In this first installment of the interview, Leo Jenkins relates his experiences in high school and college during the Depression and his first job teaching school.
Citation for this article is: Record Group FS0000, Series 1 Mary Jo Bratton Papers, Sub-series 1 Oral History Tapes, Leo Jenkins Oral History, March 31, 1982. The audio files are played using Real Player which you can download here.
One of the things I wanted to ask you about, Dr. Jenkins, was some of your early background. I know you are from New Jersey, but I never heard very much about the young Leo Jenkins.
JENKINS: Oh well, there was nothing exciting. I went to Jefferson High School for Boys, which as a matter of fact I had very little experience with coeducation. When I went to grammar school in Elisabeth, New Jersey, the playgrounds were separated with a tall sixteen-foot fence, and if a boy got caught in a girl's playground, he was in real, real trouble. And we were just kept separated.
BRATTON: So, you had that kind of segregation, between boys and the girls?
JENKINS: Oh yes. Then I went to Jefferson High School for Boys which was an unusual type of thing. For example, we had a dance, the girls high school which was about two miles away would send people over and our boys would go. But they weren't used to being with girls, so the boys would stand on one side of the gymnasium and the girls on the other. And two or three bold types would dance and we'd all watch them.
Then I went to Rutgers which was for men only when I went there. And the first time I really had a female in class to be a companion in class was at graduate school at Columbia. And it was a Catholic nun in class with me. So I don't know whether that conditioned my thinking or not, but it was a different type of education which I wouldn't want my children to have. But it did me no harm, but it was different, and I'd rather have . . .
BRATTON: But I guess that was not all that unique for people growing up in your area, that was the standard.
JENKINS: Yes. Everybody who went to public schools in Elizabeth among the men went to Jefferson High School for Boys.
BRATTON: And then they had the other for girls.
JENKINS: Batton High School for Girls.
BRATTON: When did you graduate from Rutgers?
JENKINS: 1935. I went to Rutgers all during the Depression and it is very hard to explain the Depression for one who has not lived through it, because it is unique. I remember going to a theater, having three people in the audience and five acts of vaudeville, an orchestra, and the major picture; and there would be three people in the audience. You'd think they would cancel the show, but they had to keep it going.
Arthur Burns, the former head of Federal Reserve, was my teacher for two years at Rutgers in economics, in economic theory, business cycles, and statistics, and I remember yet, thinking back, he told us that he was a full professor and he was now making $3000 a year. I said to myself, "If the Lord ever puts me in a position where I can make $3000 a year, I'll never ask for anything else. Never ask for anything else."
BRATTON: It seemed so impressive!
JENKINS: Yes. I thought, "this is wonderful." The fellow comes here and talks to us for an hour or so and goes home and he gets $3000 for that.
My goodness, people, well, of course, the popular song was Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? and people were selling apples in New York. It's very difficult to understand how dreadful it was. Some very prominent families in our town lost everything because they bought a margin on the stock market. It wouldn't be unusual for a fellow to go to work in the morning and then come home and tell his wife everything was gone, the house, the car, everything, because he couldn't cover the margin.
Cord stock, Cord automobile was a new type of car that had a front-wheel drive, so that stock went sky-high up to four hundred and something plus, and it fell down to three or four dollars in one day. Well, men who bought a margin, they might have bought several thousand shares and maybe put a $1000 down and they owed the rest. Well, they had no money to pay the rest now. They were hoping to sell again real quick when it went up.
I remember men going by my house, WPA, they tried to create work for people. They gave them a shovel and told them to build a hill over there or over yonder. And these men would come by with dark glasses on and put their head real low because we recognized them as very prominent people, a former president of a bank, that type of prominent. Because the banks would fold and they would lose everything. They had to work to eat.
So under those conditions my college was not a Rah Rah experience. It was strictly business.
JENKINS: Because you say, "How lucky I am to be here." Most of my friends had to drop out or do something. Salaries were miserably low. Well, to illustrate, Prudential Insurance Company paid typists and stenographers and secretaries $12.50 a week, that was the salary. And my first teaching job, I had to pay ten percent to the agent that got it for me. I got it through a teachers' agency in Philadelphia. He got ten percent of the salary. I was paid in script, Atlantic County script, Atlantic City is there. Because they didn't have any money, so they gave you a promissory note that was negotiable in some stores, not in the chain stores, but you could go to the theater with it or you could go to a neighborhood store with it, but the chains didn't touch it. Most people would sell it to brokers.
My big salary was $1400 a year with ten percent off and then the salary, I would be lucky if I got eighty cents on the dollar. You see I had to sell my script.
BRATTON: They discounted it?
JENKINS: Yeah, they discounted it. Well, men who owned property could pay their taxes at full credit with the script and such men often had children in school. So what the teachers would try to do, was try to ferret out some of the children who came from homes whose fathers needed this stuff and instead of getting eighty cents on the dollar, he might give you ninety cents or ninety-five, you see. So it was really a blackmail type of courting kids whose fathers could buy your salary.
Then in some months the rumor would start and the rumor would be true that they weren't going to pay at all this month, so you would get no pay this month or the next month. My wife, Lillian, my first wife, applied for a job and I think there were over a hundred or so candidates. And they all took a test of one type or another. She got a high score on her test and so she was one of four people out of hundreds, really, who applied and she got the glorious salary of $1000 a year. It was that type of situation.
It made me laugh when I came back to East Carolina and the GI Bill was coming along. We had, I had no spending money, once in awhile I'd pick up a half dollar or something from my folks or my sister or someone, but really you just lived without spending money. Your recreation was the library or that quarter movie I told you about, where you saw the vaudeville and everything. But it is something that is very hard to comprehend, but it did make me laugh when I came to East Carolina. Some boy came in enraged almost. He was having some trouble with his GI Bill. He said, "Do you know what it's like to go to college with only $100 a month spending money?" And I just laughed at the poor boy. He thought I was being a smart aleck and he said, "What are you laughing about?" So I sat him down and explained what the Depression was like. Why a millionaire, if you had a hundred dollars a month to spend when I was in college, they'd consider you a millionaire. The professors would be courting you.