... and a whole lot more that he just didn't know
Poor dad --farm boy from the Hardscrabble Road--entered 9th grade twice, in 1921 and 1922. Both times, he quit by midyear and never went back. A few remembered him--dimly--in connection with farm odors, schoolyard scuffles, and failing grades.
Now, 27 years later, he was telling me how to get a college scholarship. In fact, without even asking me, he rose to the trouble of using the phone, at the mill where he worked, to arrange a meeting with the City Scholarship-Fund Committee, set up to aid “deserving and needy” graduates of Edward Little High School, in Auburn, Maine--which I attended four years and Dad five months.
“Needy,” I was, but “deserving“? How to hell would Dad know what high school, let alone college, meant by the word? I was one of 40 grubby kids from the sticks who, all my freshman year, trailed the scents of hay, clover, or worse; and my next three years, those of Eddie’s Diner: French fries, hot grille-grease, ash trays, and sweat--where, half a block away from the school, before and after classes and from 6 to 8 hours a day, I scrubbed pots, pans, ceilings, windows, and floors.
And my grades were lousy. When I wasn’t working, I was at the Public Library “researching” the high school debate topic--anything to avoid regular school assignments. We did have a good debate team, but I knew that scarce scholarship dollars went to star athletes and classy Honor Roll students; I was neither; not by a long shot.
But school-dropout Dad had no perspective at all; he was impressed--with my high school diploma and a couple of newspaper articles connecting me with interscholastic debating. He couldn’t understand why just the thought of asking a gathering of big shots for money was a humiliation to me. I argued that, having been passed over, justifiably, by the high school faculty the previous April, an application now would be regarded as a joke and a waste of everybody’s time. Much as I’d hate to, I’d sooner quit college than go through with it. But, he pleaded, tears and anger in his eyes--I’d never before seen him this way--and I, with much reluctance and dread, gave in.
Regarding humiliation, Dad claimed that Hobart Kilgore, his big boss at the mill, who had put him onto this bright idea in the first-place, assured him--not to worry, there would be only one or two men--hardly an audience--on hand to ask me a few simple questions: all over in 15 minutes. Well, as with a number of Dad‘s notions, this was really screwball: The "one or two men" turned out to be more than a dozen--the entire Committee: grave, well-dressed, important as hell.
Judge Curtis Webber, age 44, by far the youngest of the group, had just been appointed to the State Supreme Court. He and Millard Stevens, Treasurer of the Auburn Savings Bank, were co-chairmen of the Committee. Serving with them, at this specially-called noon meeting, were the ancient Congregationalist preacher Dr. John Calvin Branch, woolen mill owner E.F.Abbott, men’s-clothier Lewis Flanders, and 12 others, who also ranked high in the Auburn, Maine thanage. Finally there was Mr. Arnold Westerberg, then in his fourth year as Principal of Edward Little.
About “Westy,” Be sure I was not glad to see him. He was perceived by most of us students as a tad too dignified and distant; and he wanted to keep it that way. He knew very little, if anything, about me, and I had no reason to believe he liked what he did know.
The stakes were clear enough and very high. Either get some money out of this group (fat chance) or, at the end of January--only two weeks away--leave college, probably for good. Too bad, I’d have finished only half of my Freshman year. But, truth be told, finances being what they were, I had never counted on going any further.
The Judge introduced me and for four minutes of torture, I explained to unsmiling faces, lining each side of that long table, how much money I needed and why. Then Principal Westerberg (who else?) was called on to “shed some light on the applicant’s character and scholarship.“ Did the Judge say, “shed some light?“ “Sink his poor little lifeboat!“ was more like it. Oh, Westy, would be fully prepared for this meeting alright, and all too familiar with my school record; even if it could be glossed over, he was not the man--no, no, no--to do it.
Well, a surprise! More than doubling the number of minutes I had taken, what did the majestic, forbidding, and impeccable Principal of Edward Little High School do? He dwelt on scrubbing dishes, mopping dirty floors, rising at 5 a.m., my attendance record, and debating. Not one word about my scandalous report cards’ Cs and Ds! And ending on a “gentlemen, time-is-of-the-essence” note, he left no doubt whatever that I had his warmest backing. Ah yes, by God, I was going to make it after all! Judging by the nods and murmurs of his listeners, I was; I was going to make it, sure!
Then that damned Treasurer Stevens spoke up:
Gentlemen, this is most embarrassing--we all assumed, I know I did, that the applicant, a graduate of Edward Little High School, was a resident of Auburn; it wasn’t until he introduced himself as coming from the Town of Poland that I realized his request, even this meeting today, is absolutely and entirely out of order. Our Authorizing Charter, on page one, starting at line three, could be neither clearer nor more emphatic: “Recipient must be a resident”--I repeat--‘must be a resident ' of the City of Auburn, Maine!" Then, and only then, does the Charter refer to requirements regarding rank in class, school citizenship, certifiable financial need, et cetera, et cetera.
Shudders--regret for me, anger with Stevens--pervaded the room. But barely had the Treasurer sat down, when Reverend Branch managed to get up on his unsteady, old legs--After all these years, how clearly can I see him, introducing his remarks with one full-size blow-out of the imaginary 88 candles on his last birthday cake; and again can I hear the high pitch and quaver of that old man’s voice:
Gentlemen, there is no need for us to be derailed by what can amount to no more than a trivial, legal technicality! But why should I argue the point when we have, right here amongst us, one of Maine’s most learned, trusted, and respected jurists, appointed by Governor Fred Payne only last week, to the very highest court in the State. I refer, and defer, proudly to our own esteemed colleague, Judge Curtis Webber--
My friends, I fully agree with the Reverend Dr. Branch. Enforcement of this clause would be, at best, purely arbitrary; and it is only likely to result in frustration and subversion of the Charter’s, and our Committee’s, most useful and genuine purposes. Gentlemen, it happens this is my swan song--I depart Monday-next for Augusta. I'll take with me many warm and pleasant memories, of you and of the work we’ve done together. On a very personal note, allow me to say, and I do want to say, that no memory could be of greater satisfaction to me than to know that my last official act with you was to help this young man over a truly rough spot. We see him sitting here, and we can feel his anxiety, awaiting our decision--knowing, as each one of us must also know, what we decide today might well mark the most critical and central point of his life. Please, I beg you, join with me in voting to send him back to college...where he belongs! And, excuse me Reverend Branch, to hell with what town he comes from!
Years later, lawyer friends would assure me that, no doubt, old Stevens was correct in the first place, and the judge had to have known it. For that matter, the rest of the group were not exactly what you’d call “schoolboys” either; they must have known it too. But, especially after Dr. Branch's moral suasion, the judge needed only to suggest a basis, any basis at all, for circumvention of the Charter and all of them, Stevens included, went for it. “A trivial legal technicality,” indeed!
I don’t remember ever getting, before or since, a unanimous vote. Not concerning anything important to me anyway. But I got one that day--along with a gift-wrapped necktie from Lew Flanders.
This last, I later tried to give to Dad; but he reminded me that he already had a necktie. Besides, he said, he wasn’t really in need of anything.
And, damned it, you know he wasn't.