Money Wise

The Great Depression interviews1



Richard Waskin: An Oral History

Richard Waskin talks about life during the Great Depression. His parents were born in Poland. He was born in East Chicago, Indiana. When he was three years old he went back to Poland with his parents. They returned to this country when he was four years old. They came to the Detroit area where he spent most of his life.

Mostly I remember if it hadn't been for my mother who was an excellent seamstress, and she seemed to find jobs here and there with the department stores, I don't know how we would have made it, because my father was a common laborer, a factory worker, and there just wasn't (sic) any jobs at that time.

Sometimes during the winter...when the snow fell in Detroit they called for people that they wanted to shovel the snow, and of course everybody didn't get hired--you just had to go out there and the foreman or whoever would be throwing the shovel and if you happened to catch it you're hired. And so my father would go out there and on occasion he would be hired and earn a couple of dollars or so for the day's work there. Otherwise it was kind of catch or catch can there....

Well, there's one thing that happened with me and perhaps I was fortunate that Detroit had, possibly, a welfare system. Well I know they did, 'cause we had it. One of the things was that I came down with a mastoid which was a very serious thing at that time. It's very rare now because of antibiotics. But my whole side of my head was swollen and they called what they called "a city physician." And at that time doctors made house calls. So he came out and took one look at my head and he called the ambulance immediately and they took me to Children's Hospital cause I was only 11 years old. And they operated on me that night and I must assume that that saved my life at that time. So that was one of things I had to go through.

But another thing as a child that I remember was that you stood in the welfare line somewhere on Michigan Avenue--I don't remember just exactly where--and they were passing out sweaters for children and we were fortunate enough to get me a grey sweater, and I can remember how proud I was of having that sweater and how warm I felt with that thing on.

Shoes, of course, were a problem and many times I remember I wore out the soles down to the pavement, so to speak, and you had to put cardboard in there. But then my father he got hold of some shoe forms--metal ones--and he would buy leather. He would cut out the sole--with nails and a hammer on these shoe forms --he would put new leather on my shoes and probably on my brothers' also....

I went to college, Wayne University, and because I was a champion runner-- I happened to be the quarter mile champion. No, excuse me, this was in college. In high school I was west side champ in the city and so more or less recruited by Wayne--they had a pretty good track team them. And they had what they called the NYA, National Youth Administration. This was kind of a Depression department, you might say, and if you did some work for the university they would pay you enough so that you could pay your tuition and get through school that way.

So, being a champion runner I had no trouble getting on NYA and the coach then put me in the athletic office putting in figures for whatever was expenditures, maybe an hour's work a day or so. I pretty much got through college on my own. But that was when I became Michigan university champion in the 440, and I remember it was right here in East Lansing at Michigan State that they had the meet, and I think I have the photograph of me then and I do remember I was only 17 years old and they made a big point of it over the PA system.