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A playground, a mean mutt, a treasured hockey stick: Scenes from Jim Kenney's boyhood

The light drizzle one afternoon last week didn't faze the children rollerblading on the Burke Playground hockey rink, chasing the puck with their sticks.

Jim Kenney with his father, a firefighter who moonlighted delivering flowers and doing other jobs to make ends meet, in 1958.
Jim Kenney with his father, a firefighter who moonlighted delivering flowers and doing other jobs to make ends meet, in 1958.Read moreCourtesy Jim Kenney

The light drizzle one afternoon last week didn't faze the children rollerblading on the Burke Playground hockey rink, chasing the puck with their sticks.

With New Year's approaching, the saloonkeeper up the street was switching his beer inventory from bottles to cans.

The South Philadelphia neighborhood hadn't changed that much since the days when one of the kids hitting the puck was Jim Kenney.

"You weren't allowed to sit on a bench - you had to be involved in something. There was always a basketball league, a handball league - there was always something going on," Kenney said in an interview last week. "I played a lot of hockey over there."

Kenney, his two brothers, his sister, and parents James and Barbara lived in a 21/2-bedroom brick rowhouse on the 300 block of Cantrell, a narrow one-way street with 72 rowhouses packed like brick sardines.

The family shared one bathroom.

"You waited in line," recalled Kenney, the oldest of the children. "It was a feat of logistics."

As he remembers it, nearly every home on the block had problems, such as alcohol or drugs, the kinds of perils that persuaded his parents to send him to a prep school miles away.

Kenney put it this way: "I wasn't living in Pleasantville," the film about a seemingly idyllic town.

By now, the political career of the man being sworn in Monday as Philadelphia's 99th mayor is an oft-told tale: How Kenney, now 57, came up under the tutelage of another South Philadelphian, the once-powerful state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, and served 23 years on City Council before winning the mayor's office by forging a citywide coalition that spanned race, class, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.

Less known are his blue-collar boyhood days.

His father, a firefighter, moonlighted delivering flowers or doing other jobs to make ends meet. His mother ran a tight ship at home; she, too, held down part-time work.

When daily classes let out at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the local Catholic grade school, Kenney would head for Burke Playground. So did other neighborhood kids.

"All the kids lived along here," Ken Adams, a Burke recreation leader in the 1960s and '70s, said last week, pointing at the nearby rowhouses. "In the summer, you couldn't move."

And if you were Kenney, you ran to Burke - thanks to Bozo.

Bozo was a local dog, a "mutt-mix, pain-in-the-ass little bastard" that Kenney remembers chasing him down Cantrell Street.

"I swear, that dog would wait for me after school every day," he said. "I'm a little leery of dogs because of that experience."

He played basketball, whiffle ball, tennis. But his favorite was roller hockey. One of his dad's side jobs was at the Spectrum. Damaged hockey sticks sometimes came home - even sticks that Flyers greats had wielded on the ice.

Kenney and his pals taped them up to use at Burke. "My first stick that I ever had was Gary Dornhoefer's. . . . I couldn't get rid of it. I loved that stick."

On nights when his mother hosted her girlfriends, he had to go straight to his room. They called it Sorority Night.

"Every month they would get together in a different woman's house," Kenney said. "If my mom had 'sorority' that night, you couldn't eat the foods brought in, you had to help her clean the house, and they would sit around and [chitchat], and, you know, have cocktails and eat and play cards."

It was when some neighborhood teens turned to drugs that his parents decided to send him to St. Joseph's Preparatory School, the Jesuit-run school on Girard Avenue.

"I think they were very much concerned with me following the crowd," Kenney said.

He credits "the Prep" with widening his world.

The teachers taught him the importance of serving others and challenged him academically, he said. He was exposed to other cultures. It was the first time he had African American schoolmates. One was Michael Nutter, another future mayor.

"The Jesuits were just awesomely transformational," Kenney said.

'Wild bazaar'

It was there, too, that he grew interested in law and government. Through a schoolmate's mother, whose relative worked in the courts, he had an open invitation to watch criminal trials, then held in City Hall courtrooms.

He'd watch for hours.

"It was really a wild bazaar," Kenney said. "Like a market of just crazy people all over the place."

He saw legendary lawyers such as the late A. Charles Peruto Sr. and homicide prosecutor Roger King work their magic in front of juries. Then he'd snake his way home across Center City, usually stopping at his favorite museum, the Atwater Kent, and then at the Liberty Bell.

Back then, people could get away with touching it.

"If the guard wasn't looking, you could duck your head underneath and stick your head up inside." He would run his finger through the famous crack. "I have a personal relationship with that bell."

From there, it was about a two-mile walk south to Cantrell Street. The Second Street neighborhood, as it's known, was Irish American and working-class; everyone worked, starting at an early age.

By age 14, Kenney was delivering newspapers. He also washed dishes at a local Italian eatery. During breaks, the cooks taught him bocce.

"We weren't poor, but you didn't lay around," Kenney said. "You made your own money and you contributed to your education."

He makes no claim to saintly teen behavior, though. He and his friends hung out at Second and Snyder and had run-ins with police for underage drinking.

A summer job

From the Prep, he went on to La Salle College (now University). He also joined a Mummers brigade, the Jokers.

The summer after his junior year at La Salle, one of the rec leaders at Burke, who knew Kenney was majoring in political science, put him in touch with Fumo.

That summer of 1978 was the start of Kenney's political life. He answered phones at Fumo's office, fetched lunch for the staff, put up campaign posters - and tore down rivals' posters. He got to know the foot soldiers of ward-level politics, the committee people. As he put it, he learned "all that grassroots political stuff."

At La Salle he shared an off-campus apartment with three soccer players - they dubbed it C-Block. One of them remembers Kenney's willingness to debate just about anything.

"If you said it was dark out, he would say, 'Well, it's not totally dark out,' " said Tommy Connors, a Prep classmate and later a C-Block roommate, who now lives in Delaware and works for an IT firm.

They partied, too. As Kenney put it, "We weren't the best neighbors to the hardworking people who also lived on the floors above and below us."

He was hired onto Fumo's staff full-time after graduating from La Salle.

That was in 1980. Much has changed since then - he and Fumo, who served prison time for corruption charges, no longer speak. Kenney's parents have retired to South Jersey, and he now lives in Old City.

But his ties to his childhood neighborhood remain.

'You played hard'

His sister still lives there. Another South Philadelphian, electricians union leader John Dougherty, became a key figure in Kenney's political coalition. "Johnny Doc" has known Kenney since their Burke Playground days.

At Burke, Dougherty said, "if you didn't win, you had to wait hours to play in the next game. So you played hard."

Just up the street from where the Doughertys and Kenneys played as kids is Mick Daniels Saloon, where Kenney's grandfather once tended the bar.

Last week, current owner Mickey Adams was switching out his beer inventory from bottles to cans - the Mummers get too crazy on New Year's Day and cans are safer, he said. When Kenney's name was mentioned, Adams smiled and said, "I knew him when he was nothing."

Then Adams showed off a cellphone photo - of himself, behind the bar, with Philadelphia's next mayor.



Inauguration Events Monday


10 a.m. - Swearing-in ceremony for Mayor-elect Jim Kenney at the Academy of Music. Invitation only.

12:30 p.m. - Mayor Kenney and newly inaugurated officials greet the public on Broad Street between the Academy of Music and City Hall.

2 p.m. - Kenney attends City Council receptions at City Hall.

3:15 p.m. - Kenney signs his first executive orders at City Hall.

5 p.m. - Kenney attends reception for the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia at Pennsylvania Convention Center. Minimum $5,000 donation to attend.

6:30 p.m. - Kenney speaks at inaugural block party at Pennsylvania Convention Center. Event for volunteers and supporters of Kenney campaign.EndText