Three DC Editors Meet for Lunch: What I Could Tell Them About the Old Days in Wisconsin

After the holidays I’m having lunch with two other editors—the one in his 40s edits a magazine, the one in his 60s edited a newspaper and now teaches at a J school. I’m in my 80s and edited newspapers and then the Washingtonian magazine.

Three generations and how different our lives in journalism have been.

In 1952 I graduated from a small-city Wisconsin high school just as the world was changing in so many ways. We had gone through the Depression and World War Two. Our world was mostly shaped by radio and newspapers—television was emerging but in 1952 there was little to watch beyond the Ed Sullivan show.

During the war President Roosevelt connected with the American people most effectively by radio, by what were called Fireside Chats. He’d talk for 30 or 40 minutes, giving Americans hope in tough, uncertain times.

The dramatic visuals of the war mostly came from Movietone News; it provided short films that showed the war being fought along with stirring, sometimes ominous music. You saw the Movietone news coverage before the feature film at movie theaters.

Daily newspapers were the most important way to keep up with the news. In my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, the local paper, the Post-Crescent, was delivered to just about every home in the city. We read it for news, for sports, for who was getting married, who had a baby, who died. Divorce? Growing up in Appleton I wasn’t aware of anyone whose parents were divorced. Very few people could afford it.

On Sundays we got the Milwaukee Journal—like in many states, our biggest city had a Sunday paper that was delivered to homes all over the state.

For young boys, the most exciting entertainment was reading comic books and going to a movie theater on Saturday morning to see the cowboy serials—Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers. Much of our play as little kids involved cowboys and Indians. We had toy pistols and bows and arrows and we fought over who was going to be a cowboy and who an Indian and then go hide so we could find him.

It was before much air travel. Visitors arrived by train. At age 18 I had never left Wisconsin and we didn’t know much about the world beyond our hometown.

For teenagers it was not a car culture. Almost all families had just one car and it wasn’t for high school kids to cruise around in. We went back and forth to school by walking or riding a bike (no bike helmets then), which also meant we mostly lived our lives within about a 15-block radius of our house. At our high school, the only one in the city, we mostly socialized only with kids from our part of town. The kids who lived a mile away and had gone to one of the other junior high schools might as well have been from another city.

Race relations? In our city of 30,000, there were no African-Americans, Hispanics, or Asian-Americans. Lots of  people—mostly Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians—whose grandparents had come from Europe in the 19th century. My father’s family had come from Germany in the 1850s, my mother’s from Norway in the 1860s.

Women’s liberation? In high school there were no athletic teams for girls. The girls who were good athletes competed to become cheerleaders for the boys’ teams.

Most of the girls in my high school class of 337 expected to get married fairly soon after graduation. Two of my sisters graduated from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in home economics—they went to college to learn how to be good wives and mothers.

Many of the boys were going to work at the same factory or store where their fathers worked. Why would you not stay in your hometown near your parents and relatives?

For those boys who went to college, going out of state was almost never talked about. A few kids went to Northwestern but the rest of us went to a state college or university. When I started at UW in 1952, the in-state tuition was $95 a year. To cover the rest of the cost, many of us worked at part-time jobs. We’d never heard of anything called financial aid or student loans.

A lot of the boys in my 1952 high school class were anxious to get married because it was the only way they could get a girl into bed. It was before birth control, before abortion. My guess is that 95 percent of the girls in our high school class were virgins—despite the best efforts of boys, the girls were terrified of getting pregnant outside of marriage.

It was before pornography. The first issue of Playboy was published in December 1953. So that, we discovered, was what girls looked liked without any clothes on.

Music? It was the Glenn Miller orchestra for ballroom dancing, Nat King Cole singing love songs on the jukebox. Elvin Presley and rock music were a few years away.

Medical care? We had a family doctor and he took care of everything. It was before the Salk vaccine and in 1950 the star of our high school basketball team came down with polio. At a basketball game the next year he limped onto the court with everyone cheering but he never played again.

Dental care? I didn’t know any kid who wore braces. But lots of us had cavities because Appleton was one of the few cities where the water wasn’t fluoridated. It was considered by the city’s conservatives to be a Communist plot.

One of the Appleton area politicians, Joe McCarthy, took the fight against Communism to Washington where he made a lot of headlines in the Senate and then died a disgraced alcoholic.

Shopping? Local department stores, local grocery stores, local drug stores. And the Sears catalog—wow, the stuff you could buy from Sears Roebuck by mail. When we went shopping, we went downtown. No shopping centers yet.

Traffic? Families had one car and you kept it in the garage. Lots of two-lane roads with cars driving no more than 50 miles an hour. No freeways yet. Buying a car made by the Germans or the Japanese? Too many memories of World War Two.

The law? If a cop talked to you, you didn’t even think about any backtalk. You respected cops and teachers or your parents would sit you done for a talk. Guns? Lots of rifles for deer hunting and shotguns for duck and pheasant hunting but there was very little crime involving guns.

A world that now seems far away.

At the coming lunch, I’ll resist going back to the 1950s and be interested in hearing from the other two editors how they’re coping with the 21st century changes in journalism.

Where are the readers who’ll pay for news? With Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon ever richer, where’s the money coming from to pay for good journalism?


  1. Rosann Heinritz Sexton says

    Yes, Jack, that was exactly what living was like growing up in Appleton! I’m very proud that I grew up there.
    I’ve friended the Appleton Historical Society on Facebook…..many posts that bring back lots of memories…

  2. Richard Brautigam says

    Ah the 50s! What a great time to grow up. Many folks didn’t feel a need to lock their doors at night as we didn’t have much crime. At our high school we did not have all the great facilities kids enjoy today, such as a beautiful pool, an athletic field with artificial turf and new tennis courts that are second to none. But we survived. After high school, I started working at our local newspaper, the Appleton Post Crescent, retiring after 44 years and a variety of different positions. I married my high school sweetheart and we have been together for 67 wonderful years. Life has been good here in Appleton, Wisconsin. Dick B

  3. What good memories I have of those times because now everything seems impersonal with all the new communication things available at this time. Don’t get me wrong I enjoy having all the things we have now but I have to say that I probably miss communication with something other than an electronic device. In high school I didn’t communicate well and most of the time I shut my mouth and kept quiet. Now when I can communicate easily I am just an elderly lady with old ideas trying to keep up with the times. I married a classmate after he got out of service. I did not know him in high school as he was with a group that was too fast for me. But after service he was just right and we spent 57 years together. In the end life is what we make it under all conditions

  4. Hi Jack,
    Loved your article on the 50’s…..sent it to several classmates. The 50’s were just great….moral, innocence and fun, something dreadfully missing in this day of so called “progress”. 6-8 of us (classmates) get together once a month for lunch and discussed your article, all loving it. Some of my best years were in high school. I’ll take the 50’s back anytime. Thanks so much for such a nice and positive article.

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