As we live through this pandemic and other social problems, I am reminded of advice from my dad who lived through the Great Depression.
I was the firstborn of four, a 1946 baby boomer, right after my dad returned from military service.
Mom was born in 1920, the eighth of 10 children with 25 years between the eldest and the youngest. They had very little and moved at least 10 times.
Dad was born in 1916 to Austro-Hungarian immigrants. He was the younger of two children, and at the age of 16, he lost his mother to cancer. My grandfather, an old-country conservative, remarried, and my dad somewhat raised himself and lived with his married sister.
I feel that we were fortunate to have parents who lived through and learned from the Great Depression and World War II. Having to deal with those turbulent times, our folks felt that the most important values they could impart to us were hard work, compassion for others and a sense of community.
Throughout my younger years, I had the opportunity to hear about my dad’s life experiences and lessons. This would often occur while riding with him in his work truck or car. And, in addition, our folks blessed us with educational opportunities, the ability to take care of ourselves and live the American Dream.
However, Dad never claimed to have all the answers, and neither do we. But, what he did out of love and a sense of patriotism was to generally share his experiences and wisdom with all of us.
I remember coming home one day from grammar school and asking Dad what this Depression stuff was all about. With that, he opened the door to his personal lessons and stories.
I am sharing some of these and hoping other people might benefit from his wisdom.
“I’ll make it easy for you. If the money doesn’t touch everyone’s hands, the economy doesn’t work. Everyone can’t be a big corporation. There has to be little guys in the mix. Don’t complain about taxes. There are many taxes we pay to have a civil society.”
Poverty and Racism
Once a year, he would load us into the car and go to different neighborhoods.
“Look,” he’d say, “not everyone is as fortunate to live as we do.”
He believed that poverty can’t last forever without leading to civil and social unrest. He made it a point to remember that most of our ancestors came from someplace else to escape poverty and for a better life. But, some people didn’t have a choice. They were forced against their will to come here. Few of us are Native Americans.
At Dad’s wake, some of his co-workers told us how he would bring clean clothes from home for the railroad hobos. He’d then let them clean up and have something to eat in the diesel house. None of the bosses ever objected.
“Make sure you get the best insurance you can afford. And, listen to your doctors and nurses. Ideally, we should all have equal access to some form of Medicare.”
Dad’s famous line to me was interesting.
“When you go to school, make sure you learn about the past and the mistakes made by those before us, learn to think critically and learn how to contribute to the common good.”
Education, he would say, was to help us find answers to complicated problems.
“It’s the most important investment you’ll ever make. Learn to take care of it. And, own it as soon as reasonably possible. That way you will always have a roof over your head.”
“Be prudent, and live within your means! God meant us to share things with others. So, don’t be greedy. You don’t need to pay a higher price just to have someone’s name on your jeans. If the stock market and economy tank, we’re all in the same boat—young and old. Not just manufacturing and service jobs, even pensions, IRAs and banks will take a hit.”
“There’s dignity in menial work. And, any job is better than no job when your choices are limited.”
He made it a point to say that, during the Great Depression, people who could fix things were never out of work. Also, there’s nothing wrong with reusing things or recycling.
“We live in a finite world. When is how much too much?” Even before the conservation movement, he’d comment that natural resources are not unlimited.
“The world is getting smaller through TV and other means of communication. Sooner or later, the poorer nations will see how we’ve taken advantage of them and their resources. And, we will have a price to pay.”
No one can claim total ownership of God. Jesus Christ, Allah, Yahweh, Jehovah, Great Spirit and many more are all in some way the same supreme being or creator.
Dad loved President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He felt that, without unionism and socially minded leaders, the middle class would never have existed. To my dad, Civil Rights legislation was way overdue. Elected officials are chosen to serve, solve problems and promote the public good.
If my dad were alive today, here’s what he would say: the right to vote is a guarantee of a free and peaceful constitutional democracy. We have a civic duty to show our support for one another and our country, regardless of our political affiliation.
“Few people really need guns.” In fact, Dad pointed out that, in the late 1800s, laws regulating ownership and carrying guns, apart from the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, were passed at the local level rather than by Congress. In fact, after the gangster era in Chicago and other major cities, there was an unwritten law among the residents and local governments to diminish unnecessary gun ownership.
He felt that gun proliferation would create more violence in a severe economic downturn.
“If we ever have another Great Depression,” he said, “it won’t be pretty because some people with guns will use them to take, rather than to share.”
My dad’s advice remains wise, especially during these days of the pandemic.
Like the Great Depression, the pandemic will be here for a while. It has brought to the surface major governmental, economic and social issues affecting everyone. And, it will bring about unforeseen change—some good and some questionable. It will depend on your point of view.
But, like the Great Depression, it will demand national and local governmental leadership that shows how we can best level the playing field to the benefit of all of us, how we can truly commit to long-term solutions to our problems, how we can promote a sense of communal sacrifice and patriotic duty to solve racism, income inequality, education, the environment, poverty, healthcare, decent housing and violence in our society. These problems won’t be easy to solve nor will they disappear overnight.
However, as our Depression-era leaders and citizens strove for, we need to concentrate on putting the common good ahead of extreme partisanship, past prejudices and uncompromising and scape-goating views.
I believe we can come out of this pandemic if we emulate our ancestors who lived through the Great Depression, people who rolled up their sleeves and said that we’re all in this together as human beings who are meant to share unselfishly in the gifts and resources of our world.