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These SOBs know how to have a good time

SOBs in a festive mood (left to right): Michael Spinner, Dolly Williams and Myrtle Whitmore. Photos by John Calabrese

That's the Society of Old Brooklynites, which celebrated its 133rd anniversary Sunday

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Don't let their nickname mislead you – the SOBs are a cultivated crew, and they throw lovely parties.

The Society of Old Brooklynites, living repositories of the borough's history and folklore, soaked up some secrets of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Sunday at the celebration of the group's 133rd anniversary.

Daniella Romano, curator and archivist of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Museum, told the assembled crowd at the Bay Ridge Manor luncheon she thinks the Navy Yard was created after the American Revolution "almost as a memorial" for the patriots who died aboard the British "prison hulks" whose presence darkened Wallabout Bay during the brutal war.

The SOBs – as many jokingly call themselves – are best known for their successful campaign to have a monument built in Fort Greene Park for the Martyrs of the Prison Ships. The remains of thousands who perished in British captivity are buried beneath the monument, whose re-dedication will take place Aug. 24.

BNY's museum, in Building 92 of the historic shipyard, opened on Veterans Day 2011. It is the only site in the 300-acre facility that is open to the general public.

"We wanted to create a gateway to the Yard," Romano said of the museum. Building 92, originally built in 1857, was repurposed to hold museum exhibits – and BNY archives that include 40,000 maps and plans and 5,000 photographs.

The Navy Yard – today a thriving hub of private industry with a roster of 300 companies large and small – was "the Navy's premier ship-building facility" for more than a century and a half, Romano said. It was decommissioned in 1966 as a matter of "federal cost-savings" with no consideration for how devastating the shutdown would be to Brooklyn's economy.

The yard played a role in every military buildup from the 1790s to the 1960s.

During the Yard's "acme" in World War II, 70,000 men and women worked there, she said.

Navy vessels built at BNY include the USS Ohio, which was used for the "suppression of the slave trade," and the USS Missouri, a World War II battleship that was later outfitted with new guns for the Korean War.

A shared love of the county of Kings unites the members of the SOBs, whose membership is open to anyone who has lived in the borough for 25 years or more.

"It costs $10 a year to go around and startle people by saying you're an SOB," said Myrtle Whitmore, a former New York City Housing Authority board member, who was the mistress of ceremonies at the group's festivities in the Bay Ridge catering hall.

Brooklyn borough historian Ron Schweiger, who lives in Flatlands, is the group's new president.

The SOBs count among their past members famed poet and Brooklyn Daily Eagle editor Walt Whitman, Columbia University president Seth Low and Henry Chadwick, who's widely considered to be the father of modern baseball.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, a life member of the SOBs, wished the group a happy 133rd anniversary and recalled that it was formed before Brooklynites voted to allow their independent city to become part of New York City.

"What a mistake, in my opinion," he said.

Markowitz, whose 12-year tenure is ending because of term limits, casually referred to state Sen. Eric Adams (D-Flatbush) as the next Borough President.

"Eric Adams will build on what I tried to do," he said after lamenting his inability to draw a major manufacturer to Brooklyn to aid East New York and Brownsville, "which have not broken the poverty cycle."

In March, Markowitz endorsed Adams during his formal campaign kickoff for the post.


Entertainment at the SOB's celebration included performances by teenaged ballerinas from Craig Gabrian's Young Dancers in Repertory in Sunset Park. Singers from Martha Cardona Theater belted out opera arias and show tunes.

Group members at the luncheon shared intriguing stories about their work – and their beloved borough – with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Cezar Del Valle, who wrote a two-volume history of Brooklyn theaters, said their golden age was during the 1920s and 1930s – but good news is on the way for the borough's theater scene.

The first major theater to be built in New York City since Lincoln Center, the Theatre for a New Audience, is set to open near the Brooklyn Academy of Music this fall.

Volume III of his work, "The Brooklyn Theatre Index," is going to print at the end of August, the Windsor Terrace resident said.

Bill Zucker, a pianist who lives in Brighton Beach, talked about a song cycle he composed called “Departures.”

Another Old Brooklynites member, Lois Hedlund, has become an expert on the Scandinavians in Brooklyn. She has lived in Brooklyn Heights for 43 years in the Columbia Heights building her in-laws bought in 1936 as a rooming house.

"I've been an SOB all my life," joked genial retired Brigadier General Arnold Albert, a Sheepshead Bay resident whose Army Reserve unit was stationed at Fort Hamilton. "I'm a card-carrying member."

As a junior high-school student in the early 1950s, Albert was a delivery boy for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He didn't have a bicycle, so he carried papers in a bag on his back.

Bob Furman, president of the Brooklyn Preservation Council, said his organization is pushing for a vacant lot on 9th Street and Third Avenue in Park Slope to be turned into the Marylander Memorial Park to honor Maryland Revolutionary War heroes who fought off the British while Washington's army escaped after the Battle of Brooklyn.

 A new member of the SOBs, Gene Ritter, is the diver who in 2009 recovered the long-lost Dreamland Bell. It had hung on the New Iron Pier in Coney Island, where boat passengers arrived to visit Dreamland Park.
   
The bell sank 25 feet into the sea after the Dreamland Fire of 1911.
   
"I never dreamed I would find that bell," said Ritter, who was looking for pier pilings at the time.
   
Ritter, who grew up in Brighton Beach, is a commercial diver for Local 1556. He is currently working on Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park.    

 

June 28, 2013 - 8:30am


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