By Tim Fitzpatrick
Today, I turn 60.
I am conflicted about this.
On the one hand, I did not take reaching this milestone as a given. My father died at 56. My oldest brother died at 56. Life is a gift and I do not take it for granted.
On the other hand, 60. Sixty. Six. Tee.
My wife, Diane, and I had originally planned to be on a trip to Ireland and Scotland from the end of April to mid-May. We planned to celebrate my birthday in Dublin hoisting a Guinness. That plan was cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down worldwide travel.
With the exception of occasional grocery runs, Diane and I have been confined to our home since mid-March — “social distancing” is our best hope for avoiding this disease, short of a vaccine or effective therapeutics.
Absent the Dublin celebration, I began thinking of this small project as a way to pass the time while reflecting on the passage of time through a series of vignettes documenting my birthday at the dawn of each new decade.
As I have researched and written this, I have frequently had Paul Simon’s song “Kodachrome” bouncing around in the back of my head.
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah
Like still photographs, these memories are not intended to tell the whole story; they are just snapshots in the album of time.
Tim Fitzpatrick, Shaker Heights, Ohio, Monday, May 4, 2020
WEDNESDAY, MAY 4, 1960
Wednesday, May 4, 1960, was sunny, breezy and unseasonably warm with a high of 77 degrees. The April leading up to it had been unseasonably warm as well with highs in the 70s on many days.
Against this summerlike backdrop, Dr. Francis J. Gambrel walked into St. Elizabeth Hospital in Youngstown, Ohio.
For him, it was most likely a pretty routine day. By the time he retired in 1974 after 24 years as an OB-GYN, Dr. Gambrel estimated that he had delivered more than 5,000 babies. On this day, he was probably approaching the 2,000 mark. He knew what he was doing.
For me, it was anything but routine. In fact, it was the beginning of it all.
On that day, Timothy Fitzpatrick weighed in at 6 pounds 15 ounces, the third son of Roy James Fitzpatrick Sr., a driver for Daniels Motor Freight, and Mary Jo Davin Fitzpatrick, a nurse.
Unbeknownst to me, as yet, I had two older brothers: 7-year-old Roy James Jr., known then as Jimmy, and 6-year-old Robert John, or Bobby.
My parents hoped that their third child would be a girl, whom they planned to name Joan Ellen Fitzpatrick. Apparently, the surprise of having a boy overwhelmed them because they were only able to come up with a first name for me. I have no middle name. My mother has no compelling explanation for this omission.
The old nursery rhyme suggests that “Wednesday’s child is full of woe,” but this is nonsense. In many ways, the life I came into was right from the script of the popular sitcom Leave It to Beaver.
From the hospital, we journeyed to our five-year-old home on Riverside Drive in Boardman Township. It was a compact three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath rancher tucked neatly in 1,350 square feet of space. Suburbia exemplified.
There’s no record of what kind of car my parents drove on that ride home, but it almost certainly was not Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 1960, which was the Chevy Corvair. Motor Trend said its advanced engineering made it “the most significant car of 1960.”
If my parents turned on the radio on the way home, the chances are pretty good they would have heard the Billboard 100 #1 hit “Stuck on You.” The song was the first hit by Elvis Presley after he completed his two-year stint in the U.S. Army.
The top DJ in May 1960 was “America’s teenager” Dick Clark, but the Youngstown Vindicator on May 4 reported on a blemish to his boyish image. A Congressional investigation into “payola” accused Clark, among others, of promoting records in which he had a financial interest. He denied it but Rep. Peter Clark, D-IL, alleged that Clark was the “top dog” of payola.
At home, the newly constituted Fitzpatrick family might have relaxed to some of the popular TV shows of the time. Take your pick — the offerings that week included Dobie Gillis, Sgt. Bilko, Red Skelton, the Perry Como Show, This is Your Life, You Bet Your Life, Arthur Godfrey, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Perry Mason.
Oh, yes, and Leave It to Beaver. The upcoming episode on Saturday, May 7, featured a picnic day with the Cleavers and the Rutherfords, which turned into an embarrassment for the Beaver when a snapshot of Violet kissing him on the cheek appeared on the cover of Ward’s company magazine. Now that’s some high-quality entertainment.
The Youngstown Vindicator of May 4 was filled with advertising urging its readers to “Make it a Great Day for Mother” on the upcoming Sunday, May 8, Mother’s Day. Some of the major advertisers included Penney’s, Sears, Strauss, Livingston’s. Locally owned McKelvey’s was a nearly ubiquitous advertiser.
If you were feeling generous, perhaps you’d buy a “charming silk clutch coat” from Livingston’s for mom. That will set you back $29.98 (about $260 in 2020 money). A gift from the kids might be three strings of “like real” pearls from McKelvey’s Basement for $2 (about $17.50 today).
A Vindicator story gave new mothers a timely warning to be wary of “gyp baby photographers” who would do anything to get them to sign expensive photography contracts. The period leading up to Mother’s Day was of particular emphasis for these unscrupulous flim-flammers, the paper warned.
Wednesdays and Sundays were the big advertising days in the Youngstown Vindicator. The paper that Wednesday, May 4, was 44 pages, and was chock full of advertising, including five full pages of classified ads. Over the course of the week, there were innumerable ads for cars and real estate; the Internet was far in the future.
Some of the bylines in the Vindicator that week included business writer George Reiss, politics writer Clingan Jackson, feature writer Janie Jenkins, writers Jane Lamb and Glenn Morris, and photographer Ed Shuba. I would become their co-worker 21 years later.
On Tuesday, May 3, my mother played with my brothers in the yard of our Boardman Township home. She was hoping that some activity would encourage me to make my appearance, which I did the next day.
May 3 also was the primary election in Ohio, and it wasn’t going well.
As it turned out, the ballot was jam-packed, reportedly causing 400 electronic voting machines to blow fuses. Would-be voters were furious with long lines and some left without being able to vote, causing some candidates and others to cry foul.
The Youngstown of my birth was the very definition of a Democratic stronghold. Even with some voters turned away due to the malfunctioning voting machines, Democrat ballots in that election outnumbered Republicans by more than 2.5 times. A fourth of the Republic precinct committee posts went unfilled for lack of candidates.
On the national stage, Sens. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn., were competing for the Democratic nomination while Vice President Richard Nixon faced nominal opposition in a few places by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
Ohio was unique in that Ohio Gov. Michael DiSalle won the state’s Democratic primary for president. He did so running as a favorite son pledged to Kennedy. The idea behind the DiSalle candidacy was it would allow Kennedy to spend more time in the critical state of West Virginia, where he needed to prove that a Catholic could win (and subsequently did).
Youngstown was among the largest steel-making centers in the world in May 1960. The four major steelmakers in the region at that time were Youngstown Sheet & Tube, U.S. Steel, Republic Steel and Sharon Steel. In May 1960, Youngstown University was reporting that its engineering graduates were having no problems getting jobs in the industry at starting salaries of $450 to $650 a month ($47,200 to $68,200 a year in today’s money).
In hindsight, though, it was clear the economy was weakening. Steel orders were down. Unemployment claims were up, and the country was slipping into what would be a two-year recession with unemployment nationally reaching a peak of 7 percent in May 1961.
The headlines during the week of my birth covered matters such as competing proposals by Republicans and Democrats to create what would eventually become Medicare. It would take until 1965 before Medicare became a reality.
Republican President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, in the last of his eight years in office, signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1960. Well intentioned, it was weakened as it made its way through Congress, and lawmakers would revisit the subject again in 1964.
The Vindicator reported that the 94.8-pound satellite Pioneer V, “America’s space messenger” passed the 100-million-mile mark, sending back major new findings about cosmic rays, magnetic fields “and other space phenomena.” The Space Race was full speed ahead at the time and the Soviets had a clear edge.
All of this news paled in comparison to news of the Cold War, an omnipresent fact of life in 1960.
The May 4 Vindicator reported on a Civil Defense exercise the prior day. “Operation Alert 1960” silenced all TV and radio stations for a half-hour to test the nation’s CONELRAD system (1240 on the radio dial). Silencing broadcasters was designed to confuse enemy bombers who would try to use broadcasting signals to guide them. As part of the exercise, a mock two-megaton atomic bomb (equal to two million tons of TNT) was dropped on the nearby city of Lowellville. The newspaper reported that Lowellville was “erased” as a result of the bombing.
That day’s paper also carried reports about President Eisenhower reviewing an imposing array of nuclear-enabled weapons during a tour of Fort Benning. This included the first public display of the Davy Crockett nuclear gun. Ike declared himself satisfied and said the display disproved critics who claimed America was going “soft.”
In an ominous bit of foreshadowing, on the afternoon of May 4, a former chief of Cuba’s military intelligence told Senate investigators that Russian technicians were secretly building a giant airstrip in a swamp on the southern coast of Cuba.
During the week of May 1, the leaders of the United States, Soviet Union, France and England were preparing for a joint peace summit to be held beginning May 16 in Paris. News reports noted that optimists felt this summit represented a real opportunity to advance the cause of “peaceful coexistence.”
Unknown to the world, on May 1, the Soviet Union shot down within its borders a U.S. U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Francis Powers. On May 5, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly disclosed this. In a speech to that nation’s parliament, he expressed his fury and demanded an apology from the U.S.
The U.S. initially suggested that the pilot ran into trouble and “wandered” over the border. This was false and Ike ultimately had to acknowledge that it was a spy mission. He later defended the necessity of such missions due to Soviet secrecy.
The peace summit began as planned on May 16 but collapsed before the end of the day as Premier Khrushchev used the opportunity to publicly lambast the United States, angering Eisenhower and foreclosing any chance of reaching agreements.
The Cold War had just gotten much colder.
MONDAY, MAY 4, 1970
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for?
“War” by Edwin Starr, 1970
I was a “walker” … meaning that I lived close enough to C.H. Campbell Elementary School in Canfield, Ohio, that I walked to school instead of taking a bus. It was a little more than a half-mile, maybe a 15-minute walk without excessive dawdling.
I lived at the “far end” of Blueberry Hill (away from the school) in a four-bedroom colonial built for us in 1967. On our end of the street, the houses were set pretty far back from the road. In the front yard, we had a pond with a little bridge and, from time to time, tame ducks.
We had moved from Boardman Township to Canfield, which had one of the better school districts in Mahoning County, when I was three or four. First, we were in a three-bedroom rancher on Sleepy Hollow Drive. Then we made our way around the corner to Blueberry Hill. The house on Blueberry Hill was my mother’s favorite of all the houses we ever lived in.
Across the street from our house, a stream meandered to the end of the street and then crossed under Herbert Road, feeding a larger pond in front of the abandoned, hulking Mahoning County Infirmary known variously as the Old Folks Home, the County Home, the Poor House and the Old Pogey.
In the winter, kids in the area would ice-skate down the stream to the larger pond and the older kids would play hockey.
Rumor has it some of the older kids ventured their way into the boarded up Old Folks Home, but I had no personal evidence of that and I sure as heck wasn’t going anywhere near the inside of it. People had died there and it was certainly haunted.
The building, vacant since 1962, was demolished in 1968 after a fire.
We had a Mynah bird that summered on our enclosed back porch. Alfie, as the bird was known, did pitch-perfect imitations of people’s voices, including my mother’s shouting “Timothy” for me to come home while I was playing outside. I spent a lot of time pointlessly running from the field behind our house back home as a result of Alfie’s imitations.
I don’t recall too much about my walks to school except that there was a youngish guy who drove a sports car of some kind and wore a shoulder harness seat belt. He would drive by as we walked to school. All the kids agreed that he was just being braggy by wearing that crazy seat belt contraption.
Monday, May 4, 1970, marked my 10th birthday.
By this time of year, we were wrapping up fourth grade at C.H. Elementary School. Next year, we would join kids from the other elementary schools in town at Canfield Middle School for grades 5 through 8.
The year had started with Mrs. Pemberton as my teacher, but she took a maternity leave pretty early on. I don’t recall who substituted or whether she returned before the end of the year, but I do recall that it was vaguely disruptive to my life to have the teacher just disappear like that.
As I walked to school that morning, I don’t recall it being any different than any other day, really. My mother began most mornings singing “Good morning, breakfast lovers!” and I would imagine this one was certainly no different.
Historical records tell us it was a seasonal 66 degrees and pleasant. For a 10-year-old living on Blueberry Hill in Canfield, Ohio, that was an apt metaphor for life. It was sunny and pleasant.
Outside of our cocoon in Canfield, Ohio, change, conflict and violence were daily aspects of society, and they were about to become far more pronounced on this day.
On the morning of May 4, the Youngstown Education Association launched a strike against the Youngstown Board of Education. Strikers encircled 44 schools, shutting down education for 25,000.
At 8:40 a.m., police cruisers were sent to Hillman Junior High in response to reports that students who had reported to school that morning were breaking windows and lighting firecrackers.
Meanwhile, Teamsters in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania were moving toward a resolution of their strike but incidents of violence continued and 500 National Guardsmen were sent to help keep order in Cleveland.
Despite these hiccups, there were signs of economic progress, or at least economic change.
The Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania announced that it planned to offer “Picturephone” service in Pittsburgh. A fee of $160 a month (more than $1,000 in 2020 money) would give a subscriber the service connection, the equipment and 30 minutes of service. Service would cost 25 cents a minute thereafter.
The Southern Park Mall in Boardman had just opened and various stores were announcing their plans in the Vindicator. In early May, Livingston’s said it would open a new store in the mall; Hartzell’s said it would move to the mall from its existing downtown location.
The move to the suburbs was also obvious in the Vindicator’s advertising for movie theaters. Only the State Theater downtown was advertising its current movie offering (Cherry). The other theaters now advertising included the suburban Newport Theater (Bloody Mama), Southern Park Cinema (M.A.S.H.), Wedgewood and Southside Cinemas (The Lawyer), Northside Cinema (Horror House), Boardman Plaza (Jenny) and Uptown (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). A handful of suburban drive-in theaters had joined the crowd as well.
U.S. automakers were working to fill a desire for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles despite the price of a gallon of gas nationally averaging 36 cents (about $2.40 today). Toward that end, General Motors Division Manager John Z. DeLorean (yes, that DeLorean) announced that Chevy would begin building a new car at the General Motors plant in Lordstown beginning in June. The car would be named the “Vega” after the star, which, DeLorean explained, is one of the brightest stars visible from earth.
For a couple years, the Vega was a star for Chevy, selling like hotcakes. But its terrible quality (exacerbated by terrible labor relations at Lordstown) soon became obvious. Its engine had many problems and its super-thin sheet metal rusted even in warm climates. Eventually, even junk yards refused to take the car for parts.
The Vega was a tacit acknowledgment that the world economy was changing, a fact that the Youngstown Vindicator highlighted in promoting an upcoming five-part series: “Japan’s economy is on the move. On the move to take over world economic dominance from the United States …. A surging spirit has taken over in the land of our once-defeated enemy. Will they win this time?”
The music scene, too, was changing. The Beatles broke up in April 1970 and released their last album, Let it Be, in early May. I cannot fathom that anyone would have imagined 50 years ago that their music would stand the test of time so well. We all spent the next 10 years imagining that they would reunite.
In his bid for the presidency in 1968, Richard Nixon campaigned on a pledge to end the war in Vietnam.
At the same time as he was campaigning on a platform of peace, history has definitively documented the fact that Nixon deliberately worked to undermine Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to secure peace before leaving office. Nixon’s pledge to end the war was only effective in the event there was still a war going on. The shamefulness of this exceeded even the Watergate scandal that would take down his presidency.
By 1970, the war was still going on with the death toll of civilians and soldiers in the millions. The United States was tired and bitterly divided about the war. The My Lai Massacre of more than 500 unarmed civilians, carried out in 1968 and publicly disclosed in 1969, had shocked the nation. The violence of protests shocked others. By the end of 1969, more than 37,000 young U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam. The death toll would ultimately total more than 52,000.
On May 1, 1970, Richard Nixon announced a shocking expansion of the war by invading Cambodia on the day prior and then dramatically expanding the bombing of North Vietnam. He argued these moves were necessary to secure the peace for the long term.
Many in the country were astonished by this turn of events. All members of both parties on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to request a meeting with Nixon to discuss the action. None had been briefed beforehand. It was the first time in 50 years the committee had taken such a vote.
As a result of the expansion of the war, protests, already ongoing, exploded across the country, including on college campuses. Some turned violent.
That week, National Guardsmen were called to Ohio State University to help quell protests. Then, over the weekend, Kent State University students conducted protests on and off campus and the National Guard was called to be a presence on campus for a planned protest on May 4. KSU, located in bucolic Kent, Ohio, was about 45 minutes away from our home.
On Monday, May 4, at 12:24 p.m., I was at school, very likely pondering the birthday cake I would enjoy when I returned home. Chocolate cake with chocolate icing was my favorite.
At that moment, 28 National Guard soldiers fired 67 rounds over 13 seconds into a crowd of unarmed students on the Kent State University campus. Nine students were wounded. Four were killed:
- Allison Krause, 19, who was 343 feet away from the shooters, took a bullet to the chest. She died later that day.
- Jeffrey Miller, 20, 265 feet away from the shooters, was shot through the mouth. He was killed instantly.
- William Schroeder, 19, 382 feet away from the shooters, was shot in the chest. He died almost an hour later in a local hospital while undergoing surgery. He was a member of the campus ROTC battalion and had been walking to class when he was shot.
- Sandra Scheuer, 20, 390 feet away from the shooters, was shot in the neck, severing her jugular vein. She died a few minutes later from loss of blood. Sandra was a Boardman resident. She, too, was walking to class when she was shot.
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer, I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio
“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills Nash and Young, 1970
SUNDAY, MAY 4, 1980
It was Sunday, May 4, 1980, my 20th birthday, and America was in a deep funk.
It was Day 183 of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. In the wake of a successful revolution by Islamic fundamentalists against the pro-American Shah of Iran, 53 Americans employed in the U.S. Embassy were being held hostage while their captors demanded that the Shah be extradited from the U.S. to Iran. At the end of April, an attempted rescue mission had to be aborted. The nightmare would not end until Day 444, just minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn into office as President.
The country was in a deep recession with unemployment nationally tipping the scales at 7 percent (and much higher than that in Youngstown). Inflation was running at 13.5 percent annually. Interest rates averaged nearly 14 percent. The combination of high unemployment typical of a stagnant economy along with high inflation had been dubbed “stagflation.”
In May, Ford reported a record loss for the quarter. American Motors and Chrysler were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The State of Michigan gave Chrysler a $150 million loan which would be followed later in the month by $1.5 billion bailout from the federal government.
In the space of one year, the price of gasoline nationally increased 40 percent to $1.19 a gallon ($3.73 in 2020 money).
The so-called “misery index” was at its highest point ever.
All of these factors had voters questioning the leadership of Democratic President Jimmy Carter, so much so that Carter, even as a sitting president, found himself facing a primary challenge to his re-election by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Reagan was leading the Republican race and John Anderson was hinting at running as an Independent.
U.S. Rep. Lyle Williams, R-19-Ohio, warned that the U.S. steel industry was being “exported” and could suffer the same fate as textiles and electronics.
In Youngstown, the decline of the steel industry began on Black Monday in 1977 with the elimination of 4,100 jobs at the Sheet & Tube Campbell Works. In 1979, U.S. Steel closed the Ohio Works. Then the Brier Hill Works had closed. But the end had not yet come. Jones & Laughlin still employed 3,000 in the area and Republic Steel was still operating. Efforts to reopen mills under employee ownership were continuing, unsuccessfully. There was far more pain to come.
Workers were feeling the sting of the economy and pressing employers for more money. On May 4, 1,000 Youngstown city workers from six unions were on strike.
You get the idea. The news was not good. Except in my little world.
I was finishing my sophomore year at Youngstown State University. I lived with my parents at home on Lockwood Boulevard and commuted to YSU every day. Most students there were commuters.
My years in middle school and high school were not successful or rewarding times and I had looked forward to leaving them behind. I blame Mrs. Pemberton.
But college was different. It was no longer a giant baby-sitting effort. You could come or go as you pleased, succeed or fail as you pleased. I chose to succeed.
In my first two years, I got mostly straight A’s with a couple of B’s thrown in there. My GPA was good enough to earn me academic recognition and scholarships.
Most importantly, I met the love of my life. No, not her. She came later. The other love of my life. Journalism.
I had started at YSU as an education major and did well in all the classroom work. YSU did me (and all education majors) a favor by requiring that we get out and tutor in inner-city schools early in the process of pursuing the major. I did that and knew in no time that being on the other side of the giant baby-sitting equation was not how I wanted to spend my life.
I became an English major and was doing well without any particular career in mind yet. I signed up for a journalism class and the advisor pushed me into taking the “lab” associated with it, which required working at the YSU student newspaper.
I was not particularly interested in working at the paper but grudgingly went along with it. I had never worked at my high school paper and didn’t have that much of an interest in journalism.
The Jambar, which was named after a tool used in steel-making, was published on Tuesdays and Fridays throughout the school year.
My lab requirement was to write a certain number of articles as assigned by the student editors and to work for a couple hours on Monday and Thursday nights to help get the paper ready to be printed.
To fulfill this requirement, in the prior fall I ventured to The Jambar for the first time. It was in the Kilcawley Student Center in an open, ground-level office that looked over the commons. The yearbook and the literary magazine were in the same general area.
Do you remember the scene in The Godfather when Michael Corleone spies Apollonia Vitelli? He was overcome. Hit by the “thunderbolt.”
Well, walking into The Jambar for the first time wasn’t exactly like that but it was pretty darn close. I instantly knew that I was home.
Mind you, this was not a high-tech operation. Editors were banging on manual typewriters. A girl was typing the articles into a composing machine. I was assigned to run the typeset articles through a wax machine and paste them to the page layouts.
I was supposed to stay for an hour or so; I stayed much longer until the editors gently suggested it was probably time for me to head out. I did, but I was hooked.
By the time of my 20th birthday, I had been named entertainment editor of The Jambar.
To be candid, my strengths were more on the news side although being entertainment editor did give me a chance to learn the ropes about planning and assigning a flow of stories for upcoming editions.
My actual reporting on entertainment-related events left something to be desired. For example, I reviewed an on-campus concert by Southside Johnny and the Jukes, the Springsteen-wanna-be band.
In my ensuing review, I declared it to have been a “kick ass” concert and I reviewed all aspects of the lighting, the sound system, the choreography, the audience size …. Yep, I had it all except for the fact that I named only one of the songs the band played (“Having a Party”). Apparently, my attitude was that if you wanted to know what songs they played, you could have come.
It was right around the time of my 20th birthday that YSU began accepting applications for the role of editor-in-chief of The Jambar for the next academic year. I threw my hat in the ring and was named managing editor for the summer quarter and editor-in-chief for the 1980–81 academic year.
Between classes, I would head to the nearby “Motor Bar,” which my father owned, to help serve sandwiches and light fare at lunchtime. In the evenings, I would stop by for a beer (Ohio allowed people between 18 and 21 to drink low-alcohol — 3.2 percent — beer back in those days.)
At the Motor Bar, I would often be accompanied by George Denney, a laid-off steel-worker who was working to earn his journalism degree. George was more than a decade older than me and had a wife and son, but he became one of my closest friends, a groom in my wedding and godfather to my oldest son. He, too, was hooked by the journalism bug.
I lived and breathed The Jambar for those couple of years. At the time, it never occurred to me that I might be able to parlay that experience into a job at our local newspaper, the Youngstown Vindicator.
The Vindicator back in those days had a circulation of 100,000 daily and 150,000 on Sundays. It was quirky but it was the only game in town. It typically took years of experience at smaller papers to get a job there.
Reporters who joined the paper decades earlier were still there. Sometimes they stayed longer than they should have. The columnist Esther Hamilton was still producing columns “written from her retirement home in Lake Park, Florida.”
Esther’s columns were good for a laugh, although they were not intended to be. Here’s a very typical paragraph from a column around my birthday: “All of the pocketbook snatching that is going on is not always for the contents. Some of the purses the women are carrying are worth more than the contents. A pocketbook with handwork my be worth as much as $2,000, so I’m told. Unusual designs or materials make the bags sell for staggering prices.”
But the Vindicator also carried columnists like Mike Royko, William Safire, Roger Simon, Art Buchwald and Russell Baker. I admired and wanted to be like them, especially Royko.
At the end of my editorship of The Jambar in 1981, I got an internship at the Vindicator. At the end of the internship, they kept me on as a full-time reporter which I was until mid-1988. It gave me a front-row seat on the changes to come.
By mid-1983, the American economy had largely turned around. But the economy in Youngstown never turned around. It had begun an inexorable slide that continues to this day. As a result, tens of thousands of people would leave Youngstown to seek new opportunities. I was one of them.
FRIDAY, MAY 4, 1990
I remember my 30th birthday like it was yesterday. It was an exciting time in our lives, an exciting time in the world. The actual celebration of my birthday? Well, that probably could have gone just a tiny bit better.
I had driven to Washington, D.C., the week prior to my birthday to begin a new job. I was going to be a staffer in the Washington, D.C., offices of Bell Communications Research, better known as Bellcore.
Bellcore was the shared research arm of the seven “Baby Bells,” the regional Bell operating companies that came about when the federal government ordered the breakup of the monopoly version of AT&T.
I had left the Vindicator in June 1988 to take a job in corporate communications with Ohio Bell, one of the operating units owned by the Baby Bell known as Ameritech. I had not lost my passion for journalism, but I found myself frequently thinking, “Well, here’s how I would have said that” when I was writing down what public officials and others had actually said.
As part of a rotational employee program, Ohio Bell was loaning me to Bellcore for a three-year assignment. I would be attending meetings of the Federal Communications Commission and of House and Senate committees and subcommittees dealing with telecommunications topics.
The goal was to get a two- or three- page news summary out to all of the corporate communications and government affairs contacts at the regional Bell operating companies within an hour or two of the conclusion of the meeting.
That way, those contacts would have an independent assessment of what had happened and could form a response if they were asked for comment by members of the media, or use the materials as briefing materials for executives or employees more broadly.
It was like being a wire service reporter covering the telecommunications beat. I loved it.
The move to Cleveland from Youngstown had been successful but challenging. Diane (whom I had married in 1983) and I liked Cleveland but it was a big change. I had never spent any appreciable time outside of Youngstown and I missed my family and friends.
The move to Washington, D.C., was different. I knew what a move would be like. I knew there would be a low point. And I knew that it would pass. I was excited for the adventure ahead.
I drove our late-model Nissan Stanza from Cleveland to Washington to start the job. The plan was for Diane and our son, Michael, who was just shy of turning 4, to join me after we found a house.
When I left Cleveland, I intentionally took a route that took me out of downtown Cleveland as I left so that I could see the lake, the river and the skyscrapers as I left. The Stanza had a kick-ass stereo system and I dropped in a Randy Newman cassette tape as I made the drive out of downtown.
Cleveland city of light city of magic
Cleveland city of light you’re calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin’ through my dreams
“Burn On” by Randy Newman 1972
As I made my way east, I traded places back and forth with the ubiquitous Honda Accords, Ford Taurus and Chevy Cavaliers that were everywhere at the time. First on Route 80, then Route 76, then Route 70.
I cranked the the B-52s “Love Shack,” Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and the Fine Young Cannibals “Good Thing” and “She Drives Me Crazy.”
It was a sunny day and the six hours flew by quickly.
I pulled into the Georgetown Mews on 30th Street just off M. The company had rented me an efficiency apartment that would be my home until Diane and Michael could join me. I was a few steps from the heart of Georgetown and could easily walk to work at 21st and L streets.
To be clear, 1990 had many challenges.
The scourge of AIDS was with us. AIDS deaths had grown rapidly throughout the ’80s and would peak in the early ‘90s.
We were coming out of the Savings and Loan debacle which required a massive government bailout. Interest rates were still 10 percent and inflation was more than 5 percent.
That led us into a recession as the Gulf War began, but it was mild and only eight months in duration. It was the sixth recession in the United States since I was born.
There also was good news across many fronts.
We were beginning to pair newish IBM personal computers with online services like Prodigy and CompuServe to access valuable information more quickly.
Later in the year, the first proposal would be written for the architecture of what was being called the World Wide Web. It would be a new way to access and navigate the Internet, ultimately making it broadly accessible to developers and users.
We launched the Hubble Space Telescope.
Nelson Mandela was freed from prison.
The Berlin Wall was being formally torn down.
Mikhail Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to lessen the Cold War.
The U.S. and its allies made short work of the Gulf War that would follow Desert Shield.
Twin Peaks premiered on TV.
And, on this day, the 20th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste, a Democrat, apologized for the deaths of the students at a commemorative service on campus, something that Gov. Rhodes had never, and would never, do.
During my interview for the job at Bellcore, my future boss had taken me to dinner and then gave me a ride back to my hotel.
As she did so, she drove down Pennsylvania Avenue directly in front the light-splashed White House at 1600 Pennsylvania. It was a time when you could still drive down Pennsylvania Avenue and even do so slowly so you could get a good look.
That closed the deal for me. I wanted to be a part of this awesome city where so much of our world’s history had been, and would be, written.
On paper, the job made no sense. It didn’t pay enough and our cost of living would go through the roof. And, Diane wouldn’t be able to work, but more on that in a bit.
But somehow we made it work and it became one of the best moves we could have made. We bought a townhouse in Springfield, Virginia, and used to laugh about the diversity of the kids lining up for the school bus. To us, it was like the old Coca-Cola commercial … “I’d like to teach the world to sing ….” It was very different than our previous lives. We embraced it.
It was early evening on Friday, May 4, 1990, when Diane got out of a cab at the Georgetown Mews.
Diane had just flown in for the weekend, leaving Michael with a relative, and we would kick off our house-hunting the next morning.
I was super-excited to see her. We were going to walk up into Georgetown and have a nice birthday dinner.
As we walked up 30th toward M, Diane faltered. The airplane ride had really upset her stomach because she was pregnant with baby Jack, who would make his appearance in October (which was ultimately why she became a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom).
Suddenly, she leaned into an alley and threw up.
And … the evening was over.
We went back to the Georgetown Mews and Diane went right to bed. She was asleep in a matter of minutes.
I turned all the lights off so as not to disturb her, but I kept the TV on low so I had some light and something to do.
I poked around in the freezer and found a Stouffer’s Mac & Cheese and popped it in the microwave.
There was no table so I sat on the end of the bed in the dark, watching TV and eating my Mac & Cheese.
THURSDAY, MAY 4, 2000
As the clock turned into the early afternoon of Thursday, May 4, 2000, it was sunny and 73 degrees but the winds began gusting up to 20 miles per hour.
I had a corner office on the 35th floor of what was then called the Bell Atlantic Tower in downtown Philadelphia. My office had ceiling-to-floor windows on both exterior walls that gave me spectacular views of the city.
The only drawback of the office was that it was tiny. And when the wind blew, the 55-story tower would sway, as it was designed to do. It was, to say the least, dizzying and impossible not to notice because, given my compact quarters, I was backed up against those two exterior glass walls.
Every so often, I had to take a break and walk around outside my office to regain my sense of balance.
It could have been a metaphor for that year.
As my 40th birthday approached, I remember thinking that leaving my 20s behind was more traumatic than leaving my 30s, which seemed to me to be really nothing special.
That was handy since there is no record of us having done anything special for my 40th birthday. Not even a snapshot of me blowing out candles on a cake.
But I can predict exactly what happened because our suburban lives were nothing if not predictable.
Diane and I and our three kids (Mike in eighth grade, Jack in third grade, and Cary in first grade) lived in a 3,300-square-foot colonial in Mount Laurel, a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia.
On that day, my commute home by way of the Ben Franklin bridge over the Delaware River would have taken about 45 minutes.
In those days, my commuter car was a late-model, bright red Honda Civic hatchback. It wasn’t fancy but it did the trick and it had a decent stereo so I could listen to music to decompress on the way home. On that day, I most certainly would have heard Carlos Santana serenade me with “Maria, Maria,” which had spent a full two months at the #1 spot on the Billboard 100.
Our house was spacious but our garage was tight which meant that I had to back in when I arrived home so that I could get in and out of the vehicle. Diane would pull her minivan in front first so she could get in and out. The system worked, like so much about our suburban lives.
Our minivan in those days was a late model Chrysler Town & Country LXI. It was the Cadillac of mini-vans and it was still an era when you would use that phrase even though Cadillac itself was struggling mightily to stay relevant in a world of BMWs.
Given the fact that it was a “school night,” both literally and figuratively, there is no question that we would have had a birthday dinner at home, probably something on the grill. On May 4, we would have been within a week or so of opening our backyard pool and moving the center of gravity to the backyard.
In the spring and fall, our kids and their friends spent many hours playing in the street in front of our house either playing basketball (our hoop sat on the edge of the street) or street hockey. The street was little traveled but every so often the call would go out — “CAR!!!” — so that everybody would scatter for a car to pass.
In the summer, the action moved to the backyard, with our pool, volleyball net and horseshoe pits.
That was our world on that night, as I stood on our raised deck, grilling and drinking a Coors Light.
Looking back, it was the beginning of the end of the so-called “Dot Com Bubble” although like so many things it wasn’t entirely clear at the time.
April 2000 unemployment was 3.8 percent nationally, the lowest since December of 1969.
But on Friday, April 14, 2000, the Nasdaq Composite fell 9 percent, ending a week in which it fell 25 percent. It would take another year for the Dow Jones to fully register the pain but we had just entered a new recession.
Before it was over, the country would shed more than two million jobs. That was certainly no help to Vice President Al Gore in what became his unsuccessful bid for the presidency. The Nasdaq would ultimately tumble from a peak of 5,048.62 on March 6, 2000, to 1,139.90 on Oct. 4, 2002, a 77 percent fall. It would take 15 years to regain its dot.com peak.
On May 4, there were still plenty of signs of the euphoria that drove the bubble, some of them substantive and some not.
On that day, a full-page ad in the New York Times featured a picture of the cartoon character Jane Jetson, snazzily attired, with the headline: “Remember how she just pushed a button and got a complete outfit? Introducing talbots.com.”
J.C. Penney promised that its e-commerce experience was “in.comparable.”
“Mobshop.com” ran a stupid ad with a pointless chart that it acknowledged was nothing more than a ploy designed to get your attention. Tricked you! Oh, and by the way, you could get a $99 MP3 player on mobshop.com.
By September, the Internet phenomena “pets.com,” whose sock puppet mascot had been featured in a Super Bowl ad, was out of business despite having just completed its initial public offering in February. In 1999, pets.com earned $619,000 in revenue and spent $11.8 million on advertising. It was a poster child for the bubble and there were many more like it.
I was the vice president of corporate communications for CDI Corporation from November 1997 to December 2001.
The company hired and rented out engineers and IT professionals to do project work for clients at their work locations. We did a lot of work in the aerospace and automotive industries, both of which ultimately would get hammered in the recession.
In May 2000, I was working on an interesting project. The company would celebrate its 50th anniversary in September and my challenge was how to acknowledge the company’s history while positioning it as a thought leader for the future.
I had retained Ketchum, the PR firm, to help me. Barbara Leary was my account executive. We would end up working together in different places and roles for the better part of the next two decades.
In this case, we commissioned MIT’s Sloan School of Business, with input from a panel of human resources experts from companies like Arthur Andersen, Cisco, Internet Capital Group and Sun Microsystems, to do a white paper on the “future of work.”
In it, the experts presciently predicted the coming of the gig economy although they did not predict the long and winding road to get there.
“Me-Commerce is the next Internet revolution,” our news release predicted. “By the year 2010, the traditional, full-time, permanent employment model will likely be more the exception than the norm. This seismic shift toward fluid work practices will force fundamental changes in the way the world works. All of us — individual workers, businesses, educators, and government agencies — need to understand the implications of this trend and take steps now to adapt.”
We ended up winning a Silver Anvil from the Public Relations Society of America for the program. But by the time CDI’s actual anniversary came around in September 2000, the economy was cratering and CDI’s results were poor. Our CEO left the company in October.
By then, it had occurred to me that my job could be in peril as CDI retrenched.
Moreover, while it was a good job and I enjoyed the work, it didn’t offer any retirement benefits and I had not yet managed to save nearly the amount of money it would take to put three kids through college.
I became more and more anxious, to the point that I was regularly unable to sleep at night.
On a brief trip back to Youngstown, we visited my mother’s condo. On her bookshelf was the old Dale Carnegie book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.
As I stood there flipping through the pages, I thought the dated language was laughable. But I borrowed and read it anyway. I was willing to try anything.
In his book, Carnegie outlined three basic steps for addressing the underlying cause of worry:
1. Ask yourself what the worst possible outcome could be if you can’t solve your problem.
2. Mentally prepare to accept the worst outcome if necessary.
3. Then calmly improve upon that worst possible outcome.
It is a deceptively simple, and effective, approach.
My assessment was that I could, in theory, lose my job and, as a result, lose our house. Homelessness for a family of five seemed to fit the description of “worst possible outcome.” But saying it out loud had the desired effect. It started to become more manageable.
From there, I developed a plan.
We began socking away every penny possible to be able to make house payments when unemployed.
My boss, before he left the business, got me added me to the list of executives who would get a one-year severance if I lost my job for any reason other than my own incompetence.
I redoubled my efforts to make myself indispensable at work.
Having done all that, I slept at night.
TUESDAY, MAY 4, 2010
2010 was noteworthy for a number of things:
- The economy. Battered in 2008 and 2009, we were in the midst of the long, slow, painful slog of leaving the Great Recession behind. The Dow Jones would improve in 2010 but we would still end the year with 9.3 percent unemployment. Unemployment would not drop below 5 percent nationally until 2013.
- The environment. In April, an explosion occurred on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 and dumping nearly five million barrels of oil into the sea over many months as part of the largest environmental disaster in history.
- Health care. In March, President Obama signed what was popularly known as Obamacare into law. Fourteen states immediately said they would sue. One of those states was Florida, where we made our home at the time.
- Technology. Apple released the first iPad in April. The first one with WiFi and 3G capabilities came out on April 30. I bought it that day.
Admittedly, there were a few items of lesser note:
- The U.S. experienced a tomato shortage in March and April.
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus received the 2,407th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, although on the original star her name was misspelled.
- And, based on obesity concerns, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned the distribution of toys with McDonald’s Happy Meals. No word on how meaningful this was since there was like one McDonald’s restaurant in all of San Francisco.
But the most profound change began right around the time of my 50th birthday on May 4.
I got a pair of progressive glasses.
What are “progressive glasses,” you ask?
Well, in my case, it was basically tri-focals without the little tell-tale lines on the lenses.
They represented the latest defeat in a decades-long battle.
Since I was about 21, I was required to wear glasses in order to drive. And, as a practical matter, by the time I got married at 23, I needed glasses to maneuver in the world around me, which had become increasingly blurry.
Early on, as was the fashion in the ’80s, I wore glasses that resembled safety goggles.
As the years went on, they shrank in size. But, for me, they never became a fashion statement. Well, sometimes they were a bad fashion statement. But never a particularly good one.
So be it. We all have our first-world problems.
Then, as my 50th birthday approached, I got the double whammy.
I had long been unable to see distances. But now I was increasingly unable to see things close up.
I had become one of those people who needed someone to hold the restaurant menu a few inches farther away from me than my arms could accommodate. And I still needed glasses for that.
The solution, I decided, was progressive glasses, which would allow me to see both far away and near, simply by nodding my head up and down like a bobble-head.
Anyone who has worn progressive glasses knows they are an acquired taste at best.
I was having a particularly hard time acquiring that taste. In fact, at one point, I very nearly missed my chair when sitting down in my office. I was the chief marketing and communications officer for NextEra Energy and Florida Power & Light Company. I sprawled halfway across the chair while declaring, “I’m FINE!”
I was most decidedly not fine. I hated those glasses.
A week or so after my 50th birthday, Diane, Jack, Cary and I went to the beach that bridged Jupiter and Juno Beach.
It was a typical Florida weekend in May. Sunny and warm. We used to call it “Chamber of Commerce weather.” Jack and I decided to splash around in the ocean surf. I was wearing my glasses, as usual.
At one point, I turned to face the incoming waves just in time to be hit in the face by a particularly sizable swell.
And there went my $500 progressive glasses, never to be seen again.
That was the beginning of the end.
Do not go gentle into that good night, I told myself, with no apologies whatsoever to Dylan Thomas.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
That verse, in particular, seemed to get the gist of the situation.
This would not stand, I vowed.
It didn’t happen right away, but soon my Facebook pictures began showing me without my replacement (non-progressive) glasses. I was pretty routinely setting them aside for photos. I had had enough.
Contacts were not the answer. I had worn them for a few years earlier but my dry eyes precluded me from going back.
Finally, I made up my mind. It was time for LASIK surgery.
For someone who had been somewhat traumatized by jamming contacts into my eyes a few years earlier, the decision was surprisingly easy.
And so, on a fateful Friday afternoon in week before Thanksgiving, I went to get LASIK surgery.
They gave me a mild sedative to take in advance. Even a three-ounce pour of Chardonnay would have been more helpful.
They strapped me down and clipped some contraption to my eyeballs and warned me not to move my eyes under pain of death or at least permanent blindness.
They forgot to warn me to hold my breath during the surgery. And so, during the first laser cut, I could distinctly smell the burning of my eyeball. It lasted 10 seconds or so.
I held my breath for the lasering of my second eye.
Because I could see neither near nor far, my eyes were lasered to give me long-distance vision in one eye and near-distance vision in the other eye. It sounds weird but I actually have to stop and really think about it before I can remember which is which.
The next day, I walked out the front door and looked down Barcelona Drive in Jupiter. For the first time in many decades, I could see, well, as far as the eye could see.
The distance vision was amazing. However, as the weeks went by, it become clear that easily reading that restaurant menu, with a weird font on darkish paper in low light, was the real miracle.
MONDAY, MAY 4, 2020
You can look for me
But I can’t be found
You can search for me
I had to go underground
Life was so beautiful
Then we all got locked down
Feel like a ghost
Living in a ghost town
“Living in a Ghost Town” by the Rolling Stones, 2020
Novel coronavirus. COVID-19. These words sprang forth in the world’s lexicon this year. Depending on how closely you were paying attention, perhaps as early as January, when some reports indicated that China was experiencing a deadly, but hitherto unknown, virus.
For many more of us, awareness of a coming pandemic came more slowly over the next couple of months.
As of this morning, at least 3.6 million people have fallen victim to the disease globally and 250,000 have died. The U.S. has the largest number of infected people — well over 1.2 million — and the largest number of deaths — nearly 69,000.
Those numbers don’t tell the real story of a virus so contagious and so randomly virulent that family members have been unable to attend the funerals of their loved ones. Wives have been forced to drop their husbands at an emergency room, never to see them again. And while the elderly are more frequently killed by the disease, young, otherwise healthy, men and women have died in a matter of days after their first symptom.
Looking back, once we became aware of the disease, it was a shock how quickly and violently it spread.
Diane and I began 2020 –the second full year of our retirement — rarin’ to go. We planned about 60 days of travel for this year.
Our itinerary called for trips to New Orleans and South Florida in February, then a trip to Washington, D.C. in April.
Next, we planned to take a trip to Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland with stops in Galway, Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh. While in Dublin on May 4, we would raise a glass of Guinness in the city of its birth and celebrate my birth 60 years earlier.
Next on the itinerary was a driving tour from Cleveland to Montreal and Toronto with side stops in Kingston, Vermont and Buffalo. We would give my 2003 Porsche Boxster a workout.
Finally, we would fly to Seattle then drive to San Francisco by way of Crater Lake and Mendocino.
In February, we took our trips to New Orleans and South Florida without a second thought.
But by mid-March, the world had changed and we went with some trepidation to a small family wedding on March 14. Diane was the officiant. On March 15, we began social distancing.
Except for critical grocery supplies, we are quarantined. Our cars sit idle. In early March, I bought an all-electric Chevy Bolt. It has a range of 259 miles. So far it only has about 500 total miles on it.
Our country’s response to this pandemic has been disjointed at best.
Donald Trump is uniquely unqualified to provide strong presidential leadership, instead preferring to hold daily press conferences in which he alternately congratulates himself, criticizes media, and suggests solutions like injecting or ingesting disinfectants as a way to fight the disease, to the profound dismay of the medical community.
White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are competent advisors to him on the days when he chooses to listen to their advice.
The lack of strong federal leadership has led to a disparate patchwork of actions by state governments led by Democrat governors like Anthony Cuomo in New York, Gavin Newsom in California, Jay Inslee in Washington and others.
Their efforts have earned praise although their results have differed. Seattle and San Francisco were early hot spots and have since been very successful in suppressing infections through aggressive social distancing. New York City has been an epicenter of the disease. It has responded aggressively after a tentative response initially.
In Ohio, career politician Mike DeWine, a Republican, has gotten good marks, mostly by keeping Ohio Health Director Dr. Amy Acton front and center in providing guidance.
Other states have been far more aggressive about moving out of social distancing.
Social distancing is the order of the day in the absence of a vaccine or effective therapeutics. We are seeing some positive signs for both, but it is early and it will be many months and likely more than a year out.
We are binge-watching Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and the news outlets.
Our economy is tanking. We really don’t know the full extent yet, but signs are it will certainly exceed the Great Recession and may well exceed the Great Depression. It will take years to recover.
Social media both connects and divides us. It allows us to stay in touch in ways unimaginable 15 years ago. It also gives voice to the worst of us. Hard-right activists are using Facebook to organize protests against stay-at-home orders; they are exposing themselves and others to the disease in the process.
I personally would not care but by ignoring social distancing protocols they are also potentially creating new risks for our front-line workers — people like those who are working in grocery stores every day — and our health care workers.
Like us, our children are hunkered down in their respective homes: Mike and Alex in Seattle; Jack in Washington, D.C.; Caroline in San Francisco. Mike, Alex and Jack are able to work from home; Caroline is waiting to see whether her job in retail will come back at some point. For now, she can only wait.
We pray every single night for their safety and the safety of all of our family and those who are trying to keep people from getting sick and nursing them back to health when they do.
Some have described this as a “war.”
Unlike the wars we have lived through in the last 60 years, this enemy is invisible … just a stray sneeze may strike you dead.
Unlike the recessions we have lived through, our ability to combat this one is far more limited in the near term. Unless and until people can get back to work, there is no end in sight.
Some states are starting the process of telling people to go back to work even in the absence of a vaccine or therapeutics. We are certainly sending some of them to their deaths.
I am an optimist. I believe this trying time will pass eventually. We will face new challenges, but we will move forward and persevere.
And so, today, in the safety and security of my home, join me as I raise a glass of Guinness on my 60th birthday. This quote from Jonathan Swift seems apt:
May you live all the days of your life.