Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

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It was the best of times…

Growing up in Wayne really was something wonderful
By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

Dr Jim Mackey wasn’t special growing up. There were many people just like him, who’d had a pleasant and quiet childhood and a quiet and pleasant place.

Half a hundred of them gathered recently at a Radnor Historical Society meeting, where Dr. Mackey reminisced about his youth. That was Wayne in the 1930s and 1940s. In the audience there were more than one couple who chuckled to themselves over memories brought back to like, or called out extra information as he told his stories. You got the feeling that more than a few of the audience could have given the same speech, just changing the anecdotes.

Through most of the speech, every time Dr. Mackey brought up someone or something there would be a murmuring of approval or of memory. Mention the blind lady who walked with her dog, and a pleasant greeting for everyone, and someone called out her name, Mrs. Newland. Recall the noon whistle and everyone nodded. Mention the church bells and discussions started on just when they rang. Mention the police box in the center of town for them to get out of the weather, and someone recalled patrolman who would emerge to help ladies across the street.

Not that it was very often necessary. “If there’s anything more indicative of the change to the Main Line it’s the traffic in Wayne, both of cars and people,” he said. It wasn’t that way when I was growing up. In fact you still saw horse and carts and not that many cars came down the road, which was only a one lane highway.”

As a kid, Mackey and his friends would make a game out of the Lancaster Ave. traffic. “We would sit on the curb on Lancaster Ave. and divide up the models of cars,” he said. “One of us would take Chevies, one Fords and Plymouths and so forth except Cadillac, you didn’t see many of them,” he said. We would sit there for hours. Today you couldn’t do it, there’s just too much traffic and too many types of cars,” he said.

Everyone recalled places and stores. For example, the Opera House, and the diner which is now the Chinese Restaurant. Some of the stores and businesses were in the back of everyone’s consciousness, most of which are gone now. Muller’s Candy, the Wayne Iron Works and Mackey’s grandfather’s Hale’s grocery store. “He had a big lot with a huge spruce tree which he’d let everyone put decorations on it for Christmas,” he said.

If there was a constant, it was that there was a structure to life in Wayne and Radnor. Most importantly, that structure made sense to the people in the audience remembering those times.

But Wayne wasn’t heaven, and the times weren’t idyllic. There was a Depression going on, but in Radnor for young children that was and always had been the situation, so it wasn’t something to dwell on. “There were men who came to the back doors and asked if they could work for food,” he said. “They were always polite, and they weren’t looking for a handout, they wanted work.

Frankly, unlike today, being poor wasn’t a reason to be unhappy. All society, especially those in small towns, were less concerned about what you had. America wasn’t a prosperous country then, even without the Depression. Money and status weren’t really the center of family life, and frankly, even if you did go in for ostentatiousness, there really wasn’t that much to spend on kids.

Marketing and communications weren’t as pervasive then as now. Young people could only compare themselves with each other and they weren’t subjected to a constant bombardment of radio, t.v. and magazines messages which told them they needed to buy more and better to prove their worth and success. It was even hard to tell some of the rich kids were rich, because people weren’t what they wore.

Naturally, a center of everyone’s memories was school. Mackey graduated from high school in 1947 and knew even then it was a good school. “My teachers knew I wanted to be a doctor, so they helped me. I remember I was given the assignment to dissect the nervous system of a cricket. I think it took me the entire semester, but I did it,” he said. “They were fantastic.

Going to school during WWII, he, with most of the Historical Society audience, remembered air raid drills, and having to deal with blackout curtains, even though they were a long way from the sea.

Everyone remembered several things, such as skating in the winter on ponds, and the school spirit of their time in school. Wayne wasn’t technologically behind, hadn’t been since Childs and Drexel put in electricity, gas and telephone well before it became common. “I remember Jack Mather had the first television in Wayne, and used to invite people over to watch shows,” he said. “There would be big crowds there,” he said.

Now, instead of the Depression limiting what you could buy, the war was doing it. Sugar and Chocolate were rations, as was gasoline for what cars were already on the road the country ceased making private vehicles shortly after Pearl Harbor. Clothes and style were secondary to stretching the supply of cloth available for

Prices were something different then, too. Newspapers, according to him, were a nickel, as was an ice cream cone. “I think I remember that postage stamps were either two or three cents,” he said.

Even after WWII prices didn’t go up near as much as they have in the past 25 years. “When I started out as a doctor, which was in the mid 1950s, an office visit cost $3 and a house call was $4. Five years later that went up a dollar, and it wasn’t until almost 15 years later that I was actually paid $10 for an appointment,” he said.

Those who were young during the 1930s and 1940s were the children of the first modern generation of Americans. Their parents were, for the most part, born in the 20th century. Fathers had served in World War I and grandfathers in the Spanish War, but their vision was smaller and closer. They wanted to create a safe and comfortable living for their families.

In many cases the men had earned the right to seek a community of quiet and comfort. Mackey’s father, J. Gordon Mackey had fought in WWI and a 17 year-old and then came back to Wayne, where he’d been raised, along with Dr. Mackey’s mother, Edith Hale, whose father owned the grocery store and a big house on the west end of town.

Gordon became a grocer and lived in the Louella Apartments when Jim was young, then moved further west to the Kingswood apartments. “Although he became a grocer, he stayed in the National Guard,” he said. A part of Pennsylvania’s famed 28th Infantry Division, officially know as the Keystone Division, but referred to by the Germans as the “Bloody Bucket Division, the.

“He was recalled with the division during WWII and, although the division was sent to Europe, his battalion was scrubbed off and sent to the Pacific, where they took part in the Battle of Saipan and was awarded a Bronze Star,” he said. He was lucky, as the division earned its nickname taking horrible casualties in the march across Europe.

Some units suffered 80 percent casualties during the division’s fighting in the Hurtgen Forest, south of Aachen, Germany. According to author Stephen Ambrose in his book, The Victors, “Overall in the Hurtgen the 28th division suffered 6184 combat casualties, plus 738 cases of trench foot and 620 battle fatigue cases. Those figures mean that virtually every front-line soldier was a casualty,” he said.

Although he never attended college, Mackey’s father was an officer in the division. During the Korean War the division was called up again, this time going to Europe to shore up defense there. “The Russians were stirring things up, and with the war in Korea they wanted to beef up NATO with the guard unit,” he said. At the time he was the third in command of the division, a full colonel. “He invited me to come over, saying it was a chance I would probably never have again,” he said.

“We went to Paris and older men kept coming up to him with tears in their eyes and giving him a hug,” he said. “I asked them why they were doing that, and he said he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the French equivalent to the Medal of Honor,” he said.

What amazed Dr. Mackey the most was that in his entire life his father hadn’t mentioned that he’d won that award. Having come back from the Great War, he became a family man and a grocer until his country called again. In Wayne, that evidently didn’t include discussing foreign medals for bravery.

Perhaps because of his father’s service, Mackey is one of the town’s greatest supporters of the war memorial. “I go there probably once a week. To me it’s the most beautiful place in Wayne. Unfortunately when I look at the memorials to the two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, I recognize to many of the names on it,

After graduating from Jefferson, he joined a practice in Paoli. He’s never really left, and never really wanted to. “I was a general practitioner back when that actually meant something,” he said. “I’m wasn’t one of those rich doctors the best I can say is I earned a comfortable living,” he said.

Not to over-romanticize the period, but in places such as Radnor, which were solid and somewhat isolated middle class towns, there was an uprightness that is harder to find today.

Then, you behaved yourself, especially if you were a kid, because everyone was accountable in towns such as Wayne. People knew who you were, there was no anonymity. Kids knew, even when they were misbehaving, that somebody would tell your parents, if then didn’t straighten you out on the spot.

Being part of a community restrained the wilder aspects of people’s natures. You had to be more polite. If you were rude to someone, it was someone you knew, or worse yet, your dad knew. He wasn’t worried that a spanking would get him charged with child abuse. He was more concerned that his children grew up “right.”

Police didn’t worry about getting shot by a 12-year old, and were, therefore, a little more friendly. They were also a part of the community, and that was a real difference. Everybody was. You couldn’t hide.

“I saw the Main Line through the eyes of a grocer’s son. It wasn’t the Main Line, then, it was home,” he said.