by Ed Reilly
A look at the world of 40 years ago
I am writing on June 4 (1994), just after finishing a most interesting edition of the Schenectady Union Star dated June 4. No, that’s not a misprint. I refer to the issue of June 4, 1954, which Deputy Town Clerk Jean Kirvin just found among the files in the Clerk’s office. Its headline read "GE Details $13 Million Program To Boost Research Lab Facilities," the probable reason that the paper was kept on file all these years. Its price was 5 cents.
Eight days after its publication, I graduated from RPI. Seven days later still, Jean and I were married in Watervliet. In yet another nine days, I began my working career at that very research lab.
My first boss, Peter Johnson, is retired now but still lives in town. Since he once served on our planning board, it is possible that we had fleeting discussions of town problems that planted a seed of interest in Niskayuna on my own part, though at the time I was living in Watervliet awaiting a call to active duty that came five months later.
In Paris on June 4, as reported by the Union-Star, France formally granted independence to Viet Nam. But a page one headline announced "Lifeline to Hanoi Squeezed, Surging Reds Gain Foothold on Vital Road." Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told Congress that the military situation in Indochina "is grave, but by no means hopeless."
Still on page one, we learn that the "Final Army Tank Rolls Off Alco Assembly Line." And Barbara Hayden, who was still writing for the Union-Star when I became Supervisor in the 1970s, reported that the Schenectady School District wanted to build a new high school, the one we now know as Linton High. Her story quoted one Randall F. Atkinson, architect, who later served with me as a Niskayuna Councilman.
I assume that the referendum scheduled for a few days later must have passed, but it was over the objections of one Loren W. Lillis, chairman of the Publicity Committee of the Schenectady Taxpayers Association, in a large ad captioned "Taxpayers and Parents Look Out!"
Arguing that Nott Terrace High would not be overcrowded by 1967 and that hence no new high school was needed, he claimed that "if so-called ‘progressive’ instruction is persisted in, Schenectady will have more Catholic high schools by that time and even Niskayuna may have a high school." And so we do.
At that time in 1954, the Army McCarthy hearing were in full swing. A small item quoted Senator Flanders (R-Vt.) as saying that "The Republican Party would improve its chances in November if it would publicly eliminate McCarthy from the campaign."
But a more interesting comment on those hearings was made by columnist Jack Malone in his column "Main Street on the Mohawk."
He wrote: "Will someone please invent a kinescopescope? That would be a device to record the filmed highlights of the you-know who versus you know-what hearings. The kinescopescope would permit the WRGB viewer to follow the wallow at some time more convenient than 11:15 to midnight." I’m glad that someone came through for Jack and millions of others, but I’m equally glad that his term for a VCR didn’t take hold.
In New York on June 4, 1954, the U. S. Senate subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency called 10 witnesses to testify on the alleged dangers to children of horror comic books.
Bellevue Hospital reported four births, one of which was a son born to Mr. and Mrs. Charles Fritschler of 1908 Holiday Dr. Of a dozen babies born at Ellis, one was a son born to Mr. and Mrs. Norman Freligh of 906 Birchwood Lane where all three still live.
Reading the ads was great fun. "Killers from Space" and "The Queen of Sheba" were playing at the Plaza. Wallace’s advertised poplin jackets for $2.98. Two-pants men’s suits were offered for $45.75 by Bond’s and rayon women’s suits for $12 by Carl’s. Bellevue Motor Sales touted a brand new Studebaker for $1,816.24. A new home in Colonie could be had for $10,800.
You could go dancing that night at the Stockade Room at the Hotel Van Curler. If you stayed home, you could watch television, where WRGB was the only VHF channel. The fare included Howdy Doody, Bill Corum, Eddie Fisher, Ed Sullivan, Teen Age Barn, the Cavalcade of Sports, and the Army-McCarthy hearings.
In announcing the GE Research and Development expansion reported in the Union-Star’s lead story, lab head Guy Suits quoted from GE President Ralph Cordiner’s speech of the prior October:
"General Electric has selected Schenectady as its seedbed for future products and industries, and you can expect that our laboratories here will continue to germinate new industries, some of which will keep their centers here, and more of which will be transferred to other communities once they are ready to leave the ‘incubator’."
Just a couple of years before the paper’s date of June 4, 1954, GE in Schenectady employed 50,000 workers. Today, that figure is 8,000. The missing 42,000 workers and their families must represent over 100,000 souls. Not all are deceased, of course, but every time I go downtown, I see the ghostly presence of those that are, outlined like the departed people of the Family Circus comic.
There, see the throng coming and going through the Main Gate at GE. And over there, look at the happy folks entering and leaving Barney’s Wallace’s and the Carl Company. And, as they cross over to Woolworth’s only their spectral evanescence makes it as easy to avoid 1994 vehicular phantoms as it was difficult to dodge the very real traffic of 1954.
We can’t bring them back, of course. Except by reading old newspapers.