Life skills, delivered

  • By Linda Bryant Smith Herald Columnist
  • Monday, October 29, 2007 6:23pm
  • Life

If you’re anywhere near my age, odds are your spouse, and maybe your children, have something in common with Warren Buffet, Ross Perot, Walt Disney and thousands of other highly successful business entrepreneurs.

Buffet, Perot and Disney began their business careers in childhood as newspaper carriers. In the process, they learned to communicate with people of any age, be accountable, handle complaints, and the biggie: responsible businesspeople pay their bills even when their customers don’t.

Most of us know a former newsboy (or girl) with stories to tell. Sandra Walker of Everett has gathered the stories of more than 400 such folks as she conducts a history project about newspaper carriers across America in the 1920 to 1970s.

This began not as a social history research study, but as the story of her late brother’s life. In her grief, Walker decided she could use her own love of writing and history to compile the story of her brother’s life and times for his children.

One of the things she remembered from his childhood was his time as a newspaper boy, riding through the neighborhood on his bike and planting those papers square on the porch near the front door.

Later that day, she was at a dinner party and broached the subject. “It set off this amazing discussion,” she recalls. “They remembered things they’d long since set aside.”

Stories she heard that night and in the days following carried a lot of common themes: the canvas news bag, dogs in an era without leash laws, weather conditions and the goals for how they’d spend their hard-earned money.

Before she retired, Walker worked as a counselor at the University of Washington. She knew Dr. Lorraine McConaghy, director of the Museum of History and Industry who does a program there called Nearby History. MOHI was where Walker began her more serious research on this subject.

At the same time, she established a questionnaire, which she asked her subjects to complete as her interviews progressed.

“What has come out of this is that they were not and are not self-centered. They were generous in sharing with their families. Men from the 1920s and ’30s gave money to mom to buy groceries. Some can be specific, even today, about the amount. ‘I could give her two bucks a week’, one told me.”

They spoke of buying Mom a coat or a new refrigerator or the family’s first television set, she says.

They also bought a lot of junk candy, learned to smoke forbidden cigarettes at the paper shack and saved for a boy’s dream: the new bike or, in Jim Leo’s case, a brand new car.

Leo was a substitute Herald carrier in the late 1940s and finally got his own route in June, 1950: 165 customers on Oakes Avenue in Everett from 14th to 21st streets. Leo rode his Schwinn bike to pick up his papers but delivered his route on foot.

“That Schwinn is in my basement right now,” he says. In those days, he had a double bag so stuffed with papers he couldn’t bend over to hold his handlebars or his knees hit the bag. “I had to steer with one hand,” he recalls.

He prides himself on hand-rolling his newspapers and hitting the screen doors in a straight shot from the sidewalk.

Leo’s customers paid 95 cents a month. From that, he earned about three cents a customer. His monthly salary: $5 to $6.

He saved his paper route money and much of the salary he earned later as he worked at The Herald in circulation and the mailroom. Rode that Schwinn all through high school. Then in 1956, those pennies had added up to more than $2,000, enough to pay cash for his first car, a brand new four-door Plymouth hardtop.

Leo’s story is one of dozens Walker has collected for her study in Snohomish County. Her research, however, has been nationwide.

If you watched “The War,” the series about World War II on PBS, you may remember Bert Wilson from Sacramento, who talked about delivering newspapers in that time. He was 10 then and the newspapers he delivered carried information his customers desperately wanted in the early 1940s.

That period through the 1960s were peak numbers for youth carriers. Some 600,000 were at work in 1960, Walker’s research indicates. Those numbers became fewer and fewer as our nation’s demographics changed and newspaper circulations changed.

Today, Walker says, the shift is to adult carriers with youth making up less than 18 percent of newspaper delivery folks.

However, we have also come to realize the need for young people to have many of the opportunities those newsboys of old had: a chance to gain communication skills, be accountable, disciplined and at ease interacting with adults, she says. Thus, high schools now encourage, and some require, community service that gives a similar experience.

Maybe our newsboys of old just saw it as a way to make a little money in a time when Mom and Dad had no spare change for an allowance or even 25 cents for a ticket to the Saturday matinee. But in that first job, there was an incredible freedom they remember and value today.

That’s why John James, 93, of Leavenworth could tell Walker the names of his old customers and how much they appreciated his service.

And it’s why Jim Leo will never forget “old lady Woodgren” who stiffed him on the bill two months in a row and then filed a complaint when he didn’t deliver her newspaper. “Only complaint I ever had,” he says.

She paid.

He delivered.

We all know that life is far different for children in this century. Still, new traditions of learning how to work must be established for our youngsters.

That comes through so clearly in the life experiences and values newsboys of old say they acquired and used as adults. In recording this small piece of our nation’s history, Sandra Walker serves us all.

Learning to work is how our children become responsible adults. If the kids or grandkids don’t believe you, tell ‘em you read it in your newspaper.

Linda Bryant Smith writes about life as a senior citizen and the issues that concern, annoy and often irritate the heck out of her now that she lives in a world where nothing is ever truly fixed but her income. You can e-mail her at ljbryantsmith@yahoo.com.

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