Born of the Great Depression - One Man's Story of Building Financial Freedom

Grandpa Ferd enjoying his 90th birthday in Colorado - forever the traveling man!
It seems fitting after all this time that I share the inspiration for Classy Not Pricey.  Two words:  My Grandpa.

I am the proud granddaughter of a 100% Italian man, the son of an immigrant to New York City from Piacenza, Italy.   Ferdinand, lovingly called Ferdie, was the ultimate survivor.  At 91, he outlived his parents, all four younger brothers, his wife, and two of his three daughters.   He was a child of the Great Depression, although he never realized the state of his family's needs at that time.  Regardless of his financial status, he worked for almost his entire life...
 He was a self-made man, unwaveringly devoted to an authentic work ethic and learning.  Every penny he earned was handled with great care, and he passed along his many life and financial lessons to his family and friends.  All who knew him knew his warm, open heart - never a conversation would go by without his genuine insistence on hearing the story of the person he was meeting.  He was a charm.

Grandpa and I at my college graduation.  He was my greatest supporter.
In many ways, I am speechless about how to describe the wonder that was my Grandpa and all the important lessons about financial responsibility that he passed on to me.  He too was a writer, and at the time of his death he asked my mother to type up some of his memories as they flashed before him.  Ever the storyteller, his words would make you laugh and sigh, even as he struggled to speak them.  To try and paraphrase his great story would most certainly fall short of the original.  Thus, I will share with you excerpts from the man himself...

"Would a (90) year old remember much of his childhood? Why should he? This is year 2009.  It is suffering with economic problems.  Unemployment is high and the money markets are in turmoil.  Some of the largest banks in the country have collapsed and declared bankruptcy.  Comparisons are being made between conditions now and those of the GREAT DEPRESSION of 1929 to 1934.  I lived during that period of time, so the question asked is “What was it like then?”
"I was a youngster, 11 years old in 1929 and 16 in 1934.  Who am I?  I am Ferdinand J. Schiavi born on June 4, 1918 in a house on Leroy Street in the Greenwich Section of lower Manhattan, N.Y.C.  My mother was attended by a mid-wife and as significant as the event was, I have absolutely no memory of it.   

Do you hear him?  :)  He is witty even in his reflection of his own birth!  He goes on to describe his family and circumstances... 

"In a couple of years, with no effort on my part, I acquired my brother Joseph, the first of four younger brothers.  As our family grew my parents were having doubts about raising their family in Greenwich Village, so together with two other families they bought land in the outer reaches of Queens County.  This village, called Rosedale, was a stop on the Long Island Railroad.  Homes were built and a new lifestyle began.  
"The Great Depression’s effects varied widely.  The very rich, the middle class, and the desperately poor saw it differently, further affected by their location.  The farmer, the industrial worker, and the professional would all describe a different impact.  I would describe my family as lower middle class. We never had a car, telephone, or radio.  At the same time we never feared the loss of our home, missed a meal, or lacked decent clothes.  We didn't go to a restaurant or take a vacation, whatever that meant.  What begins here is a reflection of how we lived in those days.

"My father had lost his job.  The factory where he worked had closed 'for the duration', a scary situation with a family of five (5) growing boys.  He, as many others, found temporary employment with the WPA, a program created by President FDR, one of the work programs to relieve unemployment.  Pop now found himself on a work crew that was involved with the widening of Merrick Avenue, a major artery in the Queens County road system. 

"Pop noticed there was some unburned coal amid the construction site cinders.  Resourceful as he was, he suggested I retrieve the wasted fuel.  The site was about a mile from our house.  I took off with my red wagon.  Filling it was easy as there was ample supply.  Two trips a day was my average.  I loaded the wagon full, but bumps and ruts in the road and sidewalk caused me to lose half of the rounded load.  It made me feel good when Pop used this little coal pile to “bank” our furnace for the night.  For some reason he thought it burned better.  Go figure."

Without question, this was only the beginning of my grandfather's resourcefulness.  When I would visit him as a child, I remember his incredible care for things like extra napkins from a to-go food bag, or making sure he requested "extra ketchup packets, please" to save them for a later meal.  A deal lover himself, he would look specifically for items that were made to last and would bring the greatest value in the long run - that is, if he had to pay for the darned things at all (he was never above repurposing items that held potential - see his Jim Beam hat below, which he wore so his girlfriend could spot him in the grocery store if they ever lost each other).

Our favorite life coach and friend!
He then details his childhood food memories...

"The Schiavi’s had the nicest garden in the neighborhood, thanks to my regular trips with my red wagon to pick up “extras” from manure deliveries to local farmers at the train station. Our produce was the typical variety, big and bright red tomatoes in abundance, delicious sweet corn, green beans, lettuce, bush beans, and a variety of other vegetables. The garden was a true support to the kitchen.

"There was another event which widened our food supply even further. I  do not know how it came about, probably because Pop was working on WPA, but we were eligible for food.  Mom and I walked to a food distribution point, where they filled up my red wagon, with what we knew not.  As we unloaded the boxes they were mostly known: flour, sugar, rice and tapioca.  Curiosity was high.  My red wagon and I continued to make weekly visits to the distribution store.  Good grief, as I write this I realize that we were on RELIEF!"

In his later years in life, even though he gained financial freedom to do as he pleased, his dinner was often soup.  Not just any soup, of course.  Soup he purchased using a coupon.  To thicken the soup and make it more hearty, he had a special trick.  Whenever he would order Chinese takeout, he would always ask for extra rice (and would only order from places who would honor the request for free).  Next, he would take the extra rice and roll it into several small balls and place them in a bag in the freezer.  Come dinner time, he would add one or two rice balls to his soup as he warmed it.  Presto!  A hearty and very cost effective meal.  He always told me a fortune could be squandered simply by dining out, and if we ever did it was either an all-you-can-eat buffet or, you guessed it, Chinese.

He continues to describe his first business endeavor (of many thereafter)...

"I guess I was 16 years old when this fellow from Curtis Publishing Co. offered me a job selling magazines. The magazines were The Ladies Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, and Country Gentlemen. He said he would get me business cards (F.J.S. Jr. Salesman), a magazine carrying bag, and a catalog of prizes that I could win with brownie points.  I was sold.

"After much walking, I slowly developed a route with 12 ladies who subscribed to Ladies Home Journal.  I could now pick a prize - a beautiful shiny chrome electric waffle iron!  The lid had a red light in the center which came on when the waffle was done.  It was the pride of the household and made all that walking worthwhile.

"I had no success with Country Gentlemen.  We were not in a ‘country gentlemen’ strata.  The Saturday Evening Post seemed sellable.  I tried a new approach.  I went to the LIRR Rosedale station and waited for the evening trains coming from downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan.  Trains arriving between 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. discharge the commuters, all men.  They were the lucky ones, they had jobs.  I recall there were NO women as they were not part of the workforce at that time.   I would stand beyond the exit of the last car, that way all the de-trainers would pass.  My message was simple: “Just out! Saturday Evening Post, 5 cents!”  This message was good from Wednesday to Friday.  Sales averaged from 30-35 copies a week.  It sounds like a lot, $1.50 to $1.75 per week to be shared between the Curtis Publishing Co. and me.

"These were the years when Curtis Publishing commissioned Norman Rockwell to paint its’ covers for the Post.  They have since become treasures.   Little did we know then that Rockwell would become a renowned American artist who really illustrated this period."

This was one of many jobs he held over the years, all of which he made the most of the experience and never took a day of wage earning for granted.  His passion was architecture and engineering, which led to many great achievements for the Navy throughout his lifetime.  Even after his retirement he worked.  No matter what his age or where he lived, he was always the leader of something - a community, a cause, or a bridge club.  He also insisted on staying in touch with the economic state and actively managing his investments.  I will never forget when he asked me what I knew about Red Bull; he was considering investing in the energy drink.  All I could say was that I saw a strong possibility for it staying popular with many people in and around my generation.  :)

Grandpa and his old Cadillac - maintained with love for many years.
I will save other stories for future posts, particularly ones with specific money strategies my grandfather taught me.  Until then, I know he would be pleased with me if I closed by passing on this piece of wisdom from him: no matter who you are or what your circumstances, an unshakable work ethic and commitment to smart spending habits will bring you greater financial freedom and a rich life of opportunity.

With love, Hayley.

You might also like:  Rethinking the Definition of Classy : Did Coco Chanel Have It Right?
                               Made to Order: How Do You Like Your Paycheck?
                               Volunteer Vacations: Give Enjoy And Rejuvenate All At Once                 

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