Opinion: Recalling the value of work

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By Ward Degler

In 1939, our nation was still sagging under the weight of the Great Depression. Virtually no one had any money, and thousands of American men were out of work. There was the Works Progress Administration, of course, the government’s program to hire men to build roads and dams and plant trees in our national forests.

Still, thousands more rode freight cars from one city to another because they heard they might find work there. Sometimes, they lucked out. More often, they just hopped another freight to another town.

Some of these men walked the country roads looking for jobs — clearing land, plowing gardens or chopping wood. Many came to our back door. Mom always made them a sandwich, for which they were grateful, often loading up our wood box for the kitchen stove.

Always, they asked if we knew of any work in the area. The desire for work was strong. And it didn’t matter what the job was. No one turned down even the most menial task if it meant a couple dollars in their pockets.

I grew up in that atmosphere with the understanding that after school and summers meant getting a job. I don’t recall ever not working.

My first job was mowing lawns starting around age 10. About the first of April, I’d start knocking on doors offering to mow what were often enormous lawns for as little as $5. My mowing funds enabled me to buy a bicycle, which I put to work delivering newspapers. For two years, I got up at 5 a.m., seven days a week, to sort, fold and deliver more than 100 newspapers.

Another early morning job was delivering milk from house to house, running from the milk truck to the house, picking up the empties and racing back to fill the basket for the next house. I made $8 a week in that job.

In high school, I worked for a candy store, a grocery store, a sign painter and a gas station, where I washed semi trailers and lugged heavy truck tires from the storeroom to the mounting racks.

Even in college, I worked at a drug store, a blue print company and a parking lot on nights and weekends. It never dawned on me to not have a job. As my dad often pointed out, “When a man does everything he can for himself, he preserves his dignity. If you do it for him,” he added, “you rob him of his dignity and self-respect.”

We didn’t have a significant welfare system back then, and everybody worked. Sadly, today’s abundant welfare system too often does for a lot of people things they could do for themselves.

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