Migrant Farm Workers

Most of my Libby co-workers were migrants, mostly Hispanics from Mexico or Texas. It was obvious they got the crappiest jobs, especially those who picked tomatoes in the fields. Their days were as long as mine, and much harder. Young people were in the fields working, and their housing conditions were often deplorable. I met many migrant workers who worked in the cannery, and was curious to hear about their lives. A few were college students, travelling the country during the summer with their families.

Once the tomato “pack season” was over, most of the migrant workers were off to tomatoesMichigan to pick cherries, or somewhere else. I knew that in September I would be heading back to college. The experience did make me very frugal, especially when it came to money I spent on college. I never cut a class, because I knew how many hours I worked in that factory to pay for every class.

During my high school days, I first met Baldemar Velásquez, who attended Pandora-Gilboa High School in Putnam County. We weren’t friends, but he was a familiar face. He was born in Texas, but traveled the country with his family, working in the fields by the time he was four years old. Their family settled a few miles from where we lived. During my college years, he and his father created the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), seeking better conditions for farm workers.

Baldemar was scorned by most farmers and took a lot of abuse. Thanks to FLOC and other organizations, conditions have improved in many ways. The month I headed to college, Baldemar called a strike against 10 tomato growers in Northwest Ohio. He had some initial success, but opposition grew. Progress was very slow. He called for a boycott of Campbell Soup Company in 1978. It was a long struggle for FLOC, though the company finally agreed to a collective bargaining agreement in 1986. In 1989, Velásquez was named a MacArthur Fellow (the so-called “Genius Grant”).

When asked in a recent interview what inspired him to get involved in food and agriculture, Baldemar responded, “I was raised as a migrant farm worker living in squalid labor camps. I watched my family being cheated out of wages and suffer verbal abuses from field men, labor contractors, growers, and racist townspeople in the rural towns we worked in!” The struggle continues.

Libby’s Tomato Cannery

I financed my sophomore and junior years working at Libby’s Cannery in Leipsic,
Ohio. My college roommate George Ulrich lived with us and worked there for the second summer. We were told we could work as many hours a week as we wanted, as long as we were there at least twelve hours a day, seven days a week — for $1.50 an hour, with no overtime pay. I averaged 92 hours a week once the tomatoes were ready. One week, I hit 100 hours! There are only 168 hours in a week. Pretty easy to calculate my paycheck that week.

libbys_1024That was pretty well my life those two summers. We got up early, drove 40 minutes to work, did our 12+ hour shift, drove home, showered, slept, and got up in time to make the next shift. No social life those summers.

It helped that George and Pete Dauer, one of my Kalida classmates, worked there. George met his future bride Carol the summer he worked there. It was a very memorable experience. For several weeks, we helped get things ready for the
“pack,” when tomatoes flooded the cannery, 24 hours a day. There was some variety, we got to drive forklifts, clean equipment, repair machines. My first year, I was assigned to handle the labeling machine. I loaded labels as needed and fixed jams in the machine occasionally.

I just stood for 12 hours, with short breaks and time for lunch. That was the most boring week of my life! It did get exciting though, when I stupidly stuck my arm in the machine to retrieve a jammed label. My arm was instantly slashed across the inside of the elbow. Off to the doctor for stitches. That could have been very nasty! Lesson learned!

Fortunately, my supervisor, Leo, the husband of one of my Kalida classmates, took pity and arranged for me to serve as one of his maintenance assistants. That was much more interesting. I got do different kinds of repair work on the machines.

A few days after I received the “promotion” to the maintenance crew (and a 10¢ per hour raise) I was strolling the isle when two Hispanic guys got into a fistfight. They were usually good buddies, but something set them to sparring. I quickly jumped between them, wrapping my arms around both of their necks. They quit swinging, allowing other guys to come to my rescue, pulling the two “friends” apart. What was I thinking! Unfortunately, a couple weeks later one of the fighters was arrested in town for stabbing another man.Jan 6' letter

I had met a charming freshman student, Jan Davis, in the winter of my sophomore year. We dated steadily until time for summer break. I remember “I’ll See You in September” was a popular song that fall. It pretty well captured our situation. I did take the train over to Pittsburgh one weekend to see her and meet her family. We made few phone calls as long distance calls were pretty expensive then. But we did write— almost every day.

Occasionally, there would be a major problem in the production line, bringing the entire operation to a halt while the mechanics scrambled to repair whatever had happened. We had nothing to do, but were supposed to look busy. During one of those stoppages, I sought refuge in the restroom. I took advantage of the opportunity to write Jan — on toilet paper! It was six feet long. I folded it up, stuffed it in an envelope and mailed it. We still have it. In fact, we saved all the letters we wrote those two summers apart. Occasionally, on our anniversary, we read a few of them to each other.

Spiritual Journey: Part I

I had quite an ecumenical upbringing. Several great-grandfathers on both sides were Baptist ministers. [One, Dr. Lafayette Westbrook, also a country physician in Arkansas, was shot and killed by a jealous husband in 1904!] A great number of relatives are buried in the Partin Cemetery behind Red Oak Baptist Church in Middlesboro, KY. Among those is Rev. Wesley Mason, who served the church during the 1930s.

I remember attending Albert Street Baptist Church, whose congregation consisted of transplants from Bell County, Kentucky, who had migrated up to Lima, Ohio. Several times I attended outdoor baptisms at some pond. Sunday services were at least a couple hours long, often followed by a meal. We sometimes returned Sunday evening, for more preachin’ and singin’! I did like the music and still love olde tyme gospel – especially the bluegrass variety.

Worship services often became very loud with long and enthusiastic preaching, usually leading to a call to the altar to dedicate one’s life to Christ. One Sunday evening when I was six, the fervor built to a crescendo with a lot of shouting, crying, and vivid descriptions of the hell awaiting non-believers. With tears welling in my eyes, I turned to Aunt Hazel who was sitting next to me and announced I’d better go up and be saved. I didn’t want to burn in hell. I was quite terrified! My aunt calmly suggested I should think about it for a week.

All I asked for that Christmas was a Bible. I received one, with a zippered white leather cover with my name embossed on the front. It was inscribed, “From Mom & Dad, Dec. 24, 1953.” I probably got something else, but don’t remember. It would not have been much though. Those were lean times. [I am holding it in the photo below.]

An Aside – We were so blessed when we moved to Henderson County and discovered the local NPR radio station played bluegrass all afternoon on Saturdays and bluegrass gospel every Sunday morning. My radio is always tuned to WNCW at 88.7! One of my joys in life!

I was eventually baptized, but not in the Albert Street’s pond. Don and I had begun attending the neighborhood Calvary Evangelical and Reformed Church (which later became a part of the United Church of Christ) with our friends. Barry Cottrell’s older sister, Wilma “Bill” was one of our Sunday school teachers.

Their two ministers were very kind, warm, and often thought-provoking. The elderly Rev. George Boettcher gave me an old set of encyclopedias when he retired. I devoured them though they were at least 40 years old. He was followed by Rev. Charles Trout., who led our confirmation class. He had a good sense of humor and made us adolescents feel welcome and valued. In April of 1961, I completed the confirmation class and became a member of the church.

Ready for Sunday school, with (L neighborhood-kidsto R) Barry Cottrell, Donnie, Ronnie, Darlene
Patton, Phyllis Cottrell in front. Wilma “Bill” Cottrell, our teacher.

When Don went through confirmation class, both of our parents decided they should also join the church. Mom had been baptized when she was young, but Dad never had. So he joined the baptism ceremony with Don. Only there was no pond. They had a baptismal font and just dribbled three sprinkles of water on their heads. Seemed like a nice ceremony though.


Some of my relatives had come to this important event, and afterwards we headed home for the big lunch Mom had prepared. I rode with one of my uncles. As soon as he started the car, he broke into a rant about how awful that ceremony was, declaring, “It didn’t count. You have to dunk people for them to really be cleansed.” I was shocked! Very unlike my normal introverted personality, I chimed in with a question about why that was such a bad thing? He snapped, “We have to everything just like Jesus did!” To which I responded, “Then why aren’t you wearing sandals?”

His immediate comeback: “Don’t be such a smart-ass kid!” I shut up, but it registered deeply in me and later helped shape part of my spiritual journey. There’s more to the story.

Happy Feet

One of the first and most important lessons I learned in college was that guys who danced received much more attention from the girls. As an introvert with little confidence in my small-talk skills, I definitely needed an edge.

On my two high school prom dates, like most of my buddies, I just kind shuffled around to what I thought might be the beat of the music. Slow dancing was really awkward — and a little bit exciting. I had to keep reminding myself to breath.

It is not exactly true to suggest my two proms were all the dancing I did in high school. The Kalida priest wanted to discourage his young innocent charges from engaging in the evil “black” dancing gaining popularity in the early 60’s. Think Bobby Darin, Beach Boys, Elvis, The Beatles! What was a poor parish priest to do?

Father Lochtefeld deserves credit for his creative solution: square dancing! Yes, he hired a caller to bring his square dance records and we would gather in St. Michael’s basement to “square up.” My neighbor/friend Jerry Reiman would always invite me, and I always felt welcome. We learned the basic square dance calls (allemande left, grand rights and left, do-si-do, swing your partner, and promenade) that got me through Putman County wedding dances.

And what’s not to like about this event! As a rare protestant boy in a Catholic Community, I didn’t encounter many chances to touch or be touched by girls! With twirling, swinging, promenading, body contact was inevitable. Without any evil intent, arms, buttocks, boobs, “accidently” brushed innocent partners. I loved those square dance lessons!

To my disappointment, BGSU’s main campus hangout, The Rathskeller, included no square dancing. Not a single song all night! It was the Twist, Mashed Potato, Frug, The Watusi, and The Shake – and of course slow dancing.

I desperately needed a plan. How can I learn to do these dances? No older sister, cousin, girlfriend, who could give private lessons. I didn’t see any courses in the college catalog that covered this essential skill set.

Most of the pop songs came on 45-rpm vinyl discs, so I bought a cheap record player that could play only one disc at a time. I had a few records, but a new one was being played at all the dances: “Money” by the Kingsmen. I bought it with the intentiomoney-kingsmenn of teaching myself to dance by playing that song in front of a mirror in the privacy of my room when my roommates were out. [Tidbit: The Kingsmen are better remembered for their notorious “Louie, Louie,” with it’s controversial lyrics getting the record banned in the state of Indiana and investigated by the FBI.]

I’d studied the coolest dancers in the Rathskeller – both guys and girls – to see what they were doing. Then I would try to duplicate their moves in the solitude of my room. Fairly soon, I grasped the beat of the music concept.

After a couple weeks, I mustered the courage to ask a girl to dance. The main advantage of dancing to rock and roll songs is that little small talk is required, as long as you keep dancing. I moved on to the Mashed Potato – a bit tricky, but cute. Learning to dance and truly enjoy it has been one of the wisest moves I ever made. About a year later, that is how I met my wife!

Guys who love to dance are always in demand, because guys who refuse to dance are in abundance. This is the absolute truth: there are two places where I can become totally uninhibited. One is on the dance floor; the other is speaking in front of a huge audience. More about that later! But I still have happy feet! Love to dance – any kind. Fortunately, Jan loves it as much as I do.

An Aside

Within a month after moving to Western North Carolina in 2000, we saw a square dance demo at a meeting at the local senior center. Jan’s parents had square danced in the 1950s, and we knew immediately this was something we had to do. It is one of the most rewarding activities one can do. It is good for
the body and good for the mind. As evidence, I offer Jan’s father, Warren Davis, who was still square dancing at the plus level (the same as our club) until his 95th birthday. He only quit then because the two small clubs at the Outer Banks folded from declining membership. [See the accompanying photo of Jan and her father square dancing, a week after his 95th birthday.]

Jan_Warren promenade
Jan and Warren promenade

Ultimate Rejection

With some confidence in my dancing skills, I began to ask girls out for dates. There were no magic romances my freshman year, which was fine with me. I really enjoyed dancing with girls in the Rathskeller or one of the bars, perfecting my dance moves, and occasionally inviting one to a movie. These were safe venues for me. You don’t have to make a lot of small talk at dances or movies.

Some young ladies I dated two or three times. I remember one girl whose name totally escapes me now. She was from a Greek family and her job at the university was posing nude for the arts classes! Hmm! That was interesting, but I never got any free peeks. Wonder whatever happened to her.

I recall another girl who sparked my interest enough to work up my courage to ask her out for a second date, that Saturday. Her response, “No, I can’t; that’s the night I have to wash my hair!” Didn’t seem very creative. Her loss!


Moving from the security and comfort of a small rural community to an exploding college campus could have been intimidating. Certainly I was no longer the big fish in a little pond. The front lines of the Baby Boomers were marching off to campus, and few colleges were prepared to handle the charge.bgsu-seal

Like most universities, BGSU was stretched far beyond its maximum capacity. Dorms were overcrowded. Freshman classes were huge, often in large lecture halls of several hundred students.

When I showed up at my assigned room in Rogers Hall, three roommates were already there. We shared two sets of bunk beds, two small closets, two built-in desks, and two small dressers. Fortunately, I didn’t have a very large wardrobe.

All four were uniquely different guys, two from the Cleveland area, and two from small rural communities. One of the big city guys flunked out at the end of the first semester. Dave Patterson, survived and thrived, eventually earning his doctorate. I made it though the first year with decent grades, though nothing stellar.

I am not sure how it evolved, but I always abhorred procrastinating. I did each day’s assignment, periodically reviewed my notes, and almost never crammed. It just seemed natural to me – like brushing your teeth. I do recall the dismay of my roommates who were cramming frantically during final’s week, while I was playing basketball an hour or two every day.

As I settled into my dorm in September of 1964, the thought that 26 years of my life would be spent wandering this campus, as a student, graduate student, then as a professor, would been branded a bizarre fantasy.