This is the last in a series of short stories told by Journal readers about something that made a positive difference in their lives while they were growing up in poverty.
Rather than simply tell bootstrap stories, these writers chose to credit others who created a good path they were able to follow and benefit from.
It is my hope that reading about their experiences can be a source of hope and inspiration.
My thanks go out to all those who took the time to write, including those whose submissions I wasn’t able to publish.
Learning by listening
Being a first grandchild, I was fortunate to sit quietly in the shadows with a toy or book and listen to the conversations among my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles and their visitors.
They were finally relaxing on the front porch of a summer’s eve after an arduous week in the garment industry. Their discussions of world affairs began for me an understanding of what it meant to be aware, to be curious, to look for answers to puzzling questions, to participate as a member of society. There was so much to take in. During those moments the only speech from all of us under 15 may have been “Excuse me,” and “Thank you.” That was our early education: to be present and unobserved and to be respectful.
And we learned that sometimes it was leading a garment workers strike, collecting clothing for refugees, making donations to worthy causes, giving hundreds of pints of blood (during WWII), or volunteering at the hospital. Everyone seemed to have a mission. But first and foremost in our lives was family and continuity and the warmth those early connections had established.
I am forever grateful that my parents lovingly displayed a sense of community and respect for others that has now been passed down to the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Mama and Papa.
Wrestling through life
I was destined for failure before I even started school. I could not speak a word of English, had 14
brothers and sisters, my father was totally disabled at the age of 37, and we lived in a 1,000-square-foot house. I delivered papers in the second grade.
I graduated from Rio Grande High School. What kept me going was my love of wrestling. Jack O’Neil introduced me to the sport, taught me technique and was my mentor. I am a prime example of an athlete who took an active interest in academics.
I started teacher corps at Southern Colorado University. It was here that I met Mary Brooks, a teacher intern who took an active interest in me and directed me with my studies. With her support, I graduated with a bachelor of arts degree.
My dream of becoming a wrestling coach came true when I became the head wrestling coach at Santa Fe High School, where I coached for 28 years. I was fortunate to have coached 28 state champions; 11 of them became All Americans in college.
A fellow inductee to the New Mexico Wrestling Hall of Fame commented that wrestling saved my life – and I answered in the affirmative. But I added that it was done with the help of others, especially O’Neil, Brooks and my wife, Sally. Coaches’ wives are never given enough credit.
No man is an island to himself. We all need the support and love of others. God was my No. 1 supporter.
Army taught discipline
I was born in 1938 in the Mississippi Delta where my contemporaries and I would be considered living below the poverty level today.
Mississippi was then, as it is today, at the very bottom of state ratings insofar as public education. I attended a county agricultural high school, where boys were taught farming and girls were taught home economics. I dropped out after the 10th grade and, at 16, lied about my age and joined the Army. As I recall, my Army pay was $78 per month. However, I was clothed, fed and housed. That was better than I could likely have managed had I stayed in Mississippi.
The Army was then, as now, one of the best institutions available for economic mobility. It did not provide an easy life, but it did provide one of nearly limitless opportunity. The rules were clear. Develop self-discipline, and life could be good. Screw up, and life could be difficult.
Over the next 24 years, I earned a commission, finished bachelor’s and master’s degrees and eventually retired as a lieutenant colonel. Along the way, I gained enough experience to start and manage a successful small business.
The Army has changed. Not all the opportunities available to me still exist. However, the military continues to provide the broadest stairway available for economic mobility. All that is required is a good attitude. But then, that is the essential ingredient in just about any field of endeavor.
Shirts from flour sacks
To read the previous stories in this series, go to www.abqjournal.com/category/upfront.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor Dan Herrera at 823-3810 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
As a boy growing up in a poor family in a small town in eastern Utah, I could never have imagined that I would become a successful university professor.
My father was a coal miner with an eighth-grade education. We had little money, but my mother did her best to manage what we had. For example, she made many of our clothes.
I can remember her buying bags of flour, washing the sacks and sewing us shirts from the material. Other kids in my class also got shirts made from flour sacks. We probably didn’t realize that we were poor because virtually everyone in the class was in the same financial situation.
Mother spent her life encouraging us to get the kind of education she was not able to attain. Throughout my life she always said to me, “When you go to college,” not “If you go to college.”