February 7, 2023

I never dreamed I’d live and work in so many places. Part 2

By John Guy LaPlante

This piece of mine has become far more detailed and lengthy than I planned.

So for your pleasure and ease, and to give me an important breather, it will be posted in two parts, perhaps even three or four.

A month or so before graduating from Assumption College, a priest asked me what kind of work I would like to get into. Father Victor, I believe his name was.

Journalism, I told him.

“Jean-Guy,” he said, “you should consider taking classes in economics and political science. Those would be helpful for a career in journalism.”

I did complete a one-semester course in economics at the college. It was the first such course the college offered. Taught by an Italian Ph.D., meaning a man from Italy. His English was so bad that he taught the class in French. He gave me an A. He was a good man but I hadn’t really learned much.

What to do? Father Victor suggested I take the Graduate Record Exam. I had never heard of it. My getting a good grade in that could get me into a good university program in the courses that he had suggested.

I scored well on the GRE test.

So on the basis of that I applied to Clark University right there in Worcester, a fine university.

I quickly got accepted. I think because Clark had a good impression of the high quality of students Assumption turned out.

I also applied to Brown University in Providence.

I liked that idea. That was Ivy League, among other things.

But my plans went beyond that.

Yes, I would get my Master’s at Brown.

And then I would enroll at Boston University which had a fine two-semester program leading to a Master’s degree in journalism.

And finally begin my career as a journalist.

Besides, if I did that, for the first time in many years, I could live at home with my parents in Pawtucket. Which was right next door to Providence. I could commute back and forth.

And Gosh! Brown did accept me!

For sure I’d be the first graduate from Assumption to go to Brown.

The dean of the Department of Economics wrote telling me I was in!

He included a booklet explaining what would be expected of me.

For one thing, a Master’s degree from Brown meant four semesters — two full academic years.

A key point was that no grade less than B would be acceptable. A single C would be grounds for dismissal.

That caught my attention but I didn’t lose sleep over it.

What was really exciting was that after so many years away from home, after four years at Sacred Heart Academy and eight years at Assumption, I would be moving in with my parents year-round for a couple of years. Very very nice.

But when the classes at Brown started in September, I got to realize that my living at home would be difficult for my parents and me. And for more than one reason.

I had a bedroom for myself at home. That was very good. But I had to do my studying and daily homework at the kitchen table after supper at night. With Pa in his rocking chair four feet away reading his evening newspaper and sometimes interrupting me to tell me about a big story he was reading.

Photo of my dear Pa.

And with Ma washing the dishes and cleaning up in the pantry.

It wouldn’t always be easy for me to concentrate.

And then I found out commuting to Brown would require two stop-and-go city bus rides to Providence and then a long, hard hike up College Hill to Robinson Hall, home of the university’s Economics Department.

That could take 45 minutes, even longer. Rain, winter ice and snow would make it worse.

The classes were open to graduate students and undergrads, which was fine. But one day I found out that all the graduate students had majored in economics at the college level. And I had had just that single course with the Italian professor.

One other problem. The class in statistical analysis required a knowledge of calculus. I had taken a class in that at Assumption but had missed the first two weeks because I had been ill. And never caught up.

I got A’s and B’s in all the other Brown courses. International trade. The labor movement. One course in political science. The basics of finance. The history of the industrial revolution. Keynesian economics. No problems.

The dreaded course in statistical analysis came at the end of the fourth semester, my last at Brown.

I received a C. I was shocked. It was all I could do not to cry.

I’d have to leave Brown without my Master’s. And I had to announce that to Pa and Ma. I had never flunked anything. They were expecting me to come home and tell them the date of commencement, when I’d receive my Master’s in economics.

This is a photo of my dear mother.

And they had been supporting me at home with room and board and clothes and paying the big Brown bills.

And Pauline! What would she think of this?

I felt very bitter about all that. Very angry. Because if I had been an undergrad at Brown taking those very same courses, my academic record would have been considered quite, quite impressive. Definitely above average.

Besides, the Department — all my professors — knew that I planned to become a journalist. Not an economist.

In fact, Brown had a weekly student newspaper, The Herald. The student staff — all undergrads — met at 7:30 every evening Monday through Friday to put it out. I stayed late one day, walked over, introduced myself as a graduate student and asked if I could help. And they took me on.

It was my job two evenings a week to do the lay-out for the six to eight pages and write some of the headlines.

Also I found out that an editor at the Providence Journal, a very fine paper, was offering a course in reporting two evenings a week at Brown. I signed up for that.

I was spending long days at Brown. And then taking the two buses to get home.

In all this, I did have one very lucky break. Ma’s younger sister Bernadette lived right next door. And she had a car. An Oldsmobile. And Pa had taught me how to drive.

This is my dear Aunt Bernadette who was so helpful to me and so many ways.

In bad weather she would lend me her car.

My Aunt Bernadette was wonderful. One day, without saying a word to Pa, she drove me to a used furniture store and bought me a desk and office chair and had it set up in my bedroom. I had learned to type and now I could type without disturbing Pa and Ma.

Anyway, Pa and Ma could not hide their disappointment in me.They were not used to my flunking anything.

I was hoping that Father Victor back at Assumption College would never find out.

Immediately, with Pa and Ma’s approval, I applied to Boston University for acceptance to its Master’s program in journalism and was quickly accepted.

Boston was 40 miles north of Pawtucket. I would commute to classes by train 5 days a week. Every month Pa would buy me a monthly pass.

It was a 55-minute ride to Back Bay Station, then a quick 12-minute walk to J school.

I did that Monday through Friday.

I was impressed by the J School. Was glad I got accepted. The dean had been the editor of a big newspaper.

Most of the profs were part-timers working regular jobs on the two big Boston dailies.

I took classes in reporting, newswriting, feature writing, and magazine writing. And newspaper law.

In magazine writing, the teacher explained what that was all about. Then told us to go out and find something that we could write a magazine article about. I did that and was able to sell it. It was about photography and how I had used it to make pin money.

And I sent it off to a magazine called “Profitable Hobbies” and got paid $14 for it! I was really learning. I still have a copy of that magazine.

One of our teachers was an editorial writer at the Boston Globe. In fact, he had won a Pulitzer for his editorial writing.

The country was having difficulty with severe inflation at that time. He took one lecture to give us a detailed outline of that great economic problem. There were 28 of us in his class, mostly men but a few women.

At the end of his lecture, he told us for the next class to write an editorial about the inflation problem and what should be done to resolve it.

And then to turn our editorials in for his evaluation.

Two classes later, he came in, looked at all of us, and said, “Would Mister LaPlante please stand.”

He hadn’t gotten around to learning our names. I stood up.

And he said, “I am pleased to tell you, sir, that you wrote a fine editorial. I have given you an A-plus. Congratulations!”

My classmates applauded, which was very nice of them.

He did not know about my two years of economics at Brown. Nor did my classmates.

But it was because of what I had learned at Brown that I could turn in such an editorial.

It was terrific to return home and tell Pa and Ma how well I was doing at BU.

Oh, just a block away from the J School — that’s what we called it, J standing for Journalism–was a big Burroughs Office Supplies store.

I had walked in one day to look around and had come upon a marvelous new kind of typewriter. It was called a Justowriter. Or had a name quite similar to that.

Back then all newspaper type was set on big, in fact massive, Linotype Machines using molten lead.

It took a man, always a man, to serve a long apprenticeship to learn to use a Linotype. Operators were among the highest paid in printing.

Now with a Justowriter, a man or woman could do the job.

The Justowriter was a very fancy typewriter. Yes, typewriter. No molten lead. It required two typings of anything. You would type a line of a certain length on a sheet of paper. Then tab over and retype it. And “spacers” would automatically drop in between the words to stretch the line to make every line perfectly flush right.

Just the way a Linotype machine would do it. A Justowriter was hundreds of dollars cheaper. And an operator would not need a long, expensive apprenticeship.

That Burroughs Office Store was smart. Gave free lessons. People would see what a good job a Justowriter did and would buy one.

Twice a week after classes I would stop by for an hour’s lesson. I became pretty good at it.

In a trade magazine I had read of two weekly newspapers using this newfangled machine to produce their newspapers.

Two years later with Pa’s help I had a weekly newspaper and was able to buy one of those machines and use it to put out my paper.

But at the store I had to keep my eye on my watch. I had to quit practicing on that machine in time to catch the next train home to Pawtucket.

At the J School I was also able to meet a teacher who had a profound influence on me. His name was Evan Hill.

He had worked at several papers, large and very small, before starting to teach full time at our school.

He took a liking to me. He told me that he had a friend who was the owner / publisher of a small weekly paper in the town of Thomaston in Connecticut. It was called the Thomaston Express.

Thomaston Connecticut Town Hall and Opera House

I used to check here every week. First Selectman, Town Clerk, Police Chief, and other possible breaking news.

Professor Hill told me that he would recommend me to his friend. And he was sure I would get the job — if I said yes to that.

I said Yes!

Commencement from the Boston University J School was a very happy event. Pa and Ma were there. My girlfriend Pauline planned to attend but on the final day could not find a way to get to Boston.

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