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 firstname.lastname@example.org