Post-Tribune November 26, 2006

Native son captures Gary history in book


Despite its decline and decay, in this year of its centennial, the city of Gary deserves a gesture of recognition for what it was, and a gifted native son has risen to the occasion.

Kendall F. Svengalis, who was born in Gary and acquired the foundation for his remarkable education in Gary's public schools, has given us a book that will surely be considered a definitive work on the growth and development of Gary.

It is a large book, about 10 by 11 inches, and contains more than 400 pages of highly readable text and striking photographs. Its title, appropriately, is "Gary, Indiana, a Centennial Celebration." No collection of books about Gary can be complete without it.

Svengalis devotes a good bit of space to the lakefront steel mills, which were, after all, the reason for Gary's being. He tells us about the way the mills were conceived, how the site was chosen, how the land was acquired and how the mills were laid out and built.

But there is much more: chapters on neighborhoods that separated but did not divide the people of Gary; sections on the ethnic, sectarian, and cultural groups that made for such a rich people; sections on where these people went to school, where they worshiped.

There is, gratefully, a tribute to William A. Wirt, the imaginative, innovative educator who devised the unique work-study-play system that made Gary's school system a much-copied model.

Photographs and literary sketches of the city's churches -- St. Casimir's, St. Hedwig's, St. Luke's, St. Nicholas and many others -- recall fading details about where immigrant groups settled together in the early years.

Svengalis makes no effort to gloss over the city's labor strife, its seamy record of political corruption and the ongoing friction between whites and blacks -- all significant threads in city history.

This is no remote academic creating a text from secondary and tertiary sources. The son of a steelworker, Svengalis knows Gary as few can, having lived in the Central District, where he attended Froebel School, and Aetna, where he was enrolled at Emerson School on Gary's East Side. He started in the "Little Building" where primary grades were taught, and went to high school in the red-brick building next door.

He brings to the book a librarian's sense of order, and that is only natural. For, after earning an English degree at Purdue, he worked for a year in the steel mills, and returned to Purdue for a master's degree in history. Then, since the prospects in history seemed unsure, he acquired still another advanced degree from the University of Rhode Island, this one in library science.

He worked for a time in the libraries of Roger Williams College and Providence College, then became an assistant state law librarian with the Rhode Island Supreme Court. By the time of his retirement, in 2002, he was the state law librarian.

Although far from Gary for many years, Svengalis has continued to pursue his interest in the city's history. In this book he demonstrates a mastery of the subject. For a copy, $52.95, contact the Duneland Press, 204 Wyassup Road, North Stonington, CT 06459; or the Post-Tribune offices.

Francis B. Kent, who was born and raised in Gary, lives in North Hollywood, Calif. Contact him at

    Return to Quotes