Don’t Judge the Book by Its Cover

A number of years ago my youngest son was dominating our dinner table discussion by complaining about the stupid janitors at his school. He ranted and raved about how dumb they were; he couldn’t understand why anyone would want such a demeaning job.

When he stopped talking long enough to take a bite of food, I asked, “Did I ever tell you what your grandfather did for a living?”

He sheepishly looked at me and said, “Let me guess. He was a janitor.”

My father died in 1974, at the age of eighty-three. Matt was less than a year old at the time and never had a chance to really get to know his grandfather. I gave him a brief overview of my father and encouraged him not to be so judgmental of people he barely knew.

I realize now that I should have told my children much more about both of my parents. While my older sons have some memories of my father, none of my children ever knew my mother who died in 1966. In truth, my children might still find such stories boring. That’s a major problem with genealogy; most of us get interested only after many of our sources of information have passed on.

So, I’ll put what I know in writing. Some day, one of my children or grandchildren might get curious.

My father, William Henry Seward Leeds, was born in Philadelphia in 1891. He was the youngest of the three children who survived childhood – there were seven children in total. The custom back then was to name the first-born son after the paternal grandfather and the youngest son after the father. Evidently, my grandparents had their own thoughts on the matter; their second son was given his grandfather’s name, and their next-to-last born was given his father’s name. Dad’s younger brother, Warren, died when he was thirteen months old.

In 1895, a few days shy of his thirty-third birthday, my grandfather died of consumption, which is known as tuberculosis today. Although my grandfather came from an upper middle class family, there was no insurance or hefty inheritance. Grandma was forced to take her three children and find new living arrangements. She moved to Northfield, a small town in South Jersey situated just north of Linwood, New Jersey. I mention Linwood because the town’s name was once Leedsville. Grandma was obviously moving to an area close to her deceased husband’s kinfolk.

Grandma took a job as a housekeeper and nanny for her cousin who was a widowed sea captain. Mr. Kears spent long months at sea and needed someone to look after his children.

Barely able to make ends meet, Grandma had to rely on her two sons to help out financially. Dad completed the seventh grade, and then dropped out of school and went to work. Seward, as he was known to his family, worked many different jobs while he was growing up. The one that I recall most was as someone who helped cut ice from the mill pond. Prior to refrigeration, ice was harvested each winter and kept under sawdust in heavily insulated buildings.

When dad was seventeen, he decided he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Captain Kears. He signed on as a deck hand of an oil tanker bound from New Jersey to Louisiana. He spent most of his maiden voyage hanging over the side of the ship. When they reached port in New Orleans, dad took his pay and bought a train ticket to return home.

In 1910, Dad and his brother, Lewis Benjamin Leeds, rode a motorcycle to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. South Jersey – mostly a summer resort area – simply didn’t offer the employment opportunities found in Pittsburgh. Not only did the two brothers find employment, they also found their brides.

Dad married Cathryn Mary O’Hare in July of 1922. At the time of their marriage, Dad was thirty and mom was twenty-two. While mom never worked outside of the home, she was kept plenty busy raising me and my siblings. They had seven children. One son, Richard, died at birth. The other six, Wilda, Gertrude, Seward, Jr., Somers, Lewis, and I all lived well into adulthood.

Over the years, dad did whatever he could to earn a living. He worked as a clerk for the May Drug company until it went out of business, and held several other blue collar jobs. When the depression came, dad managed to stay employed and even raised chickens under their back porch to keep his family well fed. I understand he worked at Duquesne Light Company for a while, but the only job I remember was his last. I was born in 1944, so much of what dad did prior to that time is a blur of old stories to me.

In 1960, dad retired from the Oswald and Hess Meat Packing Company, He was sixty-nine years of age and almost had all his children out on their own. My brother, Lewis graduated from high school that year and immediately joined the Army. I completed high school in 1962 and went off to college.

To be honest, I always felt a bit ashamed at my father’s lack of education, but that all changed when I returned home after my first semester in college. He asked me what I’d learned. As I began reciting the many interesting facts, he took over the conversation and expanded on what I had told him.

I was reminded of a quote from Mark Twain that went something like this. “When I was seventeen I was embarrassed by my father’s ignorance. When I was twenty-one, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in four short years.”

It was then I made the connection. I can never remember seeing my father without a book nearby. He was always reading something. When his eyesight deteriorated to a point that reading was almost impossible, he started getting recordings from the library. He was truly a self-education man who never stopped learning.

I can recall mom and dad pouring through real estate catalogs. Their dream was to retire to a chicken farm – after all, dad had experience raising farm fowl. Unfortunately, mom died in 1966, while I was completing my senior year in college, and their dream died with her.

Dad lived another eight years and up until the last six months of his life, continued to walk three or four miles a day. He remained physically strong and mentally alert until the end.

I’m sure my older siblings can add to this story about my dad, and hopefully they will. Our parents should be more than names and dates to our descendants who get hooked on genealogy a few hundred years from now.

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2 Responses to Don’t Judge the Book by Its Cover

  1. Joy Snyder says:

    Do know of any reunions of the people still living that worked at Oswald and Hess? My Mom worked there and now is 91 and would LOVE to talk to/and/or get together with those people. Thank-you. Joy Snyder 724-524-0456

    • jimsjourney says:

      I can’t help you there. My father retired in 1960. The only name I remember him mentioning was Bill Swope, and that is all I have. Dad would be 125 if he was alive today. If Bill was anywhere close in age, he too would be long gone.

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