The Arizona Republic
GREAT DEPRESSION SURVIVORS
Stories By The Arizona Republic
They have seen much harder times than these.
They had Christmases when the only gift was a stocking stuffed with an orange, some walnuts and maybe a dime.
When they grew out of their shoes, some would have to go barefoot until the start of the school year brought a new pair.
They are the children of the Great Depression, but their memories are not bitter.
Today, they are thankful they lived during the 1930s.
That period taught them the value of hard work and saving money. It also taught them decency.
“I learned that people are what’s important,” said Terri Cruz, 81, who grew up in Tucson. “If people need help, you help them. If you have, you share.”
In 2008, many Americans are worried about keeping their jobs, paying their bills, and staying in their homes.
There are no indications that today’s financial crisis will mushroom into something as catastrophic as the Depression, but there is much to learn from the people who lived through it.
That period of the nation’s history was a defining experience for an entire generation because it lasted so long and was felt by so many.
“The Depression had depth and breadth,” said Jim Butkiewicz, an economics professor at the University of Delaware who studies the period. “It hit everybody or nearly everybody.”
From 1929 until 1941, this country was an economic disaster.
First, the stock market crashed. Then, the work disappeared.
By 1933, one-fourth of all workers and one-third of all nonfarm workers were jobless.
From 1929 to 1933, about 11,000 of the nearly 25,000 commercial banks in the United States failed.
People lost their homes and their farms.
“That’s an experience that changes behavior,” Butkiewicz said. “When you try to explain to people today what the standard of living was like, they cannot fathom it.”
People old enough to remember the Great Depression were young when it happened.
They did not understand the influences that savaged the economy; they may not have seen the worry in their parents’ faces.
But they were changed by the 1930s in profound ways. The most evident change was in how they worked and how they saved.
“When I was 13, my aunt took me to the laundry, and I was pressing soldiers’ handkerchiefs,” Cruz said. “That money went back to the house. I was making 23 cents an hour.”
Barney Garmire, 93, grew up the son of sharecroppers in Indiana. He went into law enforcement, in part, because it was steady work. He was Tucson’s police chief from 1957 to 1969.
“You really take the job quite seriously in hard times because everyone else is after it,” the Phoenix resident said. “Times were tough. That means you work like hell.”
During the Great Depression, the United States was a far more agrarian culture.
North Carolina State researchers say about half the population lived in rural settings, which meant people were better able to handle the most pressing need for a family.
After her parents died, Cruz, then 6, was raised by her aunt and uncle in Tucson. Her aunt and uncle raised 12 nieces and nephews, all orphans.
Her aunt had prickly-pear cactuses, so she could always make nopalitos to go with dinner.
“She was very good at planting vegetables, and she raised chickens,” Cruz said. “I don’t know how she did it, but she did.”
Children of the Depression learned many lessons during this country’s darkest financial hours.
They knew that jobs can disappear and savings can be wiped out.
“You take things as they come,” Garmire said. “You do your share to improve things. What you come across, you try to make it better.”
Great Depression taught lasting, positive life lessons
She never felt poor, never was unhappy
Terri Cruz, 81, has one vivid memory of her father.
“I can still see him standing in the middle of the street when the trains came in, and he would wave to the hobos riding the trains,” she said. “And he would say in a loud voice, to my mother, ‘Our guests are arriving.’ ” Her parents would invite the travelers home to share a meal.
Cruz lost her father when she was 5. She lost her mother when she was 6. She was raised by her aunt and uncle in Tucson in the depths of the Great Depression in a house full of children.
They had little money.
“For some reason or another, I don’t ever remember being unhappy,” Cruz, 81, said. “I did not feel poor. I’ve never felt poor.”
Cruz left school after the eighth grade and started working to help the family, which included 11 other orphans. She says she was glad to help.
“I may not be rich in money, but I am a millionaire. I have beautiful memories.”
Cruz had eight children of her own and has spent much of her adult life trying to help others. She still works as a social-services counselor in Phoenix for Chicanos Por La Causa, an organization that helps the socially and economically deprived.
“People are important. If people need help, you help them. You share.”
Lesson: Hard work will solve problems
Barney Garmire was 14 years old when the stock market crashed in 1929.
He does not remember much about it, he says, because he lived in rural Indiana.
“My mother was working as a salesclerk making one dollar a day,” Garmire said.
His father, sometimes a sharecropper and sometimes a traveling salesman, lost both jobs.
That was when Garmire, now 93, said he realized that hard work will solve a lot of problems.
In high school, he worked seven days a week at a grocery store. He, too, made a dollar a day.
The money helped – it was about enough to feed a family dinner – but it went quickly.
He later got a job through the National Recovery Administration, a New Deal program.
“I got a 40-hour-a-week job making advertising signs. Forty cents an hour. That was $16, and I thought I was rich.”
The money helped his parents and his two younger sisters, Alice and Betty.
“I am not the type of person to sing the song of woe to you,” Garmire said from his apartment at the Beatitudes Campus in Phoenix. “There was never a day when I was unemployed.”
Garmire was married for 54 years and had two children, but hard work remained a constant.
He went into law enforcement. He eventually became chief of police in Eau Claire, Wis.; Tucson; and Miami.
“Law enforcement is steady work. If you were good at it, you were protected,” Garmire said. “And it was good work. It made for a nice career.”
Home grew crowded as times got tough
When Mickey Cohen, 82, was a little girl, there were four people in her home.
Just she, her brother and their parents.
The four of them lived in an apartment outside Pittsburgh.
By the time the Great Depression was over, there were 11 people living in their home.
The rooms were filled with aunts and uncles and other people who needed help making it through the tough times.
“I was sleeping on a day bed with Sophie Petzak, a 14-year-old my mother took in,” Mickey said.
Mickey’s husband, Mel Cohen, grew up near Mickey. He says now that it was better to be a kid in the Depression.
“I don’t think kids ever appreciate hard times,” he said. “Kids kind of fend for themselves.”
Mel, now a doctor, was affected enough, however, that he can remember his first paycheck when he got out of the Air Force.
“I was making $160 a month, and boy, I thought that was all right,” Mel said. “Plus, I could eat at the hospital.”
Now, the couple live in a comfortable north central Phoenix home. But the lessons from their childhood remain.
“These were very rough times, but I learned the most valuable lesson,” Mickey said. “You help people. That’s what my mother taught me. If you have, you help.”