Polio Memories and Advice for the Coronavirus Pandemic:
The day the district closed, HSF began brainstorming ways to reach out. When it came to our Golden Tigers (anyone who graduated 50 or more years ago), we immediately recognized that those who were children during the peak of the US polio epidemic are now experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic. We realized our Golden Tigers would have sound advice to share regarding the uncertain times we are all experiencing. On these pages, you will find powerful memories and ‘Words of Wisdom.’ Thank you to our Golden Tigers for sharing their stories.
PAUL GANS ’50- I do remember the great polio epidemic of the time. Nobody knew where it came from or how it was transmitted, although there were plenty of rumors. We lived in New York City then and many thought that somehow polio was connected to big cities. I was not directly concerned, being in my pre-teens at the time. My parents rarely talked about it. This was natural since there was a war on at the time. My concern was trying to imagine the horror of spending the rest of one’s life in an “iron lung.” But as time went on my parents must have become more nervous as I was shipped off to summer camp in the Catskills for the summer of 1944. The war ended soon after and my family stopped worrying about polio. By the time we moved to University Heights in 1948 there was almost no talk about polio at all. Does the current crisis remind me of the polio epidemic? The answer is no. Polio was not very contagious. There could be one polio victim in a group of 100 people crowded together in one ballroom and none of the others would catch it. The current disease seems to spread rapidly and is very contagious. Do I have any advice? Do what the health officials tell you and don’t worry too much. The current disease seems to have a very low fatality rate which is a good thing.
NORMA GREENWALD ‘50- A daughter of one of my parent’s friend came down with polio and eventually was placed in an iron lung and eventually died. I remember all the talk about the whole situation amongst all the adults and THAT was so scary to me. I couldn’t imagine living my life in a box like that for the rest of my life. My other memory was going to a new school in the fifth grade and meeting a new girl in my class who had gotten polio. She survived, but was left with a severe limp and a leg that was much thinner than her other leg. I was always aware of that maimed leg and hoped she would not catch me staring at it or her… there was an atmosphere of hysteria regarding the mystery of the origin of polio. Where did it come from, how do we avoid getting it, etc.? My parents would not allow me to go to a public swimming pool as it was thought the disease could be contracted there. It was a bad summer because I knew I wasn’t going to get it and my parents were ruining my summer for me and my friends.
SHIRLEY PENTY-WOLFE ‘50- I recall quarantines when I was a Noble El. and Monticello student. For each disease, i.e. measles, scarlet fever, mumps, etc., a large, color-coded paper sign was attached to the front door by the public health department. No one was legally permitted to leave or enter the house—with the exception of the main wage earner—until that department removed the sign. I believe this was enforced with no exceptions. Although I don’t recall any local cases of diphtheria, I do recall that the Schick test was administered at Noble El. I remember because it involved (putting) a tape on the back that was removed some days later to see the results of the test. In 4th or 5th grade, girls and boys together all lined up, shirts off, to have the tapes removed and, due to hearing screams of those ahead, some became increasingly anxious about the anticipated pain. I could be mistaken about this being for diphtheria… Not all of us survived childhood. I very clearly recall the names of elementary classmates and/or close friends who died from diabetes, meningitis, polio and undetected genetic heart conditions. As for polio (memories), our family had dinner with close family friends just a few days before I answered the phone call informing us of their 10-year old’s sudden Bulbar polio, from which she died the next day. Cumberland Pool was closed and we avoided Fell Lake and even Lake Erie. I don’t remember being worried about polio and suspect that was because my English mother and maternal grandparents tried to prevent such worry in children. They had survived air raids and illness in London during WWII. My mother had nearly died of typhus and was very sickly, and she clearly recalled the night that her 6-year old brother was expected to die during the 1918 influenza pandemic. My grandmother’s universal remedy, Epsom salts, was claimed to have saved him. Of personal interest, my late husband did research for University of Michigan’s Post-Polio Project during the 1980s.
BARBARA BOARDMAN THOMPSON JONES ‘51- As a young girl, I had the fear of getting polio. My parents did not restrict our playing with neighbors and I do not recall my school restricting classes. We all just kept our fingers crossed and hoped we would not be infected. I do remember my parents were very cautious about swimming pools and lakes during the summer months. This all took place during the World War II years and many things were restricted. Also, prior to vaccines the public respected illness and infections greatly. Since the onset of antibiotics, we as a society, have taken our health so for granted. When I was a child, if we were sick with a fever, we stayed home period and often in bed until we were 24 hours without a temperature. Perhaps we will all be educated once again after COVID19 to respect our illness. Many lessons to be learned. Staying home with family and not having our usual activities is tough, creates a lot of unexpected emotions……hang tight, this will pass and we will all be better for it.
GARY FRIEDMAN ‘51- Regarding the effects of the polio epidemic all I can remember was advice not to go to swimming pools. Summer time was the most dangerous period, if I remember correctly.
JOE GARIBOTTI ‘52- As I recall, no one knew how you contracted polio. There was some thought that you might get it by swimming in Lake Erie, but there was no proof. As a result, I don’t think anyone took any special precautions except emphasizing cleanliness and, maybe, not swimming in Lake Erie. This affected our family, as we used to vacation at a cottage on Lake Erie most summers. People were frightened by polio, then, but went about their business as usual. The idea you might be paralyzed or need an iron lung was frightening, but no one knew what to do about it. A big difference (now) is the news coverage. Then, we got our news from the radio or the newspapers. The news was concise and, as I remember, factual. Today, every radio and TV station broadcasts about the virus, it seems 24 hours a day. We seem to have a better idea of how one contracts the corona virus, not that we can, with 100% certainty, avoid getting it. I talked with a medical doctor a few months before COVID-19 started and he told me that, at a meeting at USC in Los Angeles, they showed him a collection of iron lungs in the school building’s basement. He said it gave him an eerie feeling. One more thing, I don’t believe there was much of an economic impact from polio, certainly not like we are seeing today due to COVID-19.
SAUL ISLER ‘52- I clearly recall living through another disaster that took 400,000 America lives. It was called WWII, the “Great War.” Roosevelt was president and he immediately declared rationing on the “Home Front.” Butter, sugar, chocolates, cigarettes, silk-stockings, gas and most food stuffs were strictly rationed. We all had “victory gardens” that filled all the neighborhood vacant lots in Cleveland Heights…of which, at the time, were many. We all bought saving stamps which we pasted into notebooks and then received a war bond when the notebooks were filled. We had air raid practices in which my father was an air raid warden and used me as a courier to inform people that their shades weren’t properly drawn down. My funniest story is what I tried (shamefully) to pull off. I thought I could sell bubble gum for a quarter per piece at Boulevard elementary where I went to school. I sent a dollar in an envelope to the Fleer people, asking them to send me a box of a hundred pieces. I never heard from them, nor did I get my dollar back. About twenty years later I got a letter from them saying they were moving their offices and found my letter stuck behind a desk. They sent me my dollar back and a box of Double Bubble. [NOTE for younger Tigers: Fleer Corporation was the first company to successfully make bubble gum, eventually becoming Dubble Bubble in the 1920s. They were also known for making sports cards, beginning with baseball cards,]
JOEL ROSENTHAL ‘52- My first thoughts about advice for Heights High – as with most other things these days – is keep safe and follow instructions… (Thinking about) these almost-annual epidemics always seemed far away, though we all knew about (polio), iron lungs, FDR’s bout with it, etc. The only precaution (was) closing public beaches when the epidemic was peaking…Let me digress a bit but you will see the link. Before there was a measles vaccine, measles was usually put into the category of mild but unpleasant childhood diseases, with chicken pox, “German measles,” and the like. Once there was a vaccine, we were told the brutal truth, i.e., that measles could kill, disable, or cause blindness, etc. I suspect there was some of this with polio. Until there was a real medical remedy, the public strategy seemed to be to provide warnings about being careful that stopped short of inducing panic. Of course, the March of Dimes did what it could to raise both consciousness and money.
DAN SILVERBERG ‘52- Late in 1939, I contracted polio at age 5 1/2 and was paralyzed from the waist down. I spent close to six months in a ward at University Hospitals with an iron lung standing by at my bedside. Luckily, I didn’t need it. Then one afternoon, just as suddenly as I couldn’t walk at the onset, I told the nurse I felt like I could make it to the bathroom. She helped me shuffle there and I was on my way to a nearly full recovery. I do not remember if there was any self-seclusion over fear of that virus, perhaps because the number ultimately infected was not that large and growing at a rapid rate like today’s COVID-19.
JOHN GROTH ‘52- I remember the advent of the Salk polio vaccine and lining up to get it. One class mate encountered polio, he is alive and well today. The polio and WW II time frames overlapped. Awareness, not fear, was the order of the day. Worked for us then, works for me now. May it work for all now.
MIKE WEISSMAN ‘52- In the 40’s and 50’s we were all very fearful of getting polio, but were not given any thing to do or not do to prevent getting it. It seemed like nobody knew any prevention techniques. The only thing we remember is people warning us about was not going swimming, especially in a pool. No reasons were given for this warning. So, we lived our lives and tried not to think about it. In the early 60’s, the Salk vaccine became available. We went to Roosevelt Jr. High (from which I graduated) with our first two children (ages about 4 and 2) where we all took, what seemed like a sugar cube, the miracle Salk Vaccine. [Photo: Dr. Jonas Salk, who invented the first polio vaccine in the 1950s, by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.]
MERV GERSON ‘53- I do not recall being kept inside, nor do I recall being well-informed about the polio epidemic. I did know some kids who were affected by polio, but it was not the pandemic we have today… This quarantine should result in stronger marriages or more divorce, or both, as couple have to be with their mate 24/7. I don’t recall it being that way during the polio epidemic.
EILEEN NEWMAN HARRIS ‘53- The only thing I remember is that my father’s business partner’s daughter got polio and my mother was discussing it with others and it frightened me somewhat. She recovered uneventfully. We were never confined to the house to the best of my memory. Needless to say, it’s scary but we all have to do as told.
MARILYN BASKIN ‘54- This is a time of togetherness only in a different way. People still have their televisions, computers, Chromebooks, etc. Also, this is a time to read, listen to music, enjoy the outdoors. We didn’t have all of the electronic things in the 1940’s. We also didn’t know what caused polio, so I remember just living my life as usual. No panic.
JUDY DIETRICH GRUEHL ‘54- I do remember the polio scare in the 40’s and how everyone was talking about it and everyone was scared. I wasn’t allowed to go swimming but was allowed to be outside with friends. Summer time seemed to be the worst and I can’t remember anything about how things were handled in school (pretty sure schools were never cancelled). Times were still scary well into the ‘60s. I remember standing in long lines to receive our polio sugar cubes at Monticello Jr. High with my two girls. We got through that period in time, although many young people were affected, and we will get through this, too. [Image: Dr. Sabin is best known for developing the oral polio vaccine. Albert B. Sabin Archives/NEH]
REVA LEIZMAN ’54 PHD- I well remember the Polio epidemic. It was very scary. In fact, I had a friend who had polio at that time. I was only about 7 or 8. If I remember correctly, we were not allowed to go swimming. It was a scary time. The war was a very scary time too. I well remember the air-raids and my cousin coming home on furlough from the war. We did get through all this though.
JOAN M. SIGMAN DeVAND ‘54- We were told to go to the auditorium with our family to get sugar cubes when they announced our names. My family came with my twin sister, Jayne, and me to take the cubes. We were just told to take the sugar cubes and let them melt. At that time, we did just exactly what we were told to do. Our parents knew all about it, but they said do not ask questions (but to) “Just Take Them.” Back in those days, we did what we were told to do. Otherwise, if we did not, we were punished. Yes, we were scared, but we did exactly what we were told to do. All our parents told us was what we (were taking) would save our lives. Both them and us. [Clinic, Getty Image}
IRENE ULLMAN CHAMBERS ‘55- We never were restricted in any way, but polio was a threat that always concerned my parents. My mother took me to Sweden when I was nine for the entire summer and the first time I didn’t feel well, she bicycled me to the doctor’s office in the small town where her sister lived. I think it was just an upset stomach or something of that kind but she was already envisioning an iron lung for me. I remember her looking at me with big tears in the doctor’s office. This was in 1946/47.
JERRY SLOAN ‘55- I was a student at Coventry from 1941 to 1949. While I didn’t contract polio, I did have nearly every other contagious disease. I had Measles, Rubella (German Measles), Mumps, Chickenpox and Scarlet Fever. At that time, doctors were required to notify the city. The city sent a person (whom we called the visiting nurse) to our house who tacked a pink “quarantine” sign on our front door. Since we lived in a white house on East Derbyshire, the sign really stood out. The “quarantine” sign didn’t prevent people from entering, but alerted them a person with a contagious disease lived there. [Image: Wikipedia] Scarlet fever was the worst. It usually resulted in some other medical problem. Mine was a terrible ear infection. I was kept in my back bedroom for a week. I could only leave the room to go to the bathroom. The bedroom door was kept closed at all times. My mother had a large dishpan outside my room, and she had to wash her hands before entering or leaving the bedroom. As the scarlet fever improved, the ear infection worsened. I needed to go into the hospital, but I had to wait until the scarlet fever had sufficiently improved. Finally, after a week I entered the hospital for another week for treatment of the ear infection. There was a possibility I might have to have surgery, but fortunately I avoided that. I have had hearing problems all my life — probably resulting from the Scarlet Fever. None of the other diseases resulted in such horrible outcomes.
ROGER E. CONHAIM ‘56- It’s amazing how “reaching out” and intercommunicating has been such a result of this situation. (Other) than the newspaper articles of that era about closed swimming pools, I have no personal or family memories…for better or worse. I do remember a schoolmate who had a leg (issue) and walking problem, (who had a) raised sole on his special shoe and leg brace, probably (while I was) in first or second grade… at Canterbury. I don’t remember family discussions about polio other than warnings about not getting “chilled,” whatever that “was” supposed to mean.
VIRGINIA DORY ’56 [FB POST 3/31/20]- It’s been a long time since 50s. There were many problems as I was growing up, starting with the war, food shortage and fear. I think I learned several perspectives then…Be thankful for what you have, e g. milk delivered to the front porch, and don’t panic because it doesn’t help anything. I learned to find out why instead of just being angry about something.
LOIS GINSBURG SIMON ‘56- I have memories of the Polio scare but mostly we had to stay away from polluted beaches. I remember enough about the WWII Era to find more similarities to today. We had factories converted to make war machines, rationing of food items, and times when we were ordered to stay indoors for a “Black Out,” which was air raid practice. None of my contemporaries got Polio, but President Roosevelt was in a wheelchair because he had had “Infantile Paralysis,” its prior name. [Image of FDR from Margaret Suckley/Wikimedia Commons.]
FRANKLIN LEWIS ’56- There was one (boy) at Coventry who contracted polio. This would have been in 1947 or 1948. (He) recovered and walked with a limp after the polio illness. My teacher at Coventry told the class to keep calm and just go about our normal activities. As I recall, my parents gave me the same directions. I did not stay at home and continued to go to school. The polio epidemic was nothing like the current situation.
MARLENE DOLIN WILLIAMON ‘56- My mom kept me INSIDE at home every day after school throughout the late ’40’s and ’50’s and every weekend too. To this day, I don’t know if it was because of the polio epidemic or if she just needed someone to help her clean house–because that’s what I did every spare minute. We didn’t know anyone personally with polio, although my parents may have and never talked about it to us kids. My sister, 4 years older than me, was allowed to go to summer camps, mainly because she begged and begged my parents. But I was the quiet, introverted one and never begged, so I never went to camp… On only one day in the deep summer of 1954, I put my bathing suit on, walked out of the house and went to the pool. I found myself the only WHITE WHITE girl at the pool–everyone else had beautiful tans. I never went back to the pool…Believe it not, staying indoors constantly in my younger years has affected me to this day–I still don’t like going outside, i.e., walking around the block, getting fresh air, etc. So, these days I’m not too troubled by staying indoors.
ROBERT CRAIG ’57- When we had the polio epidemic, I do not remember doing anything special in our lives with the exception of getting the polio vaccine, maybe twice? Stay healthy.
DIANA GREENWALD EHRICH ‘57- I do remember the polio epidemic and while that was scary. I find this crisis much scarier maybe because I am so much older. During the polio epidemic my parents did keep me away from crowds and we could not go to the swimming pool or parks but I was not aware of an economic crisis such as exists now. The country did not close down and people could carry on normal activities. Massive numbers of people were not out of work and we were not under a quarantine order as we are now in California. Senior citizens were not advised not to go grocery shopping or to the bank…Talking on the phone does not substitute for human contact.
DIANA CENKER HAYMAN ‘57- There was no hype back then in the mid-40’s when I was in elementary school, just the fear we heard in our parents’ voices. Kids weren’t too worried about getting polio because there wasn’t the information like we’re receiving now about the coronavirus 24/7, therefore we didn’t even talk about it. Lake Erie was polluted as evidenced by the large number of dead fish on the beaches and I was warned not to get near the lake when I spent a few weeks in the summer with my grandparents who lived in Lorain, Ohio.
ARTHUR H. LESTER ’57, MD, JD- I remember the polio epidemic quite well because I caught it and was hospitalized in a children’s polio ward in the Cuyahoga County Hospital on the West side for several weeks. Yes, we were all worried and I am sure my parents felt helpless. Parents were allowed to visit for short periods twice a week and it was a very lonely time. The nurses and doctors were great and did what they could to keep us busy, within limits. We all thought the infection might have come from swimming at Euclid Beach, but who really knows. In any event, swimming in Lake Erie was banned.
It was a different time then. All we had were standard public health preventative measures, as were applied with measles, mumps and chicken pox. Public health nurses visited the house at intervals and there was a placard tacked to the front door that said “QUARANTINE.” It was respected and enforced. People in those days complied willingly because the general political clime was that of cooperation. WWII had recently ended and we had all participated in victory gardens, experienced rationing, metal drives, air raid drills and the like. We kids thought we were on the national team to help the country beat the disease.
I am not sure how it really affected my parents or grandparents, but as to me, they were quite indulgent, for a while. There were no vaccines nor medications to help. Sister Kenny was just starting to discover how to treat people with warm packs, passive motion physical therapy and, when needed, the iron lung. I was out of school for weeks but the teacher sent things home for me to do to stay up. TV (B&W, small screens) showed people on the with caregivers, paralyzed victims working to regain strength and functions and after I improved and was able to go to the Saturday movies, the same appeared on the screen. Some unfortunate friends who were paralyzed learned to use crutches and canes. Luckily, I had no such residual and have always had a sadness about a certain friend who was disabled and had a more difficult and shortened life. [Image of Sister Kenny/Minnesota public radio. Sister Elizabeth Kenny was a self-trained nurse who developed a controversial approach for treating polio.]
CHUCK LISSAUER ‘57- I have only vague memories of the polio epidemic. A first cousin and another boy had the disease but no one else I knew. I do remember the awful photos of kids in iron lungs. What I do remember is avoiding contact with people who had measles, mumps, impetigo and roseola. I had the first three, mumps being the worst one. The only memory I have of having to stay in the house was the World War II air raid drill blackout.
MARTHA SMITH OCHES ‘57- We were not isolated as we are now, but we were not allowed to swim in Lake Erie, which had been a favorite thing to do.
HARVEY STRAUS ‘57- What I remember about the polio scare back then was that parents were scared. I think Cumberland pool was closed… I remember hearing about iron lungs and probably saw pictures of one in the newspaper with a child inside the iron lung…A specific memory I have about polio is one afternoon in the summer, I was home alone and was playing some kind catch by myself, running around in the yard, throwing the ball up in the air and catching it. At some point the woman living next store came out, looking very concerned. She said I should stop. I was getting overheated and that I could catch polio.
RUTH DOMBCIK ‘58- In 1946 my sister at the age 31/2 contracted Polio. I do remember the doctor coming to our home (as he was our next-door neighbor) and diagnosing her. She was immediately taken to what is now Metro Hospital where she remained for three weeks. Fortunately, she did not have any lasting effects. Also remember that of course no one was able to play with me and my parents were able to see her under protection. I also remember them buying her little toys and buying two (sets) so when she came home would have them as nothing could be taken out of the hospital. We have to thankful that we are still able to eat, watch TV and find things to occupy ourselves….
STEVE MECKLER ‘58- I don’t recall much about the polio outbreak but I did have a friend who caught it and was in an iron lung. I don’t recall being concerned about myself. You know, young and immortal. Now that I am a golden tiger, I’m not personally concerned about the coronavirus.
SANDI J. JENNINGS ‘58- I have very vivid memories of the polio situation. I had a very mild case but was confined to my home. People talked about it everywhere you went but did not seem panicked. Then many years later when the Salk vaccine had been available to one and all at no charge. That seemed like a miracle and I remember the long lines in high schools that we stood in patiently.
PHIL NEWTON ‘59- The only quarantine we went through was for the mumps, measles and chicken pox. My father was the Director of Radiology at Huron Road Hospital until his untimely passing in 1949. My mother was a nurse and eventually took the job of school nurse at CHHS. That being said, my brother and I and none of the other kids in the neighborhood were ever given reason to fear polio or other disabling diseases. My guess is that back then we had responsible news media and if you remember, the news on TV for those of us who had it, only lasted 15 minutes and that included weather and sports. I know people who had polio and even they weren’t fearful, more like determined. Although we are (now) part of the susceptible age group, I believe that if we do what should be common sense to all, we will get through this okay.
LINDA SCHWARTZ ‘59- How interesting that you’ve asked this because I have brought up the fact that people my age lived through the polio epidemic. I happened to be in junior high at Wiley when a gal a year ahead of me came down with polio. I recall that through high school she had a very bad limp. Interesting, however, that none of us, as I recall, went crazy over this as people are acting right now. We got the vaccine, and fortunately, no one else that I knew came down with this disease. I remember reading about people spending time in iron lung machines. Our parents certainly didn’t go nuts like people are doing nowadays. To me, it’s extremely sad to see the reaction of people these days with people hoarding items. No one hoarded items back then. I think that because people didn’t panic back then, polio was eradicated. Had the (coronavirus) been discussed in a more positive way, even though it’s certainly not a positive disease, I believe people wouldn’t be acting as they are now and scaring people to act abnormally.
JOHN BIGGS ’60- I remember the days of the polio epidemic. We could no longer go to any amusement park. I could not go to any public pool. We did not go anywhere there were large groups of people. We feared having to be in the hospital in an iron lung or becoming crippled. We avoided going downtown to go shopping, on public transportation.
JUDYE ROBBINS GRONER ’60, HOF- So interesting that you mention the polio epidemic. My younger brother caught polio in 1951 during the epidemic. He was 2, I was 9. He was treated at Rainbow Hospital, which at that time was a children’s hospital. Our family was quarantined for a week or two, and though I remember what a frightening time it was.
SHARON LLIBAVA KAPLAN ’60- I was just thinking this morning about the similarities between this pandemic and the polio epidemic. We were all so scared. No one was allowed to go swimming because we thought polio was spread through swimming pools and lakes. Every day there were reports of more children getting sick and dying. There were no cures, just the dreaded “iron lung.” To this day there are many people still suffering from post- polio effects. I have faith that if we keep calm and self-quarantine, we can contain this plague and wait for a treatment or vaccine. God help us and let us help others. All Golden Tigers stay safe.
SHARON LEVEY ‘60- I remember being taken out from Camp Wise in the middle of the night because both my older brother and sister got mild cases of polio from which they did recover. I remember standing in line getting the Salk cube and later the Sabin vaccine. I don’t remember any virus like we have now move as fast. Wish it wouldn’t have turned so political!
JOYCE ’60 & ROGER MILLER ‘57- Polio was scary, but the only memories my husband Roger and I have are of swimming pool closures and photos of polio cases in iron lungs. Roger’s father (Rudy Miller of the Miller-Becker/ Cotton Club Company) was very active as president of the March of Dimes fund raising organization. With protocol, vigilance, science and technology and PATIENCE, this contagion will abate. Let’s hope it does so … within the coming months.
DOUG SILVER ‘60- I have a slight memory of lining up in the hallway at Taylor Road Elementary going to the gym, to get a drop of ‘medicine’ on a sugar cube. And this was OK because Dr. Salk was Jewish. [Image: Wikipedia]