Listen to the Memoir
Richard’s daughter Margaret recorded Richard reading all 26 chapters of his memoir, and added music to punctuate the humor and drama of the story. Click on the links below to be directed to the blog post, where you can listen to the recording. You can also download the podcasts to add them to your music library from here.
2021 Update: During the coronavirus pandemic, Margaret and Richard collaborated on another podcast, Keeping Dad Alive. Episodes 2, 3, and 4 of Season 2 explore his early years.
Chapter 1. The Making of a Political Consciousness
Born in 1925 in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan’s East Side, Richard grows up in a working class German-American family surrounded by immigrants from the now defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. Scenes of the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler in Germany, and anti-Semitic sentiment become etched in his memory. Richard receives an early political education from his Socialist cigar maker grandfather who emigrated from 1880s Germany, by hearing over-the-counter conversations about European politics at the butcher shop where Richard worked on Saturdays, from the Franciscan priest at the Hungarian parish where Richard made meat deliveries, and through his aunt Augusta Wagner, who in 1937 returned to Yorkville while on furlough from occupied China, where she was a professor of economics at Yenching College for Women in Peking. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 2. The Sidewalks as Playground
Richard’s first ten years on First Avenue lay the foundation for life ahead. Within a three block radius of his tenement is a whole world. Eightieth Street and the sidewalk are his playground, where he makes “hot mickeys” with a lump of coal and a purloined potato. The shops on the block provide everything his family needs: a bakery, a grocer, a fruit and vegetable market, an ice cream parlor, and his own optometrist. On 82nd Street there is an elementary school, on 80th Street and Second Avenue a Sunday School for religious education, on 79th Street a public library for exploring the world. For Richard, these were the essential building blocks for integrating life and preparing for the future. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 3. Life Leaves Grooves on WindowsillsRichard’s family lives in a front apartment on the top floor of a five-story “old law” tenement. Shared toilets are in the hall, the kitchen is heated by a coal stove, and clothing is washed in the kitchen tub and dried on the roof. The front apartment windows look out onto First Avenue. The windowsill is the instrument of social interaction between neighbors and the social control of children on the street. On one occasion, Richard sees a delivery truck accident that exposes the presence of an illegal booze still in the neighborhood. A front window also opens onto a fire escape. One night, Richard’s mother wakes him up in a panic. Richard is carried by a fireman through the window and over the fire escape to safety. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 4. The Games We Played
Friendships on New York City streets are made and solidified by the games young Richard plays after school and on Saturdays. Games are played on the numbered side streets where traffic is less intense. The games are mostly street versions of baseball and are played with a “spaldeen”—the street name for Spalding, whose trademark is on a hollow rubber ball. Which game is played depends on how many people show up on the block. The games begin when two are ready to play handball. When four are present the game is point ball off a tenement stoop or a building ledge. If eight, the game becomes box ball with a rectangular “diamond” chalked in the street. If ten or more show up, stickball becomes the game of choice. Stickball is not appreciated by the tenants in the apartments nor by the local police officers who are ever on patrol. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 5. Making a Day of It
Plagued by her tuberculosis, Richard’s mother yearns to raise her children outside the city. On special days, she takes Richard down to Penn Station in the early morning to board a train for Newark, New Jersey—a whole new world. In downtown Newark they take the trolley ride to the outer suburbs where the Rehling cousins live. The warmth of the Rehling family lifts his mother’s spirit and opens Richard’s view to life outside of New York. On the return trip, Richard reflects on what life would be like for his mother to have a place like the Rehlings. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 6. A Summer to Remember
Richard’s mother, Henny, pays constant attention to protecting Richard and his younger sister, Erna, from her tuberculosis. One summer, through the help of a tenement neighbor, Henny sends Richard to live with the McCreery family on a farm outside of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. At the McCreery’s, Richard learns quickly about farm life. Children who grow up on a farm, he discovers, know more about the facts of life than any of his New York street gang. Richard finds the old swimming hole in Cherry Valley a great respite on the hot summer days. It was certainly more inviting than the garbage-filled East River, Richard reflects. During his visit to Cherry Valley, Richard encounters his first rattle snake on the McCreery lawn and takes an unexpected journey to the Stroudsburg hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 7. Getting Religion on the East Side
Richard’s grandfather, Richard Poethig, emigrated from Saxony, Germany, during the anti-Socialist campaign of Otto von Bismarck. He sees organized religion as antagonistic to the cause of working people. For Richard’s mother, a religious upbringing was essential to life. Her tenement neighbor, Emily Masek, encourages Henny to enroll Richard in Good Will Sunday School, an East Side mission of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. At Good Will, Richard learns about more than the Bible. He discovers the wider world on field trips to the countryside and the lower East Side casbah, and through participation in a model League of Nations, where the invasion of Abyssinia by Italy is up for discussion. In loyalty to his street friend Tulio, Richard plays the part of Italy. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 8. Moving on Over
Good Will Sunday School prepares working class children in the Yorkville neighborhood for future membership in Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. When the time comes for Good Will students to make the transition from their home neighborhood to the church on Madison Avenue and 73rd Street one mile away, many do not make it. The psychological distance is even greater than the walking distance. In Richard’s case, Horace Hollister, the devoted choirmaster and youth leader, helps Richard break through the wall of established social cliques at Madison Avenue. Richard makes friends and eventually takes on a leadership role among the young people. Click here to comment on the blog.
Chapter 9. Facing a World at War
The late 1930s was a period of mounting tension in the world. People were on tenterhooks waiting for the next explosion in Europe. Richard rapidly advances through junior high and into the High School of Commerce in 1939. One Monday in December, 1941, the students are called into the auditorium to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio over the speaker system declare war on Japan. Too young for induction into the army, Richard works at Best & Co. and buys his first Harris Tweed suit. Next he gets a job with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians in the shipping department. Here Richard learns how business gets done and how to be entertained along the way. Upon turning 17, Richard submits himself for the draft but is rejected. Richard resolves to go to college. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 10. A Turn in the Road
Richard’s attempt at working during the day and going to night college at the City College of New York fails. Restless in his effort to further his education, Richard determines to attend college full-time. But he is caught between two philosophies of life: his father’s hard work ethic which saw Richard’s responsibility to help meet the immediate expenses of the family, and his mother’s long view, which saw the need for Richard to prepare himself for the future. An uplifting experience at church points Richard in the direction of the ministry. With the help of friends at the church, he chooses the College of Wooster, an exclusive Presbyterian college in Ohio. At the same time, his mother’s health is failing and family tension mounts. Knowing the implications of his decision, Richard chooses to take the turn in the road that leads away from the past and into an unknown future. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 11. Going West!
Boarding the Broadway Limited at Penn Station in January 1945, Richard begins a new venture. Descending the train in the gloom of winter in Wooster, Ohio, is a sobering experience. Richard faces the uncertainty of college life and its requirements. There was housing and work to find and the intense pace of academic learning to tackle. Richard’s heavy New York accent marks him as an outsider among the mostly female student body at the College of Wooster. In the midst of his anxiety over his mother’s declining health at home, Richard breaks through on the academic frontier. At the same time, history was changing fast: President Franklin Roosevelt dies, the war in Europe comes to an end, and in the fall the campus spirit takes on a new vitality. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 12. A Time to Live, A Time to Die
In September 1945, the war is over and former students, now veterans, return to the post-war world. Richard learns the value of a liberal education at the College of Wooster, where the study of science and religion are complementary. He holds down three jobs on campus to cover expenses. In December, his father, Ernest, falls from a ladder at work and fractures his skull; the accident causes epileptic seizures. Henny, Richard’s mother, leaves St. Francis Tuberculosis Hospital to care for Ernie at home. Richard rushes back to New York to help. He takes his mother back to St. Francis, and, believing the situation at home to be stabilized, makes the decision to return to Wooster. During Easter break, Richard is urgently summoned back to New York to be with the family in his mother’s final hours. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 13. Reclaiming A Heritage
Richard returns to Wooster after his mother’s death emotionally drained. With the encouragement of his friends, he runs successfully for the Student Senate. In New York for the summer, Richard witnesses one of his father’s epileptic seizures. Richard remembers the fun times he had with his father going to Giants games and “crabbing” on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. They had gotten along well, but Ernest would never understand Richard’s aspirations or his decision to go away to college. Back at Wooster in the fall of 1946, Richard throws himself into his academic work, four jobs, and campus political and social activities. He earns a reputation as “in the black” Student Treasurer, and helps organize a chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy. He runs for president of the student body and loses in a run-off election. Moving on, Richard is elected as president of “the Big Four,” representing the four major religious organizations on campus. Richard’s leadership in the Student League earns him a summer job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 14. A Union Summer
During the summer of 1947, Richard works for the Dress Joint Board in New York City’s Garment District. The experience heightens his liberal sensitivities toward the issues of working people. His fellow workers clue him in on the ideological struggles within the union, including the affiliation between some garment manufacturers and organized crime in an effort to control the union. Richard listens to the stories of hardship of the workers applying for unemployment benefits. The stream of people he interviews resembles the cast of characters in Leo Rosten’s The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, with their unique accents and creative and amusing way of speaking the English language. From his co-workers Richard learns more about the Young People’s Socialist League, whose members were called yipsels. The summer experience affirms his growing interest in organizing a liberal student movement. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 15. A Turning Point
Richard’s leadership of the Student League for Industrial Democracy on the Wooster campus has not gone unnoticed. Dr. Ver Steeg of the Geology Department, one of the faculty’s conservative members, confronts Richard about information he has received from the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Congress about the Student League in the 1930s. Richard deflects Dr. Ver Steeg’s finding, pointing to the collapse of the Student League at that time and its rebirth in the post-war period. Leading up to the 1948 Presidential election, the Student League leverages the mock Republican Convention on campus to promote its agenda by nominating a liberal Republican, Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, as a candidate. Although derided as a non-candidate by the conservative Republican student participants, Morse runs second to Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. On a trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby against the peace-time draft, Richard meets with Senator Morse, who commends the Wooster students’ efforts. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 16. The Shaping of a Socialist
In June 1948, Richard prepares for his upcoming study trip to Canada to see “democratic socialism” in action. The governing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party in Saskatchewan was holding its convention in Moosejaw. Before he leaves on his journey, Richard hitchhikes 1,000 miles from Greenwich Village in Manhattan to the Madison, Wisconsin, farm of Walter Uphoff, the Socialist candidate for governor. In Madison he joins a group of eighteen students. Richard decides to throw in his lot with three other men and travel the remainder of the way in E. Scott Maynes’s Model T Ford half truck. At the CCF convention, Richard is moved by the down-to-earth delegates and their pragmatic concern about how the government programs were serving the people. In meeting one of the CCF’s founders, Richard validates his conviction that there is a place for religion in social and economic justice. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 17. Up on the Co-op Farm
After the CCF convention, the students move on to the provincial government in Regina, where they visit offices responsible for universal health insurance, universal auto insurance, and new industrial ventures. The study tour officially ends, but the “Model T Four” sign up to work on the newly organized Carrot River Co-Op Farm in the sparsely settled, harsh northern terrain. The six-day work week was long and hard, broken up three times a day by a bell calling the workers to the dining hall for meals. The co-op members cleared deeply rooted trees and sawed and planed the trees in a lumber mill for materials to be used in building the settlers’ homes and community facilities. Leaving the farm after a week of heavy rains, the Model T gets stuck in the mud. The farmer who pulls them out gives them a piece of Saskatchewan advice: “Choose your ruts carefully and stay in them till you get to Prince Albert.” Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 18. The Election of 1948
Richard’s Saskatchewan experience opens him to join the Young People’s Socialist League on his return to New York. He spends the 1948 fall election season organizing student chapters of the League for Industrial Democracy on college campuses. The presidential election campaign brings on the prominence of the Progressive Party and Henry Wallace’s candidacy. Richard is impressed with the Madison Square Garden gala and presentation of Henry Wallace as Progressive Party nominee and is moved by the performance of Paul Robeson. But his loyalty to the candidacy of Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate, is not swayed. He poll watches in his Bronx district and waits for the results at the Socialist post-election gathering at the Claremont Hotel. There he meets Vincent Sheehan, the author of a best selling book on Gandhi. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 19. Saying Good-bye
Richard gets together with old friends Jerry Pospisil and Dick Frothingham at a rathskeller in the midst of the Christmas snowfall of ’48 that leaves New York at a total standstill. Before leaving for his final semester at Wooster, Richard is elected national chairperson of the National Student League. He travels to Ottawa to represent the Student League at the Canadian Cooperative Commonwealth University Federation (CCUF) Convention. Next, Richard turns his attention to choosing a seminary. His course on Reinhold Niebuhr with Robert Bonthius, Wooster’s religion professor, confirms his decision to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Richard is accepted at Union and he leaves Wooster recognizing the college’s contribution to his expansion as a person and to his religious and political development. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 20. Beginning at the Beginning
As he enters Union Theological Seminary, Richard looks forward to his studies under Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most challenging theological thinkers of his generation. In his last summer at the Dress Joint Board of the ILGWU, he discovers Niebuhr’s name is well known among the garment worker officers. Educational Director Will Herberg, a former Communist, has been converted back to his Jewish faith by Niebuhr’s theology. Beginning at the beginning in Genesis, Jim Muilenburg’s dramatic teaching style fires up the seminarians for three years of prophetic learning. Richard soon learns that he is part of the “Golden Age” of teaching at Union Theological Seminary. His excitement is heightened by the critical view of preaching by George Buttrick, his pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 21. Reinie
At Union Seminary Richard decides to study Christian social ethics under Niebuhr. Richard immediately audits a seminar being co-taught by John Bennett and Niebuhr on “Christianity and Communism.” The seminar is prompted by the victory of the People’s Army of China in driving the Nationalist Army out of mainland China to Taiwan in 1949. During these years Niebuhr is invited by Secretary of State George Kennan to take part in policy deliberations. Richard comes to appreciate the more measured approach of Bennett in contrast to Niebuhr’s charismatic and exacting insights into world politics. Nevertheless, Richard is drawn to Niebuhr’s central insight about sin and power, and to his humanity as a New York Giants fan. In 1951, Niebuhr shares with Richard his theological response to Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.” Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 22. The Summer of 1950
Richard’s first field work experience is with the youth at Arlington Avenue Presbyterian Church in East Orange, New Jersey, where he puts together a program exploring world religions that includes a field trip to a Black Muslim mosque in Newark. Ultimately, Richard decides that the suburban environment is not for him. For his next field work assignment, Richard accepts an invitation to join the Ministers-in-Industry project organized by the Presbyterian Institute of Industrial Relations. In the summer of 1950, Richard goes to work in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. The job was both part of his theological education and necessary to help pay the tuition. Posing as regular college students, the seminarians get jobs in the steel mills in Pittsburgh and engage in seminars after work about the role of the church in the lives of working people. On the splice bar line at the Braddock Works of U.S. Steel, Richard learns about hard physical labor and worker solidarity. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 23. On the Line
On the job, the Ministers-in-Industry participants continue to shield their identities as seminarians to keep the situation real. After work, seminars and study visits deepen their understanding of the church’s responsibility with industrial workers. The seminar discussions are alive with the retelling of the day’s events and factory culture, as the seminarians become more engrossed with the lives of their co-workers. Study visits to United Steel Worker offices and the U.S. Steel headquarters, and to the rectory of Father Charles Rice, a prominent “labor priest” in the Roman Catholic Church, round out the program. The seminarians go through a sea change in their perspective on workers in industry, and the direction of Richard’s ministry is now more clearly in focus. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 24. An Adirondack Summer
During his second year at Union, Richard gives his first sermon in the wreckage of a violent wind and thunder storm that whips through the New Jersey Palisades community where he is doing his field work. Richard needs a change of pace for his second summer field assignment and signs up with his roommate, Jim MacNaughton, to work amidst the lakes and falls and trees in Upstate New York. In the Adirondacks, the two seminarians divide up the Sunday preaching responsibilities of a four-point parish centered at the Syracuse University School of Forestry in Wanakena. Richard gets his fill of fresh air and sunshine as he and Jim spend the weekdays saving White Pine trees from weevil damage in the forests planted during the New Deal. They return to Union with much preaching and even more “weeviling” under their belts. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 25. Starting a New Chapter
As seniors at Union, Richard and Jim are responsible for welcoming the incoming students through “round robins” hosted in the homes of faculty. Richard takes notice of an attractive newcomer in Jim’s group. He conspires with Jim (who owns a car) to drive Eunice Blanchard back to her residence at the James Foundation, with a stop on the way at the Gay Vienna, a German restaurant in Richard’s old neighborhood. Over apple strudel, coffee, and dark beer (for the men), Richard and Eunice begin a romance. And in less than a month, on Columbus Day in October, 1951, they become engaged. Click here to listen from the blog page.
Chapter 26. Leaving New York Behind
Richard introduces Eunice to the Poethig clan at a raucous feast at his aunt and uncle’s apartment in Yorkville. Eunice introduces Richard to her mother and brother at Christmas in Dayton, Ohio. They begin plans for a June wedding. All the time Richard is writing his senior thesis on “A Christian Doctrine of Work for a Modern Technological Society.” An intriguing job prospect is a new church project in a working-class, industrial suburb of Buffalo. Richard travels Upstate to meet with the committee. The folks in the Town of Tonawanda invite him to organize their congregation, and Richard and Eunice agree. They finish their studies, graduate, and head for Dayton to be married. The wedding on June 7, 1952, is a joyous assembly of people from both of their lives. The couple returns to New York from a honeymoon camping trip in time for Richard’s ordination at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 27th. Driving north out of New York City after saying their goodbyes, Richard watches the skyline change and is filled with a strong feeling that a new book is opening in his life. Click here to listen from the blog page.