HISTORY OF SOKOL WASHINGTON GYM ACTIVITIES as recounted by one of our founding members, Sister Mildred Barcal, and by Brother Miloš Toth
Gym classes started on Sept. 9, 1947, with eight women and four men in attendance. Later the average attendance increased to 12 women and six men. While preparing for our first exhibition, our sessions at Central High School were relegated to the back-stage area and/or the corridor. In spite of that, we were ready for our first exhibition and formal initiation into the American Sokol Organization. This event took place on November 23, 1947 in the Pythian Temple at 1012 9th Street NW, Washington, DC. Five men and ten women presented a combined calisthenics number. They were Brothers J. Friedrich, G. Soltis, Z. Ptacek. L. Sefcik and A. Mach, and Sisters V. Aubrecht, L. Cerny, V. Herman, J. Swinney, T. Vaters, O. Dzbanek, S. Dzbanek, A. Holubec, J. Droll and V. Basetlik. The Directors were Brother J. Friedrich and Sister M. Barcal. Our Unit was formally initiated into the American Sokol Organization, which was headquartered then, as now, in Chicago, by its President, Brother Karel Prchal.
The first project on our agenda, after our initiation, was to learn the calisthenics for the XI Sokol Slet to be held in Prague, Czechoslovakia in June 1948. However, the Communist coup d’etat in February 1948 paralyzed our Unit. Since nineteen members of our gym classes were employees of the Czechoslovak Embassy, we temporarily disbanded classes. Ten of the nineteen resigned from the Embassy and requested asylum in the United States; the other nine returned to Czechoslovakia. Classes resumed in two months, but many of the gymnasts already had moved on to other cities in search of employment and new lives. Women’s classes continued through June even though attendance dropped to three – Libuse Cerny, Vera Aubrecht-Cech and Women’s Directress Mildred Barcal. When classes resumed in September, we found the Central High School Gym again being used for basketball practice (“by priority”), and the stage was occupied by the DC Recreation Department Opera group. Our presence in the corridor disturbed the night classes, so we gratefully accepted the offer of Mr. and Mrs. V. Rasin to use the basement and the back yard of their home at 5126 Chevy Chase Parkway, NW, Washington, DC. Sister Brandeis donated a rug to be used as a mat. Unfortunately, this arrangement was not adequate. We returned to Central High School as soon as the basketball season ended and the gymnasium was again available. We continued working on learning the Slet calisthenics and in June 1949 we participated in our first American Sokol Slet in New York’s 71st Regiment Armory. From that time on, the Unit carried a full schedule of gym activities.
From 1949 thru 1970, our Unit presented eight exhibitions, always with the help of Sokol Baltimore, Philadelphia, Belcamp and Curtis Bay, and Sokol New York on several occasions, and, in 1959, Sokol USA Zupa M.M. Hodza and Jan Francisci. On that occasion, we had 139 participants in our program. We could not have accomplished this without every Unit’s assistance and cooperation. These competitions included children and juniors from the other Units. These same co-operating Units also brought in the heavy apparatus such as parallel bars, balance beam, and the side-horse. In turn, we attempted to reciprocate by participating in the Eastern District and Sokol USA Slets in the Boonton, NJ and New York, as well as in the Southern Section (okrsek) exhibitions held in Curtis Bay, Belcamp and Baltimore, and in the individual Unit exhibitions when invited. Having performed the Czech Beseda in our 1949 exhibition, we were invited to present it at the St. Patrick School (10th and G Streets. NW, Washington, DC) on December 14, 1949, and again at the District of Columbia Folk Festival on April 27, 1950. Then on May 6, 1952, the women performed the Slet calisthenics at yet another DC Festival.
The Unit participation in the National Slets of American Sokol and Sokol USA had top priority in our schedule each year. The men and women participated in 10 American Sokol Slets (New York City, 1949 and 1964; Cleveland, Ohio, 1950; Chicago, Illinois, 1953, 1957, 1961, 1965 and 1969; St. Louis, Missouri, 1955; and Dallas, Texas, 1967); and six Sokol USA Slets (New York, 1950, 1966, 1968; Chicago, Illinois 1954; Cleveland, Ohio, 1958; and Monneson, Pennsylvania 1970). The Unit also participated in the IV Sokol Slet Festival in Toronto, Canada in 1962. The average number of our participants in each of these events was ten – six women and four men. Those who participated in some (and not necessarily all) of the Slets were: Vera Cech, Libuse Cerny, Ann Dankulich, Libby Fauver, Rose Friedrich, Mary Soltis, Georgiana Toula and Mildred Barcal; and Jerry Friedrich, George Soltis, Frank Stovicek, Anton Mach, Brano Lajda, Frank Arient and Ludvik Sefcik.
Children and junior classes were organized in 1957 by Brother Frank Stovicek. Against great odds, he and the volunteers, who so ably assisted him, carefully nurtured the participants through the years of hard work. These classes were meeting at All Souls Unitarian Church Gym, 16th and Harvard Streets, NW, Washington DC. In 1970 adult classes moved to All Souls Unitarian Church as well. By 1972, eight juniors and eight adults participated in the Eastern District Slet in Baltimore, and immediately after, this group began preparing for the June 1973 Americn Sokol Slet in Chicago where four men, three women and three junior girls participated.
In December 1973, the All Souls Church Gym was no longer available to us and all the Sokol apparatus had to be removed and classes were abolished. Through the diligent efforts of Brother Stovicek and Sister Milada Koepplova, the gymnasium at St. Ann’s School, 4404 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington DC was made available to Sokol Washington. Classes started in January 1974. Activity picked up with an average number of 30 gymnasts attending. They were able to master the calisthenics and participate in Sokol Baltimore’s November 17, 1974 exhibition.
At the December 1974 meeting, Brother Stovicek tendered his resignation for reasons of his health and workload. He had brought up a new generation of gymnasts, several of whom proved to be qualified as instructors and two who could take over as Director and Directress. At the same meeting, St. Ann’s School informed the Unit that Sokol gymnasts would have to give up their gym classes because the school program placed a high priority on their basketball practices. The decision of the school was appealed but to no avail. Classes were suspended from December 1974 to March 1975 (basketball season). They resumed in March 1975 with only about one-half of the previous attendance. Classes did not resume in September. The use of the basement of our Park Road property was suggested but proved to be unacceptable. In November 1975, Brother Logsdon reported that there were no prospects for resumption of classes in the 1975-76 season. He suggested the possibility of obtaining access to a newly constructed gymnasium of the French International School, 9600 Forest Road, Bethesda, Md. Negotiations were conducted by Sister Milada Koepplova and Brother Frank Stovicek, and the contract was finally signed on February 2, 1977. Two whole years of activity had been lost!
Sister Dagmar Fiala was elected Directress of Women in the December 1976 Annual meeting and Brother Tony Bartos, Jr. was elected Director of Men in February 1977. Classes started on March 1, 1977. Sister Fiala organized adult, junior and children’s classes with assistance from Sister Louise Stovicek, Directress of Girls, and Sister Jana Kansky and Sister Paula Cervenkov as instructors of girls. On May 22, 1977, eight women participated in Sokol Baltimore’s exhibition. This was followed by our own exhibition at the French International School on June 19, 1977. Once again, the women, men and junior girls of Sokol Baltimore and Belcamp came to our aid and participated in our program. The following week, on June 24, five women from Sokol Washington took part in the American Sokol Slet in Chicago. By November, attendance in our classes averaged 10 men, 18 women, three juniors, two second class, five first class and three tots. The Unit was active again. For the next three years, an exhibition was held annually at the French International School in the afternoon following the wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. In June 1978, our Unit was well represented in the Eastern District Slet in Towson, MD with 38 participants. The women won 3rd place in the Indian Club drill competition. The Eastern District and the Southern Section (okrsek) held children’s competitions in Baltimore and in the French International School in Bethesda, respectively. Our boys and girls claimed several prizes. In June 1980, four women and five juniors participated in the VI Slet of Canada in Toronto. Sister Alice Cech placed 2nd in the calisthenics competition. We vacated the French International School premises in 1981 because the rent became exorbitant and some of our equipment disappeared. The apparatus was removed and stored in the homes of Brother Bartos, Kadlec, Paty and Soltis. Women’s classes under the direction of Sister Dagmar Fiala resumed in the Bells Mill School in Potomac, MD. Later the Julius West Middle School, 651 Great Falls Road, Rockville, MD became available for three hours each Tuesday. Once again, we had to conform to school regulations and schedules. In the 1982-83 season, eleven women were registered and drilled under the direction of Sister Barbara Babuska, Sokol USA, who had been retained to lead our classes. However, only two (Sisters Vera and Alice Cech) participated in the Sokol USA Slet in Pittsburgh, PA on June 24, 1983. The distance and the early hours made it difficult for the women to meet this schedule, so classes did not resume in September. So ended the women’s gymnastic activity of our Unit. To date, that activity has not been revived. The men’s contingent, elected to concentrate on volleyball since there was insufficient interest in gymnastics.
After a long respite, children’s classes resumed in 1989 at the Wood Acres Elementary School, 5800 Cromwell Drive, Bethesda, MD where they shared facilities with the Czechoslovak School. After three years, they moved to the Julius West Middle School where Sister Babuska taught the gym classes for one season. Three girls and four boys participated in competitions in Baltimore and in New York. They won prizes in both competitions. In September 1992, children’s classes moved back to the Wood Acres Elementary School. In November, the boys participated in a 3-day clinic in Sokol New York.
During the summer of 1993 Brother Milos Toth attended two weeks of Sokol Gymnastics Instructor Training School organized by Sokol USA, Sokol Woodlands, Berryville NY. In the fall 1993, Brother Toth became Director of Men. He taught gymnastics, karate and general fitness classes to six boys and two girls on a regular basis at Wood Acres Elementary School. In the school year 1994-95 Wood Acres Elementary School was being remodeled. Sokol was not able to find an available gym for its Friday classes at any of the surrounding schools. During that year gym classes were moved to Thursdays at Rockville Elementary School. Thursday proved to not be a good date for children’s gymnastics activities. When Wood Acres Elementary School completed its remodeling in summer of 1995, gymnastics classes for children returned back to its original schedule, Friday evening from 8:00 until 10:00 p.m.
In the mid 1990s, the families of Pavel Klein and Libor Kozak moved to the Washington DC area and became active participants in Sokol activities. When Brother Toth resigned as Director of Men in the fall of 1999, Brother Klein took that position with the understanding that the lead instructor of gym activities for children would be Brother Kozak. Brother Kozak led Friday’s classes until 2002 when he and his family moved back to the Czech Republic. At that point Brother Klein took the leadership of Friday’s gym classes. Brother Klein remained as Director of Men until 2009, when Brother Miroslav Honzak agreed to take over as Director of Men and Brother Toth agreed to assist when Brother Honzak’s work schedule did not permit him to be there on Fridays. Also, many parents stepped up to help with Friday’s gym activities, namely Sister Olga Simakova who was Directress of Women, Brother Ondrej Schneider, Brother Radovan Kohlmayer, Sister Zuzana Steen, Sister Helena Kanovnik, Brother Peter Knapp, Brother Robert Rehak and many others. In 2011 Sokol was advised that we could no longer use the gymnastics equipment at Wood Acres Elementary School. So that the children’s classes could continue, Sokol Washington bought ten gym mats, one ‘cheese mat’, and one spring board, and began to bring this equipment every Friday to the gym. On average there currently are about 30 children participating in gymnastics every Friday.