Dr. Harry Silcox
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Post a comment Posted on Wed, Dec. 9, 2009
Harry Silcox dies
By Diane Prokop
Times Staff Writer
When Dr. Harry Silcox died at age 76 on Saturday, Northeast Philadelphia lost much more than its foremost historian. It lost a man who inspired countless others to success as a basketball player, coach, an educator, a prolific author and an energetic community organizer who made people proud of their communities.
His wife Shirley, sons Mark and Bruce Silcox, daughter Kathleen Pleska and five grandchildren - Jason and Greg Pleska, Amanda and Cassandra Silcox, and Veronica Hayes - survive him.
Northeast Times readers know him best for his popular local history column, Living in the Past, and as a former principal of Lincoln High School.
Born on Dec. 1, 1933 in the front bedroom of a home at 6606 Torresdale Ave., he died in his Mayfair home after a long struggle with cancer. Though his birth and death occurred within two miles of each other, his life and work touched folks not only here but around the world.
Growing up in Tacony, Silcox attended the Disston Elementary School and later played basketball for the team that won the Disston Playground Championship in 1951. The year before, he'd transferred from Frankford High School to play basketball at the new Lincoln High School when it opened and went on to become a star basketball player for Temple University, earning All-City honors for three years.
Silcox earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in physical education at Temple. He also served as assistant basketball coach, taking the team to the NCAA Final Four in 1956.
The following year Silcox returned to Lincoln as basketball coach before taking on the role of disciplinarian and vice principal at his alma mater. It was at Lincoln in 1957 when Silcox and Frank Hollingsworth, his researcher and co-author of Northeast Philadelphia: A Brief History, met for the first time.
"He was the new basketball coach and cut me and two other seniors," Hollingsworth recalled.
One student Silcox didn't cut was Bruce Drysdale, who knew the new coach as a thousand-point scorer during his days at Temple. According to Drysdale, a retired dentist, Silcox insisted that athletes be good students academically who didn't get into trouble. Though Drysdale took some ribbing from his fun-loving friends, he respected the coach's requirements, which helped to regiment him academically before going to Temple University, where he became an All-American basketball player.
When Silcox sought to be a candidate for principal at Lincoln in 1976, he found he still needed 12 academic credits. He took nine credits in history at Temple.
It was there that he found another of his life's passions, and eventually earned his doctorate in history. His experiences witnessing racism while traveling down South with Temple's basketball team in the '50s inspired him to write his doctoral dissertation on school desegregation in Philadelphia and Boston from 1800 to 1881.
And while you could say the rest is history, there is so much more. Silcox served as principal from 1976 until 1992 and was recognized in 1987 with the Marcus Foster Memorial Award, given to a Philadelphia public school administrator in recognition of outstanding curriculum, instruction, school improvement or administration.
Bob Oberg, president of the Lincoln Alumni Association, served as his vice principal and remembers Silcox as a good guy to have as a boss. "He kind of let you do your job and he would be very supportive if you ran into problems. There was no job too small for him to do . . . if you had to move tables, or he'd be out there with you to break up a fight. He didn't step back from anything," Oberg said.
Silcox didn't confine his teaching pursuits to the classroom. He took a group of Lincoln students to Russia and taught people there how to use environmental-testing equipment. Participants also toured the country and left a $10,000 lab as a gift for their hosts.
After retiring from the School District of Philadelphia, he established the Pennsylvania Institute for Environmental and Community Service Learning at Philadelphia University. He ran the teacher-training program from 1992 to 2001 and received federal grants allowing him to travel and share the program with 40 countries.
Under the auspices of the institute, Silcox also began an intergenerational program to preserve local history in every Philadelphia neighborhood, a project that took the form of community history books that featured the recollections of longtime residents. Those books included The History of Tacony, Holmesburg and Mayfair: An Intergenerational Study.
"That was the (book) that really spawned the need for a historical society in Tacony," said Tacony Civic Association president Louis M. Iatarola. "I'd have to say he was single-handedly responsible for making people aware of the treasure that his neighborhood is. Especially at a time when it wasn't particularly fashionable to show your neighborhood pride."
Silcox also saw the need to preserve 200 glass negatives of deceased Bridesburg photographer William Sliker - negatives regarded as some of the best pictorial representations of Philadelphia between 1905 and 1939.
Silcox purchased the negatives in 1997, and son Bruce Silcox, a professional photographer, made the photographs. Harry Silcox donated the slides to the Atwater Kent Museum, the city's history museum.
Museum historian Cindy Little had known Silcox from other Atwater Kent programs, their paths crossing several times over the years.
When she joined the museum in 2005, the Sliker collection was brought to her attention and she contacted Silcox again.
"I invited Harry to come down and to talk about the importance of the collection. Any time he was speaking he had quite a following. He was always doing history that resonated with people," Little said.
In the spring, Silcox contacted Little and asked her to get behind his recently completed lecture series. Little believes that Silcox wanted to establish a relationship between the museum and Northeast Philadelphia's historical organizations.
"I think one of the real advantages Harry had was that he had a Ph.D. He was published in scholarly journals, but also published in more popular ways and was able to communicate with academics and cross over to public history (with people who) don't necessarily have formal training," Little said.
In a phone message left weeks before he died, Silcox thanked Little.
"He just really kept saying, 'I just hope that what we're doing, that you and others would carry it on,'" Little said.
Local historians, amateur and otherwise, agree that the work Silcox began will be continued, especially the work of the Center for Northeast Philadelphia History, which he co-founded with archivist Jack McCarthy as an outreach of the Historical Society of Frankford.
While McCarthy has had the opportunity to take advantage of the fruits of other historians, he believes Silcox's unique contribution was his ability to involve the community in local history.
"Nobody did more to involve the community the way that he did in local history. I think that would be his greatest legacy," McCarthy said.
Silcox's written work will also continue to be published in the Northeast Times, and it has led to two more books based on those Times columns. In fact, Northeast Philadelphia: A Brief History, co-authored by Torresdale history expert Frank Hollingsworth, was released this month.
Hollingsworth also stepped in for Silcox when his illness prevented him from appearing at the last two of his history lectures in Burholme and Torresdale.
The response was so positive that two more similar events are in the planning stages for Holmesburg and Bustleton.
Holmesburg historian Fred Moore is compiling Silcox's remaining columns for a third book, Northeast Philadelphia: Discovering History. Silcox wanted the proceeds of the last book to benefit the Friends of the Lower Dublin Academy, which is working to restore and preserve the old schoolhouse at Academy and Willits roads. Silcox was a trustee of the Lower Dublin Academy.
"Harry went with his boots on," Moore said. "I spoke with him three or four days before he died. He was bedridden, at home, on hospice and rapidly slowing down. Yet he was still turning the piece or two of the puzzle to analyze a few of the facets to try a slightly different angle to fit into the big picture."
Bruce Silcox confirmed his dad was active until the end.
"It was two or three weeks ago, he's coming out of insulin shock, near death, and the guy who revived him said, 'I know you. You're the guy who writes the history articles.' My dad yelled, 'Mark, get one of those books for this guy,'" Bruce Silcox said.
According to Mark Silcox, his father and mother decided that there would be no viewing or service after he passed.
"Just remember how he lived, with gusto and passion, rather than remembering him at his death," he said. Â¥Â¥
Donations in Dr. Silcox's memory can be made to Friends of Pennypack Park, Reforestation Fund, P.O. Box 14302, Philadelphia, PA 19115.
Fred Moore and Bustleton/Somerton historian Bruce Conner have set up a tribute Web page for people who wish to share their thoughts about Dr. Silcox at www.harrysilcoxtribute.info
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