1950 The Song Is Over

January 16

Leo and Eddie Kavanagh lead their crew into another year of working copper as has been done for over eighty years at the Joseph Kavanagh Company. Old Uncle Joe started in a stall on Falls Avenue which was destroyed in the Black Friday Flood of 1868. They spent thirty-five years on Lombard Street until it was burned down in the Great Baltimore Fire. A few years at Gough and Seventh then on to Central Avenue. It’s been a lot of years and long history to get to 201 S. Central Ave. Now it is clearly their home and they work as they have, making distillery parts, general copper parts and still confectionery cookers. Today some 1 1/4” water tube and a few elbows, couplings and adapters are tinned. This is old school coppersmith work and one of their regular services. Most copper used by distillers and brewers needs to be tinned to avoid contamination in what spirits they are making. Jack Kavanagh, in addition to his Shop duties, is working hard on the house at the corner of Lakewood and Jefferson. He eats dinner at his parents’ house with his family, then spends two or three hours each night transforming the beauty parlor basement into a residential one and the first floor into the perfect home for his wife and two baby girls.

The Shop’s job book entry. January 15, 1950.

January 20

Leo and Eddie eat lunch in their small corner office and discuss a story in the newspaper. It seems some fan of Edgar Allan Poe has begun a tradition of visiting his grave and bringing roses and wine. He toasts the esteemed author and Baltimorean then disappears into the night. Both have never heard of this and find it rather strange but interesting. Baltimore is very proud of its poetic son and the brothers wonder how long such a tradition will continue.

February 16

A boiler has gone up and is out of service, which means some building is without heat. EJ Codd Co. calls the Shop and has an emergency boiler repair job they are sending in. Copper liners, brass fittings, valves and couplings are made in a rush status job. Jack and Ed Jr. stay late tonight and will start early tomorrow to get this one finished. Some long hours for the younger Kavanagh generation but both Leo and Eddie are glad to see it, not out of spitefulness, but the younger men need to get accustomed to the life. These things happen and when emergencies occur, the Shop has to find a way to get them done. That usually means a Kavanagh is working on it.

Eddie Kavanagh and his son Ed Jr. Early 1950s.

March 18

On this Saturday, Jack, Betty and their two little girls move to 447 N. Lakewood Avenue. Jack and his brother Ed carry their furniture and possessions across the street to the corner house. It is all done in a matter of hours, and Jack and Betty have their home. It will take some time to get it just right but Betty looks forward to the challenge; she will make this not just a home but a very special one. Jack, Betty and daughters Betty Ann and Nancy celebrate by going to the movies to see the new animated film from Walt Disney, Cinderella.

Baby Nan 2
Nancy and Betty Ann Kavanagh. 1950.

March 25

Jack receives some incredible news from Betty. She is pregnant with her third child and the family is very excited as the Kavanagh’s next generation continues to grow. A new baby is always such a joy to a family and certainly to the Kavanagh’s. It’s that sense of hope and wonder that comes with a baby: their future and all the things they might do in their lives. Jack loves being a father and he can’t wait for number three to arrive and is particularly happy that they are living on their own now. They will have plenty of room at the house at the corner of Lakewood and Jefferson.

April 19

Eddie speaks to Jack on the drive home from the Shop about running for the House of Delegates. Jack thinks it’s a bit crazy but he’s also a little curious at the thought. His father believes having someone in Annapolis might help the Shop. Jack will consider it and talk to his wife about it while Eddie speaks to some of his friends in the local Democratic Party. He has been a support of William Curran and George Mahoney both of whom have strong influence in the party. Eddie will make some calls and Jack will speak to Betty about it.

May 2

Jack has decided to run for the House of Delegates representing the second district of Baltimore City. He has met with the leadership of the party and plans are made to put him on the ballot in the Fall. Jack will have to go out in the community and meet people and ask for their vote. Jack has always been a very likable fellow and this will make it easier for him, though it will be strange at first. Betty is supportive and proud that Jack will go for it. She’s sure he’ll win.

May 20

Leo Kavanagh’s daughter Mary weds Albert Donnelly. The entire family gathers to celebrate with them. Four generations assemble, pray for their happiness and enjoy their party. Joe and Johanna are happy to see their granddaughter get married and even more happy are Leo and Maymie. Eddie, Annie and their children and grandchildren are all there along with many friends. It’s a fine party with music, laughter and much dancing. Everyone is very entertained by the three great-granddaughters of Joe and Johanna, Patsy, Betty Ann and Nancy.

May 30

Joe Kavanagh has a stroke at home on Thirty-third Street and is taken to the hospital. He survives but is partially paralyzed on the right side. The family is relieved but worried for him. He is 83 years of age. They are also concerned for Johanna. She is a strong woman but is clearly shaken by Joe’s stroke. He will stay in the hospital for a while to recover and rehabilitate his arm which he has little strength in right now. 

The Shop’s job book entry. National Distillers Products job. June 8, 1950.

June 8

The Shop’s work keeps rolling in and out of the building at Pratt and Central. The crew remains at fourteen, not including Leo and Eddie who do less and less work in the Shop these days. They both have taken a step back from the actual coppersmith work because Eddie’s boys are there now and they are progressing in their skill and learning how to manage and run jobs. Today, several jobs for National Distillers Products Corporation are finished. Jack and three other fellows finish tinning several lengths of tube while another job is farmed off to another shop. A condenser repair that requires some drilling, and there is no time to fit it in so Leo and Eddie sub it out to Renneburg and Sons, a local fabricator. Ed Jr. loads some copper sheet onto the truck and delivers it to Renneburg and will pick it up in two days. The Kavanagh’s rarely use sub-contractors. They prefer to handle it themselves or stay way from it if they don’t have the capabilities for the job. When subbing work out, it is very easy to get caught between an angry customer and a busy vendor. That’s never a good thing.

The Shop’s job book entry. National Distillers job. June 9, 1950.

June 26

The US is suddenly involved in another military conflict. North Korea invades South Korea, pouring across the 38th parallel. The Korean War has begun as President Truman orders American troops into action to support and fight alongside our South Korean allies. The Kavanagh’s and Americans, in general, are stunned and after the bitter and long war that was just fought around the globe, they pray this is a quick one: a short war, if there is such a thing.

June 29

Jack visits his grandfather at the hospital and Joe has recovered enough to speak, though his right arm is very weak. Jack has brought along a rubber ball and tells Joe to squeeze this ball to regain his strength. He can’t squeeze it at all, so Jack takes Joe’s hand in his and presses the ball with Joe’s hand.

Joe smiles and tells Jack, “You will be my arm from now on until I get my strength back.” His voice is a bit raspy but he keeps squeezing the ball with Jack’s help.

“That’s it Joe. You’ll get there,” his grandson answers.

As they press the ball over and over, Joe suddenly speaks again, “Who’s in first place by the way?”

“The Yanks. They look really good this year. Probably gonna win it all.” Jack says.

“Well, your father will be happy. He always loved that team because of Ruth.” Joe says, rolling slightly to the right to get more comfortable. Still squeezing the ball, “You would have loved it years ago, Jack. We had our own team. The Baltimore Orioles. Willie Keeler and the great John McGraw. That was a helluva team and they were champs. The best.” He settles back in bed now, clearly a little tired, and Jack releases his hand and takes the ball from it.

“I know Joe. You told me all about it. My father did too. I sure wish we had a major league team here, but it’s still fun to watch the games. Baseball is baseball.” Jack smiles as Joe’s grin broadens. They both love the game.

“Hey, Jack. Maybe one day another team will come to play here. Who knows?” Jack nods as his grandfather speaks, then gathers his things to get ready to leave. He pats Joe on the shoulder and tells him he’ll see him in a couple of days. Jack begins visiting several days a week, and always they squeeze the ball and Joe regains a little use of his hand each day.

Joseph A. Kavanagh. Late 1940s.

July 21

Joe is discharged and released from the hospital. He has recovered some, but the reason he is sent home is for being belligerent to staff. He called a few folks “heathens” and worse, it seems. Joe can be a tough curmudgeon, and apparently he had enough of the hospital and its care. Jack and Eddie drive him home, and move into Thirty-third Street temporarily to help Johanna with Joe. Jack does discuss it with his wife who, besides having two small girls, is expecting another baby. Betty assures Jack she will be fine, and his mother Annie is right across the street. Betty knows that Jack is close to Joe and he must do whatever he can to help.

August 22

The heat is very tough in Baltimore in August and Betty’s baby is almost due. She has been feeling ill today, developing a fever, and is concerned enough to go to the doctor. She is shocked when the doctor diagnoses her with polio. Polio was spreading rapidly through the world and in cities like Baltimore families would be extra cautious in late summer to avoid unnecessary contact or exposure to strangers. Polio almost always strikes children, so Betty contracting it is a bit of a mystery. She must have been exposed to a carrier and did not have the immunity that most adults seem to have. Betty is immediately concerned for her baby but the doctor is certain the baby will be fine. They must be very careful though. Jack is very worried for both his wife and baby. She is raising two very little ones as well and they don’t know what to expect. Her mobility will certainly be affected, but no one knows to what degree. They will take it day-by-day and see what happens.

September 7

The Kavanagh’s spend an evening at 434 N. Lakewood watching a new program that quickly becomes one of their favorites, Truth Or Consequences. It’s a game show and becomes a model for much of what becomes American standard TV fare. Betty is having issues walking but she is determined to join the rest of the family and Jack helps her walk over to his parents’ house. The Kavanagh’s love this show, even Joe and Johanna both enjoy it despite their preference for radio. Jack drove them here from Thirty-third Street and will take them home afterward. Joe is showing his age and moves very slowly now and even his famous wit is not the same.

September 10

Betty goes into labor and Jack rushes her to Kernan hospital. The doctors are worried about her condition and delivering the baby early. They stop Betty’s labor and hope she can carry the new baby to term. Jack and Betty are both a mess of emotions, but they believe the doctors are doing the right thing. They are scared for their baby and can’t believe this is happening. They hope and pray that Betty can carry this new child to term and the baby can be delivered safely.

September 18

The Democratic Primary is held in Baltimore and Jack Kavanagh wins one of the nominations to run for the House of Delegates, representing the second district. Jack is considered a Curran/Mahoney man as he has their support, and there are several groups vying for power and influence within the party. Mostly opposed to the Curran/Mahoney faction is the Lane/D’Alesandro/Pollack group who all do work together as Democrats but have slightly different philosophies. Jack’s family and friends are very proud of him and all look forward to the General Election confident that Jack will win. Betty, in particular nine months pregnant and fighting polio, is absolutely positive that Jack will win and do a terrific job.

September 19

The day after the primary is another day at the Shop and a long running job is completed when a beer still installation is finished at Overholt & Company Distillers. The still was made at the Shop but needed to be integrated into their existing system. Located in western Pennsylvania, the job required several workers to spend a few days each there over a period of three weeks. It was a lot of work but the expenses were covered and they made some money on this one. These rare overnight stays hearken back to the old days of the Shop when Uncle Joe’s crew installed stills up and down the East Coast.

The Shop’s job book entry. A. Overholt & Co job. September 19, 1950.

September 23

Mary Agnes Kavanagh is born to Jack and Betty, their third daughter. She is named for Aunt Anna who chose Sister Mary Agnes as her name in the Church. It is a difficult delivery for Betty and she is placed in an iron long to recover. Her muscles are very weak and the iron lung will help her to breath normally. Jack is very worried for his wife, almost frantic despite the doctor telling him Betty is strong and will be okay. He holds his new daughter close and waits and waits. Betty is fine and in her own room the next day. The new parents are so happy to have their healthy beautiful baby after such a rough time.

Betty Kavanagh and baby Mary. 1950.

September 30

Joe is acting strangely and seems to have lost some of his mental capabilities. His mind and his awareness seem not nearly as sharp as either were before. Always unpredictable, he is even more so now. He has an episode early on a Saturday when he walks out of the house late in the morning before his son or grandson who are both staying there, can stop him.

Eddie calls to Joe who is at the door, “What are you doing Joe? Did you get the mail?” Eddie leans forward in the vestibule to see his father struggling to get down the marble steps.

“No.” Joe replies, “but I got this.” He turns around brandishing the pistol he has had for years, the very same pistol used by his brother Martin in the Clarence Keene shooting on Christmas Eve 1910. Eddie calls Jack to the door and they take a step outside toward Joe.

“Give me that Joe and you need to get into the house.” Eddie says as father and son coax Joe back into his home with Eddie grabbing the gun and Jack assisting his grandfather into the house. They get him into a chair and convince him to relax. His behavior has gotten more and more erratic. Later that morning as Joe naps, Eddie and Jack have lunch with Johanna. She has made a pot of crab soup from the last steamed crabs of the year for them. Johanna adds vegetables to the crab claws and bodies and cooks it slowly all morning. They sit at the small kitchen table enjoying the warm soup, and talking.

“Mother, I’m getting more and more worried about Joe. He’s really acting strange and I don’t know that the hospital will even take him back with his attitude. Also, I don’t think we can talk him into going.” Eddie says as he blows on a spoonful of hot soup.

His mother says quietly, “He won’t go. He won’t go back there. He wants to be home with us. And his piano.” She gestures toward the parlor. Joe spent hours playing but now his hands especially his right can’t make the music. He can fiddle about but not truly play.

“I know it hurts him not to be able to play, Grandmom. I can see how frustrated he gets.” Jack says, thinking to himself how tough it might be to get too old to play the piano which both he and Joe love so much.

Eddie lights a cigarette, then shakes the match out, “I know he misses the piano and I feel for him. I do, but I am trying to figure out what is going on with him. What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s dying.” his mother answers him. “He’s lived a long full life and it’s coming to an end.” She looks from son to grandson as neither says anything. “We all only have so much time and Joe knows his is almost over. I know your father was tough on you, Eddie. Well, tough on almost everybody. I know this better than anyone.” She smiles softly with a tear in the crinkle of her eye.

“He was never tough with you, Mother.” Eddie grins back at her.

Johanna chuckles for a second, “Of course not. Joe is a good man but he always carried some disappointment with him. He wanted to be a performer and he was. He did well but then he had to work for real. For our family. He never begrudged it. Believe me, but he had a lot of bitterness because of giving up his dream. So he was tough on people and not always the nicest, but he loves me. We love each other and have made each other happy. All things end.” Tears well in her eyes, then slowly trickle down her cheek. “He loves me and all of us. He’s just… dying.” She pauses for a moment, then quickly stands, wipes her eyes and walks into the parlor where she sits at the piano in Joe’s usual spot.

Eddie sighs, crushing a cigarette into the ashtray then says to Jack, “I have to call your Mother. I’ll check on Betty.” He stands and walks into the living room, leaving Jack alone. Jack sits in silence, thinking of his grandfather. All the times playing music together and talking baseball together. He feels certain his grandmother is right about Joe. She always is.

Joe Kavanagh’s pistol. Used by his brother Martin in the Clarence Keen shooting. Christmas Eve 1910.

October 7

The New York Yankees defeat the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series winning all four games. The Kavanagh’s watch the final game on this Saturday. Eddie and Jack drive Joe to 434 N. Lakewood since Joe does not own a television and they sit in front of the small 10” screen and root for the Yankees, Eddie’s team. New York is led by star Joe DiMaggio and this year’s American League MVP, Phil Rizzuto. The Phillies clinched their pennant on the last day of the season with ace pitcher Robin Roberts taking the win. Despite New York winning all four games, the Series is closer than it appears with the first three games all being decided by one run.

October 21

The Kavanagh’s are doing their best to adjust to the corner of Lakewood and Jefferson but they are challenged by Betty’s polio. She uses a wheelchair at home now, but never outside. She uses crutches when she goes to the store or walks in the neighborhood Jack had been working on the second floor but closes it off completely now with Betty unable to climb steps. Jack and Betty live on the first floor and in the basement with a baby, a one year old and a two year old. They are happy.

November 7

Jack wins election to the House of Delegates and a large party is held to celebrate at Eddie and Annie’s house. The Kavanagh’s and many friends visit to congratulate Jack and wish him luck on this new venture. The Shop has a man in Annapolis now as Eddie wanted. Jack is excited but knows he has a great deal to learn about this new job of legislating. He will work hard and do all he can for the second district.

Eddie Kavanagh and two of his granddaughters. Patsy and Betty. 1949.

November 27

It is a very cold week in Baltimore but the City gets off easy. Much of the Northeast including Maryland west of the mountains is buried in snow in addition to the frigid temperatures. Thirty inches or more of the stuff in some places. It is a bone-chilling cold but the snow only amounts to an inch or so and is of little consequence. A cold Monday at the Shop goes on as it always does and those wielding a torch today are the lucky ones at Pratt and Central.

December 9

Joseph Anthony “Crazy Joe” Kavanagh dies. The family is not surprised as Joe was clearly near the end but it is a sorrowful farewell. The family gathers to honor him and to support his wife, Johanna. She is a tough woman and even more than the rest of them, knew that Joe’s death was near at hand. He is buried at New Cathedral Cemetery with so very many Kavanagh’s who preceded him, including Joseph Michael Kavanagh, his uncle. Along with his obituary, a short letter from columnist Carroll Dulaney is printed in the Baltimore News Post mentioning Joe’s days in the Primrose Quartet and his tradition of singing on the Lombard Street Bridge on Christmas Eve. This was years ago at the beginning of the century when singing was all the rage and Joe was a man about town.

Joseph A. Kavanagh’s obituary and a letter to columnist Carroll Dulaney of the Baltimore News Post. December 1950. Part 1. Courtesy of the Maryland Archives.
Letter to columnist Carroll Dulaney of the Baltimore News Post. December 1950 Part 2.

December 23

The Shop’s Christmas Party is held on this Saturday and it is festive but somber. The old building is decorated and prepped for the yearly party and guests begin to arrive. Customers, vendors, employees and friends parade into the Shop and celebrate with the Kavanagh’s. Another baby has been born and Mary Kavanagh has married. The business continues to excel but the family is grieving. Joseph Anthony Kavanagh was very much the patriarch of the family and his passing brings them great sorrow. He was born the year the Shop opened and for all intents and purposed, he WAS the Joseph Kavanagh Company for many years. After he and his brothers James and Frank split from Martin, Joe became the face of the company. He was adept at sales and handling customers. He used a combination of his knowledge of people, his entertaining skills from his vaudeville days and his very large boisterous personality to lead the company to success. He was a complicated man with a strange bitterness about him. Joe never truly got over giving up his musical career. He was an entertainer at heart and despite his success at and with the Shop, he never could get past giving up his musical dreams. He was someone that most people liked and he was fun to be around, but if you were a family member particularly a son, his expectations of you were high. A taskmaster to work for, he kept a certain distance between himself and everyone else including his family. To work for him was a demanding and difficult thing to do. He expected the best and didn’t hesitate to inform you if you weren’t giving it. He had true talent as a singer and was an incredible piano player. A most unusual character, he was someone whom no one who met him ever forgot. Joe was the last of his eight siblings to pass, having outlived them all. He was a reminder of old times at the Shop and the last man alive to have worked for the Original Joseph Kavanagh, his uncle. Tough to satisfy but always willing to help or contribute to the Church and other charities. He liked to entertain people by music or by making them laugh. He loved his wife dearly and Johanna was the only one who seemed able to contain this sometimes maddening contradiction of a man. His children and grandchildren loved him dearly even if they never quite understood him. My father, Jack Kavanagh was perhaps the closest to him apart from Johanna. They bonded over the piano when Joe started teaching Jack to play. Joe liked being the center of attention and thus his regrets about leaving vaudeville were salved by the Shop and his bombastic way of running the place. His sons, Leo and Eddie know the Shop will never be the same. Even after his retirement, he was still the “Joe Kavanagh” that people would ask for when they called the Shop or they would at the least ask about him, curious at how the old character was doing. Now there is no Joseph Kavanagh apart from Jack, who is technically Joseph John due to an error in filling out his birth certificate. This won’t be discovered for almost forty years when Jack applies for Social Security. To everyone’s mind, there is no Joe at the Shop nor in the family. It’s a strange and uncomfortable feeling for them. Eddie and Joe rarely got along unless playing music or talking baseball. Leo had better luck with Joe but perhaps that is because Leo was more like his mother. Eddie was very much like Joe in demeanor and style. That seemed to cause tension between them. The Joseph Kavanagh Company will go on, of course. Another generation is working there now and the Shop will continue. This party has a little less singing and the absence of the little man with the big voice is keenly felt. Central Avenue will never be the same. After the party, Eddie asks Jack to drive Annie back to Lakewood Avenue; he has a stop he needs to make. Eddie drives up Central Avenue to Lombard Street and turns left and drives toward downtown. With a bit of Christmas Eve traffic, he reaches the Lombard Street Bridge in a few minutes and crosses. He listens closely as he slows his car a bit but hears nothing but the sounds of the automobiles around him and one shout from a passerby. He reaches the other side of the bridge and makes a u-turn as soon as he can and returns over it, again listening intently. Listening for a verse of “O Holy Night” or a baritone voice in the wind but he hears no music as he crosses and drives home in silence, because the song is over. Joe is dead. Long live Joe.



Harry S. Truman is the President of the United States. The Great Brinks Robbery occurs when an armored truck is robbed of over two million dollars. The hydrogen bomb is developed. The comic strips Beetle Bailey and Peanuts appear in newspapers for the first time. The Korean War begins. Military advisers and personnel are sent by President Truman to Vietnam to assist the French against communist revolutionaries. The Warsaw Pact is formed to counter NATO. The television remote control is invented. The movies “Sunset Boulevard” and “Annie Get Your Gun” are released. Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, Bill Murray, Nora Roberts and Gary Larson are born. Al Jolson and Grover Cleveland Alexander die.

There are 48 states in the Union.

Mary Agnes Kavanagh. 1950. Lakewood Avenue.

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