“As far as the mood in the neighborhood, I don’t remember talking or hearing about a lot of people that were steadfast saying, ‘Hey, I’m gonna stay here and stick it out.’“
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Transcript for It Was a Pretty Heady Time
My family is all German. In fact, I’m a hundred percent German. My parents both come from Germany. They came here to America after World War II. The story goes, my father was seasick most of the time, and my mom took care of him. My father’s job that was promised to him was in Okefenokee. He had been a forest ranger in Germany. Closest job he could get to that was doing surveying work in the swamps of Florida, which he hated. You can imagine: it was hot and sweaty, and mosquitos, and alligators, and everything else. When my dad decided to get out of the swamps, he had heard that there was plenty of jobs in Gary, and the steel mills were hiring, so that’s where he went.
I just remember having so much freedom, roaming around, you know, hiking by myself out to U.S. Steel property, across 12 and 20, and hanging out in the woods there. U.S. Steel owned a bunch of woods over there. We had a big sand dune by our house, and at the Senior League Field area, and so we spent a lot of time over there, so it was a great place to grow up. You know, every house was full, you know, there were no boarded-up houses in those days. But when I went to Wirt, things changed. That’s when they started busing African American kids from downtown to Wirt.
I mean, you kind of live through your parents. You hear what they say, and so, it started becoming tough because you know, the Hippie movement and all that stuff was going on, and the war, Vietnam War, was being protested, and it was a pretty heady time. Mixed in with all that was racial strife. I can remember fights started breaking out at Wirt School. I mean, just in the hallways. You know, kids were just all riled up because their parents were pissed off, and they closed the school down a few times. I was unfortunately kind of in the middle of that one by accident. I was just walking to class, and this fight breaks out, and just being in the middle of this, trying to get away. I wasn’t fighting anybody—I was just a white guy, and there was a bunch of black guys, and one of the guys had a hatpin, and he stuck it in my neck.
My dad decided to sell our house, and he told me that he sold it for less than what he had bought it for in 1952, and this was twenty years later. It allowed us to leave, and we moved to Hebron as part of the white flight out of Gary. And it was quite a culture shock going from Gary to Hebron. There were more kids in my high school in Gary than the whole town of Hebron. And then I moved to an all-white community again. There was one other guy that lived in Hebron—his parents had moved down from Gary as well. But we started hanging out together just because we were both from Gary. We liked to chuckle about farm kids from Hebron. The schools hardly got any homework, you know, and I was bored, so I got an after-school job in Lowell. Four to ten or something like that every night in high school. If I had any homework, I did it in the car on the way there or something like that, so, and that was part of the culture shock, too, you know, just going from a school that challenged you to a school that didn’t challenge you very much.
So, when we moved to Hebron, we were—my parents were looking forward to it: the fresh air, and living out in the country—a lot more like Germany than living in the city. My dad commuted to U.S. Steel from Hebron. It wasn’t too far to drive. There was no sadness about leaving Gary.
As far as the mood in the neighborhood, I don’t remember talking or hearing about a lot of people that were steadfast saying, ‘Hey, I’m gonna stay here and stick it out.’ People were scared. They saw things—they saw their surroundings getting more rundown, you know, that’s the era between when Mayor Katz, the last white mayor of Gary, left office, and Mayor Hatcher took office. That’s what started a lot of the white flight because the streets weren’t kept up like they used to be, garbage wasn’t picked up, snow didn’t get plowed as much, and, you know, the city started getting rundown. Yeah, there were some people that wanted to stay, and did stay, and they’re still there today, some of them, but there wasn’t a big upswelling of sentiment about, you know, ‘We’re gonna keep Gary the way it was,’ because a lot of people saw the writing on the wall and said, ‘I’m getting out of here. It’s not gonna get any better anytime soon.’ There wasn’t a whole lot to stay for in some people’s eyes.