THE BUSINESS WORLD
All my brothers and sisters entered the work force immediately upon finishing grammar school. Except for Tom, who seems to have taken some evening classes while holding down his first job, none of them received a formal education extending beyond the eighth grade. This was not unusual in our community; indeed, it was the rule. I myself might very well have exemplified the rule had not a representative of a commercial school called on my parents and convinced them that what I needed was a business education.
Up to that time I had not much thought about what I would do after graduation. I simply supposed that I would find suitable employment somewhere. When I was still very young, I thought it would be nice to be a fireman and squirt volumes of water from large hoses, or to be a policeman and wear blue. When, somewhat later, I saw how cheerfully and expectantly the postman was greeted on his daily rounds, the delivery of mail appealed to me. I had noticed that to be a janitor in a church one needed to be old, and I therefore did not at this time contemplate assuming the role; but I did think it would be pleasant to move in solitude through every precinct of the church’s cavernous interior and, between dustings, find time for meditation and reflection. But now that further education was in the offing, I cheerfully turned my mind in that direction.
Since I liked numbers, bookkeeping seemed suited to my talents; and, since I found school life quite agreeable, I readily concurred in my parents’ decision to send me for further development to the Chicago Business College. The institution with this pretentious name was, of course, not a college at all but a training school for adolescents seeking to acquire skills useful in the world of trade and commerce. It occupied the second floor of a large building located on the corner of 12th Street and Ogden Avenue. The school was about a mile from our house, and I reached it by foot along varying paths.
It was in mid-February of 1922 that I began my studies there, and I finished the prescribed course exactly one year later. I enjoyed the course in bookkeeping and the one in commercial law, but, being devoid of manual dexterity, I had some difficulty with the typewriter. I did finally learn the rudiments of typing, but I did not then, or ever thereafter, become proficient in it. This holds with greater force for shorthand. I learned how it was done, but I had no real aptitude for it, and I soon lost the meager ability that I acquired in it for want of practice and application.
For all of that, I do not consider that year wasted. I grew in appreciation for what stenographers and typists do, and I learned something of what goes on in business offices, although at that time neither I nor any of my instructors envisioned an office equipped with computers, word processors, copying machines, and other such mysterious instruments. I also gained experience in social intercourse. I had hitherto associated almost exclusively with boys of Dutch descent who shared with me a common faith. I was now thrown into a group of people of diverse national origins and creedal orientations. I mingled daily with Jews, Poles, Germans, Greeks, Italians, and others, many of whom lived by standards quite unlike my own. And then there were the girls. They greatly outnumbered us boys, and some of them were flirtatious. I possessed few manly charms and displayed no romantic inclinations, but a blond-haired Dutch boy must have appeared to a curious few as a creature from another world, and more than one of the girls tried to involve me in after-school activities. I was tempted several times to accompany a pretty Jewish girl on her way home, but I invariably thought better of it and went my solitary way. What I gained or lost by such behavior I have not tried to calculate.
The course of instruction drew to a close just after 1922 was spent, and in that year a number of things occurred that affected my life and my family’s in various ways. I don’t remember whether it was in 1922 or earlier that my father quit the cinder business and went in search of outside employment; in any case, he was now working as a custodian in Marshall Field’s downtown department store, and he continued to do so until the day he died. We were gladdened when three more infants were drawn into the family circle during that year, but were all cast into sorrow in May, when Bill and Tillie’s seven-year-old daughter Annie died after a lingering illness. In August we celebrated the marriage of my sister Jen in a gala reception held in the Stege house basement. Some time later, with only Mart and myself living with them in the large Stege house, my parents decided to move the family into smaller quarters. Accordingly, they bought a two-story frame house on 13th Street, between Robey (now Damon) and Leavitt Streets, and in mid-October we moved into it. It was a very modest dwelling, quite unlike the one we had vacated. It was close to adjoining houses, being separated from them by narrow planked gangways in need of repair. Two front doors led into the two apartments, and uncovered wooden stairs provided access in the rear. In a backyard of sparse grass stood a small cottage, which we rented out to a Dutch family by the name of Bos. We occupied the upper story, and George and Ann, who had vacated their Ashland Avenue apartment, soon moved into the lower. I now lived considerably closer to the school and also closer than I would have otherwise to the place where I would shortly be working.
The First Church congregation to which we belonged had earlier moved into the Ashland Avenue building inherited from the Lutherans.It had also by that time introduced a Sunday morning English worship service, which Dr. Van Lonkhuyzen conducted with a noticeable Dutch brogue, his “brethren and cistern” often evoking our laughter. Among the organizations active in the church was a young men’s society, which had taken for its motto the Latin “Ora et Labora.” It enlisted young men ranging in ages from sixteen or seventeen to twenty-one and older. This left us younger fellows out in the cold, and we decided to do something about it. After securing consistorial approval, we organized a junior young men’s society that consisted of fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds. Having kept the motto “Ora et Labora,” we met biweekly for Bible study and capped the meeting with an after-recess period in which we discussed whatever issues happened to interest us. For no reason other than that I was vocal in proposing the organization of this new society, I was asked to serve as president of the group.
We were not unaware in 1922 of the things that were happening around us. We noticed, for example, the renewed flareup of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. In May, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon in the First Presbyterian Church of New York and subsequently published it under the title “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” This received a response in July from Clarence E. Macartney, who published an article in The Presbyterian entitled “Shall Unbelief Win?” An echo of this controversy was heard in the Christian Reformed Church: in June of that year, Synod removed Prof. Janssen from his chair of Old Testament Studies at the Calvin Theological Seminary on the grounds that he held and propagated liberal views concerning the Bible’s presumed inerrancy.
In politics, suspicions arose about corruption in the Harding Administration when intimations of the Tea Pot Dome scandal became public. It was in that year, too, that the international community was stunned by the seizure of Italy’s government by the Fascists under Mussolini. Some, if not all, of these developments came under review in our juvenile society.
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I don’t remember just how it happened, but sometime in February 1923 I found myself in the employ of Mr. Eisner, the proprietor and manager of the Chicago Machine and Washer Company. I most likely got the job after Mr. Eisner asked at the school whether a tolerable office boy could be found among its recent graduates. In any case, I was hired in that capacity.
The business with this impressive name had been established in a small one-story, flat-roofed shop located on a residential street near Ogden Avenue and 15th Street, in the shadow of the huge Ryerson Steel plant on Western Avenue. It employed no more than five or six shop workers, and it specialized in making metal washers, which were produced on manned punch presses activated by overhanging canvas belts. It made other things as well, such as angle irons and related steel and iron products, but washers were the mainstay. In the front of the shop and to one side was a small bedroom-sized office that contained a filing cabinet and two desks, a large roll-topped one for the boss and a smaller flat-topped one for me. One office door opened to the outside, another to the shop, and a third to a small closet containing a toilet and a wash basin. The latter facility was reserved for use by the “office staff,” since another larger one, together with a lengthy wash trough, was established in the workmen’s area.
When I began my work at this company, I was a little over fourteen and a half years old and still in knee pants. Upon reporting for duty, I was courteously greeted by Mr. Eisner and always treated kindly thereafter. It was not long before the shop workers also adopted me as a full member of their small and rather close-knit working community. I walked to work, carried my lunch, and normally ate with the other employees during the noon break. I learned in these lunch sessions a good deal about how the shop operated, and this helped me in the performance of my office duties.
My chief responsibility at the outset was to man the phone and convey messages to the boss who, in his role as manager, spent a considerable part of the day in the shop. I took occasional dictation, typed some letters, and sent out monthly bills. But I was also charged with keeping the premises clean: this meant not only that I was to sweep the office floor, dust the furniture, and keep the closet toilet bowl and sink immaculate; it also meant that I was to keep on hand a sufficient quantity of soaps, towels, and hand rags to meet the workers’ needs.
I stayed on the job for two and a half years. When I left, I was no longer a callow youth but a strapping young man who had already passed his seventeenth birthday. In the course of thirty months, things do not remain the same, and with the passage of time my duties and responsibilities gradually and quite naturally increased. In the end, I came to write checks for the boss’s signature, to dun customers for the payment of bills I sent them, to order steel sheets and bars from Ryerson’s and reproach them for shipping delays, to prepare schedules for the prompt fulfillment of orders, to make up payrolls, and generally to monitor production all of this, of course, under the supervision of Mr. Eisner, with whom I enjoyed the most cordial relations.
I don’t remember what I was earning toward the end of my stay, but I know that I was originally hired at $18.00 a week. This was, I thought, a generous wage, and though it did not make us rich, it helped the family to maintain a comfortable living. During the period of my employment from February 1923 to August 1925 I did not much heed what was happening in the larger business world, but the economy was apparently flourishing. The Harding administration favored big business, and the Supreme Court, dominated as it was by Harding-appointed justices, lent support to laissez-faire capitalism by, among other things, killing a federal child-labor law and invalidating a minimum wage law for women. Yet the workers did not seem to be hurting. Growing prosperity was everywhere in evidence. The land boom in Florida drew ever-increasing numbers of investors, and the rising stock market tempted many to play the Wall Street gambling game.
In these years the automobile was steadily replacing the horse-drawn carriage, with the result that the automobile industry and especially the Ford Motor Company experienced a phenomenal growth. Although our family could not afford a car, and never owned one, a Ford Roadster could be purchased in 1925 for as little as $260.00, and millions of these and other “flivvers” were sold during my working days.
The landscape changed when the motor car began crowding the wagons off the streets. Service stations and garages proliferated, and new roads were laid to accommodate the growing traffic. But beyond that, social customs also changed. Highways and country lanes drew people out of their houses, shifted romance from the front porch to the back seat of the car, and replaced the men-only corner saloon with the isolated roadside tavern, where the prying eyes of neighbors could be safely avoided.
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In 1923, during the first year of my employment, I celebrated my fifteenth birthday and became the uncle of two more children born into the family circle. It was also in that year that George and Ann decided, with my father’s reluctant approval, to sever relations with the First Christian Reformed Church and to join the newly organized English-speaking Chicago IV Church, then pastored by its first minister, Rev. Herman Bel.
What lifted our theological spirits was the publication in that year of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, which laid bare the weaknesses of theological modernism and significantly advanced the orthodox Christian cause. But what mostly engaged our attention was the Michigan proposal to outlaw all private and parochial schools. Several of our local leaders joined Calvin College’s faculty and students in opposing the contemplated action, and we all rejoiced when the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated in a public referendum. It is interesting to observe that while this contest was raging in Michigan, the state of Maine passed a law requiring the reading of the Bible in all public schools.
On the national scene, the year 1923 saw the initial publication of Time magazine, the discovery of insulin, the first nonstop transcontinental flight, the emergence of a young tennis champion by the name of Helen Wills, and a movement on the part of the National Women’s party to add an equal rights amendment to the Constitution. That year was also marked by the death of a national leader: an undistinguished and scandal-ridden presidency came to an end when, on August 2, Warren G. Harding died in San Francisco from the effects of an embolism. Calvin Coolidge, his taciturn vice president, assumed the presidency on August 3. Laconic in speech and somewhat somnolent in appearance, he presided over a placid and business-oriented administration until near the end of the decade.
Virtually unnoticed in the United States but ominous in its forebodings of the future was the 1923 publication of Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Imprisoned after the failure of the Munich Putsch, Hitler composed the book while in custody, dictating most it to Rudolf Hess. In it he laid bare his plans for the conversion of a stricken, impoverished, and downcast Germany into a proud and powerful Aryan Reich from which all Semitic influences would be resolutely banned and in which the Judeo-Christian value system would, in Nietzsche-like fashion, be degraded or ignored.
During the early and middle twenties the American social scene displayed signs of moral retrogression and decay. The popularization of Sigmund Freud’s work induced many persons, especially the young, to let themselves “go.” It was widely believed that no natural instinct or random impulse should be repressed lest a psychosis develop. One was to live without inhibitions, according to no objective standard, and without an oppressive sense of guilt. No desire was to be suppressed, no pleasure denied. Self-expression was in, and restraint was out.
Perhaps most marked in this situation was a decline in sexual mores. Advertisers exploited the sexual allure of young women in order to sell their products. In appearance and lifestyle the more “advanced” among the young women bore little resemblance to their elders. Slimness was popular, and all strove desperately to acquire a boyish figure. They abandoned corsets, taped down their breasts, raised the hemlines of their skirts, bobbed their hair, rolled down their stockings, applied rouge and lipstick, smoked cigarettes in public, drank illegal gin in “speakeasies,” and danced endlessly to the sound of blaring jazz saxophones. In all of this they were, of course, aided and abetted by “liberated” young men who, no less than they, had cast off the shackles of what they regarded as an antedated Victorian lifestyle and an outmoded and intolerable code of moral behavior.
This world of unrestricted license was not one that we inhabited. We observed it with distaste from a distance and lived as best we could in Christian “separation.” But we could not wholly insulate ourselves from the power and attraction of changing fashion, and women in our community were before long bobbing their hair, using lipstick, and wearing abbreviated skirts. Dancing, night clubbing, booze swilling, and sexual promiscuity were, however, not in their style nor in that of their male companions. Speaking generally, the life of our community continued to be lived under the moral restraints imposed by God’s law. We heard the Ten Commandments recited every Sunday morning, and it was hard for conscientious persons not to heed them.
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In the year 1924 there were at least two developments in the religious world that came to the attention of our people and produced concern among them. The first served to widen the breach between fundamentalists and modernists, and it occurred when many “liberal” Presbyterian ministers signed the Auburn Affirmation. The second caused a split in the Christian Reformed Church; at issue was the “doctrine” of common grace. The Synod of 1924 elevated it to the level of dogma by making it a tenet of the church: Synod declared that a certain grace of God is imparted to all men, a grace that furnishes them with various gifts and talents, restrains the generality of them from committing the more heinous sins, and enables all of them to cultivate virtues and do civic good. Two ministers, Herman Hoeksema and Ralph Danhof, had for some years before this contended against the Kuyperian doctrine of common grace, and they now refused to endorse Synod’s affirmation of it, whereupon they were deposed by their respective classes. They took with them most members of their congregations and, together with a number of other ministers, formed the Protestant Reformed Church. An independently run magazine, The Standard Bearer, made its appearance in October 1924 and became the journalistic voice of the new denomination.
On the national front, the Teapot Dome scandal continued to make news. Albert B. Fall, whom President Harding had appointed Secretary of Interior, was charged with accepting bribes from oilmen Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, to whom he had leased lands holding vast oil reserves. All three of these men were indicted for criminal activity in 1924. H. L. Mencken, the “bad boy of Baltimore” who became the nation’s chief literary debunker, burst upon the scene when his American Mercury made its appearance in January 1924. Russia was in the news when in that same month Nicolay Lenin died and was succeeded by Josef Stalin.
In June of that year I celebrated my sixteenth birthday, and my passing that milestone coincided with a deepening of my religious awarenesses and sensitivities. I dare not say that in the months before and after that turning point I underwent a conversion. I had been baptized into the Christian faith, I never doubted any of the Reformed tenets, and even when I went astray, I felt obligated by the Bible’s moral prescriptions. But I had not hitherto made a conscious personal commitment to the Lord, and this I now did. The surrender was accompanied by struggle and deep emotion. For days on end I would rise from my bed in the middle of the night and kneel in fervent prayer beside the sofa in the living room. And I began to read the Bible regularly, John’s gospel in particular. I also turned to books on theology and related matters:
I read Bosma’s Reformed Doctrine, Kuyper’s To Be Near Unto God, Bryan’s volume on evolution, and I searched diligently through Matthew Henry’s commentaries.
Having experienced God’s grace and found peace in my soul, I felt I should make public profession of my faith before the congregation. I had not attended any preconfessional training classes at the church; I doubt that they existed among us. In any case, it was arranged that I should be examined by the consistory on August 25. I appeared with some trepidation before a roomful of solemn men, one of whom was my father. But I must have given a tolerable account of my knowledge, sentiments, and intentions, for after a lengthy interview I was declared a candidate for admission to the church and to the table of the Lord. I made public profession of my faith in the First Church on Sunday morning, October 5, 1924. That day my parents presented me with a gold open-faced pocket watch, which, with matching chain, I wore in the vest pocket of the long-trousered suit into which I had by now graduated.
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When Bruce Barton’s book The Man Nobody Knows appeared in the book stalls during the course of 1925, I secured a copy of it but found little satisfaction in reading it. The book depicted Jesus as a salesman and his twelve disciples as trained admen who by persuasion and technical ploys gained for Christianity an almost universal hearing and adherence. Placed in the context of modern business practice, the veritable Christ of truth and grace was largely obscured in the book, appearing instead predominantly as a paradigm to be followed by ambitious purveyors of material goods.
The year 1925 also saw the organization of the League of Evangelical Students in Pittsburgh, the inauguration of Charles E. Fuller’s “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” radio broadcast, and the platform antics of the noted evangelist W. A. (“Billy”) Sunday. What, however, engaged the attention of almost everyone in the nation was the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. The state of Tennessee had adopted a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and John T. Scopes, a high school teacher of biology, was indicted for breaking the law. Pitted against each other in court were two famous lawyers and prominent public figures, Clarence Darrow for the defense and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution. Bryan won a guilty verdict, but the liberal press depicted him as a buffoon, and, because the distinguished protagonist of the Genesis account failed to distinguish between creation and development, the fundamentalist cause suffered a significant setback. Mr. Bryan, greatly taxed by the demands of a trial conducted in an overheated courtroom, died five days after the trial ended.
The Volstead Act prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages had been in effect for nearly five years now, but the prohibition was observed largely in the breach. Liquor was smuggled into the country from Canada and the West Indies, and it was produced locally and clandestinely in the many undercover breweries that had sprung up all across the country. “Bathtub gin” was even made at home and peddled in secret to friends and neighbors. Most sales were made, however, in private clubs and in “speakeasies” secured behind barred doors. One gained entrance into the latter establishments by whispering a password through the grilled windows with which they were usually furnished. Hip flasks filled with bootleg liquor and homemade “rotgut” became a popular clothing accessory. People, it seemed, developed a thirst that grew in inverse proportion to its lessened availability on the open market, and they quenched it by barhopping in dark and secret places.
Control of the liquor traffic fell naturally into the hands of outlaws, who organized themselves into heavily armed gangs determined to protect their turf against any rival who might dare to invade their territory. Rivalry, competition, and aggrandizement existed, of course, and the consequence of this was gang warfare. In 1925 and for six years thereafter “Scarface” Al Capone was one of Chicago’s most notorious gang leaders. But he was not alone. Others, like Johnny Torrio and Dion O’Banion, figured often in the news, and none of these gangsters hesitated to commit murder in order to corner the market in illegal booze.
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It was sometime in the spring of 1925, when I was approaching my seventeenth birthday, that I decided to return to school and study for the gospel ministry. I did not take the decision lightly. I had thought about the matter for many months and had often discussed it with my parents, brothers, and sisters. All of these good people enthusiastically endorsed the plan and urged me to proceed. So I gave notice to Mr. Eisner that I would be leaving his employ in mid-August, and when the appointed time arrived, I bade him and my fellow employees a fond farewell and never saw any of them again.
In an effort to secure additional funds for my education, I applied for aid to Classis Illinois, which was wont to financially support qualified students in its region who were preparing or about to prepare for the Christian Reformed ministry. I appeared before Classis at its meeting in May 1925. After being interviewed for a considerable time, I was handed some sheets of paper and a pencil and told to go to the basement of the church and prepare, in the course of one hour, an essay on the subject of “divine revelation.” I worked on the assignment as best I could, and when the hour had elapsed, I presented the chairman with what I had written. After the paper had been read to the assembled delegates, I was voted a yearly stipend of two hundred dollars and cordially dismissed. It was sometime during that spring that I wrote a short piece on “Sorrow and Joy” and took some pleasure in seeing it in print when it appeared in the May issue of The Young Calvinist.
My parents and my brother Mart did everything they could to further my plans. They even uprooted themselves. In order to facilitate my attendance at the Christian high school, Father sold our house on 13th Street and bought another at 7130 South May Street, very near the school I was to attend. The four of us moved into our new quarters in August 1925, a short time before the September opening of school.
We did not feel like strangers in our new neighborhood. My father’s brother (Uncle Martin) and his large family lived nearby, as did my father’s sister (Aunt Nellie Rudinga) and her many children. We had in the past visited these relatives often, and my cousins George, John, and Bill Stob, as well as Bill Rudinga, had frequently played against us in the intracity church baseball league. Mart and I now made peace with our erstwhile opponents, offered them the benefit of our athletic talents, and did in fact join forces with them. What is more, my brother Neal and his family lived in the neighborhood, and it was a pleasure to be near him and his wife and infant daughter.
As soon as we were settled, we joined the First Christian Reformed Church of Englewood, and we took an active part in its proceedings. Rev. Isaac Westra was the pastor of the church, and my brother Neal was a member of the council, a deacon.
So ended my days spent in the business world.