At birth, I held up the printing of The Jonesville Independent by an hour and a half. The Independent was my parents’ newspaper. I was born on press day—Thursday, May 31, 1934 at 3:04 p.m. My Dad held up the printing of pages one and eight so he could put my birth announcement in the lower right corner of page one. He concluded the announcement by writing that I was “red and ugly.” Many ladies in Jonesville, Michigan, promptly informed him, “Larry, all babies are beautiful—including yours.”
I was raised mostly in Michigan. My parents, Larry and ElDean Towe, were newspaper people. They edited and published newspapers successively in Jonesville, Michigan, Susanville, California, and Charlevoix, Michigan. During World War II, my Dad was the publicity director for the University of Michigan. While I was in high school and college, my Dad ran an ad agency in Holland, Michigan. My parents were also newspaper brokers.
My parents were wonderful people. I haven't spent my life condemning and resenting them—like so many in my generation. I was an only child, and I grew up playing with kids and conversing with adults. My parents made strenuous efforts to assure that I had a good education. Except for moving me every few years, I had a good growing up. However, every two or three years, we moved. Adjusting to new friends and new schools so often was difficult.
My Dad, Larry Towe, was seeker and scholar by nature. In his twenties, he had to make the decision whether to be a history professor or newspaperman. For the public, he was an editor and publisher, but he was my history tutor—and he was an excellent tutor. Here's the measure of his success: At the beginning of my freshman year at Dartmouth, I took a proficiency exam and exempted a whole year of American history.
For most of Dad's life he was a religious skeptic, but towards the end, Christie, my older daughter, introduced him to Jesus. To the end of his life, my Dad retained the curiosity and a lot of the energy of a six-year old boy. When he was ninety-two he complained to me that he could still do roofing for Habitat, but could no longer carry the seventy-pound squares up the ladder. And a week before he died at ninety-four, he expressed gratitude that his mind was still clear. He watched only one TV program, and he could still outdo most of the Jeopardy contestants on geography and history.
Dad was mostly straight arrow, but he was a flirt, and he had one unexpected quirk. Every year or two, he staged a major practical joke. His most elaborate one was the Candy Bomb—
My parents’ best friends were Prexy and Billie Mauck. Prexy was president of Hillsdale College, five miles from our home in Jonesville. One day at the print shop, Dad noticed that binder's glue, when cut in cubes, looked just like caramels. So, he thought creatively. He took a tray of the glue cubes and about thirty linoleum chips to the Jonesville candy manufacturing company. He ordered each of the cubes wrapped in foil. The linoleum chips were dipped in chocolate and then wrapped in foil. The deceptive candies were then elegantly boxed and sent to Billie Mauck in Hillsdale.
For two weeks, there was no response, but then Dad got a phone call from Billie, "Damn you, Larry Towe, if you were here I'd shoot you. I served those candies to the College Trustees. One of them busted a tooth, and I have eight ruined damask napkins." So Dad called the Rexall Drug Store in Hillsdale and ordered their largest box of Whitman's Sampler. He had it delivered to Billie, and he specified, "Make sure the cellophane is unbroken."
My Mother, ElDean Benninghoff Towe, was supportive and understanding. For example, when I was six, I came home from school crying. A family of kids at school has teased and abused me because of an error about them in our newspaper. Mother hugged me and said, "Don't cry. The paper will always have mistakes, but it's good when people complain. It means they're reading it."
Mother was also a striver. She insisted on my wearing fine clothes—which I resented. She insisted on good manners—at which I often failed her. She had a horror of greasy spoons—so I've sought them out ever since. Yet, my fondest memories of grade school were when I'd go to the newspaper office at lunchtime, and she'd get me my favorite gourmet lunch at Wirtz Drug Store—a hamburger and chocolate malt.
Feminism has not been a problem for me, because my Mother was a liberated woman, and so was my wife, Margaret. Back in the 1930's and 40's, at my Dad's insistence both Mom and Dad were co-editors and publishers of each of their newspapers. They were also partners in the newspaper brokerage. (I.e. they did the same thing with newspaper businesses that real estate brokers do with houses and commercial buildings.) While Dad was selling the newspaper business to the buyer/husband, Mother was selling the town to the wife.
Mother had many abilities. She was an excellent writer, with a sympathetic, personal touch. For example, we had a handyman around town who was, as we say today, mentally challenged. He didn't go on the dole, but supported himself with odd jobs. In his obituary, she gave examples of his strange ways, such as wandering off from a lawn-mowing job and later returning to finish. She praised him as a great example of self-reliance for all of us. Her column in the newspaper every week had the top readership. At first, it was "About Town." Later it became "The Tow Line.”
She and Dad fought every week over the column. She always wrote too much copy. In laying out a paper, the ads go in first. What's left is the news hole, and there are many items that have to go in the news hole. Dad left her a lot of room for the column, but never enough, so they fought over what had to be cut.
Mother had three other characteristics. She had a marvelous sense of color and style. She could have been a gifted interior decorator. One day, when I was in high school, we walked four blocks to the grocery and back. She critiqued every house—and that architectural training has shaped my views of buildings ever since.
Also, she could smell air and identify the various odors in it. However, this was an affliction, rather than a blessing. All her life she was plagued by asthma and hay fever. Several summers, Dad sent her into Canada, north of Georgian Bay, so she could survive. Because of her allergies, she rubbed her eyes and nose a lot, which gave her a wrinkled face. Yet, from out of the wrinkles peered two bright, sparkling blue eyes.
Mother had a flair for politics that she expressed through me. In effect, she was my campaign manager for my high school politicking. Our student council had a city form of government. I ran for alderman in the tenth grade and treasurer in the eleventh. I won both races and was known for speeches that were also performances. In contrast during college without her counsel, I ran for three offices and didn’t win an election.
She was constantly active, except during her frequent illnesses. She crocheted, tatted and sewed. We still have some of her framed lace crosses. And for her, Christmas was a yearlong season. She made and gave away hundreds of aprons, each one different.
Mother was a firm believer in Jesus—but her theology was an eclectic mish-mash. Example: As a Presbyterian she regularly prayed to St. Anthony to help her find lost items. Ironically, as the family believer, she often missed church, while Dad, as the family skeptic, attended regularly and served as an usher and deacon.
We were a loving family, but not a physically affectionate family. As a result, I made sure my wife and my children got lots of hugs. Also, at least once a day I told Margaret “I love you.” My parents were brilliant people and lively conversationalists. As a result, I had high expectations for a wife.
Each of my parents wrote a book. Mother's was Sewing Buttons on Squashes, an endearing chronicle of her error-prone introduction to newspapering on the Jonesville Independent during the 1930s. The story of the title samples her style. Although she was legally the co-editor and co-publisher of the town’s newspaper, she was a novice reporter. During her first week, she was exploring River Street, when she saw a beautiful back-yard weeping willow next to the St. Joe River. Wanting a better view, she quietly stepped along the side of the house. Ahead, she saw an elderly man weeding the vegetable garden. As she came to the rear corner of the house, she spotted a woman on the porch, a woman whose hair looked like steel shavings from a metal lathe. She exclaimed, “Andrew, what are you doing?” He replied, “Wy, Viola, can’t you see? I’m sewing buttons on squashes.” Andy and Viola Mack became my parents’ best friends in Jonesville. To me they were Aunt Viola and Uncle Andy.
Dad's book was Jeremy Swann, a what-if historical novel. Jeremy Swann is a blond sixteenth-century English shipwright, who is captured by Spaniards and enslaved in Cuba. Jeremy and three fellow slaves escape in a sloop built by Jeremy. They sail to Mexico, where they arrive months before Cortez. So, Jeremy, instead of Cortez, is mistaken for Quetzalcoatl, the Fair God. The four escaped slaves are taken to the court in Tenochtitlan, where Jeremy becomes the military engineer for Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec military leader and brother of Moctezuma. As a result, the Aztecs beat the Spanish invaders and expel them.
I had a trade school education:
At Dartmouth College, the best of my education came by working on the school daily and through summer reading. Very little of my college class work impacts me today. In contrast, I received four great learnings in high school—how to touch type, parallel park, compute by slide rule (significant for thirty years), and how to french kiss.
I was a reader before I went to college, and I've been a reader ever since. So, I didn't have four years of an Ivy League liberal arts education; my entire life has been a liberal arts education. I treasure today only a few of the books that were assigned in college. Rather, the value of college classes was discovering books I really wanted to read. I read them during summer vacations. For example, I read parts of The Brothers Karamazov during lunch breaks at a boat works in Holland, Michigan, and Crime and Punishment while housebound in Washington, DC with a horrible case of poison ivy.
Ironically, my best college course came in high school. The first semester senior year, I took a drama course. We read and discussed five plays: Agamemnon, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, She Stoops to Conquer, and Death of a Salesman. But in November, I caught the flu and was out of school for nearly two weeks. During that time, I read thirty-two plays—far beyond the scope of any college drama course. To my delight, I discovered George Bernard Shaw, and he has warped my sense of playwriting ever since.
I learned Russian at the Army Language School in Monterey, and then forgot it through disuse.
At Harvard Law School—well, HLS is a trade school. The wisdom and examples of my professors, however, still have great impact on my thinking and action.
I went through the General Electric Employee Relations Management Training Program. At GE I took an excellent weeklong course:
The Intensive Interviewing course at General Electric-Schenectady taught me more useful psychology than my psychology minor at Dartmouth.
In the 1970's, HUB Services in Cincinnati sent me to a weeklong course in Columbus, Ohio:
The Grantsmanship Program out of Los Angeles has been more useful than my Harvard Law School JD. My main skill ever since has been as a fund-raiser writing proposals to foundations. For various organizations, I raised nearly six million dollars.
Other than that, I'm mostly self-educated—as is anyone over forty who is doing creative work.
There were other events along the way—
In the summer of '54, I was an intern in the Washington office of my Congressman, Gerald R. Ford, Jr. From Mr. Ford's office, I toured the Federal government, a better education than a political science major.
For other summer jobs in college, I worked on newspapers.
After graduation from college, I was the political reporter on the daily in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. I was also an alternate delegate to the Michigan Republican convention in 1956. As a reporter, I had enough direct contact with politicians to affiliate with other newspaper people in the Cynical Party.
For both of my law school summers, I was a sailing instructor—first at the Beverly Yacht Club in Marion, Massachusetts and then at the Biddeford Pool Yacht Club in Maine.
My sailing experience and working with General Electric were educationally at least as valuable as college at Dartmouth.
I was impressed that Dartmouth, Yale, and Princeton accepted me. I chose Dartmouth for silly teen-age reasons, not realizing that the Ivy League has a pecking order. When some classmates learned of my acceptance at Yale and Princeton, they were shocked that I had made such a dumb college choice.
I expected Dartmouth to be a contemporary version of Plato’s academy. It wasn’t. It did much to discourage my intellectual curiosity. I was at the wrong school and didn’t have sense enough to know it. Had I been well counseled, I’d have gone to Swarthmore and been in the Honors Program.
For many Ivy League students, the great educational opportunities are incidental. They go for networking, but I was a naïve kid from Western Michigan who didn’t realize that—and I consistently missed great networking opportunities. And the opportunities were there, particularly at Harvard Law School, which is a prep school for demigods. President Obama is an alumnus. So is Mitt Romney. So are six of the Supreme Court justices. The other three went to Yale. Of my three closest friends at HLS, two became law school deans.
Educationally, the Ivies vary as much as other schools. For example, I had inept profs for my courses in Economics 101 and Plato. You might get better profs—and better education--at the local community college. However, other people won't think so. If you can attend a prestige university, do it.
Twice I've lived in California, twice in Manhattan, once in Florida. I've been in forty-eight states, Canada, nine countries in Europe, plus travelling to Thailand, Cambodia, Haiti, Mexico, and through Central America.
After law school, I climbed the corporate ladder for seven and a half years with General Electric. It was excellent experience. As an Employee Relations trainee for three and a half years, I participated in the Manufacturing Management Training Program and received instruction in such subjects as principles of management, computer theory, time and motion studies. A sample comment from our computer instructor: “Don’t let them make you into a programmer. Computer programmers are the file clerks of tomorrow.”
GE rotated me through five locations: Schenectady and Hudson Falls, NY, Oklahoma City, the New York office at 570 Lexington Avenue, and the jet engine plant in Evendale, Ohio, north of Cincinnati.
In Cincinnati I worked in the suburbs, but lived in a downtown apartment, in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati’s lowest income community and one of the Nation’s largest historic districts. I almost needed a passport to commute to work.
At the Evendale plant, I was first a shop relations rep—which was a great experience of factory operations. Then in 1969 and 1970 at Evendale I was the only white Equal Employment Opportunity manager in the General Electric Company. The job gave me exciting experience in fostering race relations, educational programs, and economic development. I left GE on leave-of-absence on December 31, 1970, and never returned.
I had grown up in church and was therefore invincibly ignorant about how to live as a Christian. I became a Lutheran in 1960, and in 1966 I was introduced to Jesus through the ministry of Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ. I received Jesus as my Savior on February 19, 1967, and began the lifelong struggle to follow him. I was baptized in the Holy Spirit in November, 1969.
In the midst of all this action, I left GE, became the community administrator for Over-the-Rhine, and then started up Sign of the Cross Housing, a non-profit housing development firm, which I directed for twenty-three years.
On July 20, 1970, I interviewed Margaret Heine, a Lutheran deaconess, for a job at our congregation in Over-the-Rhine as community minister. Margaret was a devout Christian and had a Masters in Sacred Theology from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. She was lively, brilliant, and fun. I realized that she was the woman I had been hoping, praying and longing to meet during the previous fifteen years.
She didn't get the job at our church, however. We married 104 days later on Sunday, November 1, 1970. On July 28, 1971, the anniversary of our first date, our daughter, Christie, was born. That was a tight production schedule. In the next three years, Margaret and I were blessed with two more children—David and Nancy Karis.
From 1967 to 2010, I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, in Over-the-Rhine. After marriage, Margaret joined me there. Over-the-Rhine was a great place to live. Margaret and I bought and renovated two homes in succession. Our kids grew up bi-lingual in English and Ebonics. As a result, they're at ease in a wide variety of social situations. They received excellent elementary education in Cincinnati's first public Montessori School. Then they attended Cincinnati counterparts for Boston Latin School and the school in Fame. Both daughters are college graduates. My son is self-educated.
While director for Sign of the Cross Housing, our firm developed quality, affordable housing for lower-income neighbors in Over-the-Rhine—without need for Federal funding. As housing managers, we salvaged 219 units and made possible a fifth of the home-ownership in our community, but that's not as flashy as it sounds. A fifth of the home ownership was twenty-two houses.
Also, when our children were little and my wife was at home, many weeks the firm could not afford to pay my salary. But, Jesus carried us through. Voluntary poverty includes great luxuries—you are blessed by the Lord’s miraculous care including provision of food and finances.
One time, we were at a church reception in the suburbs, and a woman gushed to me, "Oh, Jack, your life much be such an adventure!" My wife overheard and said, "Sure, for him it's adventure; for me it's stress."
Margaret and I were dramatically different. She was always in touch with her feelings; I seldom am. She was a world-class empathizer. Even if you were meeting her for the first time, she would go as deep as you wanted as fast as you wanted, but that kind of descent gave me the bends. Her final career move was as Chaplain with the Lutheran Federation at Cincinnati's University Hospital—an ideal fit for her aptitudes and interests.
An example of our differences: We spent our first anniversary evening in our kitchen with a young woman from Milwaukee. A friend of Margaret's, the woman was on speed and craved to get to her supplier in Lafayette, Indiana. Margaret was relaxed and understanding. She talked the woman into staying overnight at our place. During this session, we were sitting at the kitchen table—a good thing too, because my knees were jelly.
In contrast, Margaret did not have a large natural child. I do. She was the oldest of ten in her family. I was an only child. While Margaret was extroverted and related easily to teens and adults, she had lots of difficulties with our three children. Or rather, the four of us children.
Inside, she had a lot of German grandmother, but there she was, living with four beach bums. She had difficulty playing with our three, and chores were the worst problem. She was frustrated that they wouldn't do chores and clean up without being told, because that's what she did as a child. Growing up, she had to be the adult in her family. I showed her that our kids would do their chores if we worked with them. But her expectations didn’t match our realities. Finally, when our son was fifteen, she said, "You deal with him. I can't."
However, with our children’s education, she was a mother tiger. For example, in the third grade, our son was placed with a teacher whom she knew—and whom she knew would be in constant combat with our son. She managed his switch to another, welcoming classroom.
David began junior hi at the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, only a block away. He is a talented actor and played Boo Radley in the production of To Kill a Mockingbird. He and the school had mutual problems, so for high school, Margaret engineered his enrollment at Harmony School in Bloomington, Indiana, as one of the first out-of-town students.
She also made sure our daughters received special art education during grade school. In college, both majored in fine arts, and both became graphic artists.
Margaret was a true German in having a limited sense of humor. She found sight gags and pratfalls funny. But the raillery and sarcasm among the three kids and me went right past her and often angered her. She would occasionally say things that were hilarious, but she wouldn't realize it, because she was speaking wisdom.
Example: Christie married James Kim, a research physician, who was brought to the US from Korea when he was five. A week after the wedding, Christie called Margaret and said, "Oh, Mother, a cross-cultural marriage is so difficult." Margaret told her, "Aw, don't worry, Christie. All marriages are cross-cultural."
Did Margaret and I have a perfect marriage? Far from it. We had to work at it—a lot. For example in the Nineties, except for one year, Margaret was the victim of poor management as registrar for the Union Institute and University and as chaplain at University Hospital. Most evenings she had to vent when she came home—often for one or two hours.
I learned to listen and interrupt only with encouraging questions. While Margaret was a gifted empathizer, she had a void in coping with office politics. After she had voiced her hurt and anger, I’d often ask: “Do you understand what’s going on?” Sometimes she didn’t want to know. Other times she was willing to listen. Because of my personality and legal training, I’d have recommendations on how she could remedy situations. Some she was willing to try; others not.
In the Nineties, our marriage was financially stable for the first time, but there was another advantage to voluntary poverty—both daughters received huge college scholarships, and my Dad paid most of their personal college expenses. I had told them, “Every A you get in high school is worth at least a grand for college.” Today, that would be two or three grand.
Margaret was a passionately loving person—with Jesus, with me, with our children, and with the people in our congregation, Prince of Peace Lutheran in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine. Margaret was murdered by cancer in 1997.
Christie now lives in Dallas, Texas. She has her own graphic arts firm, and her husband does cancer research at West Texas Medical Center. When Christie was forty, she gave birth to Aedan Jaesu Kim. I enjoy visiting them in Dallas.
David and Karis both live nearby in Seattle. David is a professional in three fields: bartending, poker, and disc golf. We lunch every week and wrangle over a wide variety of topics. Occasionally, we discuss a legal question—his GED against my JD. He often has a better feel for law than I do. Recently I told him, “You’re the one who should have gone to law school.”
David is my hero. He began having problems with alcohol at fourteen. And then six years ago he went cold turkey—while continuing to work as a bartender. I wish I were as resolute in dealing with my cravings.
Karis is also a graphic artist. She and her family live in Shoreline, Washington, just north of Seattle. Ton Cady, her husband, teaches high school social studies in Lynwood. They have two children, Marin and Eli. Karis and Ton are amazing. Before Marin and Eli were in grade school, Ton and Karis split child rising fifty-fifty. He worked mornings; she worked afternoons.
Can I gush appropriately about my three grandchildren? They're each bright, with long attention spans. They're all readers. They're fun, energetic, and reservedly affectionate with me. My spiritual autobiography is dedicated to them.
Since Margaret's death in 1997, I've focused on being a playwright. Where did I learn about theater? There too, I'm mostly self-educated, with one amazing exception. After dabbling in improv for two months, I spotted a weeklong improv master class in Chattanooga. The teacher was Keith Johnstone. I went. Let me put this in perspective: Imagine that a person in 1745 had noodled with a pipe organ for two months, and then he went to Leipzig for a master class with J. S. Bach. That's the situation I was in—way over my head. Keith Johnstone is the man who brought impro from Britain to North America.
In 2010, I finished re-renovating our nineteenth century row house. I sold it, and on July 1, I moved to Seattle. Why? Because in October, 2008, Christie got me in a verbal full nelson and told me I had to move to Seattle and be part of my grandchildren's growing up. It saddened me to leave friends in Cincinnati, but I looked forward to new challenges, new opportunities in Seattle.
For the first three and a half years in Seattle, I lived in Ballard, which began as a Norwegian fishing village and is now Yuppieville. I found Ballard boring, so on January 31, 2014, I moved to Othello Place in South Seattle's Rainier Valley. My zip code is 98118, which has the greatest racial diversity of any zip code in the United States. I like it here.
One evening at dinner twenty-five years ago, Margaret asked me, "Inside your head, how old are you?" I truthfully answered, "Eleven.” Like any eleven year-old, I reveled in my own wonderfulness—not realizing that such a question should be returned. And so I missed the chance to find out how old Margaret really was.
Purpose of this blog is to compile books for my grandchildren to read in 25 years.
Copyright © 2015 by Jack Towe
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