As I noted in the preface of Working Class Hero, I support Tom Brokaw’s concept of The Greatest Generation. Yet, without detracting from the record of that group, I wanted to draw attention to the preceding generation, that of the parents who raised these people and instilled in them the qualities and values that were so essential to their later performance.

I chose to illustrate that stalwart generation through one of its two lives that I knew best, that of my father, Jim, who lived from 1884 to 1954. On the occasion of Father’s Day, 2014, I would now like to present excerpts from my book that deal specifically with his role as a parent.

At the outset, I quickly learned the need for restraint. Jim was a father who gave freely and widely of himself, and it seemed that extensive parts of the book, covering most aspects of his life, deserved to be quoted. For the narrow and sharp focus desired, I had to start all over again, realizing that a brief posting cannot fully cover a man’s achievements as a father; it can only suggest the flavor of his efforts.

*            *            *

For the first two years of Jimmy’s life, there is probably no more eloquent description of Jim’s feelings toward his son than his own expressive face as it appears in photographs of the two together. Love and pride are easily seen. There is something else – a sense of awe and marvel as he looks upon this little creature that has been entrusted to his care. These are pictures of a devoted and responsible father.

Fig19JJy28b copy    Fig17JEJy27a   Fig64JJy27a

When his son was quite young, Jim told him the story of a father who placed his little boy on a mantelpiece and said, “Jump into my arms.” As the boy jumped, the father withdrew his arms and let his son crash to the floor. The moral of the story was, “When something important is at stake, never depend on anyone but yourself.” Jimmy got the message, but it could not have been more unlike the actual relationship between the two. Jim was always there for him, discussing, advising, encouraging, helping, and even doing his job for him when necessary.

One example of that last point was Jim’s doing algebra homework for several weeks while the subject remained an impenetrable mystery to Jimmy, until finally there was a breakthrough and the subject became easy for him. This might be viewed as treatment that could “spoil” a child. But somehow the boy understood that it was an emergency measure, not to be expected as normal practice. Perhaps the story of the mantelpiece had something to do with that understanding.

Jim became a father at the age of forty-two, but there was no lack of vigor when it came to raising his son. There was an endless sequence of expeditions to parades, circuses, carnivals, amusement parks, concerts, movies, picnics, museums and other points of interest. New York was a favorable area for endless explorations, and these were on the agenda most Sunday afternoons. Jim tried to teach the boy to play baseball, an unsuccessful effort probably because of the boy’s eye problem. Jim purchased boxing gloves and taught the boy self-defense, an asset that never increased his desire to fight but one that gave him confidence, something he would need on the streets of New York.


Jimmy and Jim in a Coney Island, N.Y. “photo studio”, late 1936 or 1937.
The family has moved to Kew Gardens, New York.

Jim’s efforts to guide the boy’s attitudes and behavior relied mainly on discussion and reasoning. Sometimes he placed undue faith in the boy’s ability to understand. One amusing example of this occurred when his son was seven or eight years old. While the two were at a circus, Jimmy spotted “chameleons” (anolis lizards) for sale, and he simply had to have one. The little creatures were chained to lapel pins, mounted on a large board, and offered at twenty-five cents each. Jimmy could not accept the idea that one of these might die in his tender care. While he noted the cruel treatment of the lizards by the dealer, he saw purchase as a means of rescue. He would have to study economics before he could ever comprehend that buying one might just cause more to be caught.

So Jim retreated to his argument of last resort. He spent a long time outlining the family finances – where the money came from and all the places it had to go – with the conclusion that he could not afford the lizard. By the end of this, Jimmy was glassy-eyed and sufficiently bored to accept the argument. He didn’t get the lizard. But for a long time he wondered how his Daddy ever managed to afford the circus tickets.

When discussion and reasoning did not bring the desired results – generally in cases of sulking, defiance, or disrespect – Jim would apply corporal punishment. He had several strict rules for this, which together assured an intense and close personal interaction between father and son. First, the punishment had to be prompt; the only excuse for delay was to secure privacy. Second, it had to be as brief as the nature of the offense allowed – often a single slap, several in the most extreme cases. Third, Jim’s hand was the only acceptable instrument; he strongly disapproved of sticks, belts, or any other devices that might have a distancing or depersonalizing effect. And fourth, his facial expression during punishment showed strong disapproval of the offensive behavior – suggesting anger but never out of control. He did not risk the mixing of signals that might result from punishment with a loving expression, but the loving expression soon reappeared after the punishment was finished.

On one occasion, after several whacks on the rear, Jimmy came to his father with a serious limp, claiming that his hip was in great pain. Jim said, “I see you’ve read that news article about the girl who was crippled by her father’s beating. Well, don’t worry. That didn’t happen to you, and you’ll soon be all right.” It took the boy about three seconds to give up his pretense.

Jim often stressed the principle that, if something is worth doing at all, then it is worth doing the right way, worth doing with full attention and to the best of one’s ability, and worth doing completely. This came up most often in connection with schooling. It was quite frequent that Jimmy would report some good achievement like a 98 percent grade on a test, and Jim would respond by asking, “What went wrong?” As he finally got the boy to understand, this question did not represent any dissatisfaction with the 98 percent. It was a suggestion to investigate the 2 percent that he missed. Then he would know it all!

When Jimmy showed repeated anger or irritation toward someone else – usually another boy at school – Jim would say, “He’s got your goat. Get over it.” The “goat” expression signified that the other person had become such an obsession that he was controlling one’s moods. One needed to find a way to let loose of these feelings.

As he moved into the teen years, Jimmy developed resentment toward his father that lasted until about the age of eighteen. It began with blame for moving from his beloved Wheeling to New York. The family of Jimmy’s mother supplied him with all sorts of petty reasons to resent his father. Punishments by his father undoubtedly added somewhat to the resentment. By far the greatest sources of resentment, however, were Jim’s intellectual qualities. His unusual viewpoints, his self-assurance, his eloquence in arguments, his overall brilliance and his strong presence – all these traits comprised a “dominance” that made the boy feel threatened and diminished. And so it went, no doubt, with countless male teen-agers.

Fortunately, the boy’s feelings were never aired, and the two had many good and close times together. Jim never showed awareness of the resentment, but he was wise enough that he probably sensed it and ascribed it to the inevitable vagaries of the teen years. He never doubted the boy’s love for him. Both father and son felt the security of unconditional love. The important thing is that, as Jimmy passed into manhood, he realized the pettiness of his resentments and came to terms with them.

After the move to New York in 1936, Jim and his son had many extended separations from one another. Early on, these were occasioned by the boy’s love of Wheeling; later by difficult wartime housing conditions; and still later by such activities as military service, college, starting a career, and family responsibilities. Jim never had a complaint about any of these absences, and both father and son were joyous and enthusiastic at their reunions. The picture lingers of Jim meeting Jimmy at the railroad station as he arrived on a short vacation from college in early 1950. As the car was still coasting to a stop, Jim could not wait: His face was beaming, his arm was waving, the driver’s door was open, and his left foot dragged on the pavement in an effort to stop the car.

The last time the father and son were together was on March 1, 1954, when Jimmy drove Jim to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Jimmy regarded this as a minor event, during which diagnostic studies would soon lead to new treatments that would restore his father’s health. Therefore he scheduled it as a brief morning trip, assuring his boss that he would be at work right after lunch. It seemed that the drop-off would be even shorter when a guard said that parking by the hospital entrance was not allowed – then, seeing Jim’s difficulty walking, relented and allowed parking for ten minutes.

Jim, of course, was much more aware of his plight. After check-in, as the two walked toward his room in the Osler Wing, he made a joke. “Now this is really a bad omen. Dr. Osler was in favor of euthanasia for sick old people!” As they reached the room and took their farewells, Jim showed one of those familiar signs of an emotional moment. An expression of incipient weeping flashed across his face and was gone in a second. This haunted Jimmy as he returned to the car and drove off, with the result that he found a place to park and returned to spend the afternoon with his father. It was a quiet and restful time for both as the old man ate his lunch, talked about his hopes for diagnosis and treatment, pointed out a new symptom (the left thumb had gone numb), and generally relaxed. At the final farewell he lay on his bed, head propped up on one arm, smiling and waving goodbye.

*            *            *

Rightly or wrongly, Jim’s son picked up the message that Jim, while not atheistic and probably not agnostic, did have serious doubts about how the established religions presented God. Jim did not pretend to know the nature of God, did not think that one could know it, and was not particularly troubled about not knowing. He seemed to believe that “miracles” and “revelations” were either natural events or artifacts of the human mind or some combination of the two. He placed his emphasis instead on concepts and ideals of this world.

One of the most important of these was being a “Man,” and raising his son to be the same. This term had to do with integrity and honor and many other virtuous human qualities and behaviors. Jim stressed honesty, loyalty, and responsibility in all his dealings, and he sometimes carried generosity in thought and deed beyond what he could afford. “Man” in this context was not gender-specific, but since both Jim and his only child were male, that question never arose. Jim kept a framed copy of Kipling’s poem “If” on the wall, and he used it extensively in teaching his son what he thought were the important virtues. The poem is not a complete definition of his concept of a Man, but it probably comes as close as any one-page document does. The argument of the poem is to enumerate a number of virtuous behaviors that, if achieved, will yield certain benefits including, “And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” Jim would reprove a misbehavior by his son by quoting from memory the specific lines from “If” that pertained. Jim’s concept of being a Man was, for him, the foundation of an entire philosophy, a source of guidance and stern discipline that some others would seek from a Bible.


Jim’s framed copy of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling.

A second concept, closely related to the first, was the importance of developing and using one’s Mind. Jim never put it in quite these terms, but his general feeling seemed to be that, just as a person’s quality of character might be measured by one’s achievement of the virtues that make one a Man, so also could a person’s breadth and depth be measured by the extent of one’s interests, knowledge, and understanding.

He started with basic functions of the mind such as concentration, memory, and logic, and sought every means possible to refine and improve these. When raising his son, he presented games specifically designed to foster these abilities.

He had a natural affinity for the great areas of study that offered a better understanding of our world and ourselves. These started with philosophy, and he became familiar not only with the great philosophers of the previous several hundred years but also with the ancient Greeks as well. Among the Greeks, it perhaps showed his own tendencies that he was most intrigued by Socrates, the great questioner of his society’s values and assumptions.

Jim’s focus was on secular philosophy, which he considered the province of great minds and creative genius. He had no interest in religious philosophy, which he considered more the domain of established dogma. From philosophy his interests extended into political science and economics, which also had much to say about how the world works. He never said anything about psychology or psychiatry, which itself may indicate something about his regard for those disciplines.

From these great subject areas, Jim extended his interests into every conceivable field that might further develop the mind. He turned away from no subject simply because it was trivial; his criterion was whether it offered any mental stimulation. Whatever the subject at hand, if it met that criterion, it got his full attention. His mechanical aptitude was limited, and one might think that this area would be the least interesting to him. But even here he found mental challenges. He developed a sort of consciousness of the inanimate world that gave him a feel of how objects would behave and react. He expressed this in many venues: “It’s not enough just to hit the golf ball. That ball doesn’t know where it’s supposed to go, and you have to tell it.” The same for sawing wood and for driving a nail. He was so intrigued by the action of a golf ball that he went on to invent some kind of stationary machine for practice driving. Apparently the ball was supposed to stay mounted on a spinning arm, but Jim never quite found a way to keep it from flying off under the force of the drive.

Given Jim’s interest in development of the Mind, it is no surprise that he placed great value on education. He had high respect for educated people. For his son he tried to get the best possible education even at the high school level – until he found that his financial means were insufficient – and later had high hopes that the boy would go all the way to a doctoral degree. It seems that he may have been overly optimistic about the difference an education could make. The best evidence for this was the way he, a school dropout at age fourteen, towered intellectually above just about everyone he met.

 *            *            *

Jim had remarkable skill at creating rhyming and rhythmic poetry on very short notice. Some poems were for his son’s entertainment, as in the first two examples below, or deadly serious and on his son’s behalf, as in the third.


A boy went swimmin’ With two fat women
On the beach at Chesapeake Bay.
The wind was blowin’ & the waves were high
The boy splashed water in the big girl’s eye

The girls took the boy and squashed him flat
And that was the end of a perky brat.

-Your Dad (1934)


Edgar Allan, ere you fell, sir
Prey to melancholy gloom,
You should have quaffed an alka-seltzer And chased the raven with a broom;
Removed the bust that he sat perched on, Likewise the shelf the bust sat on,
Dust trap it was, and nothing more.

And the croaking that you twisted
Into presage of nothing more,
The same was croaked ere words existed. It was a belch and nothing more;
In ravenese, it meant – “I’ve eaten A worm or two too much, I ween,
So I’ll regurgitate and eat some more.”

Ravens, crows and other gloom birds
Who come a-tapping at your pane,
Are not the cleanest kind of room birds, (For even ashes drive a wife insane)
So keep the tappers without your chamber, Admitting only those who ring,
Unless you’re busy with Lenore.

So, Edgar Allan, lie not saddened,
Upon the night’s Plutonian shore.
If all things cease, we’ll not be maddened By things that irk us evermore
We’ll be relieved of all our taxes, Nor plagued by politics or wars
Nor be disturbed because we snore.

–  For the Raven Society, University of Virginia, 1949


I have a son, my lords, but one,
Whose time of life doth near approach, The age thou hast decreed
When all his life shall be delivered thee For sacrifice, for barricade
“Between this haven of fair liberty And the devils of Berlin”
(The thought is yours, my lords, I do but write and so describe it
To set the issue that has come between us.)
Delivered to thee, my lords, to be maimed or butchered
Or to maim and butcher another’s son.

This son, my lords, this only one, For him I did assume, with parenthood,
The guardianship of his life and limb His heart and soul and mind likewise
‘Gainst all and every ill that might arise To foster and to cherish with my life
So he may fully grow to take the role I now fulfill, equipped to bear his burdens
And enjoy his life and heritage As God hath chosen and designed,
And I, an implement in this design, Must ask you justify your call.

The body of my son, my lords, his life, my heart,
The sacrifice you ask is great and surely doth deserve
That you and I, whom responsibility doth bear,
Should both see eye to eye or dissipate our differences
With reason freed of unseemly rancor or heat
Examine if the cause is as you paint it – or is not
Then seek another way to ease the troubles of the world
Than like the pagan priests of old
To send our fairest to propitiate the gods
That ne’er existed – Like the ways of your claim The bud that never flowered.

It appears, my lords, (and I pray you Belittle me not with specious talk,
I am a man Who listened once before, and responded,
And ever since have felt I was befooled).

It does appear, my lords, your diagnosis errs In finding ourselves so very good and they,
Our chosen enemies so very vile
We must dismiss the naiveté which claims
Them vicious and the puppets of a brain awry
And we the noble guardians of the fleece
Else your prescription will but annihilate both them and us
And never reach the canker that’s beneath it all.

— Undated (World War II)

(Adapted from Working Class Hero: One Life in a Stalwart Generation, 1884-1954, by Jim Burns. 2013.)


JIM IN ARGENTINA, 1903 – 1905

(Adapted from the book Working-Class Hero)

This is the period in which Jim learned his one and only foreign language, and also learned the extreme importance of pronouncing it properly.

Jim had spent a total of two years in South Africa, leaving about 1903.  From there, either directly or via a brief stay back in the United States, he proceeded to Argentina where he remained for two years.  His livelihood in Argentina was never mentioned, but it seems reasonable to assume that he continued to be involved in construction.  He mentioned two particular recollections from that period.

One was that, while being transported with a number of people in an open wagon, he was admiring a young lady seated across from him.   A large fellow got aboard and found no vacant seat except a narrow one next to Jim.  But the fellow also noted that the young lady was occupying more space than she needed, so he hauled her up and plopped her unceremoniously into the place next to Jim, saying, “Her little butt will fit in here better than mine.”  Jim was so taken aback by this behavior, not to mention the sudden extreme closeness of the young lady, that he wasted the entire opportunity in a blushing and tongue-tied condition.

His second recollection was of an evening open-air dance.  An Englishman came to join the festivity, fresh from horseback riding and wearing knee-high boots with spurs.  He started to dance and quickly got his feet entangled in his partner’s dress.  He apologized profusely in his minimal Spanish, and unfortunately added a brief explanation: “No soy acostumbrado á bailar con botas.”  (“I am not accustomed to dancing with boots.”)  His specific misfortune was in letting the English equivalent influence his pronunciation of the last word, saying bootasinstead of “botas.”  The word was understood as “putas” (“whores”), and a brother of the young lady immediately stabbed him – non-fatally, it was understood.

During his two years in the Argentine, Jim acquired an excellent command of the Spanish language, not from books but from close association with the people.  In the mid-1930’s he demonstrated this before his family on the occasion of visiting an Argentinian grocery in New York City.  Through an hour-long conversation in Spanish with the storekeeper, his speech was rapid-fire and fluent, the storekeeper understood him immediately, and his pronunciation seemed to lack any vestige of American accent, seeming quite identical in sound with that of the native speaker he was engaged with.


By about 1905, the year he turned 21, Jim returned to the United States.  There is no indication that he ever left this country again.  The picture shown above is the earliest one we have of him.  It was taken in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, about seven years after he left Argentina.  He is the young fellow seated on the wagon at far left.



(Adapted from the book Working-Class Hero)

When Jim was orphaned at a tender age, he was separated from a younger sister, Anna, and a still younger brother, Dick.  After his travels, and when his life began to gain some stability, he reestablished his connection with the two, and he continued regular communication with them for a number of years.  For several years after his return to New York in 1936, there was frequent socialization between the families.

Since childhood, Jim had seen much of the world, and had attained a modestly successful livelihood in the construction business.  Anna and Dick had remained in New York City and had worked hard for whatever livelihood the city offered to people of high-school education, or less.

Before his untimely death from pneumonia in 1937, Dick’s final employment was operating a change booth in a subway station, where he dispensed the nickels needed for the entry turnstiles.  Anna had married Joseph Mangan and had given birth to three children: Eileen, Cornelia (whom Jim called “Toots”), and Francis.  Not long after Francis was born, about 1924, Anna was widowed.  Nevertheless, she continued to make a good home for her youngsters, partly by Joseph’s provisions and partly by dint of hard labor, primarily as a seamstress.

As this story unfolds, it presents a hard lesson and a warning: When such differences in experiences and livelihoods exist among siblings, enormous stress is put on the relationships between them.

In 1927, Jim gave his son the middle name Richard, honoring Dick.  Dick responded over the next two or three years with lavish – though somewhat impractical – gifts for the child.  One of these was a professional-grade snare drum.  Another was an ornate wooden sleigh.

The first sign of a stressed relationship appeared sometime around 1930, when Dick visited Jim in Wheeling.  The visit seemed to go well, but Jim learned later that Dick’s report to Anna had been that Jim had hit it rich and was flaunting his wealth, “putting on the dog.”  Dick noted particularly that dinner was served on elegant glassware rather than on ordinary china.  He didn’t seem to realize that the Depression Glassware in question had been collected by Jim’s brother-in-law in return for purchases of gasoline.

When Jim, Anna, and Dick socialized in the late 1930s, it became evident that Anna and Dick had built up a resentment toward Jim, and a propensity to put him down whenever possible.  Jim saw this as an understandable bit of jealousy over his worldwide adventures and his achievement of a very modest financial success.  What he never mentioned, however, was probably dominant in their feelings toward him: Intellectually and culturally, he had left their world.

When Jimmy, Jim’s son, visited his cousin Francis, Anna began to reveal her attitude by criticizing how his mother had groomed and dressed him.  She changed his hairstyle, moving the part from left to middle, and plastered it all down with Brilliantine.  She changed much of his wardrobe with items that Francis had outgrown.

Jim and Anna exchanged visits from 1936 until 1940.  By late 1939, Jim’s close friends the Rosenbergs were living in the area, and Anna met them.  She invited them as well as Jim and family for Thanksgiving dinner.  Her put-downs of Jim had been increasing over the years.  They reached a peak on this occasion, when she placed Rosy (Russell Rosenberg) instead of her brother at the head of the table, and asked Rosy to say grace.  Jim pondered her obvious feelings toward him, and by late 1940 decided not to contact her again.  Before he might reconsider, the war intervened and brought great turmoil in his life, and the two families completely lost track of one another.  They never met or communicated again.

The following photos show possibly the last meeting of Jim and Anna, in January 1940.  Also shown are Jim’s wife, Edith (center of sofa), and Alice Rosenberg (far right).

Fig32JE40a         Fig33Anna40

*            *            *

The reader of this blog may have realized by now that Jim was my father, and I was his son “Jimmy.”  I will turn now to my own experience with this situation since 1940.  It has been an emotional roller-coaster ride, gaining momentum even within the past year and in recent days.

When Jim and Anna parted ways, I lost two cousins, “Toots” and Francis, whom I loved and greatly enjoyed.  Actually, Toots did keep up a bit of correspondence with me for the next couple of years, sending foreign postage stamps for my collection.  This ended after she sent me her wedding announcement in 1942.

Beyond that, I remained a loyal son, and I never took steps to overcome Jim’s dictum that the relationship had ended.  It required a new generation to take those steps.  In late 2012, my son Jasper launched an effort to find the missing cousins.  He did indeed find “Toots” under her married name, Cornelia Mangan Farrell, in Philadelphia.  They had a brief exchange, which naturally but unfortunately involved her mother’s maiden name.  Such names are now a frequent password to a person’s financial assets.  Fearing a scam, Cornelia asked Jasper to state his case in a letter.  He did so, but she never answered.

As the publication of my recent book, Working-Class Hero, approached, I believed that I finally had something to offer Cornelia.  Something to convince her that Jasper was no scam artist.  Something to give her the history of a branch of the family that she had once loved.  However, one problem vexed me for many days: That book dealt with the rift between Jim and Anna, and made statements about Anna that Cornelia might find offensive.

Finally, a couple of days after the book was published, I was inspired by a strategy by which I might present the book to Cornelia, while also seeking her understanding and forgiveness for the offensive statements.  For some hours, I was in a glorious mood, anticipating a reconnection with this long-lost cousin.  But Jasper had a hunch, he acted on it, and he presented me with Cornelia’s obituary, dated May 2013.  Thus ended the roller-coaster ride, in a crash.



(Marking the publication just yesterday of my latest book, Working-Class Hero)

Tom Brokaw applied the term The Greatest Generation to those who “came of age during the Depression and the Second World War, and went on to build modern America – men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement, and courage gave us the world we have today.”

Without detracting one iota from the illustrious record of that generation, I want to draw attention to the preceding generation, that of the parents who raised these people and instilled in them the qualities and values that were so essential to their later performance.  That earlier generation, too, faced a major war in its youth, the First World War.  With far less education than their children, and college degrees a rarity, this generation faced economic boom and bust, and made career adjustments through changing times.  During the Great Depression, the greatest bust of all, they continued to earn a livelihood and to “bring home the bacon” for the fledglings of the Greatest Generation.  Many endured major career disruptions again with the onset of the Second World War, yet found themselves too old, or with too many responsibilities, to enter new career fields that opened in the postwar years of a booming economy.  Recognizing that many past generations have made enormous contributions, I will avoid superlatives and any claim to uniqueness.  I will refer to this generation simply as A Stalwart Generation.

To represent this generation, I will focus on one man, of working class background, who had a diverse experience touching many aspects of that period’s history.  His name was Jim, and he lived from 1884 to 1954.  Fig01JBca25c-copy

When Jim was about 6 or 7 years old, he accompanied his mother and father to the courthouse where they obtained a divorce.  As they left the courthouse, on the front sidewalk there was a scene in which he was asked, “Well, who do you want to go with?”   The parents started walking apart, so that he had to make up his mind quickly.  He chose his mother, but not long afterward she entered him into St. John’s Home, a Roman Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn.  Her reason appears to have been that she could not manage to raise three children alone.  Jim’s father died within a couple of years, and his mother died not long afterward, both apparently of tuberculosis.

At the age of fourteen, Jim left St. John’s Home.  This marked the end of his formal education.  In the Home’s words, he was “discharged 5/2/1899” – in his words, he “ran away”.  He took a job as copy boy with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper and supported himself in this way for the next couple of years.  He appreciated his freedom and wanted to see more of the world than just Brooklyn.  To this end he got a job as cabin boy on an ocean-going vessel.

Jim arrived in South Africa in 1900 or 1901.  He found employment in the construction of railroad bridges.  He spent much of his time living in construction camps out in the countryside.  Jim spent a total of two years in South Africa.  From there, he proceeded to Argentina where he remained for two years.  His livelihood in Argentina was never mentioned, but it seems reasonable to assume that he continued to be involved in construction.  He acquired an excellent command of the Spanish language

Fig14JB17b-copyAfter the United States entered the First World War, Jim enlisted in the Army.  He was above draft age at the time, but explained that enlisting was no great sacrifice for him as a single fellow, and it might spare a married man from having to go.

After the war, like many veterans returning to civilian life, he wanted to make a start on a new career better than the one he had before service.  He set his sights on becoming a lawyer.  He enrolled in night school courses leading to a law degree.  In his class were many veterans with similar ambitions.  None of them could afford to go to college as full-time students, but night school gave them the opportunity to work and earn a living by day.  As this wave of veterans neared their goals, the established law community became alarmed at the impending competition.  The state bar association managed to get a law passed requiring at least one year of full-time student residence before a lawyer could be licensed to practice.  A year as a full-time student was a luxury that few returning veterans could afford, so that was the end of that for Jim and most of his colleagues.  He then decided to turn back to work he already knew something about – the construction business.

He found employment with Stone and Webster, a huge engineering firm located in many places.  He made a significant contact with one Roy Victor (“R.V.”) Engstrom, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois,who worked part-time as a consultant with the local office of Stone and Webster.  R.V. took a strong interest in Jim.

In 1922, R.V. set up his own contracting firm, known as Engstrom and Company, in Wheeling, West Virginia.  The firm would be concerned with the construction of commercial, industrial, and governmental buildings chiefly in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and adjoining states.  R.V. invited Jim to join him as Office Manager and Secretary and Treasurer of the company, and Jim accepted.    Soon a partner was added, an engineering professor from the University of Wisconsin.  Three young engineering graduates from Wisconsin were also added, and the company was on its way riding the wave of prosperity of the 1920s.

Among this highly educated staff, Jim held his own as the most senior staff member after the partners themselves.  Given his abilities and leading performance, he might well have become a partner, but that was not in the cards because he lacked an engineering degree.  As office manager, he handled office accounts and various business transactions, and he took a leading role in contract and subcontract negotiations, cost estimating, and preparing and submitting bids.  Jim demonstrated not only competence as an estimator and bidder, but also originality – something we today would probably call “thinking outside the box.”

As the Great Depression deepened its hold on the nation, work for the Engstrom firm dwindled to essentially nothing.  One by one, the young engineers left and returned to their hometowns.  By the spring of 1933, things had gotten to the point that R.V. was foreseeing no further work at all for the rest of that year.  With hard times continuing in 1935, the firm launched a new strategy of retaining staff while cutting back salaries drastically.  By the end of the 1935-1936 school year, Jim – now married since 1925 and with one child – was ready to leave Wheeling.  It simply did not hold decent job prospects for him any longer.  By the end of August, 1936, Jim had found employment in New York City, thanks to connections and references supplied by his friends from the early days at the orphanage.

Jim’s first assignment in the new jFig25JBcnstr3ob was to oversee the construction of the Catholic church Our Lady of Mercy in Forest Hills, New York.  The duties of a superintendent were complex and, for such projects as these, a graduate engineer normally filled the position.  Jim was acutely aware of his lack of the required education.  Some examples of how this became evident:

*     *     *

 (1) When he first met with Monsignor Pendelton, head of the Brooklyn Diocesan Building Commission and a former classmate of Jim’s in the orphanage, Pendleton said,  “We’re building a church now in Forest Hills, and you can …”

Quickly catching the drift, Jim interjected, “Oh, no, I’ve never put up a building.  I’ve never even used a transit.”

 “Then it’s a good time to learn.”

Apparently Pendleton remembered or had been made aware of Jim’s extraordinary abilities to learn quickly and to do well at whatever he tried. Cov60JBcnstrEmailB

 (2) Ultimately, the superintendent was responsible for seeing that the plans and specifications on the blueprints were translated into reality on the site.  And of course there were times when the best laid plans simply could not be made real, and he then had to use his judgment on how best to resolve the problem.

The foremen and subcontractors would often come to him with questions of this nature, and he would usually say, “I’ll let you know in fifteen minutes.”   He would go into his shanty and close the door, and would reason from basic principles to decide what the answer had to be.  Then he would come out and give them the response they were waiting for.

After a long time, one of the men said, “You know, I always thought you went in and called Fig26JB37-8a-copysomebody on the telephone to get the answers to these questions.  But then the other day I was walking around the shanty and saw that there isn’t a telephone line in there.  What is it you do?”

The conclusion Jim drew from this experience was, “There’s no substitute for having a good education.”  He was sure that the graduate engineers would have known the answer right off, or would have known how to get it quickly, whereas he had to reason it out slowly and laboriously from scratch.

For the next five years, Jim was fully employed as superintendent of construction on a number of churches and schools.  This came to a sudden halt as the United States entered World War II.

 (3)Jim’s first opportunity for wartime employment was in cost accounting for the government on various defense construction operations.  He needed employment quickly because personal savings were negligible.

He had extensive previous experience in this kind of work but, once again, he lacked the required educational credentials.  As we say, “All’s fair in love and war,” and since his family’s livelihood was immediately at stake, let us briefly summarize what happened next: Jim supplied the necessary credentials and he got the job.

*     *     *

After the end of World War II, Jim returned to his work as superintendent of construction.  Before long, however, his declining health forced him to find new, more sedentary employment as office manager for a construction firm, at a reduced salary.  He had reverted to the function he had held thirty years earlier in the Engstrom firm.

After these lessons in the importance of education, Jim was determined tFig58JB53ahat his son would have the best and fullest education possible.  He started on this early, as high-school years approached.  Attempting to get the boy entered into the Horace Mann school, a pre-eminent preparatory school, he learned the importance of wealth, which he did not have.  Nevertheless, the boy attended and graduated from one of the best high schools that the public system offered – Stuyvesant High School in New York City.

Jim was also determined that the boy would receive all the higher education available, through the Doctor of Philosophy degree.  His hopes were realized as far as the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees were concerned, but then the boy himself drew the line.

His son had grown restless to move from a learning career to an earning career.  Also, the boy considered Jim’s financial situation, supporting two in-laws and paying exorbitant life insurance premiums, all on a relatively small income in his declining years.  This situation pretty well canceled any hopes for Jim’s retirement, ever.  His son was intent on relieving Jim of any further educational expenses.  And the education already completed was sufficient to insure that the young man would never have to endure the kinds of problems that Jim had faced.


This posting is aimed at stirring interest among modern general-interest readers in such questions as:  Down deep, how much do we have in common with these ancient people?  Are their thoughts still worth pondering today?

The following passages were translated and paraphrased from the works of Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman lawyer, statesman, philosopher, and prolific author who lived Cicero 2from 106 B.C. to 43 B.C.  He was a staunch defender of the Roman Republic against subversive conspiracy and, later, against the drift into dictatorship and civil war.  For this role he paid with his life.

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Selected famous quotes and other excerpts from his philosophical writings:

The more laws we enact, the less justice we have.

In a republic it is important that the majority not have absolute rule.

Wise men are guided by reason, average minds by experience, stupid ones by need, and brutish ones by instinct.

Fools are aware of the faults of others, but never of their own.

If you lack self-confidence, you are doubly defeated in the contest of life.  With full confidence, you will win even before you start.

It is only natural justice that no one should gain wealth through damage and injury inflicted upon another.

The soul inhabits the body, and God inhabits the world.  The soul endures the body, and God endures the world.  The soul sees but is not seen, and likewise God.  As the soul nourishes the body, thus God nourishes the world.

Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.

To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul.

Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goes out. The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead.

For books are more than books, they are the life, the very heart and core of ages past, the reason why men worked and died, the essence and quintessence of their lives.

Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.

Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by doubling our joys and dividing our grief.

Laws are silent in times of war.

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?

The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.

Politicians are not born; they are excreted.

A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.

What is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage. The mere act of believing that some wrongful course of action constitutes an advantage is pernicious.

When the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this “ripeness” for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.

No one is so old as to think that he cannot live one more year.

We are not born, we do not live for ourselves alone. Our country, our friends, have a share in us.

Law applied to its extreme is the greatest injustice.

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From a speech against the conspirator Catiline in the Roman Senate, 63 B.C.


Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari, 1888

At long last, Catiline, how far will you abuse our patience?  How long will that madness of yours mock us? To what limits will your unbridled audacity flaunt itself?  Are you not bothered at all by the night guards on the Palatine Hill, the watches posted all through the city,  the alarm of the people, the gatherings of good men?  Or by the choice of this defensible place for a Senate meeting, or the expressions on the faces of this venerable body?

Don’t you realize that your plot is detected?  Don’t you see that your conspiracy is already stopped and made powerless by the knowledge that everyone here has of it?  Do you think any one of us is unaware of what you did last night, and the night before, and who met with you, and what plan you adopted?

What times!  What customs!  The Senate understands these things.  The consul sees them.  Yet he still lives!  Lives?  Indeed, he even comes into the Senate, takes part in public deliberations, and notes —  and marks with his eyes — each one of us for murder.

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From a letter to Tiro, 49 B.C.  This passage allows a glimpse into Cicero’s demeanor toward slaves, which is believed to have been so exemplary that he instilled great loyalty among them.  Tiro had been a family slave until Cicero freed him at the age of 50, four years before this letter was written. Tiro continued to work for Cicero and became regarded almost as a member of the family. He took dictation, organized Cicero’s finances, and assisted him in his writings.  Tiro published several of his own works, including a biography of Cicero.  He devised a system of shorthand, known as Tironian shorthand, that was used into the 17th century. 

I very often miss your help, but it’s for your sake, not mine, that I’m sorry about your sickness.  Now that I know it’s the quartan fever, I can hope that with proper care you’ll soon be stronger.  Be sure not to attend to anything except what is most appropriate for regaining your health.  I realize how much you miss us, but that will be taken care of once you are well.  I don’t want you to risk seasickness while still an invalid, or to risk the hazards of a winter voyage.

I ask you over and over again to look after yourself.  Please write to me whenever you have someone to carry the letter.

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From various letters, 46-43 B.C., during the failure of the Roman Republic:

When we last talked, I was grieving for the republic, which was dearer to me than my life.   At this time, though, I’ve found consolation by reflecting on what I’ve managed to achieve, and also by time, which usually provides remedies even to idiots.  I still lament that the political blessings we shared have so faded away that we no longer even hope that things will ever improve.  Please understand, the fault does not lie with Julius Caesar, except maybe that the situation should never have arisen.  Instead, some events have occurred by chance, and others through our own fault, so that we shouldn’t be complaining about them.  I see no hope remaining, so if you moved to Greece by design, you have shown wisdom. If you moved there by chance, you are blessed.  (VII.28)

If “standing” means having a political attitude supported by decent men, I am maintaining my standing.  But if it implies taking any action, or even defending the attitude in open discussion, no trace of my old standing remains.  Calmly enduring events is difficult in a war of this kind, which threatens massacre on one side, slavery on the other.  I foresaw this outcome when I feared not only defeat but also success, because I realized the great danger that armed dispute threatens to constitutional law.

…I was aware, if my own party prevailed through use of arms, how cruel that victory would be, exploited by enraged, greedy, and arrogant men.  Or, if we were defeated, how many citizens would be murdered, including our finest and our most eminent.  When I predicted this outcome, people thought of me as a coward rather than as a prophet.  (IV.14)

Mark Antony has not left me in peace since I returned to Rome.  His arrogance – his monstrous behavior – is such that he can’t tolerate a man’s independence, not only in speech, not even in the look on one’s face.  My preoccupation is not with concern for my own life, but with anxiety for my native land, and for the prospect of your taking office as consul, so far into the future that I question whether I will live to see it.  What can one hope when the state is subdued by the arms of Antony, and the Senate and the people are powerless, and there are no laws, no courts, nor any semblance of a community of citizens?  (X.1)

…I would have supported the honor voted to you if I had been able to enter the Senate in safety and respect.  But nobody with independent political views can be safe there, because swords are used with immunity.  I cannot appropriately express my views where armed men are better and more closely positioned to listen than are the senators themselves.  (X.2)

Antony’s madness gets worse daily.  On the statue he set up, he has inscribed the words, “To our deserving father.”  So now you’re not just assassins, you killed your own father!  I shouldn’t say “you” – I should say “we”, for he claims that I was the ringleader of the whole plot to end Caesar’s life.  I wish I had been, for then Antony would not have survived to become such a problem for us.  But that is all in the past, and I wish I had some worthwhile advice for you.  But I can’t even plan my own actions, for how can one oppose violence without the use of more violence?

…What a sad situation!  We couldn’t tolerate Caesar as our master, and now we submit to Antony, who was nothing but a fellow slave.  (XII.3)

In the Senate on December 20, I discussed the entire political situation.  It was by force of conviction, rather than any oratorical skill, that I managed to rally the Senate from weariness back to its traditionally high moral stance.

…We have a courageous Senate, but among those of consular rank, some are timid and others are badly motivated.  Our current consuls are outstanding.  Decimus Brutus is brilliant, and the young Caesar is also first-class.  I have great hopes in him for the future. (X.28)

I have vouched for this young Caesar, although he is still immature.  I hope to keep him in his position of influence, even though many oppose him.  He has much virtue, but at his age there are many who are working to corrupt him.  I will do all I can to retain my influence with him, so that I may avoid the charge of rash judgment.  (I.18)


The young Caesar (also known as Octavian), in whom Cicero had great hopes for the future, assumed the name Augustus as he became Rome’s first emperor.  He eventually brought a lasting peace to the Roman world.  

First, however, Octavian entered into a brief and uneasy alliance with Mark Antony in 43 B.C.  Together, they drew up a “proscription list” of political enemies who needed to be eliminated, totaling about 2,300 people, 300 of them senators. At Antony’s insistence, Cicero topped the list.  He was accordingly put to death that same year. 

Thus was fulfilled Cicero’s prediction in one of the letters above, “I was aware… if we were defeated, how many citizens would be murdered, including our finest and our most eminent.”