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Region's Seniors Remember the Depression


By Amanda Cuda, The Connecticut Post


September 21, 2008

Henry Steffens has conflicting memories of growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. during the Great Depression. 

On the one hand, Steffens, now 80 and living in Fairfield, had a relatively comfortable life. Though his father was out of work for five years during the Depression, he always managed to find odd jobs that kept his family fed. His mother, meanwhile, was a seamstress, who always made sure that her family was clothed.

"We managed," Steffens said. "I never realized that we were poor. I never realized that my dad was out of work for that long."

Yet Steffens did not grow up blissfully unaware of the poverty sweeping the country during the Depression. He saw people evicted from the homes they could no longer afford. He watched as those now-homeless families stood on the street, next to their now-homeless furniture, with nowhere to go and no idea how they would survive.

"You'd see these people sitting there, forlorn, and just not knowing what to do," Steffens said. 

Steffens is a dispatcher at the Fairfield Senior Center, where he was interviewed Friday afternoon. He, and other patrons of the center, said there are some definite parallels between the Great Depression -- which began with the stock market crash of 1929 and stretched until the late 1930s -- and the economic hardships of today.

There's panic on Wall Street, rising unemployment and a record number of people losing their homes. Though many people in the region old enough to remember the Depression said today's crisis isn't as severe as what they lived through, they are worried about the state of the modern economy. 

"It's not as bad, certainly, but it is bad," Steffens said. "We are in times where we have to correct what's going on."

Most of his fellow patrons at the Fairfield Senior Center echoed that sentiment.

Leonora Cox of Fairfield is 100 years old, and still remembers when she came to the United States from England in 1938. Though her arrival coincided with the tail of end of the Depression, the country was still struggling. "Things were worse here than in England," she said. "There was no work anywhere."

Eventually, Cox said she and her husband "found something to do to make a few dollars," but life wasn't easy. Despite the economic problems facing the country today, Cox is optimistic that it won't result in a repeat of the Great Depression. "I feel that [the country] must have learned a lot of lessons from that and won't allow it to happen again."

David Cadden, a marketing professor at the Quinnipiac University School of Business, said there are definitely some similarities between today's economic climate and that of the Depression. 

Most of those parallels are psychological, Cadden said. Just as their Depression-era counterparts did, "people are going to increasingly worry about their economic future," he said.

They'll also worry that their children will grow up under worse conditions than they did, Cadden said.

Economically, things aren't yet as bad as they were during the Depression. For one thing, unemployment today is about 6 percent, compared with roughly 25 percent during the Depression. "We're not quite there yet," Cadden said.

However, today's society is more debt-oriented than that of the 1930s, Cadden said. So, if unemployment were to increase substantially, it could lead to a disaster, with many people being forced to declare bankruptcy.

But there's still a long way to go before we reach the world that Arthur White, 96, of Milford, lived in. White is father to seven children, the youngest of whom was born in 1941. Thus, during much of the Depression, he was charged with providing for a large family.

"It was pretty bad times," White said. "I held as many as four or five jobs."

Ralph Monaco, 76, of Trumbull, is too young to remember much about the Depression, but some details stick with him. He remembers that, during cold weather, he and the rest of his family had to huddle around the stove in their home on Grand Street in Bridgeport.

He also remembers that no one ever bought new shoes during the Depression. If the soles of your shoes wore out, new soles were hammered on. Sometimes, Monaco said, the nails would tear your socks. When it came to food, you ate whatever you were lucky enough to be served.

During that time, he said, "money was always tight."

However, some seniors compared the days of the Great Depression favorably to today. A group of women playing Pokeno at the Fairfield Senior Center said their Depression-era childhoods were relatively pleasant. 

Helen Chelak, 88, of Fairfield, was one of five children, cared for by a widowed mother, yet there was always food on the table. Her mother grew a garden, and raised animals -- including chickens, ducks, a cow and a pig.

"We always had meat and butter and cheese," she said.

Though it might not seem like paradise by today's standards, Chelak said her family lived a pretty nice life. That's probably because families back then had simple needs, said Grace Murphy, 88, of Fairfield.

Today, she said, people want too much. People, particularly children, are too greedy and hard to please. "When we were kids growing up during the Depression, we were happier than children are today," Murphy said. "They have too much."

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