Mr. Jack Harrer is at once humorous and engaging. Born on September 23, 1926, Jack is a member of the “greatest generation,” those Americans who lived through some monumental eras in our nation’s history. Jack was just a boy when Americans struggled through the Great Depression, he was a young man during World War II, and he was a mature adult during the tumultuous periods of the Cold War and the civil rights movement. Jack has lived an eventful and interesting life. Listening to him relate his experiences to me was like bringing history to life, putting a fresh and humorous face to events that I had only previously read about in text books.
Jack grew up in Morton Grove, Illinois, which is only 15 minutes from Chicago. He was the oldest of four children born to German-Catholic parents. Jack recalls points during his childhood when his parents would speak German when they didn’t want the children to understand what they were talking about. They soon had to stop because they realized that their precocious son was picking up German. Growing up German during World War II gave Jack a unique outlook on the state of global affairs. He remembers his parents trying to hide their nationality because hate and propaganda was so ubiquitous at the time.
Jack prefaced our conversation by saying; “I know you’re going to ask me about the War. But I’d much rather talk about prohibition.” During the 1920s, Congress passed the 18th amendment, which banned the use and sale of alcohol. But American policy-makers would soon learn that laws dealing with morality would rarely be effective. Americans found ways around the new law, mostly through homemade alcoholic beverages and “speakeasies,” or clandestine taverns. Jack’s own uncle was a “runner,” taking orders for various taverns and delivering the contraband alcohol. Jack remembers the frequency with which his uncle bought new cars.
“He had to protect himself, so every month or so he would trade in his car for a new one,” a seeming- luxury that the young Jack was extremely impressed by.
Growing up in the twenties gave Jack a brief taste of the good life. America was fresh out of the Great War, and the economy was flourishing. But the decade known as the “gay twenties” was gone all too soon. With the 1930s came profound economic disaster. Jack remembers a sudden change. “Sports programs and music programs at schools were disbanded because there wasn’t any more money.” He recalls happening upon a room in his grammar school filled with dusty uniforms and band instruments. Jack definitely understands the meaning of hardship.
He recalls his mother saying that they had “lost everything.” Years later he realized that “everything” was his parents’ savings. In this era of desperation, Jack had to work from a young age to have available spending money.
He started selling newspapers at 8 years old and by age 10 he was working at the local country club as a golf caddy. The country club job paid him well and allowed him to buy his own clothes, especially important once he entered high school and began dating.
In 1943 Jack was a senior in high school. By this point, World War II was raging on both fronts. At seventeen, he cleverly enlisted in the Army Air Corps for pilot training. He spent nine months at Michigan State as a member of the Air Corps and then attended pilot training. The training of course ended by 1945 and at this point Jack was eager to continue his education. He finished out college at Northwestern University, where he played football, but regrettably had to quit the year before they went to the Rose Bowl. Jack graduated in 1949 and married his high school sweetheart and prom queen, Mary Ann.
Of the enormous chunk of history that Jack witnessed, one of the most memorable events of his life was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Like so many Americans who lived during that time, he can remember exactly where he was when he received the news. “I was in Detroit, at a doctor’s appointment. The receptionist told me that the president had just been shot in Dallas. A couple hours later I found out that he had died.” The repercussions of the assassination had a unique effect on Jack. At that time he and his wife owned a house in Dallas, Texas but were trying to sell it. A few weeks before that day in November, a man from out of the area put an offer on Jack’s house. After the shooting, he withdrew his offer. “People were blaming Dallas for the president’s death. They didn’t want anything to do with Dallas.” The ensuing events, including the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were a markedly dark time in our nation’s history. “I can remember thinking, ‘who’s next?’ and ‘what’s happening to our country?’”
Jack’s varied memories of some of the most significant events of the twentieth century can be viewed as a veritable goldmine of historical recollections. His perspectives on the Depression, the Second World War, and the following decades mirror the experiences of the Greatest Generation. It was educational and fun, listening to Jack tell me about his life. I have always felt that all Americans owe a debt of gratitude to the people of his generation, for their struggles and sacrifices. It is my hope that we will always continue to preserve their memories, in their honor.