The Summer of ‘61

By Lloyd Graff

Teenagers de-tasseling corn. A traditional summer job in the rural midwest.

Summer jobs for younger people used to be common and highly desirable. Twenty years ago almost two thirds of high school kids found paid summer work. Today the statistics say only one out of three hold summer jobs.

Many factors have contributed to this fading away of summer employment. Unions are blamed for vetoing non-union hires in some plants and offices. Minimum wage increases make summer hires less attractive because employers have to pay inexperienced people more than they deem them to be worth. Wealthier parents often push their kids to volunteer or take enrichment courses or summer school makeups to help kids get into selective colleges. Physical challenges like Outward Bound trips are seen as character building exercises.

But the old fashioned summer job, like unloading a Pepsi truck or testing urine in a lab, or cleaning filthy machines, can be a character builder with a lot of value, especially for young people who have lived in relatively sheltered environments.

I remember my first summer job, when I was 16 years old. I put a $6 ad in the Chicago Tribune classifieds, under “situations wanted.”

I advertised that I had writing and journalism skills, which was accurate, even if it was for the sports department at the high school paper.

Amazingly, I got a call from a man named Hadley who owned a bulletin board publication called the Civil Service News and was trying to build a magazine named “Midwest Ports.”

He interviewed me at his office in downtown Chicago in the building next to the Schubert Theater, a live performance venue near State and Madison. I guess I passed inspection, because he hired me.

The job was an education for me, but not for the journalism. Hadley was a curmudgeon who had a drinking issue. He wore sunglasses in his office. I soon realized that “Midwest Ports” was a boring magazine that nobody was going to read, but the Civil Service News was a sought after rag that people coveted because it carried all the fresh job openings.

Things went quite well for about a month and then suddenly, without notice, Hadley fired me. He gave me no explanation. He just said, “kid, you’re fired, get out of here.”

I was aghast and perplexed. I asked the secretary bookkeeper who had befriended me in the office, what I had done wrong. She motioned for me to leave the office and go down to Wimpy’s restaurant on the first floor where she met me a few minutes later.

She told me point blank that Hadley had found out I was Jewish (how, I don’t know) and fired me “because he hates Jews”.

This was 1961, and I was 16, and my cool summer job was over. Boom.

I had made a few bucks, enjoyed the excitement of taking the Illinois Central train into downtown Chicago, and got a dose of anti-Semitism that I had only known about from my parents’ occasional stories.

I think that kids who don’t do summer jobs, no matter how menial or nasty, miss out on something important. They need to learn how to navigate the work world with its rigors and nasty folks. For the elite kids headed to fancy colleges it is a chance to work with the people they may have to fire one day in a managerial position. It’s part of the critical seasoning process everybody needs to be successful.

Despite it’s rude ending, I cherish that first summer job.

Question: What was your most memorable summer job?

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19 thoughts on “The Summer of ‘61

  1. Steve Ignots

    Working at Mickey D’s making buns (a full time job back in the 70’s. Regular burgers had two buns and Big Macs had three. It was hard to keep up with a really quick grill guy who could cover the grills with burgers of all kinds.

  2. Mike

    Great story Lloyd –

    Mine was working for a local oil jobber in Marquette – boss owned a couple Mobil Oil gas stations and did fuel transport.

    Got to load and unload 55 glom drums ny hand with a drum cart. Shot the shit with truck drivers, and pumped gas too (still had full service) / when I made some suggestions that were implemented – got a 10 cent raise – meant a lot.

  3. Art Santana

    Bagging groceries at a supermarket in Mexico with no pay, only tips. I made more money than regular employees, specially on weekends when all the Americans would cross the border to get cheap sugar and meats back in the middle 70’s. I fell in love with African Americans who were the more generous tippers. Caucasians were also the better tippers but I learn to deal with all kinds of people and cultures. And that is when my desire to immigrate to the USA begun. 35 years later, I am dreaming the American dream and very grateful for it.

  4. Russ Ethridge

    Working as a butcher’s assistant at a wholesale meat vendor in a large city. I’d drive to various slaughterhouses, pick up huge sides of beef or pork, hang them on hooks on rails, push them into the cutting room, then spend the rest of the morning cutting and boxing the meat for delivery in the afternoon. Cows walked quietly into that dark night but pigs squealed like, well, pigs. The best part was working in a cooler all day when my friends were sweltering with lawn or factory jobs and the little grill we kept out back where we had steak every morning for breakfast. It was more interesting than my other summers pounding out 273 Plymouth Valiant fenders an hours on a stamping line as an 89 day “wonder” not covered by the UAW contract.

  5. Tom Belville

    Spain’s Garage was my most memorable job. In a small town in Ohio we welded the old metal lawn chairs for the neighbor, worked on the town’s police cars, rebuilt cars and worked on lawn mowers, we did what we could mechanically mostly to satisfy our community, our neighbors. Spain was a fireman for the city as his main job so he depended on 2-3 of us to do the right thing for whoever walked through the door. He let me sand on his Model T (a prized possession) and I took part in rebuilding a late 50 or early 60 Austin Healey. I was 16 and now closing in on 62 and it was like it was yesterday. We washed parts in gasoline (didn’t know better), swept the wood floors and did all the neat stuff for the same couple bucks an hours, well almost $2. I learned so much from these guys and I can’t thank them enough for the lessons learned and allowing me to get involved in one of the best and broadest experiences of my life. To Wilson, Paul and Mr. Burson, THANKS

  6. GK Lindstrom

    My best summer job was a helper on a Budweiser delivery truck. Over 2500 cases of beer a day in over 100 degree weather and through an Indian reservation. Very interesting to say the least. One bar/ liquor store just opened back up after a riot closed it down. All the windows were plexiglass, the parking lot was beautiful in the morning, all that broken glass glittered in the sun and they only were able to purchase cans; not as easy to break a can over somebody’s head it guess???
    The problem we run into these days in the labor laws, no body under 18 can touch any type of machinery. I remember working at 12 years old in my dads shop, didn’t always like it, but I didn’t realize the advantage it gave me. All my kids started work in our shop at 14-16 years old and it was an experience that helped them develop skills they still use today. It’s a shame that there is so much standing in the way of youth trying to gain industrial type knowledge.

  7. Emily

    I de-tasseled corn in Dekalb, IL for two summers when I was 12 and 13. Hard work. On the school bus to the fields by 4am when it’s cold and wet, and the heat crept up on you slowly until the mugginess was almost unbearable. You’d board the bus to go home soaked head to toe with the day’s dew and sweat, covered with mud. One check at the end of the 3-4 weeks for about $550. When I was 14 I worked for my Dad’s Play it Again Sports franchise. Every teenager should work in retail at least once. Bailing hay was another regular gig. Still smell the alfalfa.

  8. Lloyd Graff

    Hey Russ, hard to top steak at breakfast listening to the pigs squeal before slaughter. Blood and guts on an idyllic summer morning.

  9. Steve M

    Blowing insulation in attics. There was a van with a hopper inside that needed to be loaded continuously or I was in an attic with a big hose and insulation flying everywhere.
    Worked for 2 weeks. Went in one day and the foreman told us the company filed bankruptcy. I was very upset that I would never get paid and apparently speeding home. Got a $120.00 speeding ticket. I often think about this when life gets difficult.

  10. Greg Knight

    I grew up in a small town on a 3/4 acre lot, and when I was old enough (old enough then might shock parents today) my family ‘job’ was to mow the yard. When I wanted paid for that, I was told that was my contribution, but if I wanted to get paid to mow yards, I could use the family equipment and mow other people’s yards. So I tooled around our neighborhood with a small Cub Cadet lawn tractor, a green homemade wagon, filled with a trim mower, and rakes. Actually, since my dad did the maintenance on the equipment I made good money for a kid in the 60’s.

    Plus got an education about quality of service provided, how to collect money, how to deal with people. Not complaining at all. Except the days I mowed yards beside the community pool and all my friends were there and I was on the other side of the fence mowing. Thanks Lloyd, haven’t thought about that for years.

    1. Big Al

      I still use the Cub Cadet tractor my dad bought new in 1961. Great piece of equipment. You can’t kill it.

  11. Victor

    Helped my stepdad build houses.

    In the thick woods of New Hampshire, mostly just the two of us and later on a few other guys also, we would pour the foundation, do the rough framing, electrical, windows and doors, roof, insulation, (he did the plumbing), drywall, flooring, and paint. They were 25’x25′ two-story chalets nestled in the woods. Starting in the spring there were serious mosquitoes and black flies – yet it was nice and healthful to be working outside all day. I did a lot of the sawing since I could read a tape measure and cut a (mostly) straight line.. I was mostly a lazy bookworm, so this very physical work was difficult for me. But I got through it.

    Now, I appreciate that training immensely. I own some real estate properties now, and I’m able to do most of the maintenance myself, or at least be knowledgeable about hiring someone to do the work.

  12. Mark McClain

    Started working at McClain Ice & Fuel in Fenton, MO in 1966 when I was 12 years old. The business was an ice house/freezer stocked with up to thirty-six 300 lb. blocks of ice. Each block was scored vertically and horizontally so an ice pick would split each block into twelve 25 lb. blocks. We also stored 50lb bags of cubed ice, and broke them down into 10 lb. bags. We sold blocks, cubed, and crushed during the day, and then blocks and bagged cubes by vending machine at night. Also sold charcoal chunks and briquettes, lighter fluid, and Pepsi products. Best job in the world in July/August!!!

  13. Christopher Ferrier, CA

    I delivered the Redding Record Searchlight, by bicycle, ages 11-13. The bundles of flat newspapers hit my driveway at 2:00 PM weekdays, and 5:00 AM weekends. My fingers turned black from the newsprint when I rolled and rubber-banded the editions. Sundays and Tuesdays were the thickest and heaviest with adds and special features. Fridays were thinnest, my favorite.

    I stuffed the rolled papers into canvas bags which hung from the handle bars of my mint green and hot pink Specialized Rock Hopper. When the bags tore from hitting my tire and brakes, I taught myself to sew to repair them.

    My route was 120 papers and 3 miles long. I prided myself on my ability to land the papers on peoples’ doormats all the way from the street. Though, I have to admit to a few roof landings.

    I collected money door-to-door. I paid the publisher a certain amount, and anything over I got to keep. Some of my neighbors tipped. Others asked if I would also mow their lawn, or water their plants or feed their dogs when they went on vacation. I got a gig putting in lawn sprinklers once too, from Mr. Medak.

    I always liked having cash. Still do. I savored the independence I felt when I hit the streets on my bike. I earned enough to buy good toys like a Mongoose BMX bike, a Crossman pump BB gun, and a Nintendo. And when I would go to Albertson’s, after my route on Sundays, and pick up 2 dozen “Early Bird Special” donuts, on my own dime, and set them on the table in front of my smiling family, I felt like King of the Castle! That is until I ate 5 donuts in one sitting and got cramps.

  14. Gene W

    Baled hay and straw for area farmers in summer of ’70 using neighbor’s tractor and Allis-Chalmers Roto-Baler, kind of a forerunner of today’s big round bales. It was a fairly complicated machine, and I learned a lot about mechanisms, repair work, and maintenance that summer. It was a great job outdoors that allowed me to meet some interesting characters. Made me a better engineer in my career.

  15. Maury

    When I was 12 my dad bought a gasoline powered lawn mower to replace our hand powered one. The mower was a bright orange Jacobsen reel mower, which was the equivalent of the Cadillac of grass cutters. It was my chore to keep the grass around our home neatly trimmed, and I never expected to be paid.

    The following summer I decided to use the jacobsen to make some money, so I built up a business by knocking on doors. I charged from 25 cents to $1.25 per lawn, which was the going rate for this work in my 1950s small Midwestern town. It seems like a pittance now, but a single scoop ice cream cone or a 6 oz. Coke cost a nickel.

    My lawn cutting work, which I repeated the following summer, gave me sales and price quoting experience, plus practice in satisfying my customers. I believe these are useful skills that have applications throughout life.

  16. Noah Graff

    Definitely Caddying.

    Apparently I was lousy at it. Only got the loops with the old ladies who gave 20 bucks for 4 long hours of the course.

    But the atmosphere was cool. The other kids (and maybe 2 adult caddies) were colorful and fun. They constantly tried to teach me to pitch quarters so they could take my money.

    Cards, and b-ball and Packman and food made waiting around all day usually fun (and exhausted most of my earnings). But fun and interesting nonetheless.

  17. Seth Emerson

    I started with a paper route. Being an “Independent Contractor” meant collecting the $1.75 a month from 100 or so folks. A real learning experience for a 12-13 year old. I moved to a daily after-school job cleaning up a small meat market, disassembling the machines, cleaning and re-assembling. Much mechanical knowledge gained. Summer time our city had a “jobs for youth” program turning a donated mountain area into a “Foothills Park” with trails, picnic areas. Outside all day, working hard. Sort of like the Army for a 15 year old (you were supposed to be 16, I lied). But the strangest summer job was assisting a mechanic at “Ted’s old Country Garage” an independent SAAB specialist. Doing oil changes, swaps, and rebuilding parts. Again, I learned a lot! But Ted had a temper, and when he would get pissed off at something, he would throw his tools. I learned, early on, to keep an ear open for cuss words, and prepare to hunker down! Sort of like hanging out on Facebook today!

  18. Gordy

    Definitely washing dishes at 14 years old at George Williams Camp in Wisconsin. 600 people, each using about 6 items between plates and glasses kept 3 guys hopping for 3-4 hours per meal

    The highlight was talking people sailing in the camps sailboats between work shifts though. The look on someone’s face when the boat starts moving with no apparent power source is priceless; I can still see them quite clearly 40 years later.


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