IHS History

Excerpts from OUT OF OUR PAST - A History of Irvington, New Jersey by Alan A. Siegel

Irvington had no high school until 1895, and those few students who desired more than eight years of education finished their studies at Newark's Barringer High School or Columbia High School in South Orange.  In 1985 the Board of Education added a ninth and tenth year of studies to the grammar school course at Clinton Avenue School (demolished in 1974), naming Frank H. Morrell as principal and assigning two teachers to his staff, Miss Rose Umscheiden and Mr. O. V. Schneider.  An average of 25 high school students studied English, Arithmetic, Algebra, Bookkeeping, Latin, History, and Drawing during their ninth year, and Physics, German, Advanced Mathematics, and Advanced Bookkeeping in the 10th year.  The class of 1903 was typical of the era.  There were seven boys and 24 girls in the class.  Outings to Fort Wadsworth, Bronx Park, and Crystal Lake were highlights of the school year, which closed with graduation and the planting of a class tree on the lawn of Clinton School.

After Matthew C. Hamilton succeeded Morrell as principal in 1905, the Board of Education extended the high school course to four years.  There were no graduating classes in 1906 and 1907, and when the first four-year class graduated, it had only four members - all girls.  The class of 1908 had seven girls and two boys.  Girls outnumbered boys for at least another decade, in large measure because most families regarded a high school education as an amenity fit only for girls, who did not have to work to support a family, and the wealthy.  Orville H. Staley became principal of the high school in 1911, and in 1912 the school moved from Clinton Avenue to Madison Avenue School.

In 1913, Dr. Albion C. Christian, a member of the Board of Education, caused a flurry of excitement when he denounced the style of dresses worn by Irvington teachers, especially those in high school.  "Scandalous" was his description of "dresses two inches above the shoe tops and sailor waists."  What teachers wore was less of a problem for the Board of Education than adequate facilities for the students.  Conditions at the high school grew more overcrowded each year until 1926 when an entirely new structure was built on Clinton Avenue, due largely to the unceasing efforts of Board President Gustav Kruttschnitt, known to many as the father of Irvington's modern high school.

Erected at a cost of nearly $1 million, Frank H. Morrell High School has a current (1974) enrollment of 2,500 students.  An addition was completed in 1955 and a new wing to the west of the original structure is expected to be in use by 1975.  Principals have included Edward D. Haerrter, Clarence E. Chamberlain, Lloyd Taylor, Lester Rice, Alfred Bray, Milton Weiner, and Philip Schectman.  (Editor's note: Our own Anthony Pilone, Class of '54 was also principal since Mr. Siegel's history book was published.)  Superintendents of Schools since creation of the post (and up to 1974) have been Frank H. Morrell, Robert L. Saunders, Herschel S. Libby, Richard Beck, and Dr. George R. Gordon.

The most important figure in the history of public education in Irvington is Frank H. Morrell, whose half-century of service included positions as principal, supervising principal and superintendent of schools.  Affectionately known to generations of Irvington students as "Daddy" Morrell, he was for years the best known and most respected man in town.  Morrell was born in Hollowell, Maine on June 26, 1846, the son of a clergyman.  He began his teaching career in Maine in 1868, while a student at Bates College, from which he was graduated in 1870.  After graduation he came to New Jersey, teaching first in Bloomfield and then, in 1872, in the small two-room schoolhouse at Middleville, now part of Maplewood.  In July 1875, after his brother came from Maine to replace him at Middleville, Morrell entered the Irvington school system as principal of Central School, succeeding Asa Dickinson.  For the next 49 years, Morrell guided the development of Irvington public education, first in the classroom and later as an administrator.

A kindly man who took immense delight in teaching, his students "graduated from his classroom with a deep affection for him . . . (and) a profound respect for the clear manner in which he imparted the rudiments of education."  When he was principal of Central School he often led the students in their games and, on a rainy day, if a student lacked carfare, he would advance the money without expectation of repayment.  In later years, many a former pupil called at his office to seek his help and guidance.  The respect his former students had for him is well-illustrated by a story told by one of his former pupils, William A. Sherman, for many years secretary of the Board of Education.  "Mr. Morrell, who always enjoyed a cigar, was opposed to cigarette smoking," remembered Sherman.  "He so impressed us with his opposition to the habit that in later years many of his pupils, aged men themselves, used to hide their cigarettes when he approached."

Morrell spent much of his spare time painting in both watercolor and oils the seascapes and landscapes of his native Maine.  One of the founders of the Irvington Art and Camera Club, Morrell was a poet of some talent whose verse appeared occasionally in periodicals and newspapers.  He was an active member of the Franklin Lodge No. 10, F.& A.M. where he served as Worshipful Master, and was one of the founders of the Irvington Board of Trade, forerunner of today's Chamber of Commerce.

Morrell never missed a day of school until January 1924, when a childhood wound flared up, led to blood poisoning and eventually the pneumonia to which he finally succumbed on January 29 at the the age of 78.  When his career ended, he had witnessed a four-room structure of two hundred pupils expand into nine large schools accommodating five thousand boys and girls.  The rapid growth of the school system soon took him out of the classroom, but in his own heart, he always cherished a delight in direct contact with the boy and girl mind.  When the debate arose over trhe establishment of a high school, Mr. Morrell strongly supported the high school proposition.

Morrell's successor as superintendent of schools was Robert L. Saunders, who served in that post from 1917 until 1933 when he fell victim to Depression politics.  Pressure by Mayor John Lovell for school economy in the dark days of the Depression triggered a rift between Superintendent Saunders and the Board of Education.  When the board announced that Madison Avenue School would be closed for economy reasons, Saunders charged that the Board could open the school if economics were made elsewhere in the system.  A little over a month later the Board fired Superintendent Saunders, charging that he was a "politician."  The Saunders case created a public furor that lasted for months. Fired without benefit of a hearing, Saunders appealed to the State Board of Education.  While his appeal was pending, Saunders and the Board reached a settlement, and he was succeeded by Herschel S. Libby in 1934.


Over the years, Irvington public schools, while maintaining high scholastic standards, have also enjoyed an enviable reputation in New Jersey sports circles with many outstanding teams and individual athletes who achieved national recognition.  Two of the top athletes before Frank H. Morrell High School opened were C. Hoyt Terrill and Frank Kearny, who captained the Irvington High School football teams of 1920 and 1921, respectively.

Irvington has produced many fine football teams since the opening of the new high school building in 1926.  Two teams coached by William Matthews, the 1937 and 1944 squads, led the way with 8-1 records.  The next best grid mark was a 7-2 record by Walter Marshall's 1949 squad.  In 1925, the football team, coached by Milton Weiner, won seven and lost three.  Many Irvington sports fans rate Matthews' 1937 team as the finest in Morrell history.  The team took its first five games, beating Garfield, Central, Asbury Park, Belleville, and Kearny.  Next was a match with unbeaten Bloomfield and the battle was billed to decide the state title.  Over 16,000 fans, the largest crowd ever, crammed into the local field, while hundreds watched the game from nearby rooftops and trees.  A few days before the game several Irvington stalwarts, including Joseph Giacona, Stanley Wnek, and Frank Hiller, were injured.  In those days, Giacona was hailed as "the Larry Kelly" of schoolboy football.  He was a great pass catcher and runner.  Wnek, a top guard and a powerhouse on the line, suffered a painful hip injury.  Hiller injured his leg.  Matthews rearranged his starting lineup for the game, but Bloomfield put on its best exhibition of the year, dealing a 34-0 loss to the Morrells and ending Irvington's dream of winning the Group 4 crown.  Despite the loss to Bloomfield, the Campers bounced back the following week and beat Perth Amboy 6-0, then followed up with a 24-6 victory over Thomas Jefferson High School, and a 12-0 triumph over West Side.

What is perhaps the greatest achievement of the last 50 years of sports, according to Irvington Herald sportswriter Joe Carter, was the baseball dynasty built during the coaching regime of John "Doc" Gantz, often referred to as Mr. Baseball of New Jersey high school circles.  Few coaches in the nation have been able to produce the records Gantz established from 1929 to 1953, when death put a halt to a brilliant career.  Gantz's baseball teams, which captured over 15 state and sectional crowns, never had a losing season, winning 436 games while losing only 97.  Highlight of Gantz's career was Irvington's record of winning the state's major baseball classic, the Greater Newark Tournament, on five occasions, a feat that has never been equaled (as of 1974).

Among the athletes guided by Gantz over the years are: Morrell's present (1974) baseball coach, Stanley Wnek, one of the best all-around athletes in the school's history, who later starred in college and professional sports; Frank Hiller, who played for the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs; Johnny Druze, the Fordham Flash; Calvin Ehehalt, whose 1943 record of having pitched 43 consecutive scoreless innings still stands (in 1974); Vito Miele, a star outfielder at Upsala College; Stanley Couzens, who pitched a no-hitter; and Lefty Marion, who holds the single season strikeout record of 169.  Others include Joe and Rudy Choborda, Harry Hill, Jimmy Halperin, Anson and Robert Perina, Teddy Baryiewski, Joseph Gallagher, Al and Hal Weiner, Pete Wilk, Jim Higgins, Harry Hill, Ed Strychniewicz, Steve Bonzek, John Kulikowski, Norm Smith, David Lipkin, Fred Kuebler, Fran Gallagher, Al Cohen, and Bob Moench.  Two others, Eddie Grot and Hugo Minette, were named to the Newark Sunday Call's all-State squad in 1932.  Gantz's Irvington teams won the Greater Newark Tournament in 1933, 1938, 1939, 1940, and 1947, and reached the finals in 1942, 1948, 1953, and 1957, a record unequaled in the 40 years the tournament had been staged.

Stanley Wnek, who served as Doc's assistant for several seasons, succeeded Gantz in 1954.  Wnek had played for three years under Gantz.  He captained the Greater Newark Tournament championship team of 1938, was chosen all-State catcher and named the most valuable player in the G.N.T.  Wnek was also named all-Metropolitan most valuable player by the New York sportswriters, and made a tour with the New York Yankees.  He batted .545 for Gantz in his senior year.  In his 19 years as head baseball coach at Irvington High School, Wnek's teams won 220 and lost 80.

One of the top varsity letter holders is Albert Weiner, who earned 15 in football, basketball, baseball, and track while attending  high school at Clinton Avenue School.  Better known as "Red," Albert Weiner is one of four brothers who sparkled for Irvington.  Like his brothers, Milton, who retired in 1973 as principal of Irvington High School, Harold, and Bernie, Al Weiner went on to greater athletic fame at Muhlenberg and later was one of New Jersey's most successful coaches.  In all, the Weiner brothers garnered over 30 varsity letters.  Milton Weiner played on three varsity teams--football, track, and baseball.  Captain of the 1925 eleven, Weiner gained all-State as a tackle.  After graduating from Muhlenberg College he was named to the all-time Muhlenberg grid eleven.