Monday, March 12, 2007

Flashback: The Guilt-Free Paymaster Mother of Cook County—or What I Did to Enable Her to Beat Boredom.

chicagocity hall

[Memoirs from fifty years plus for my kids and grandchildren].

After Father was laid to rest at All Saints cemetery near DesPlaines, Illinois, following the funeral Mass at St. Juliana offered by one of his close friends, Rev. John Ireland Gallery, the retired pastor of St. Cecilia’s parish, Lillian and I—with all our kids—took a vacation trip with Mother to Colorado. It was by automobile and I’ll never forget passing through the state of Nebraska that stank of pigs…which has colored my memory of that state ever since. We were to Vail which was lovely in the summer (none of us skied anyhow). We stayed at the unoccupied home of Bob Stuart, the chairman of Quaker who graciously turned his luxurious condo over to us--and one of the thrills for the kids was riding the ski lifts. Vail is missing a bet by not promoting itself as a summer resort. It was probably one of the most beautiful vacations we ever had. The trip turned Mother into fine spirits after having gone through the ordeal of Father’s month-long hospitalization followed by his death and burial.

When we returned to Park Ridge, every evening after dinner I would drop by the Edison Park house to see Mother and chat. Not too many weeks into the Fall of 1966, she confessed to me that she was quite desperate for something to do. Father had left her very comfortably off—not wealthy but with a mortgage-free home, bank account, car and sizeable nest egg for anything she wanted to do. Did she want to travel? No, she had done a lot of foreign travel when she worked with Father.

She was a 70-year-old woman with a heart condition (she had had a heart attack a few years earlier) but she was intellectually vigorous and not exactly ready for senior citizens’ bus excursions to the Museum of Science & Industry or Brookfield Zoo. She had been a co-partner with Father in his travel office, arranging European trips for clients; beyond that, she had been working since she was sixteen (born in 1896, she got her first clerical job in 1912 and shortly after that had gone to work at J. Walter Thompson, rising through the chairs to become head of its production department by the time she left to marry in 1923). Then she worked for a time immediately following the 2nd World War and while I was at college, as a production manager at Sun Electric, a manufacturer of automotive testing devices; following which she went to work in the travel business as Father’s partner. They went to Europe with tours a number of times in the 1950s and `60s. She was far too vigorous a person to stay home, eat bon-bons and read movie magazines. But she was also seventy years old. What to do?

Everybody at J. Walter Thompson was either gone or transferred out—and the advertising agency business like it is today frowns on elderly workers. Ted Jardin, the mailroom boy who had become senior vice president, had moved to a top position in New York and understandably, since they had evidently meant a great deal to each other before she married Father, she didn’t want to ask him for a job. The restiveness went on for several months. Every evening I saw her, I noticed she was growing more apprehensive about not having anything to do. Then she began to feel ill. Conley told me it was inactivity. She was not one to go to movies or chat with friends. What to do? She frowned on volunteer work. When you’re a veteran of two World Wars and a Depression, the habit is ingrained in an hour’s work for an hour’s pay. Otherwise being a volunteer lady in, let us say, a hospital would keep her busy but there was enough feeling for pecuniary reimbursement in Mother to reject that only as a last resort.

Then, in the Fall of 1966, Illinois Republicans solved my problems by electing Richard Ogilvie president of the Cook county board, electing a Republican to Ogilvie’s sheriff’s post and also electing one as Cook county treasurer, part of Ogivlie’s machine buildup which would lead him to the governorship two years hence. So I began to think about the possibility of getting her a Republican patronage job. I couldn’t quite see her in a GOP patronage job for two reasons: (a) constitutionally and viscerally, she was still an Irish Catholic Democrat, Tom Cleary’s daughter, although the last national Democrat she had voted for was John F. Kennedy—and, of course, Mayor Richard J. Daley whom every good Chicagoan supported (including my Father, a conservative Republican). But (b) while she voted Republican for president after Kennedy, and had voted against Roosevelt…for Landon, Willkie and Dewey agreeing with Father…she was not particularly fluent or interested in Republican partisanship which would enable her to get along with GOP precinct workers who would fill patronage posts under Ogilvie. She constantly called Ogilvie “Oglesby” confusing him with the man who was governor at her birth, having pardoned some of the Haymarket rioters whose son was lieutenant governor in 1908 and 1916.

But, it seemed, patronage would be the only solution because there was—and still is—no limitation on age. But there would be a third reason that it might not work. Mother would not be a typical patronage worker as I understood them to be. A typical patronage worker would be one not so much interested in work as the paycheck, taking time off to work the precincts in election season etc. Mother was of the old private sector not political school—dedicated to hard work at whatever post she would occupy. She was definitely not equipped to take time off from government duties to be a Republican precinct captain, had no interest in that work. She didn’t know her own Republican precinct captain and oft-times didn’t bother to vote now that Father was not around.

But by 1966 I was fairly well known in Republican circles and could be counted upon to get a job for my Mother. But then there was sort of an agonizing ego problem for me. People would ask: why can’t this guy take care of his grey-haired, 70-year-old widowed mother rather than insisting she work? Why does he want this aged woman to work every day at a job rather than take life easy? They didn’t know Mother.

And the fact was that this energetic woman was driving me crazy and I feared that, bored as she was, inactivity might well work against her health. She was spending long hours at home, thinking-thinking-thinking: just the very thing she despised and had talked against all her life. So I pulled up my socks and went on the job search for her. There was a whole field of patronage openings in the Cook county treasurer’s office which was run by Edmund Kucharski, the Cook county Republican chairman and county treasurer.

So I talked with a good friend of mine, Brian Whelan, a top aide to Ogilvie. As soon as the inauguration season began, in January, 1967, he got her an interview with a deputy to Kucharski. The next thing I knew she was hired. And the very next thing I knew, she was promoted up to the auspicious post of paymaster of Cook county…responsible for seeing that all the work records and paychecks matched, for computing extra time and that kind of thing for the civil servants and figuring out the employment records for the patronage workers. She had a desk and office, her name on the door. What impressed her very much was that the pay was far more than she had expected. Neither of us had realized that patronage pay was that good. The paycheck gave her reaffirmation into her own worth at age 70. It added years to her life.

She was ecstatic. I checked with Whelan and told him that, frankly, I was surprised that they gave her such a important job, telling him that I hadn’t expected her to get all that glorious a job. He said that the day she was interviewed, the paymaster quit and they put her in the post temporarily while they looked around for something more suitable as a sinecure for a 70-year-old. But, throwing herself into the work of reassembling chaotic records, she would work well into the evening and had such a clear view of the administrative end by the end of the week that the county treasurer himself, not knowing her, didn’t want her to leave. Beyond that, she got to be buddies with his woman administrative assistant and they huddled at lunch deliberating on how to make the office more efficient. Kucharski was thrilled. It stunned me because I had not been on particularly close terms with Kucharski. I checked around and found that she was regularly being invited to senior staff meetings as a note-taker, production manager and expediter—similar to the work she did at J. Walter Thompson. I was delighted when she told me she was overjoyed and hugely grateful to me for helping her find this important post.

All went well for several months until I got a call from a high treasury official at the county who hemmed and hawed a bit before he could get to the point. As a matter of fact he didn’t get to the point on the phone. I said I’d go over there to see him and on the way I imagined that somehow my aged mother was turning people off in one way or another. Maybe she was failing (although I hadn’t noticed it). Maybe she was touting her old Democratic faith. Maybe the payroll records were getting goofed up and he was going to shunt her off to a lesser job.

When I sat down with him over coffee, I had the damndest time getting him to tell me what was the matter with Mother.

“She’s phenomenal,” he exulted. “Shows up earlier than anyone else except the Treasurer himself. Stays out of office politics; is a peacemaker; is diligent; is popular in getting along with the patronage workers like herself and also the civil service employees—also the Democratic holdovers who can be a real pain in the butt if they start working against this administration. She’s a mainstay on the office bowling team. They have a social club where they go out for dinner once every two weeks and she’s the life of the party so to speak.”

Well, com’on, I said, why am I here? What do you want to tell me?

“Well, I don’t know how to say it delicately.”

Well, then, damn it, don’t say it delicately. Tell me what’s on your mind.

“Well, as you know your Mother is one of the highest paid people here—because she’s gotten a number of merit raises. If she were to quit, we’d be in a bind.”

I command you, I beseech you to tell me!

“All of us are mystified that she has not contributed so much as a dime to the Treasurer’s campaign fund when he has a dinner. Everyone else does. These are $100 a plate things. Everybody else does it willingly. We don’t put the arm on anybody but she always returns the letters of solicitation with a neatly penned note that reads `no thank you.’ What bothers us is that people who earn less than she do. And no one, including the Treasurer, has the guts to ask her. You know, with what she’s getting, a $100 isn’t all that much once a year. And since she doesn’t kick in, people are getting the idea that they don’t have to—although she hasn’t said that to them. In short, Frances is perfect except that she won’t give a bloody dime to the Treasurer who hired her.”

Okay, I said. I get it. I neglected, evidently, to tell her about her political obligations. Don’t worry about it. She’ll be a team-player.

“Well, I feel awful about bringing it up--.”

Don’t. I’ve been around the track in state governments in two states. I’ll take care of it.

That evening after dinner, I dropped by her house.

I said: Mother, how’s the job going at the Treasurer’s office?

She said, “Wonderful. I can’t thank you enough. I’ve gotten two promotions since I’ve been there and am earning more than I even did with your Father. Can’t thank you enough. You want some cookies?”

Yes. Thank you. Mother, you understand you have a patronage job—that you are not only working at a relatively high job in county government, but that you have an obligation to the Treasurer to see that he stays in office…because were he to lose, you’d lose your job when a Democratic state treasurer gets in. You understand that?

“Absolutely. And I intend to vote for Mr. Kucharski and get my friends to vote for him. He’s a good, decent conservative man.”

Good. And you realize that in order to get reelected he has to campaign for the job—which means put commercials on television and radio, have brochure mailings go out to many thousands of households.

“What does that have to do with me?”

A lot, my dear. He has to pay the bills for campaigning. Campaigning costs a lot of money.

“Are you hinting that I am going to be moved to his campaign office?”

Not at all. They like you where you are. But I mean to say just this. You have your job in government but you also should feel that you have a stake in his reelection. That is why many people like you contribute to his reelection.

“Oh. I’m relieved I won’t be moving to the campaign office. And as for contributing to his campaign, well, of course, I cannot do that.”

Will you tell me why not?

“Because where I come from I have an obligation to work as hard as I can every day but not bribe anybody for my job. Years ago the Democrats wanted me to do it and I turned them down. If I can’t do the job, the Republicans can fire me and get someone else.”

Mother, it’s not a bribe; it’s a voluntary payment you make in good faith—in loyalty to the person who gave you the job so he will have the wherewithal to get reelected to keep you in that job.

She sniffed. “Sounds like a bribe to keep me working. Do you mean they will let me go if I don’t pay them to keep me working?”

Not in the slightest.

She said, “well, that’s good. For a while there I thought you were going to ask me to contribute from my salary to his campaign.”

I dropped the issue. And as I ate the cookies, I pondered this very long. It was an axiom of World War I, the Depression era, World War II that a hard worker be rewarded by ample pay and that there is no payoff on the side. She didn’t understand that there is an obligation beyond this to contribute modestly to an elected official. Certainly, she had never understood patronage and was not about to understand it now. Also, if I forced her to recognize the need to contribute she would not feel the same way about the job—that she had won recognition because of her ability. So I let it go.

Before leaving, I said:

Oh, by the way, a Kucharski fund-raiser is being held next Saturday and it just so happens I can get a free ticket for you. If I give it to you will you go?

“Oh,” she said. “I’d be delighted! I was hoping somebody would give me a free ticket at the office but they’re using the tickets they buy themselves.”

Hmmm. Was she purposely obtuse or hugely innocent? I never knew.

So for the balance of her service at the Cook county Treasurer’s paymaster, she went to Kucharski’s dinners on tickets others paid for. First paid by me…and then when I got more familiar with my own job, I discovered that my boss, Bob Stuart, regularly shelled out for dinner tickets which were distributed gratis to any employee who wished to go. So I got on the list, collected the tickets to Kucharski dinners to which no employee wanted to go--and gave them to Mother. Who enthusiastically went.

She had utterly no guilt-qualms about not contributing to the Republicans. Old people, I am told, have their mysterious ways. Now that I am more than two years older than she was when she died, I am told by young peers that on some things I am as still don’t fully understand her unwillingness to do this. But then I didn’t work during the Depression. I wasn’t reared as a visceral Democrat. I was reared in the era of the work ethic but not nearly as rigorously as were she and Father. I pondered as I drove home: was she slipping intellectually so she didn’t understand it? I decided she was not since she was so valuable to them in her responsible post. At age seventy was she—what was the term?—idiosyncratic?

Perhaps. And for the past few years, when on occasion I say something or write something that seems startling to some, occasionally people to look at me queerly I have the feeling that they are attributing to me the same suspicion I had of Mother: saying, “well, he’s 78 and, sure, he’s idiosyncratic but at his advanced age who isn’t? Maybe we will be if we get there as well. Humor the old guy, gently change the subject and maybe with luck he’ll forget all about it.”

But on reflection, I suspect she was not being idiosyncratic at all but canny, born of a lot of experiences in the ways of the world. She trotted out to all the Kucharski dinners, table-hopped and would sip an obligatory martini with her co-workers when her immediate boss treated, enjoying the dinners on “comp” tickets I collected, had a wonderful time, improved her reputation as a working Republican. And not a word to her friends about her tickets being “comp.” They thought she paid. The higher ups understood but since she was getting the tickets from Quaker, they shut up about it. Her quiet discretion made me think: Canny of her.

But also canny of me to scrounge the “comp” tickets and give them to her. In that way, she led me to make a fine art out of scavengering “comp” tickets to give to her. As time went on, in addition to buying my own, I’d hustle for her Ogilvie tickets, Bill Scott tickets, Dirksen tickets (which she loved because she enjoyed his mellifluous language), Percy tickets (which she disdained because, she said, “he’s sort of snooty”) and even Nixon tickets about which she was ambivalent (saying to me once “he looks like he has bad breath”—a brilliant observation). Hustling free ones for her was fun although I had to kick in myself often to Kucharski in order to get her to attend and have fun at his fund-raisers. My tongue is still sore from when I bit it on hearing people say, “your Mom is such a great Republican—attending all those fund-raisers! Is that where you got it?”

Usually parents are responsible for creating lasting guilt in their progeny that is transmitted to the next two generations at least. I have always felt bad when someone I wanted to win, lost—even if I had contributed, thinking guiltily I should have given more.

But that’s my own hang-up. It’s a guilt neurosis I got on my own. Not from Mother.

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