the girls too, to my delight.
We went through all the changes young people face, and we saw it together and talked about it as we shuffled along on the sidewalks of Wauwatosa. But then in 1984, for my senior year I moved down south, and way down there, there were no more sidewalks. None. I was shocked!
My brothers and I learned the hard way in Florida, that walking home down there was NEVER an option for many. My son later grew up in Atlanta, and we never had a sidewalk either; he never once walked to school, and he never could’ve. His friends were also miles away, requiring parents to coordinate all get-togethers – not just bikes or tennis shoes and someone’s wild idea to make it all boil together. The daily routine in the South was different and always involved more help from people with cars.
Everywhere I went from the time I left Wauwatosa was in a car. Meeting the neighbors as you stroll by, trudging old-man-like through eyeball-level snow and all the rest of it were now just things of my past, too. Seatbelts replaced my well-worn high-top Cons, and I now rode to and from school with my friends – the stereo centering our interactions and drowning-out conversations.
Though there was much I loved down south, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something really valuable missing. Something so simple, yet so intrinsic to what it means to be in a community, to me…a sidewalk. I miss sidewalks now, and what they bring to a community.
Sidewalks in Wauwatosa not only allowed us to walk, they encouraged us to connect. And we did – often in relationships that had the temerity to weather decades.
In my adult life, I am constantly rediscovering how special that time and place, and my simple walks with my people truly were. My adult friends in Georgia now are impressed by the fact I still know a couple dozen people I met more than 45 years ago – and many of them are still close friends. I quite literally, just now emailed the two guys I walked to school with more than 40 years ago. We keep in touch.
No one else has this kind of glue to claim: no one else was granted an option of “friends-for-life” quite like we were…strolling on the quietly simple sidewalks of Wauwatosa, on our way to school in the mid-70s.
I’ll take it.
The Lasting Legacy of Teaching – While I enjoyed unusually great relationships with many of my teachers, none really impacted me as much to my core as some had in my elementary years, at Lincoln. Specifically, in retrospect, my second, third, and fifth grade teachers were INCREDIBLY influential on me throughout my life…and miraculously in 2017, I was able to thank them all, personally. Linda (Lindsay)Haise, Faye Bernardo, Gary Trygestad and me all met at a cocktail party downtown, and it was incredible. These people changed and aimed my life, and I was finally able to thank them all, together, and we captured it forever. It was a special night.