Northeast Times

Blast from the past

Donna and Joe were back on the corner on the day be­fore the Su­per Bowl. So were Hoop­er, Don, Don, Den­nis, Ken, Steph­en, Byrd, Gene and Lil’ Cog.

They were just some of the kids who called them­selves “C&B” when they “ruled” Castor Av­en­ue near Ben­ner from the ’60s to ’80s. 

Back then, the old Ben­ner movie house was one corner and a su­per­mar­ket was on the next one down. Those Ox­ford Circle land­marks are just memor­ies now.

Times change. The kids grew up. They joined the Navy, the po­lice force. They got mar­ried; they moved away.

But for the C&B “kids,” some now in their 50s or older, there was a con­stant, there is a con­stant.

His name is Ike.

And on Feb. 2, the 74-year-old busi­ness­man got to see a lot of those “kids” again. 

About a dozen of them lined up out­side his shop, the New Fath­er & Sons Shoe Ser­vice on the 6000 block of Castor, hold­ing a “C&B Rules” ban­ner they painted and signed.

“This was a sur­prise,” said Ulysees “Ike” Gam­mage.

He had just seen a big bunch of these ex-corner hangers on Oct. 20 when they had in­vited him to a re­union at the Brook­side Man­or in Bucks County. More than 60 at­ten­ded that event, said one of them, Joe Kennedy. Some came from up­state Pennsylvania and oth­ers from as far away as Texas and Flor­ida, Kennedy said.

Gam­mage, who now lives in Elkins Park, was the guest of hon­or at that re­union.  

“He al­ways was just the coolest guy,” Kennedy said.

The gang took some of the pho­tos of that Oc­to­ber get to­geth­er, had them pro­fes­sion­ally moun­ted in a beau­ti­ful col­lage and presen­ted it to Gam­mage on Feb. 2.

Geor­gia-born Gam­mage took over the shoe-re­pair busi­ness on Castor’s south­bound side in 1968, he said in an in­ter­view out­side his shop Feb. 2 while sur­roun­ded by the old gang.

“I was the first black busi­ness­man in this area,” he said. “I haven’t had an ounce of trouble since I’ve been here.”

Gam­mage moved his busi­ness across to Castor’s north­bound side a few years later, and some­time much later, his son, Ulysees Jr., joined the fam­ily busi­ness. Ulysees Jr. also at­ten­ded the Oc­to­ber event. He con­spired with the C&B crowd to sur­prise his dad on Feb. 2.

Ulysees Jr., now in his 40s, star­ted hanging in the store with his fath­er when he was 8, and star­ted in the trade by tak­ing the old heels off shoes that needed new ones.

It’s a busy shop. Few minutes go by without cus­tom­ers com­ing in­to the small store crammed with ma­chines, tools, pol­ish and leath­er. The place looks and smells like what it is — an old-fash­ioned shoe-re­pair shop. 

Kennedy ex­plained that the kids grow­ing up in Ox­ford Circle nat­ur­ally grav­it­ated to Castor Av­en­ue to hang out, and they liked Ike, a big man with a big smile.

“Ike was al­ways good to us,” Kennedy said. “He made time for us, to talk to us.”

But did they ever give the man any busi­ness? All the time, they said. On Feb. 2, one said she brought some shoes that needed re­pair.

The “C&B Kids of Yes­teryear” did some talk­ing on Feb. 2. Ac­tu­ally, speeches were pre­pared.

“We come here today as adults, but still kids at heart,” said Donna DiDonato as she and Den­nis Cough­lin, Kathy Cough­lin McIntyre, Nick Ger­man, Don Shay, Ken Mor­ris­on, Don Green, Kennedy, Jim Do­nahue, Gene Heisler, Steph­en Price and Cheryl Shatz sur­roun­ded Gam­mage on the side­walk.

“In our child­hood, we grew up and hung out in this neigh­bor­hood mainly on the corner of Castor and Ben­ner and we called ourselves ‘C&B.’ Now as adults, we come back to say thank you to the man we all know and love Ulysees “Ike” Gam­mage.

“Ike star­ted his shoe-re­pair busi­ness on Castor Av­en­ue in 1968, and he is a mas­ter of his trade. Many of us were only in grade school age at the time, but we all knew and re­spec­ted the big man with the big­ger smile. He in­spired us by his hard work, and en­cour­aged us by his per­sever­ance. He had the pa­tience of a saint and a match­ing per­son­al­ity. As we grew older, he was nev­er too busy to give ad­vice or to listen to a story.

“Ike, we would like to say thank you for all you’ve done for so many years.

“You make this world a bet­ter place!” DiDonato con­cluded.

Kennedy said he joined the Navy when he was 17 and when he came home, he al­ways stopped in to see Gam­mage. He said he con­tin­ues to see Gam­mage every few months. 

Lil’ Cog, or Kath­leen Cough­lin McIntyre, said the kids who hung out on Castor Av­en­ue were al­ways in one massive group. Some­times, three groups would be on dif­fer­ent parts of the block at the same time.

“They wer­en’t bad kids,” Gam­mage said of the crowd. “A little mis­chief, some­times, but they were nev­er a hassle to me,” he said.

“My dad watched them grow up around here,” Ulysees Jr. said. 

Ike still can re­call with a chuckle one C&B kid in par­tic­u­lar who was sort of an op­er­at­or. “He was brazen. He got in­to a Fly­ers game once by say­ing one of the Fly­ers was his uncle,” he said. 

Not every­body looked at a bunch of teens fondly, he said.

“There was one shop own­er who had no pa­tience with kids,” he said, “but it was a good crowd back in the day.”

“I call them my chil­dren,” Gam­mage re­called on Feb. 7. 

“I come from Jim Crow,” he said of grow­ing up in the South. He re­called work­ing for white people in their homes when he was young. He would be treated well and even in­vited to din­ner. 

“But then they see you down­town and pre­tend they didn’t know you,” he said. 

That was nev­er part of his ex­per­i­ence on Castor Av­en­ue. The kids didn’t see col­or, he said. 

“What they did for me, that’s spe­cial,” he said. “That’s his­tory.”

When the Oc­to­ber re­union was be­ing or­gan­ized, DiDonato said, mem­bers of the C&B crowd put their fa­vor­ite stor­ies about Ike on­line. They were go­ing to be read at the re­union,  but some­how that didn’t hap­pen. This is what DiDonato had planned to say:

“You re­mem­ber his kind­ness. He gave you the biggest smile every time you walked in­to the store. He would give you the shirt off his back. He’s that kind of per­son.” ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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