One Great Life…Two Great Depressions?
Addressing our economy back in April, President Bush refused to utter the term “recession,” opting instead for dopey euphemisms like “tough time,” “slowdown,” and “rough patch.” But as the domino effect of Lehman’s bankruptcy topples bank after bank, week after week, the discussion amongst grown-ups shifts to the plausibility of “depression.” Facing such a bleak outlook, we thought it would benefit our readers to share a personal account of the Great Depression, not necessarily to judge the economic parallels, but for the anecdotal guidance only our elders can provide. Dave Crawford, a 92 year old retired law professor and veteran of WWII was 13 years old when the stock market crashed in the fall of 1929. Earlier this month, he spoke with People Are Amazing:
Johnny Williams: As a 92 year old who lived through the 1930’s, do you think that we’re approaching another depression?
Dave Crawford: Definitely. And I think we may be even worse off than we were then. I think the big difference now is that nobody even dares use the word “depression.” They say “maybe we’re in recession,” but I think the fundamentals are even worse than they were then. I hope I’m wrong. In 1929 it was like falling off the edge of a cliff, people starting jumping out of their offices in Wall Street…it was that bad of a crash. It wasn’t until FDR came along in the early 1930’s that we began to rebound. He did a remarkable job; he was a real savior for our nation. We have no such leadership in evidence at this point. FDR came right in and said, “listen, this gap between the rich and the poor is ridiculous” and he inaugurated plans like the National Recovery Administration that were anathema to the wealthy. But we don’t have anybody like that now to take hold and close the ever-widening gap between the rich and the middle class and the poor.
Johnny: What are your earliest memories of the Depression era?
Dave: What comes to mind more than anything else was the new junior high school in the suburban Philadelphia area where my family lived. They started building in 1928 and they had all the steelwork up in 1929, but at the time of the crash the construction just stopped. I still remember driving by the skeleton framework of the school that I was supposed to be going to that fall. Gradually they got back on track but that skeleton framework is still very vivid in my mind. Also I remember one of the dances at my high school where the charge was “a penny a pound” for your date’s weight. So if she weighed a hundred pounds, it was only a buck for admission.
Johnny: Did they actually make the girls get on scales?
Dave: Yes, they did! So it was best to be with a girl who was very thin!
Johnny: That certainly wouldn’t fly today! So how do you think the Depression affected the country as a whole?
Dave: I think back then there was a more realistic feeling about it. Everybody recognized that we were really in a depression, whereas I get the feeling now from the press that we’re still talking about whether or not we’re even in a recession. But nobody really seems to be using the “depression” word. Hopefully they’ve now gotten over that one and realized that it’s at least a recession. In many ways I think we’re worse off with things happening more gradually than before. But one of the saddest things about the Depression was the number of brilliant, talented and capable boys and girls whose parents could not afford to send them to college even though the tuition then was about $400 for a first-rate college. I think that the nation as a whole, in addition to each individual, suffered in the long run by not having these talented children developed at university and college levels. In my own class in high school some of the brightest children just couldn’t go on to higher education. As for how it affected my own mindset, I still turn out any light burning that isn’t being used even today. Coming from that time, I can’t help but do that. That’s the way everybody lived.
Johnny: Were people pessimistic during those years?T
Dave: No, no, no…I think everybody was upbeat. Sure, everybody was suffering to one degree or another, but you put your shoulder to the wheel and did what you had to do and hunkered down, no question about it.
Johnny: How do you think the style of leadership has changed versus Roosevelt? You said he came in as a “savior”…
Dave: I don’t see another Roosevelt on the horizon right now…unless it turns out to be Obama. I think he’ll have to be a lot more firm and aggressive than he’s been but understandably he has to be elected first and has to handle the political situation now as he sees it. I think he has the capacity to lead us closer to where we were than the alternative right now.
Johnny: What was special about Roosevelt in terms of his style of leadership?
Dave: Well, he was a patrician and people look up to presidents like that, even if they deny that they do. He came in and took hold quickly and his famous line, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” was dead right. Of course, we’ve been spoon-fed fear ever since the weapons of mass destruction and that’s what we have to live with now. But people look up to their government, whether they like to admit it or not, for the final analysis, they look for somebody to tell them what to do, a real commander in chief. And we haven’t had that lately. Until we get that back, it’s going to be hard to get back on track. We need leadership badly. Hopefully we’ll get it…if not we’ll have to sell the farm I guess!
Johnny: Where did people look to for information and guidance back then?
Dave: That’s an interesting question. I mean information has sped up so rapidly since those times. Its hard to imagine, but radio was the new thing back then. There was no television, no instant news. They had newspapers, but a lot of people never even got that at all. I think that communications and the media have changed the picture. There’s been a sea change.
Johnny: And do you see that for the better or for the worse?
Dave: Well it depends on who is manipulating it. It hasn’t been for the better recently but it can still be turned around. But I don’t think the media is totally to blame. By and large, they do a fair job. Obviously there are certain partisan publications. Always have been, always will be. What’s new is the speed, where now knowledge of what’s happening in India you know today, whereas in my time in the 30’s, it might have been a month or two later…if you ever found out at all.
Johnny: Finally, having lived through the Great Depression, what is your advice to people today?
Dave: Well I think that everybody has to size up their own situation and paddle their own canoe, do the best they can to economize and make the best of everything. But I think its vitally important that we try to elect officials into the government so that it’s a government “of the people, by the people, and really for the people.” That “for the people” part has definitely been lacking since the lobbyists took over Washington and particularly in this administration we have today. FDR was in tune to the needs of the people and he surrounded himself with those that could help get us out of that mess.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Dave!
More on Dave’s fascinating background:
Born in the Philadelphia area on January 5th, 1916, Dave was just 13 years old in the fall of 1929. But like many of his peers, the adversity of the Thirties accelerated his entree into adulthood. After attending Cornell University and Yale Law, he enlisted in the Navy in 1940, and for the next six years commanded subchasers, salvage vessels and oil tankers. In one of his more unusual assignments, he provided naval escort to the Duke of Windsor (once King Edward VIII, then Governor of the Bahamas) to the island of Nassau following the murder trial of Freddie de Marigny. The still-unsolved murder of Sir Harry Oakes had captured the world’s attention and the abdicated King was central to the plot. Amidst the stir, Dave sipped cocktails with the Duke, who he describes as a “very personable fellow.” Back in the states, he made a long career of law, once working under Herbert Brownell, eventual Attorney General to President Eisenhower. Dave ended his professional days teaching–his passion–at Quinnipiac University School of Law.