BARE: Merl McHenry and his Modesto school days

columns@modbee.comAugust 24, 2013 

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Merl McHenry, 7-12-76 son of Oramil McHenry. (Photo by Ted Benson)

TED BENSON — Modesto Bee Buy Photo

— One of the most interesting members of the McHenry clan was Merl McHenry, the son of business guru Oramil McHenry.

Merl was the last of the McHenrys born in what is now the McHenry Mansion, in December 1903.

When Merl started school, he walked a block from his home to 14th Street to attend first grade at Capitol School, which is now the site of The Modesto Bee.

Once in second grade, Merl's daily trek to school was lengthened by three blocks as he made his way to the 17th Street school. That building was later re-named to honor President Abraham Lincoln, before it was torn down to become the site of a shopping center.

Years later, when this writer interviewed the adult Merl McHenry at his home in San Mateo, he reminisced about his boyhood playmates. He commented that the boys were all about the same age and that they had much in common. An example was their mutual enjoyment of challenging games such as chess and euchre (a trick-taking card game). They also became skilled at playing billiards in the McHenrys' game room, which was equipped with a large pool table. That was located in the home's basement level, directly below the front parlor.

He described each of his friends, relevant to the boy's father's occupations. Thus, he talked about the "preacher's boy," who was the son of the Rev. Homer Pitman, a Presbyterian minister. For many years, that Presbyterian church was at 14th and I streets in downtown Modesto.

The "doctor's boys" were the two sons of physician Dr. Charles Griswold, named Gale and Eddie, and the "butcher's boy" was Reeder Van Vlear, all residing just a block away on 14th Street.

The "Bertram boy" lived across the street at the corner of 15th and I, which is now the home of the Stanislaus County Library. Young Rex Gailfius lived at 15th and J streets, and Chester Leek's home was at 924 16th St. That was next to the dramatic, towering Queen Anne Victorian home built by farmer Willis Bledsoe. Today, that location is occupied by an office building.

As a teenager, Merl took dancing lessons in Stockton, and he recalled doing an "exhibition dance" of the tango with Muriel Cressey. She lived at 915 17th St. in what is now an office building named Cressey Manor, honoring her family.

He also recalled climbing onto the roof of the Cressey home, accompanied by Muriel.

His memories included his own ascents onto the mansion roof and into the cupola, "when my mother wasn't looking," he said.

Thus, the recollections of Merl McHenry enrich the tales about Modesto's most famous family.

Bare is the author of several books about area history and is the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. Send comments or questions to columns@modbee.com.

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