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History's Headlines: A tale of two mayors and a lawyer

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 17 2014 11:52:49 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 21 2014 10:20:23 PM CST
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Walking into the law offices of Gross & McGinley is like stepping into a mini-museum of local, political history. Photographs and former campaign posters decorate the walls in the waiting room and in attorney Malcolm J. “Mal” Gross’s office.

On one wall Mal’s grandfather, Malcolm W. Gross, is standing next to Babe Ruth. In September 1923 Ruth and the Yankees came to Allentown to play ball against the Allentown Dukes. The Dukes won. Ruth posed with Mayor Gross that day out at a ball field on the south side, which is said to have been where St Paul’s Catholic Church is today.

On a nearby wall, Mal’s father Jack Gross, Allentown’s mayor in the early 1960s, is shown shaking hands with John F. Kennedy. The picture was probably taken when Kennedy came through the Lehigh Valley in October 1960, in a final pre-election campaign swing.

With all this family history, Mal Gross had often speculated on writing a book about both his grandfather and father. Aided by the newspaper scrapbooks that both men kept, he had written several articles.

Under the encouragement of the Lehigh County Historical Society, on whose board he has long been a member, Mal took the plunge. The result is “Two Mayors and A Lawyer: The Gross Family in Allentown History” (231 pp; Lehigh County Historical Society; $22.95). The lawyer of the title is Mal Gross. The book covers a wide variety of topics on local politics and history. All proceeds from the book benefit the society’s Heritage Museum.

Mal’s personal memories of his grandfather are slender. “I have a vague memory of him sitting in a chair,” he recalls. “By then he was old and rather feeble, but what I remember most vividly were his deep set eyes.”

In 1947 Mal joined a young, female cousin in unveiling a bust of their grandfather at the dedication of Allentown’s Malcolm W. Gross Memorial Rose Garden. As a band played and they pulled the rope, “all I can remember about it was how nervous I was that I might not get it right,” he says.

Memories of his father, on the other hand, are much more vivid. Until Mayor Jack Gross’s tragically early death in September 1964, his son spent a lot of time watching his father work long hours to accomplish the things he thought the city should get done. Gross feels that his father virtually “worked himself to death.”

The Gross family have been residents of the Lehigh Valley since 1753, nine years before there was an Allentown. Other political relatives included George Gross, who was active in the local Democratic party in the mid-to-late 19th century. He was Malcolm W’s father.

Mal’s book starts out with his grandfather’s term as mayor in the 1920s. He points out that it was a lively but trying time in Allentown’s history. “The 1920s were actually the first decade when Allentown was really a city,” he noted in a recent interview.

Modernization in the form of automobiles, movies and other forms of technology had changed what had been a big country town without a mile of paved street in 1900 into a regional metropolis that by 1930 had a skyscraper worthy of New York or Chicago. At the same time the city still lagged. Until 1926 Allentown and Lehigh County were served by three small phone companies, requiring local businesses to have three phone books.

In order to overcome these problems, Malcolm W. willingly worked with people from all walks of life and both political parties. Perhaps his closest partner in transforming the city was General Harry C. Trexler.

How close were they? Well, there is a wonderful photo of them together following the groundbreaking in 1926 for Allentown’s Americus Hotel. Gross, a tall man, is leaning forward as the much shorter Trexler appears to be whispering something in his ear.

Although he had been a Democrat as a young man, by the 1920s Trexler was a Republican and identified closely with the more conservative, business oriented wing of the party. But at the same time, Democrat Malcolm W. and Trexler were close allies, particularly where the creation of Allentown’s park system was concerned.

After Trexler’s death in 1933, Gross embraced the park concept as his own, insisting on its completion despite strong opposition from some members of his own party and the press. Many thought any land without a factory or a store on it was wasted space. Epithets like “Gross’s Folly” were thrown at him. With links to Washington D.C., he was able to get the federal government to provide the money to make the park system a reality.

There were also other issues that Malcolm W. had to deal with that some today would consider trivial. In the early 1920s, a group of local ministers pushed for a ban on Sunday baseball games. Gross supported the bill and signed it into law.

“Then he began to hear from the Irish and other ethnic groups in the city’s 6th Ward that complained that they worked 5½ days a week and Sunday was their only day to relax,” says his grandson. The issue was finally resolved in favor of baseball when the managers announced they would gladly pay the $4 fine that the law imposed each week and then go on with the game.

Mal notes that his father was mayor in another time of change for the city. “He felt the city was not moving forward,” he says. Like his father, Jack Gross worked closely with members of his own party and Republicans to accomplish things like the creation of a new Allentown City Hall and Lehigh County Courthouse. “Although they were very political, both my father and grandfather always put the welfare of Allentown ahead partisan politics,” says Mal.