May 26th, 2021

David Stairs

When Thomas McNeill was made pastor of St. Margaret’s parish in 1948, he inherited little more than a twenty-year-old mission church in a growing suburb north of Syracuse, New York. McNeill had been a Navy chaplain in the Pacific during the war, but his dream was to expand Catholic education, and he would devote the best years of his life to the work.


Thomas McNeill dedicated the latter part of his life to Catholic education.

In November 1952 my parents moved into their first and only home seven months after I was born, and one of the main reasons they settled where they did was the proximity to this nearby parish. My Mom was a fervent Catholic, and she was determined to make sure her devotion transferred to her children. She had my Father agree that we would be raised Catholic.


The building was well made. Note the hardwood closets.

When Father McNeill opened the first ten classrooms of St. Margaret’s grammar school in 1954 the post-war Baby Boom was well under way. That year, enrollment was 340, but this was only the tip of a dramatic surge that would occur within a decade. In 1958 St. Margaret’s laid the cornerstone of a middle school with another ten classrooms and, in 1960, built the largest gymnasium for miles around.


St. Margaret’s had the largest gym in its area.

I remember the annual reports, usually shared with the congregation at Sunday mass. The parish was deeply in debt, and congregants were exhorted to tithe a portion of their income to the parish. But by 1961 enrollment had ballooned to 1320 students, and St. Margaret’s was running classes for K thru 9 while a new Catholic high school was under construction elsewhere in the diocese. Catholic education was booming.


The school had a uniform room where student families could purchase or rent the required uniforms.

Class sizes were large. I remember always being in a homeroom of 45+ students, and this would have been universal to support such enrollment numbers. In the early years one woman, usually a teaching nun from the Order of St. Francis, or an occasional lay teacher, taught a class all subjects. Later, the teachers rotated in and out of the rooms, which eliminated what would have been utter chaos in the hallways. Corporal punishment was not unusual in such a crowded environment. We laugh now about the ruler across the hands stories, but such forms of control would never fly today.


The former St. Margaret’s Convent.

To house the teaching nuns the parish built a large convent, sufficient for the needs of upwards of twenty women. The nuns— we called them “penguins”— wore a full heavy black habit complete with a black veil, white wimple, knotted rope belt, and large dangling rosary. If one needed a uniform that would inspire respect, this was it. It was hot in summer, but many of the young women entering the novitiate came from either Hawaii or the Philippines since vocations from America were declining even back then.


A bright and airy kindergarten room.

The school Thomas McNeill founded was solidly built. Poured terrazzo floors were polished to a high sheen. Blackboard surrounds and hallway railings and trim, like the solid crash-bar doors we passed through daily, were made of hardwood. Tilt-top desks were manufactured by American Seating in Grand Rapids Michigan, the nation’s furniture capital.


Custodian Pat Sweet showing the Nurse’s Office.

The school had a nurse’s office that was shared with a dental hygenecist. I remember lining up to receive my Saban sugar cube live polio vaccine at school. By 1961 a solid library was underway, and our physical fitness was covered by our splendid new gym, which doubled as a church for Sunday overflow services and as a theater for movies and plays. The school’s only real deficiency was the lack of a cafeteria, which was eventually added. During my time at St. Margaret’s I brown-bagged lunch most days although, because I lived only three blocks away, unlike the kids who were bused I could always walk home for a hot lunch if I didn’t mind sacrificing playground time. The real bonus was I could then watch Jeopardy with my Grandmother.


The gymnasium stage was used for plays as well as masses.

My younger brothers and I kept our Mother busy attending PTA meetings for fifteen years at St. M’s, from 1957 until 1972, a long time for her to supply us with white shirts and ties. But school wasn’t the only reason to use the facilities. My brothers and I were members of Boy Scout troops that met in the Church basement every week and, when we entered high school, we still played CYO basketball in the gym two or three nights a week.


The author posed in his Boy Scout uniform for this promotional photo in 1963. The girl scout, Eileen Flannery, had many more merit badges.

Post boom enrollment began a slow but inevitable decline until, when my nephew Michael attended from 1996 to 2002, there were only 300 students at the school. In 2004 the parish celebrated the school’s 50th anniversary. SMS soldiered on right up to the pandemic, even as the diocese was shuttering other parish schools. The nuns had long since disappeared, but when Covid-19 hit there was still a waiting list for enrollment.

Lockdown spelled disaster for my school. Academic ’20-’21 saw only 77 students enrolled at St. Margaret’s. Parochial education is not free. What cost a few hundred dollars in the 1960s has mushroomed to 1000s today. In affluent communities it is still possible to fill seats in Catholic schools, which are renowned for preparing students for college, but Mattydale New York is not such a town. Today it is a shadow of its former self, a drive-thru crossroads that post-war demographics crashed upon like a tsunami sixty years ago.


Hardwood railings and moldings throughout.

St. Margaret’s announced mid-winter that, after 67 years in operation, spring 2021 would be its final semester. The diocese has decided to combine it with St. Rose of Lima, the next school north and a life-long adversary. What happens to Father McNeill’s well-built facility that saw thousands of kids through their primary and middle school years remains to be seen.


Terrazzo floors made for durable hallways.

My final walk through the school was bitter sweet. As I reflected upon the rooms where I’d had so many formative experiences— here where Sister Trinita made me stand in the waste basket in 1st grade, there where I’d been Lieutenant of safety patrols in Mrs. Maloney’s 6th grade, and again where I’d drawn my own comic books and rented them out for 3¢ per read in Sister Mary Harold’s 8th grade— I thought about what a harsh mistress memory can be. Many of the kids I grew up with have passed on, including Pat Sweet’s sister Cindy, who had been valedictorian of my 8th grade graduating class.


A socially distanced ’50s bathroom.

When I think about it it seems odd to survive such an institution. Schools are supposed to live quietly in the background while individuals pass on, whether to fame or obscurity. But when I am asked what were the best years of my life I can say, unequivocally, the nine years I spent at St. Margaret’s School. What better place for happiness to occur than during “the wonder years” in the secure bosom of the neighborhood parish school? Such memories live forever.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

April 24th, 2021

David Stairs

Another day, another mass shooting. We’re led to believe by television that Mayhem is a guy in a suit, played by actor Dean Winters, who causes mass upheaval wherever he goes. If only it were that simple.


Glock semi-automatic pistol designed by Gaston Glock

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March 15th, 2021

David Stairs


Tom Tierney’s Rita Hayworth paper doll published by Dover

As I sit by my Thermopane picture window reflecting on the wintry scene outdoors, I am distracted by the arrival of a mated pair of songbirds. A male cardinal hops onto my bird-feeder while his subtle mate shelters in a nearby bush.

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February 11th, 2021

David Stairs


Deep fake of the Queen’s Christmas address; courtesy Channel 4

A man walks into a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. armed with an automatic rifle determined to free children he believes are victims of a peadophilic sex trafficking “deep state.” People interviewed at a Stop the Steal rally in Atlanta tell interviewers a commission is needed to investigate the Democrat’s efforts to corrupt a widely certified election. A man in Nashville (not Robert Altman’s version) destroys a city block blowing himself up at the same time in protest of AT&T’s roll out of 5G wifi service. In another era one might be tempted to agree that “the time is out of joint,” except this bizarro world is our everyday reality.

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January 9th, 2021

David Stairs

Steve Zdep is dead, that much is certain. He passed away on November 6th, 2020 from causes not revealed in his obituary.


The author in more innocent times

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December 9th, 2020

David Stairs

With states reporting record numbers of infections, there is no doubt that this Christmas season will be one many will find hard to forget. The malls and retail centers we so precipitously abandoned way back in March do not have the same attraction of earlier years. Since Covid is THE story of 2020, even overshadowing the presidential election, we’ve scrounged up a few holiday suggestions for that extra special Christmas 2020 memento of the years’ most familiar meme.


A “Clovid” orange

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November 2nd, 2020

October 26th, 2020

David Stairs

Max is over, thank God.

And by Max I mean Adobe Max, that brightshiny overripe bells-and-whistles software tradeshow masquerading as an allconsuming excuse to be pretentiously jejeune.

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August 21st, 2020

David Stairs


A wild back yard

Except for a couple of thunderstorms, it hasn’t rained much in central Michigan this summer. It has been quite hot, and as usual, very humid. After aggressively mowing the grass in late May and June, it’s growth abates and it mostly browns off. The only way to keep grass green is by watering it, and in a world of diminishing clean fresh water, there has to be a better use for it than golf green lawn grass.

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July 3rd, 2020

David Stairs

America has finally caught mask fever, fifteen years later than Asian people. There are still many who refuse to “suit up” including Covid deniers, those suffering from claustrophobia, and some who claim medical excuses. But the possible reasons for not wearing a mask are narrowing, with major airlines rejecting travelers who renege.

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June 13th, 2020

David Stairs

I thought I was speaking truth, but now I’m not sure that it wasn’t simply “my truth” rather than something absolute. Maybe absolute truth doesn’t exist, no matter how much we’d like to believe in it. But, if this is the case, then we’re really doomed.

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May 14th, 2020

David Stairs

Courtesy Wikipedia

America’s got troubles. I don’t mean the song lyric kind, but, you know, serious troubles. And they’re not the soft purring type you might find on a now infamous classic sci-fi show. Those are tribbles, the sort that pundits and wags like to compare to Donald Trump’s hair.

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April 19th, 2020

David Stairs

Are you just about sick and tired of seeing pictures of viruses?


Courtesy NIH

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March 31st, 2020

David Stairs


A sign of our times

There are interesting new ways to mark the passage of time. I generally take account each week when I venture out of my home to grocery shop.

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March 17th, 2020

David Stairs

Informatics is enjoying a renaissance.


Courtesy LiveScience.com

If you haven’t already encountered it, this graph is bound to become the most talked about x-y axis since Al Gore’s Nobel prize-winning acceptance speech. And it represents events more immediate than climate change, if not more important.

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March 2nd, 2020

David Stairs

I suppose bookmarks are a personal thing. Some are woven; some are printed; some are just bits of stuff. My son uses a piece of red thread. I won’t say that I collect bookmarks either, but when I am in a bespoke store I will not leave without one. In honor of my favorite bookstores, I’d like to share their bookmarks.

Out west, in Portland there’s Powell’s City of Books. This venerable warehouse on West Burnside Street is always crowded and, while I’d like to say you can find anything there, the greater liklihood is that you will get lost looking. For those who like to get lost, this will not be a problem.

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January 19th, 2020

David Stairs


Paramount

“We Are the Borg.”

With these words, Maurice Hurley, writing for the Star Trek TNG episode Q Who?, unleashed one of television’s most implacable adversaries on the world. But, as with much speculative fiction, Hurley and his co-writers were only mining the literature of science and engineering probability.

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December 15th, 2019

David Stairs

Who doesn’t love a podcast?

Some weird personality or obscure ideology you need to catch up on on that long commute to work in the morning? Needing to block out ambient noise in your open space office cubicle? What better way for a busy person to stay both informed and amused?

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November 1st, 2019

David Stairs

Have you ever been in a super loud environment? I don’t mean the usual sort, like a kindergarten classroom or a football stadium on an autumn weekend— a scene of audio cacaphony— I mean a visually loud room. The Victorians were sometimes guilty of visual clutter, with their knick-knack trophies and flowered wallpaper, but they had nothing on modern commercial interiors.

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September 14th, 2019

David Stairs


Illustration by Chris Stairs, age 9

I often think about stubbornness. My son Chris is a Leo, and he can be one of the most stubborn people I know. This is not to criticize my son, or to implicate all Leos, but it is a character trait they are somewhat known for.

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August 6th, 2019

David Stairs

Affluence isn’t free.


Giraffes at a gallop on the Serengeti, Tanzania

In May 2019 the UN released a report about the state of the natural world. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported that species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, and that the rate is accelerating.

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July 1st, 2019

David Stairs

Since when did coding corner the market on the definition of “smart”?

I recently attended a UCDA design conference where Helen Armstrong was one of the keynoters. Ms. Armstrong, a multiply-credentialled academic with deep ties to the AIGA, talked about Big Data, and how designers can/should employ it to their benefit.

Yellow-cyan-indigo paint scheme non-algorithmicly determined

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May 24th, 2019

David Stairs

While most people these days don’t think much about cattle when they discuss branding, they also probably don’t focus on Apple’s iconic 1984 Superbowl ad as the catalyst for a whole new generation of brand differentiation. Yet, the upsurge of interest in brand fascination is traceable to the 1980s and its emphasis on supply-side economics.


CMU’s Centennial Sculpture, by Charles McGee (installed 1992; relocated 1999; birds voluntary)

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April 13th, 2019

David Stairs

The editors of MIT Press and Design Observer have compiled a collection of essays to celebrate that weblog’s 15th anniversary. Culture Is Not Always Popular sports the same title as the presentation Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel made at the 2003 AIGA Power of Design conference in Vancouver B.C., which was delivered the very week the Design Observer website launched, at the time a marketing slam dunk that quickly garnered a captive audience for the new site. Yet, despite the title’s heady aspirations, this anthology reveals DO not for what it has aspired to be— avant garde, but what it actually is: largely bourgeois.

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March 11th, 2019

David Stairs

In 2014 my program hosted a campus visit by the popular and likeable Stefan Sagmeister. Since I made the arrangements for his talk, and chauffered him from and back to the airport, we had plenty of time to visit. I told him his royalty for the visit was payback for the Sappi grant he helped adjudicate for me and my partner in 2003 and, despite the fact he did not know me at the time, I considered it a debt repaid.

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