Legacies Project Oral History: Robert Harrington
Tue, 12/10/2019 - 10:58am
Robert Harrington was born in 1939 in the East Side of Detroit. His father worked for the National Bank of Detroit, and his mother was a professor at Wayne State University. He remembers the everyday routines of the 1950s including milk delivery and food preservation. As a child he enjoyed visiting Belle Isle, Boblo Island, and going to the movies. A civil engineer, Harrington specializes in pavement for racetracks and is a consultant for NASCAR.
Robert Harrington was interviewed by students from Skyline High School in Ann Arbor in 2018 as part of the Legacies Project.
- [00:00:10.91] SPEAKER 1: So what is your full name?
- [00:00:14.19] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: My full name is Robert Dan Harrington.
- [00:00:16.92] SPEAKER 1: OK. And your birth date including the year?
- [00:00:20.49] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: January 9, 1939.
- [00:00:22.83] SPEAKER 1: Oh, it's coming up.
- [00:00:24.50] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Yep.
- [00:00:25.32] SPEAKER 1: And how would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:00:30.03] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, Harrington can both be English and Irish. And I'm not sure whether it is. But my mother was German. And my dad was either English or Irish. And regrettably, I didn't check it out before they passed away.
- [00:00:51.26] SPEAKER 1: Well, what is your religious affiliation, if any?
- [00:00:54.08] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Oh, we're Methodists.
- [00:00:56.67] SPEAKER 1: Cool. And what is the highest level of formal education you have completed?
- [00:01:02.63] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: I have a bachelor or science from Michigan State.
- [00:01:05.44] SPEAKER 1: Wonderful. And you're married, correct?
- [00:01:08.33] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Yes.
- [00:01:08.99] SPEAKER 1: For how many years?
- [00:01:09.78] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: 54.
- [00:01:13.06] SPEAKER 1: And do you have any children?
- [00:01:15.09] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Yes, we have two children, who also are married. And we have four grandchildren.
- [00:01:22.55] SPEAKER 1: Wonderful. How old are your children?
- [00:01:25.94] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Oh, OK. They're 42 and 44.
- [00:01:31.85] SPEAKER 1: OK. And do you have any siblings?
- [00:01:35.21] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: I have a brother. And you want to know how old he is?
- [00:01:38.87] SPEAKER 1: I would love to.
- [00:01:39.65] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: OK. He is 75.
- [00:01:44.60] SPEAKER 1: So you guys are pretty close in age?
- [00:01:46.01] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Right. Two years.
- [00:01:48.02] SPEAKER 1: So what would you consider your primary occupation to have been?
- [00:01:53.93] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Other than being in the Air Force, I was a road builder. I worked for large paving companies that built interstate highways. But later on, I ended up being a consultant. And I now work on auto racetracks mostly for NASCAR, some for Mr. Penske, and some for Indycar, and some for Formula 1.
- [00:02:23.51] SPEAKER 1: That's very interesting. And we will go deeper into these questions later on during the interview.
- [00:02:28.45] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: OK. All right.
- [00:02:29.95] SPEAKER 1: So now, we're going to move on to your family history.
- [00:02:34.02] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: OK.
- [00:02:34.40] SPEAKER 1: So do you have any stories about your family name or do you know where that originated from?
- [00:02:39.26] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: No, I really don't. As I said before, I regret that. I should have interviewed my parents before they passed away, but I did not.
- [00:02:51.83] SPEAKER 1: Well, speaking of family, do you have any traditions in your family, like naming traditions mostly?
- [00:02:58.74] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Not really. Not really. My name is, of course, Robert. My brother's name is Keith. I'm not sure where Keith came from. But we really don't have any traditions.
- [00:03:15.42] SPEAKER 1: So do you know why your ancestors left to come to America?
- [00:03:22.14] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Not on my father's side. My father's side is somewhat of a mystery. But my mother's side, they are German. They migrated over here to the Upper Peninsula because, in those days, they were lumbering off the state of Michigan. And my great-grandfather worked on the railroads up in the Upper Peninsula that hauled the logs to the mills.
- [00:03:49.53] SPEAKER 1: Interesting. So do you know any stories about what it was like for your family to come to the United States for the first time, like any cultural changes?
- [00:03:58.46] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Not really. I'm sorry I can't answer those in more depth, but I don't. I really don't know much about my great-great-grandfather. See, they were all passed away and I never really spent the time interviewing anybody.
- [00:04:20.60] SPEAKER 1: Well, how did they choose Michigan to come live in? What was the deciding factor?
- [00:04:29.13] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, it was the-- on my mother's side, it was the logging industry. They would build these railroads into the forest to take the timber out to then bring it down to the mills or down to the river to take it to the mills. And my great grandfather was a mechanic and worked on the railroad that did that.
- [00:04:54.42] Later on, when the logging industry, they clear cut Michigan and the logging industry moved on, they migrated down to Detroit because World War I was on. And my grandfather was a carpenter, and he worked for Ford Motor. And they built wood boats at Ford Motor for minesweepers. And my grandfather worked on that.
- [00:05:24.23] SPEAKER 1: That's very interesting.
- [00:05:25.90] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Yep.
- [00:05:26.74] SPEAKER 1: So more about your German heritage, are there any specific ways that your family decided to carry on the traditions at home?
- [00:05:36.66] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, know we don't do much of that. My mother always made a big Christmas roll that was a German type of thing. And I carry that on. I still make it. It's a big brown thing like this. And I make that every year. It's about the only real tradition that we do.
- [00:06:00.57] SPEAKER 1: So are there any members of your family that you know stayed back in Germany? So do you have relatives that are still there?
- [00:06:09.95] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: No. I'm sorry I can't answer a lot of your questions.
- [00:06:12.34] SPEAKER 1: No. That's totally fine. We'll go more into depth about other topics.
- [00:06:15.84] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: But no. I really don't know. I've been to Germany. And I've been to England and et cetera. But I've never really even pursued the heritage. I have a lot of documentation, and I plan to, once I retire, really start looking into the genealogy. But right now, I'm gainfully employed.
- [00:06:42.20] SPEAKER 1: So at what age are you planning on retiring? Just out of curiosity, when will this all begin?
- [00:06:50.87] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: I like working. And what I do is quite interesting. There's lots of travel involved. And I plan to do it as long as my health holds out. So like three years from now, I'll be 80 years old and probably should be sitting on the porch. But I have no intentions of doing that at this time. So--
- [00:07:16.55] SPEAKER 1: That's a very admirable work ethic.
- [00:07:16.95] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: --that's going to be on the back burner. Well, like I said, I do very interesting stuff.
- [00:07:23.89] SPEAKER 1: And it's in an area that most people would find is typically not interesting is roadwork. But you've had all these crazy adventures through it.
- [00:07:33.29] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, I work on all the major racetracks in America, well, and Mexico and Canada and England. So it's pretty interesting stuff. And I have to stay current with technology because we use all the latest of technology in designing and building and paving racetracks.
- [00:07:56.72] SPEAKER 1: What has it been like going through the decades with the new technology? Because you can compare what we have today to what they had in the '50s and '60s and even before that.
- [00:08:06.73] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Right.
- [00:08:07.63] SPEAKER 1: So it that a big change? Or how do you cope with that?
- [00:08:11.36] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, the big change is mostly in the technology of not so much the equipment. The equipment, of course, is advanced. But what is really advanced is we used to use three man survey crews. You see them around surveying.
- [00:08:32.39] We don't do that anymore. We get the drawings. We download them onto a laptop. And then they're downloaded into programs that are especially for racetracks. Or like this parking lot here, all this curb and gutter probably was not done with a survey crew but rather with downloading it into a special program and using GPS to locate where it is and the elevations, et cetera. And then a machine follows that. So once you set up the machine, they pretty well are autonomous vehicles like the cars that are coming.
- [00:09:14.36] SPEAKER 1: Has it been difficult to keep up with technology throughout the years like personally?
- [00:09:18.77] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, sure because I'm pre-computer. When I went to Michigan State, they had a computer . It was the size of a building. And yet, I'll bet you that the Apple Watch has more computing power than that whole building had.
- [00:09:37.22] SPEAKER 1: Well, it's true that an iPhone that we carry around every single day has more technology in it than went to the moon.
- [00:09:42.50] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Yes.
- [00:09:43.04] SPEAKER 1: So in such a relatively short period of time compared to technological evolutions throughout history, this is kind of crazy if you really think about it.
- [00:09:54.35] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, I agree with what you said. I was just at Cape Kennedy and Cape Canaveral. And I took the historic tour, and they said the same thing that the block houses are all still there were they launched them. The technology is still in them. And it's amazing what's in there. It's very primitive looking. And yet, it took men to the moon and back. Yep.
- [00:10:23.18] SPEAKER 1: So more back to the family stories if you have any.
- [00:10:28.40] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Sure. I'm sorry I don't have many family stories.
- [00:10:31.44] SPEAKER 1: No. That's fine. You have so many other interesting topics that we'll divulge into later like your career. So how did your grandparents or parents meet? Do you know that?
- [00:10:43.88] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: My parents, well, my dad was a banker. And he was a teller. And my mother was-- and this is in Detroit. And my mother was a schoolteacher. And she would come in to do her banking, and my dad introduced him. I wasn't there. So I don't know exactly what happened. But that's how they met. And I'm not sure on my grandparents. That would have been something that I should have asked them.
- [00:11:23.47] SPEAKER 1: So because you have this already predisposition, whatever, since you already have that outlook on what Detroit living was like back when you were a child, when you were growing up and because your mother is a schoolteacher, how do you feel that the Detroit public schools have been evolving since you were a child? What are the main differences?
- [00:11:47.56] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, as I said, told you last week, I actually was in Detroit. We lived on the east side of Detroit. And I went to three schools, a elementary school, an intermediate school, and a high school.
- [00:12:07.72] And the physical structures have changed, as I mentioned. They used to just be brick and mortar type buildings that really were sort of dark. Whereas your school is very cheery and light, which, in my opinion, is great because it's more conducive to learning.
- [00:12:34.90] In elementary school, it was during the time of the Cold War. And so I have a lot of time spent in steam tunnels that were because of Russia was going to attack us with an atomic bomb. So you were supposed to-- air raid shelter was a steam tunnel. So we spent a lot of time in them, and I can tell you all about power plants and things firsthand from as a little kid.
- [00:13:03.40] Intermediate school was we were bused there. It was farther away. And we met kids. And if I could go back to my elementary school, there was no diversity. Everybody was white middle class. When we went to intermediate school, we start meeting other kids. My neighborhood was mostly Catholic, even though we were not Catholic. Now we started meeting kids from lower income areas, other diverse kids. We started seeing some African-Americans. I had no African-Americans in my elementary school.
- [00:13:59.86] And then in high school, it diverted back because it was once again in my community. There was no African-Americans. There was no other diversity. It was all white middle class, mostly Catholic.
- [00:14:15.95] SPEAKER 1: So what years were you in high school?
- [00:14:20.53] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Let's see. I graduated in '57, so I started in '53. It was four years, nine, 10, 11, and 12.
- [00:14:29.33] SPEAKER 1: So this is while schools were still segregated? This was before the civil rights movement. So you were out of high school for that. But did that affect you in any way being from Detroit?
- [00:14:39.11] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, let's get back to segregation. It wasn't per se segregation like the South because I've seen segregation in the South because my parents, which always have traveled. And we would drive down to Florida. And I've seen the segregated bathrooms, drinking fountains, and other living facilities and things.
- [00:15:02.58] SPEAKER 1: How did that make you feel? Did that impact you at all? Did you think about it? Or what were your emotions?
- [00:15:07.73] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: I did. Because by now, my mother was a professor at Wayne State University, where there was lots of diversity. And we'd have all kinds of people over to our house. And the neighbors would sometimes talk about that. My mother was much more liberal than our surrounding community. And so it got us thinking about that and how unfair it was.
- [00:15:40.73] SPEAKER 1: Detroit now, I believe, has a population that is 82.6% African-Americans.
- [00:15:46.46] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Mm-hmm.
- [00:15:47.72] SPEAKER 1: Is that different than how it was? It's different when you're schooling. But was that different between the city when you were growing up?
- [00:15:56.28] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: The percentage was probably about the same, only the 82% was whites and the 17% was African-American.
- [00:16:07.25] SPEAKER 1: Were you in the city to see that change?
- [00:16:11.28] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: No. Well, when I was there in high school, it really didn't change. I was on the track team. So we would run against all the other high schools in the city. And there would be some high schools that have some African-Americans. And then there was one high school that was all African-Americans. It was called Miller High and it was on Woodward.
- [00:16:40.13] So I didn't see that change at that time. But as I went to start going to college, I saw it started. The neighborhoods were changing. And then when I was in the military, I would come home and visit my parents. By then, my dad had passed away. My mom was still living in the same house. And the community was totally changing.
- [00:17:07.28] And the east side didn't change very well. You know? The west side changed better. The east side, to be honest, is where mostly the crime is and things. And so eventually, we recommended my mother move. And she moved out to Troy.
- [00:17:30.89] SPEAKER 1: Was it hard to see your neighborhood change like that?
- [00:17:33.65] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Oh, absolutely. I volunteer over at Belle Isle. And when I go down there, I drive over to my old neighborhood. And my dad was very proud of our house. And now, the garage is tilting or maybe it's even fallen down now. And the house was brick. And all the wood trim has rotted. So it's very sad and actually brings a tear to my eye, to tell you the truth.
- [00:17:58.38] SPEAKER 1: I'm sorry. If you want, we can divulge into that later.
- [00:18:02.29] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: No. That's all right. You can go on. That's fine.
- [00:18:05.20] SPEAKER 1: Yeah. I grew up in the city too in Texas.
- [00:18:08.05] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Yes.
- [00:18:08.33] SPEAKER 1: And I saw the same thing happen to my childhood house.
- [00:18:10.53] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Right.
- [00:18:10.82] SPEAKER 1: So I understand you on that.
- [00:18:11.63] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Yeah. It's sad to see, isn't it?
- [00:18:13.58] SPEAKER 1: It is sad.
- [00:18:13.79] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Because you have all these memories.
- [00:18:15.83] SPEAKER 1: Yeah.
- [00:18:17.66] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: But it is what it is. There's a flip side right now. Detroit is on an upswing. So not all the neighborhoods are but the core is.
- [00:18:32.43] SPEAKER 1: So what is your opinion on then gentrification, since you did grow up in the city. And you saw it go for worse, but then how do you feel about it getting better but with consequences?
- [00:18:45.21] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, I'm very excited over what's happening in Detroit. But what's happening is the likes of you folks, once you graduate from college, are moving into the city. And you end up with a high paying job and you want the amenities of a nice city.
- [00:19:12.68] But unfortunately, that's sort of pushing out a lot of the people that have lived there that don't have the education or the income or the skills. So it's great to see the city come back, really great. But it's got to also address the fact that it can't just come back for the generation that's there right now is the millennials. All right? I'm not sure what you guys are going to be.
- [00:19:44.31] SPEAKER 1: No, we're millennials.
- [00:19:45.13] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Are you millennials too?
- [00:19:46.25] SPEAKER 1: Yeah.
- [00:19:46.47] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: OK, well, all right. You know, it can't just come back to the millennials that have good paying jobs and such. It's got to-- Detroit was a working class city. Most people in my high school did not go to college. I was a college preparation curriculum. But most of them got a high school degree, got married, and worked in the factories, and got a really good paying job, and were able to buy a house, have a family, and live very middle class. That was--
- [00:20:25.71] SPEAKER 1: The expectation now for millennials, at least, is that you graduate high school. You go to college and, if you can, go to some kind of graduate school. And then marriage and children is kind of left on the backburner for most people.
- [00:20:40.24] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Right.
- [00:20:40.69] SPEAKER 1: Do you feel as though that is better than what you went to high school with, that expectation? Or do you feel as though our priorities are kind of messed up?
- [00:20:51.55] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: No. I think you got them right. Both of our children didn't. Well, they have college degrees. And they waited to get married. They didn't get married right away, particularly our daughter. And I think it's good if they sort of found their way as to what they wanted in life, got established in a job and where they wanted to live, things like that, and then got a family. And they have good families, so I suspect they probably will be OK the rest of their lives because they didn't rush into it.
- [00:21:39.74] SPEAKER 1: Yeah. Well, earlier, you mentioned to me how you feel like one of the biggest problems that Detroit has in regards to its public schools is broken up families.
- [00:21:48.25] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Yes.
- [00:21:48.79] SPEAKER 1: And a lot of those, at least the parents from those families came from generations even like high school graduates in the '80s and stuff where that still was the expectation to immediately get married after high school.
- [00:21:59.86] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Mm-hmm.
- [00:22:00.43] SPEAKER 1: Do you feel like the fact that millennials are waiting to get married will result in better situations like that for kids, at least of Detroit in the future?
- [00:22:10.24] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: I hope so. I really do. Yes, if you just, say, you have a high school degree and then you get married, heck, you haven't experienced life. You may have had the same boyfriend or girlfriend the whole time or anything. And you haven't really done much.
- [00:22:33.16] It's a big world. And now, it's a lot bigger than when I was a kid. Well, you guys go all over the world on trips. Our daughter studied in France, things like that. Heck, we never did anything like that.
- [00:22:51.23] SPEAKER 1: So you're happy that at least the generations after you are getting opportunities that you were not able to have?
- [00:22:58.15] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, I guess they just weren't-- it wasn't part of life. Unless you were a very rich kid and your parents sent you overseas or something, you didn't do that. Life was more family orientated and community orientated. Whereas now, the whole world is it's out there. And I think it's great.
- [00:23:26.98] SPEAKER 1: Why don't we take a brief pause just to check for the bell because the bell should be coming.
- [00:23:31.09] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: The grocery store would have the cereal way up on the ceiling and had this big long picker thing. You'd go and get the cereal box and stuff. Are we back on?
- [00:23:43.69] SPEAKER 1: Yeah, we are back on. We're just going to pick up.
- [00:23:46.27] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: OK.
- [00:23:46.87] SPEAKER 1: Why don't we discuss how what you were talking about, the stores and how everything's changed. Because do you guys ever think about when we were little, we had VHS tapes? And now even like CDs, we're like, oh, just download it.
- [00:24:00.34] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Yeah.
- [00:24:00.58] SPEAKER 1: So I'm already feeling weirded out, but you've gone through decades of that.
- [00:24:05.11] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Oh, sure on everything. Do you want to talk about just like community living?
- [00:24:13.50] SPEAKER 1: Yeah, sure.
- [00:24:13.90] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: OK. Well, we lived in a single family house. It was three bedrooms, one bath. And the lots in the city were very narrow, similar to like all west side here, very narrow. So your neighbors were real close.
- [00:24:36.16] The street was a nice street with tree lined. And everybody kept their houses up. Everybody was very proud of their house. As I said, it was a middle class neighborhood. Most people either worked in the auto business or something related to it in Detroit. The east side was mostly Chrysler. The west side was Ford. And more to the north was General Motors.
- [00:25:09.01] And a lot of the families were either first generation or second generation immigrants that had come over from Europe for the auto business because of the high paying jobs and the opportunities the United States had. So that was your house. Most people had one car and would use public transportation.
- [00:25:37.33] My father-in-law used public transportation. He worked downtown. He worked as a pressman for a newspaper. There was three newspapers in those days, the Detroit News, the Free Press, and the Detroit Times. And they were daily. They were delivered to your house by a paper boy.
- [00:26:01.60] Your father would be, in most cases, the major breadwinner. Your mother would be home as the home keeper. And there was much more to do in the house in those days. There was no dishwashers, no garbage grinders. When I first started, when I was really young, the hot water heater-- we had a gas furnace. But most people had a coal furnace. I felt a little bad that I didn't have to take out the clinkers. All my friends had a job to take out the clinkers. I didn't have to do that.
- [00:26:50.92] But the hot water heater you had a light when you want hot water you went down and lit the hot water heater and it would heat up the water. Your refrigerator did not have a freezer compartment on it either at top or bottom. It had a little shelf or a little space about like this wide and this tall, and it had three ice cube trays in it. That was your freezer.
- [00:27:21.28] There was no frozen food. Your mom or almost all moms canned. In the fall, like right now, you'd buy bushels of tomatoes and apples and peaches and pears and things. And as a kid walking down the street, you'd smell these delicious smells of all this being cooked. You were not allowed in the kitchen during that time because it was steam to sterilize all the bell jars that they were canned in. And then underneath the stairs, in almost all homes, was a fruit cellar. It was a place for shelves. And you'd put all your food on there.
- [00:28:11.50] As I said earlier, there was a lot more going to the store. There was bakeries. There was what would be called a grocery store. But the grocery store was probably about the size of this room. And it had a counter in the center. And you asked the grocer, I would like a box of Wheaties. And he would then go and they'd be up way high on a shelf. And he had a gadget he could grab hold of the box of Wheaties and bring it down to you.
- [00:28:46.33] Let's see. What else? What else would be? Oh, another interesting thing is all light bulbs were free. There was Detroit Edison stores. And you saved all your burned out light bulbs and you took them there, and he would give you new light bulbs. You didn't have to buy light bulbs.
- [00:29:10.54] You went to all these stores that were on the major streets. There would be a shoe store. There was a poultry store that had live poultry in it. You'd select your chicken. And he'd take care of it for you. Yeah. There was butchers.
- [00:29:31.13] There was Sanders was a very popular store. You can still buy Sanders products. But they had stores with big candy counters and soda fountains and bakery goods. And then drug store, we had a pharmacy, but they also sold cigars and things like that and school supplies. And they all had a soda fountain.
- [00:30:01.13] And my wife worked in one of those. By the time she worked there, they'd taken the soda fountain out. But I had a good friend who worked in one. And you wore a little white paper cap, and you made sodas and things of that sort.
- [00:30:21.52] So that would have been the community. The community would have a theater, a movie show. Ours had two that you could easily walk to. And I believe it was $0.25. And you got two feature movies plus a newsreel and some comics. Almost all the movies were cowboys. And the good guy always won. That was pretty well it.
- [00:30:54.28] You would take the bus downtown. And downtown Detroit was really lively. The major department store was J.L. Hudson Company. And they had, at that time, the world's largest store. And at Christmas, you'd go down there as a kid, and you'd wait in line and see Santa Claus. And it was a regular department store, had elevators in it with elevator operators. And they were women sitting on a stool, and they had white gloves on. And they would turn this thing and take you up your floor.
- [00:31:40.37] For entertainment, Detroit had, of course, the Detroit Tigers and the Lions. And they were on top of their game in those days. And Gordie Howe was around. You probably have heard of him in hockey. So you could go to that kind of thing.
- [00:32:01.46] You would also take the Bob-Lo boat, which was a steamship right down were Dodge Park is right down in the Woodward now, right downtown next to the Ford theater. And that boat would take you to a Bob-Lo, an island down river. And it was an amusement park. They had the roller coasters and all that.
- [00:32:27.35] Plus, there was amusement parks in the communities. There was one, well, there was one over by the lake because we lived close to the lake, Lake St. Clair. And then there was one at Woodward and Eight Mile, et cetera. And you'd go there and hang out. There was no malls to hang out. So you went over there and hung out.
- [00:32:52.37] There was also a dirt racetrack over on Eight Mile. And at night, you could hear the cars zooming around. As a kid, I never went there. Back to your house, there was no air conditioning. And so summers were brutal for sleeping. You just gasp for air because it was so hot.
- [00:33:20.33] And then what seems very strange to me right now is both my parents smoked. And so they'd smoke in the house. There would be ashtrays all over it. They'd smoke in a car. You look at the old movies, ever look at any of the old movies, there were everybody smoking, male and female. It was the thing to do. That seems very strange now. All meetings you'd go to or anything like that, everybody would be smoking. Pretty unhealthy. Yeah.
- [00:33:56.04] So that's sort of the Detroit that I grew up in. Oh, another thing from when I was a kid, a young kid, we'd play in the street. There wasn't a bunch of cars coming down the street or anything. And there wasn't any cars parked on the street. Everybody parked the one car they had, if they had a car, in the driveway. So we played baseball in the street.
- [00:34:25.61] We played kick the can, mother may I, and something about a banana or something like that. And it was a lot of fun. And in order to get your friends together, you didn't have a cell phone. So this is strange. You'd go and stand on their front door and yell their name. Why you didn't ring the doorbell, I don't know, but you didn't. You would stand there and yell their name, and then they'd come out.
- [00:34:59.97] And nobody's doors were locked. And you ate dinner. And then your parents would tell you you had to be home when the street lights came on. And nobody really knew where you were. We'd be in the neighborhood and that. But it wasn't like parents were concerned because it was very safe.
- [00:35:25.40] Oh, and back to breakfast. My dad ate two eggs and bacon every day. And you could smell that cooking every day. And all houses had a side door. And we had a milk man. And I am almost embarrassed to say this, but the milk man had a horse and milk truck. And it was Sealtest. And they had milk trucks, OK? But Sealtest still used the horse and wagons. And you can see one in Greenfield Village inside there.
- [00:36:07.53] And the horse knew the route. It knew what houses to stop at. And it would stop. Milk man would get out. And he'd just walk in your house. My brother and I would be eating breakfast, and he'd just walk in and open the refrigerator and decide what we needed. And he'd put it in there.
- [00:36:27.44] And then Mr. Speck, the butter and egg man, would do the same thing, just walk in the house and decide how many eggs and butter we needed. And butter came in a big crock, ceramic crock with a piece of wax paper on the top. And he decided what we needed and just did it. It was just daily life. These guys were coming and going all the time. And you didn't think anything of it. So that's sort of life in Detroit in those times.
- [00:36:58.16] SPEAKER 1: That's really interesting.
- [00:37:00.08] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Yeah. I do remember. Because I'm 77, I was either five or six when World War II ended. And I can remember that early on, Detroit was the arsenal of democracy. And so we had curtains that we had to pull over our windows at night if we were going to have lights on in our house, so that the city was dark because they were concerned about bombers.
- [00:37:34.79] And my job was you got your food, of course, in tin cans. And my mother or dad would take the top and the bottom out. And then my job was to flatten them by standing on them and then put them in this crate. Then once a week or whatever it was, set them out on the curb, and they were all collected. The same thing with cooking grease, that also. You can make explosives out of cooking grease. So everything was collected.
- [00:38:07.14] And I remember the day that World War II ended. That night, the whole neighborhood literally exploded, came out onto the street with pots and pans and big old serving spoons and beat on the pans just in celebration of the end of the war. That I remember very vividly that the war is over, and everybody's out there making as much noise as they could. So that was pretty exciting. Yeah.
- [00:38:41.97] SPEAKER 1: Yeah, this is really cool to hear to get that actual perspective not what you usually here. What you see in museum, you get the perspective like a real person who was there when it ended.
- [00:38:53.45] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Well, unfortunately, what happens in museums is the things are over restored. And they look better than they did. Like the horse wasn't probably a great horse. He was probably just a horse. And as a kid, the milk man would give you-- he had a big ice pick, and he'd chop off pieces of ice and give them to you in the summer. And that was fun.
- [00:39:19.23] Oh, and the Good Humor man would come down the street. And he'd ring the bell. And he had that truck, that white truck that was open in the front. And he had-- everything was a nickel. But if you were living high, you could get a toasted almond for $0.10. And so once in a while, I'd get a toasted almond, which was my favorite.
- [00:39:49.24] SPEAKER 1: We don't really have ice cream trucks anymore that go around.
- [00:39:52.20] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: No. Well, they have. Sometimes you see those trucks go around.
- [00:39:56.82] SPEAKER 1: I used to see them all the time. Did you guys have those when you were a kid? They'd do it every day in the summer. But now, I never see them.
- [00:40:03.06] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Yeah.
- [00:40:03.33] SPEAKER 1: Except when I'm in Chicago.
- [00:40:06.21] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: But they came down the streets every day. Also, a vegetable truck came down the street every day in the summer with fresh vegetables. And he had a big old scale on the back and it was dangling as he's driving down there. But he'd sell you the vegetables.
- [00:40:26.37] Another thing that all boys did. Oh, that was it. There is another thing is there was definitely a difference between boys and girls and what they did. Girls were not allowed to do certain things. My wife, to this day, is upset over the fact that she was never allowed to play the cymbals in the band. Girls didn't do that. She was supposed to play a clarinet. Things like that.
- [00:41:01.27] There was a dress code even at Michigan State when we were there that women could not wear slacks-- this seems very strange-- to class unless it was very cold. And then they would allow the women to wear slacks. They had to wear skirts.
- [00:41:26.94] And they had hours where the men had no hours. The women, during the week, I think it was 10 o'clock had to be back. And if you were late, you got demerits. And if you got so many demerits, you couldn't go out. On the weekends, it was 1 o'clock on Friday and Saturday.
- [00:41:51.02] But back to high school, et cetera, there wasn't all these sports. Well, there wasn't as many sports. There was no soccer. Denby was typical. It had a really good football team, track team OK, good baseball team, good tennis team, terrible basketball. And that was-- oh, golf and swimming. They had swimming. And they were good at swimming. But that was the male sports.
- [00:42:30.27] Female sports, basketball, they would have played half court. They would have not had the full court like now. It would have been half court. There was, obviously, no football, no baseball, basketball, swimming, and maybe something else. But there was definitely less opportunities for women in sports and probably subtly about going to college. I can't say that for a fact, but most women didn't. My wife went to college, but most didn't. So there was different expectations in those days. And they weren't written or anything. It was just the way it was.
- [00:43:30.86] SPEAKER 1: It was just social law, right?
- [00:43:32.03] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Social law, yes, exactly. There's social laws now that, later on, you guys are going to laugh at or your children will laugh at. We're done?
- [00:43:45.04] SPEAKER 1: We're good. That was a great first interview. So to start off today, I would like to know where you grew up. Do you even remember your address at all?
- [00:43:56.08] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Oh, yes. 10072 Balfour. And it's on the east side of Detroit in predominantly a Catholic neighborhood. Right behind us was a Catholic girls school for high school. And then there was the Catholic church and such. But we were Lutheran.
- [00:44:18.85] And most people went to public schools. A lot of the girls went to the high school or the private school. But most people went to the public schools, Detroit public schools. I'm a Denby graduate. My wife is a Southeastern graduate. They're both Detroit public schools, and they still exist. Let's see. So what was the other part of the question?
- [00:44:47.52] SPEAKER 1: What are your strongest memories there?
- [00:44:49.62] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: Oh, OK. I have a lot of them. It was a cohesive neighborhood. People didn't move. They lived there most their whole lives. Detroit was a automobile manufacturing. The east side was mostly Chrysler. And a lot of the people worked in either the factories or something related to it. My dad was a banker. He worked for National Bank of Detroit. And my mother was a professor at Wayne State University.
- [00:45:29.16] Growing up, we went to the public school that was 10 short blocks away. We walked there. And it was Wayne Elementary. And we went from kindergarten up to I think it was like the seventh grade. And then I went to intermediate school, and we were bused there because that was more in my wife's neighborhood. And we went there for the eighth grade. And then I went to high school. And I walked to high school because everything was in the community.
- [00:46:07.89] In the community also were all the stores. There's major streets in Detroit. They were like a spoke. The French laid it out. And they laid it out like a half a wagon wheel. And those are the major streets like Gratiot and Woodward, et cetera. But there's all these secondary streets. And they had all the stores on it like the grocery store, the little grocery store I talked about, Sanders that had the cakes and ice cream and things and shoe repair and everything. So it was a total community.
- [00:46:45.99] And the city was divided up ethnically also. You probably have heard of Hamtramck, which was a Polish area. And if you went over there, it was like being in Poland. The languages were they spoke Polish. And we had a lot of Belgians in our neighborhood. Other neighborhoods would have predominantly German or something like that.
- [00:47:13.86] As far as what we did as young kids, of course, we went to school. And bullyism isn't anything new. Most of us walked on one side of the street because the Ducky Dietz walked on the other side of the street, and we tried to avoid him.
- [00:47:33.03] I was a duty boy, which meant that I was excused early from class. The AAA had these belts. It was a white belt like this, and it came across like this. And on major streets, you would stand there and hold out your arms when people were not supposed to walk and let them go. So I did that.
- [00:48:03.03] As I said, we played in the neighborhood. And as young kids, we played in the street. There wasn't cars like it is now. And if you had a car, you parked in your driveway. So we played some pretty simple games like kick the can and mother may I and baseball and things of that sort. Then
- [00:48:24.75] For entertainment in the evening, after dinner, when we were young, it was only the radio. And the radio wasn't some small little thing. It was a cabinet. It was a piece of furniture, and it was in your living room. And as a kid, you sat right next to it, around the floor, right next to it. And you listened to Plastic Man and Spider-Man and Sergeant Preston up in the Yukon and things like that.
- [00:48:55.05] It was pretty neat. Because if you read a book or like right now if you read a book, you imagine the characters the way you'd like to see them. Now if you go to the movies, they show you what the character looks like. So it was more fun to sit there and imagine what Plastic Man looked like as he climbed the skyscraper on the outside of it and things. It was fun.
- [00:49:23.55] And then came along TV. And because my mother worked, we had two incomes. So we had a little more money than other people in the neighborhood. So we were one of the first to get a TV. And the TV was this big. The screen was this big. It was 9 inches.
- [00:49:46.22] And you'd be surprised how many new friends you have if you have a TV. It's sort of like owning a swimming pool. So the TV only had limited hours and limited programs. In the other time, it would just have a test pattern. And people would come over and just look at the test pattern because it was so new.
- [00:50:12.23] The programs were pretty simple. One was Kukla, Fran and Ollie. It was two puppets and Fran who talked to the puppets. And things of that sort. Howdy Doody came later when there was more productions type of thing and sponsorship. And television signed off pretty early in the evening. It was on for a certain period, and then it would be mostly off with this test pattern.
- [00:50:46.05] As the TV evolved, Mr. Klinkhammer down the street, he bought a big lens, big thing and hung it over his nine inch TV. And that made the screen bigger. And then he came up with a color wheel that spun around. And if you imagined, it was color TV. It wasn't very good.
- [00:51:15.20] But TVs got started getting bigger. And the program got growing, more sponsorship and more money involved and better programming. A lot of the stars were introduced on the Ed Sullivan program. Mr. Sullivan was this emcee, and he got all the stars. Like the Beatles were introduced in America on The Ed Sullivan Show. Elvis Presley, Elvis was only shown from here up because of his scandalous gyrations. So on TV, they showed only his upper torso.
- [00:52:05.11] So that's entertainment at home. You played a lot of board games, like Clue was big, things of Monopoly. And so there was more of a family culture. You had some popcorn. And you played board games. And you accused your brother of cheating on Monopoly. He had more hotels than it seemed like he should have. And so that's what you did.
- [00:52:38.41] Saturday, you would go to the show. They'd have like an afternoon show. And they'd have two feature movies, both cowboys. . And John Wayne was solving the problems of the world. And then you'd have a cartoon and a newsreel. And so for $0.25, you got good value. That's pretty well what you did.
- [00:53:08.20] You would go downtown on the bus. Downtown was very viable with the major department stores, Hudson's and Kern's and Crowley's and related things. In the summer, you would go to Bob-Lo on the boat, which was a lot of fun. And I think I mentioned that was amusement parks type of thing. And you'd go there.
- [00:53:36.49] That's pretty well what we did. We rode out bikes a lot to different places. I'd ride my bike over to Belle Isle, things like that . Was fun times. Pretty simple but fun.
- [00:53:51.34] SPEAKER 1: That's really nice. That sounds nice.
- [00:53:53.35] ROBERT DAN HARRINGTON: OK.
- [00:53:55.48] SPEAKER 1: So we've already answered a lot of these.
- [00:53:59.80] CREW: We should probably take a couple minute break.
- [00:54:02.76] SPEAKER 1: Oh, yeah
- [00:54:03.66] CREW: For the next bell.
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
Wayne State University - Faculty & Staff
Detroit Edison Company
J. L. Hudson Co.
Boblo Island Amusement Park
Denby High School
National Bank of Detroit (NBD)
Ed Sullivan Show
Cape Kennedy Florida
Cape Canaveral FL
10072 Balfour Rd Detroit