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History time: Sam Klass, a happy shoemaker on South Street in JP (Part 2)

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  July 17, 2012 09:00 AM

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(Courtesy Sheila Klass Lepley)

Sheila Klass, Boynton Street, 1944.

Part of an occasional series highlighting a piece of neighborhood history. The following is the final installment in a two-part series. Sam Klass, “Scientific Shoe Rebuilder,” learned the cobbler’s trade at his father’s knee, and he kept at it for nearly 40 years at 66 South Street, Jamaica Plain. Based on a 2012 interview with Sheila Klass Lepley. To see part one, click here.

Sheila Klass Lepley
Sam and his wife Helen (Cohen) were married in 1934. Helen (1910-2002) was originally from Chelsea. Sam and Helen had one child, Sheila. Sheila lives at 8841 North Calle, Loma Linda, Tucson, Arizona, 85704. Sheila was a New Year’s Eve baby, born on December 31, 1939, at the Evangeline Booth Memorial Hospital, 202 West Newton Street, in the South End, yielding her parents a much welcomed just-under-the-wire tax deduction. They brought her home to 66 Boynton Street where she remembers a happy childhood among the Irish-Catholic kids who dominated the neighborhood.

Although Sheila was not Catholic, this never discouraged her girlfriends from inviting her to sit outside the Saturday afternoon confessional box as they performed the weekly ritual in the lower level of St. Thomas Aquinas Church on South Street. Sheila remembers being accepted as just another kid in the neighborhood, even if the Klasses didn’t display Christmas lights in the apartment windows during the holiday season. She enjoyed the confessional visits, the smell of the candles, and looking at the 14 relief-carved Stations of the Cross on the church walls. Much later ,while touring Europe, she felt completely at home in the many Cathedrals she visited. And now, her Arizona home has year-round Christmas lights running along the eaves.

(Courtesy of Peter O’Brien)
66 Boynton Street, 2012.
Among her pleasant memories of a Boynton Street childhood, Sheila remembers the ice-cream man, the taffy-apple man, the horse-drawn rag-man’s wagon, the hurdy-gurdy man with his trained monkey, the war-time scrap drives, Lilac Sunday at the Arboretum, and playing in an open fire hydrant on a hot summer’s day. She also recalls the lamp-lighter (Mr. Shields), who serviced the gas streetlight across from 66 Boynton Street, various street peddlers and the bowling alley up at the corner of South and Boynton. On the list of unpleasant memories is the terrible odor of the horse-drawn garbage man’s wagon picking up feed for his Dedham pig farm, and the stale beer smell and loud noise reaching the sidewalk from Boyle’s Tavern on South Street.

Although her mom regularly shopped in Roxbury for Kosher meats, Sheila remembers the wonderful fresh fruit from Morris and Sons Fruit Stand at 666 Centre, next to Kennedy’s Butter and Egg store near Seaverns Avenue. Woolworth’s and Kresge’s were favorites and she remembers Gale’s Department store and the Odd Fellows Hall above Gale’s. She enjoyed many a treat at the Centre Candy Shop at 713a Centre and, consequently, visits to her dentist, Dr. Dan Mahoney, right above it. And a family friend owned Bell’s Department store at 706 Centre Street near Mamigon’s, at 712 Centre Street, now known as the Galway House, where Sam regularly had lunch. General shopping was done at the First National Store at the Monument. There, during the war, Sheila would proudly handle the ration book stamps and the red-and-blue tokens given as change for sales of meat and processed foods. This was a responsible job for a little girl which would lead later to her cashiering for Sam at the Saturday shoe sales. Nearby Brigham’s Ice Cream Shop and Dorothy Muriel’s Bakery offered wonderful treats on any trip to the Monument.

The Klasses enjoyed outings at Jamaica Pond and the Fourth of July celebrations there. Sheila remembers the clean restrooms beneath the bandstand and nearby, the small store that rented boats. Sheila’s mom, Helen, loved taking her to the Boston Pops concerts at the Esplanade, going to the Metropolitan Opera at the Opera House on Huntington Avenue, seeing ballet performances, and taking her to the Museum of Fine Arts and Symphony Hall. The Children’s Museum on Burroughs Street was many a Saturday’s destination for Sheila. She loved playing the clue-hunting games there and the movies shown in the auditorium.

Off to School
Sheila went to the Agassiz School in its old location on Burroughs Street, followed by the Mary E. Curley School. By then, however, her mother noticed her preoccupation with boys and thought it better if she went to the all-girls Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Roxbury instead of co-ed Jamaica Plain High. Notwithstanding its girls-only student body, she enjoyed the Burke School and made life-long friends there.

She then went on to Suffolk University where she earned a degree in Education and later, from the University of Arizona, a Master’s Degree in Reading, thus fulfilling her mother’s wish for her to graduate from college, the first in the family. She taught in the Saugus School system for two years and in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, for one year where she had to develop an ear for the old English spoken there, tuned previously by the Gaelic and Welsh she heard as a child on Boynton Street. She then taught in Montreal and finally landed a teaching job in Honolulu where she met her husband, Larry Lepley, a farm boy from Michigan. She took a one-year professional leave to travel through Europe and work at an Israeli Kibbutz while studying Hebrew. She returned to Hawaii and married Larry Lepley.

Larry became a geophysicist and worked in Europe and the Middle East, finally doing research at the University of Arizona while Sheila taught in Tucson. They settled in Tucson in 1969. They’re both retired now, and enjoy trips to visit their three sons and two grandchildren from Michigan to St. Kitts and Beijing, China, where their youngest son is an architect.

Looking back
Sheila’s memories of being a Jewish kid in a completely welcoming Irish-Catholic neighborhood have endeared her Jamaica Plain childhood all the more. And, although she’s lost touch with most of her Boynton Street friends, she’s never forgotten them: Barbara Flanagan, Gordie MacDonald, the Hall boys, Barbara Gill, Ellen Conway and Agnes Cuddy are just a few of the friends who introduced her to some of the mysteries of the Catholic Church, but more importantly, to the meaning of real friendship and acceptance.

Her mother’s stress on the value of education rewarded her humble beginnings as a shoemaker’s daughter with a college education and advanced degrees. She has passed this on to her three sons.

Sheila misses her childhood friends, the rich cultural life, and the mountains and shore lines of New England. And when she is asked if she would like to move back, the answer is a resounding “YES – New Englanders have it all.” But she can at least lay claim to having grown up in Jamaica Plain and played with some of the best kids in the world.

This column is a submission from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society.

To read more about the rich history of Jamaica Plain, visit the Jamaica Plain Historical Society website at:

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(Courtesy Sheila Klass Lepley)

Agassiz 5th Grade, 1950. Sheila Klass middle row, third from left.

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