Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Blue Collar White/Collar

“Wouldn’t you know she’d fall in love with a farmer,” my father lamented when he learned I was marrying a college classmate who had grown up in Iowa. Dad was a native New Yorker and assumed everyone in Iowa was farmer. I explained my fiance’s father was a milkman.

That was worse than the farmer scare. My father was an executive in a major corporation. He had firmly held beliefs about people paid an hourly wage or labor union members. Those beliefs were based on vague fears and prejudices, surprising given my father’s own humble beginnings.

My father-in-law had similar views about executives. He was sure they sat in comfy chairs with feet propped on desks, drank three martini lunches and padded their expense accounts.

The only time the two met was at the wedding of their children. I thought of their silly prejudices years later when my father died. By then, I knew my father-in-law well. He’d delivered milk when people still had it brought to boxes kept near the door. His day started at 2 a.m. when he went to the dairy to load his truck. Then he’d start the route, running out of the truck with milk or cream, running back for extras or changed orders, collecting payment from customers, trying to stay warm during cold winter mornings. He worked most holidays, including Christmas. He took his son with him during summers, stressing the importance of hard work and honesty. Later, when people bought milk at the store instead of from milk trucks, he got a job in a factory. He missed the opportunity to be outside, but he was happy to have a job.

My father had grown up penniless in New York during the Depression. He spent every spare minute in the public library, reading all he could. His first employer, a Wall Street brokerage firm president, saw my father’s quick mind, knowledge and hard work. He was steadily promoted, eventually working for a large corporation. He worked 60 hours a week routinely and brought home work every night. His loyalty to the company was fierce and his commitment to honesty unquestioned. When the company considered making an illegal campaign contribution in the early 1970s, my father steadfastly refused to go along with the deal, almost losing his job. Later, just weeks before he died of cancer, he read about an acquaintance being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. “You know,” he said, “it nice to die knowing your professional life has been above reproach.”

It’s too bad he died without knowing his son-in-law’s father had very similar values. They had a lot more in common than their grandchildren.

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