Little-known 1952 hero to be recalled with plaque

Posted: June 17, 2014

GREAT MEN often become great curiosities / Too often become great conversation pieces / And nothing more. / But something should be said about Joseph E. Mander / Lest the Lessons he died to teach / Follow him to death.

So wrote the poet Sarah E. Wright. The name of the man to whom she referred is known in Strawberry Mansion, but his story is known by only a few.

Now, the namesake of Mander Park near 33rd and Diamond streets will finally become better-known.

On Friday, in conjunction with a major face-lift of the park and its recreation center, a plaque will be unveiled honoring the rarely told story of Joseph E. Mander, a black man who gave his life trying to save a drowning white boy 62 years ago.

"It was a very big story back in 1952, but it has gotten twisted through time," said Judith Robinson, a Strawberry Mansion resident who pushed for the plaque. "To be able to tell it with some clarity to the children of our community would be so uplifting."

As reported by the Evening Bulletin in May 1952, Mander, 41, dived into the flood-swelled Schuylkill trying to save 7-year-old Paul Waxman, who had fallen in while playing with a toy boat along its muddy banks.

Mander managed to make it to the boy, but the return journey proved to be too strenuous in the face of the river's strong current. The Schuylkill pulled the two below its waters, and their bodies were recovered the next day.

"The plaque isn't just to give him his props - to use the vernacular - but to leave people with a lesson," Robinson said of Mander.

She hopes the story will bring a positive attitude to Strawberry Mansion.

The park's improvements will be completed as part of Liberty Property Trust's "Bill Rouse Day of Caring," in memory of developer Willard Rouse, in which 225 employees of the firm are expected to be stationed at Mander.

"It's sort of a day of extreme makeover and we are very excited to have them," said Kathryn Ott Lovell, executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

"We have a motto," said Michael DiBerardinis, commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation. "We like to make sure that our parks are safe, clean and ready to use. This project is important in upholding that."

Playground renovations are expected to include a fresh paint job and repairs of the baseball stands and storage shed. The rec center, concession stand and bathrooms will get a good scrubbing.

Lovell is optimistic about the future of the park and its recreation center.

"Mander is so beloved," she said. "I think it's situated to become even more of a landmark than it is today."

The Wright poem "To Some Millions Who Survive Joseph E. Mander, Senior" appears in the anthology The Poetry of Black America.

Now folks who use the park named for him will know who he was.

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