I enjoy sharing my recollections of what I call “the early days”, growing up in small town Pennsylvania in the ’60s. Some of the stories are funny; some not so funny.
Probably, deep down inside, telling the stories is my therapy; it is part of the process of my development as a person, and it may explain why I enjoy being a lawyer so much. (See story below.)
My hometown, Lilly, is situated about 25 miles between Johnstown and Altoona, PA. In 1958, the locals were mostly of European stock: Irish, German, Polish, Czechoslovakian, etc. Significant to my socialization was the fact that prior to our arrival, the town was devoid of anyone “non European”. Imagine, if you can, a community that did not include a single African American, Asian American, Hispanic, or, in my case, person of Filipino ancestry. If you lived in Lilly and your weekday meal included something other than Irish stew, spaghetti, pierogies, hulupki, haluski, or sauerkraut, you were considered “foreign”.
Because of our outward appearance, my mother and I were considered “very foreign”. I began first grade in 1958, and it did not take very long for teachers, classmates, and their parents to question my ethnicity. Some of the questions were honest expressions of their curiosity about “the new family in town”; other inquiries were infected with the culture of intolerance that was small town Pennsylvania in 1958. (See if you can spot me, at right, in the top row of my 4th grade class photo, circa 1961.)
It is impossible to synthesize 12 years into a few paragraphs, especially when it involves your adolescence. The best I can offer is, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
An example of the “worst of times” included being initiated into a group of friends who decided I should be tied upside down to a stop sign in the middle of the town while my “friends” tried to set fire to the base.
In 1967, I began dating my childhood sweetheart. Her father was opposed to our relationship due to my ethnicity. I met face to face with him to plead my case; it was like a scene out of a movie. Although he ultimately relented, he was never happy with our relationship. Coincidentally, in that same year, Janis Ian, at the age of 17, wrote her Grammy Hall of Fame song “Society’s Child”, which described an interracial forbidden romance. The song appears on my iPod playlist today.
I am a person who firmly believes that if something doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. So, at some point in my adolescence, since there was nothing I could do about my ethnicity or my appearance, I decided to view my difference as a strength rather than a weakness.
If I was going to be perceived as standing out, I might as well try to be outstanding.
I formed a psychic-soul band called “The LSD” (The Last Sane Domain). The pinnacle of our success was reached when we opened for a group called the “1910 Fruit Gum Company” (Yummy Yummy Yummy, I Got Love in My Tummy). We were, by all accounts, the best psychic-soul band in Lilly, PA in 1969.
I was elected class president by my 263 classmates in my sophomore, junior, and senior years. By 1969, most of the intolerance and antagonism had either disappeared or was at least, no longer topical. By the time I graduated from high school in 1970, I felt securely embedded in the fabric of my hometown. They had taken us in, and made us one of their own. At the same time, my mother was encouraging me to leave Lilly and find a life elsewhere. The coal mines and steel mills which had been most of the local economy, were closed. Graduating seniors then, as today, faced limited prospects, and I chose to relocate to Washington, D.C. after accepting an employment offer by the FBI to work as a GS-2 earning an impressive $6,440.00 per year. On the Saturday morning following my graduation ceremony, I loaded my car and set off for Washington, D.C. The rest, as they say, is history.
Some might ask, “John, why share such personal details of your past?” The answer is because I believe that each of us come to this profession from markedly different starting points. Some, including me, made the journey on a road less travelled. We work day in, and day out, next to our colleagues for years – but the pace of the practice and of our personal lives often prevent us from really getting to know one another. In my experience, the more you know about a person and where they come from, the more likely you will be willing to resolve differences in a civil and courteous way. Like my adolescent experiences in small town PA, I believe that any problem, no matter how insurmountable, can be overcome with the right amount of understanding, patience, and respect. Not a sermon, just a thought.
Author’s Note: In the May column, I will highlight the work of our Association during my year, and begin the process of turning over the controls to your next President, Mike Baxter. Until then, have a great spring.