(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.
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
After 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 job 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:
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(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.
(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 somebody 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.
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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 that 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.