Perry Nethington: Everyman with distinction

Looking for work in the Great Depression, he wound up making his mark in labor

CROSS-COUNTRY TRAVELER <br>Perry Nethington headed west from Missouri during the Great Depression and ultimately ended up working for the California Labor Department.

Perry Nethington headed west from Missouri during the Great Depression and ultimately ended up working for the California Labor Department.

Photo by meredith j. cooper

She found a handwritten note in the cash register, and just like that, Evelyn Nethington’s oldest child was gone. She’d thought her son was at a school track meet. Then she found the note: Her son Perry had left home to help feed the family.

The year was 1932, and the Great Depression was making life tough for the Nethington family. There were 10 kids to feed, and the people of Tosi, Mo., just couldn’t afford to eat at the family’s restaurant anymore.

Money was tight, and belts were tighter.

Knowing that his mother would disapprove, Perry left home without a word. He was 15 years old.

“I told a lie,” he said 76 years later from his comfortable red recliner at the Sycamore Glen Retirement Center in Chico. “I wrote a note … and told her where I was going. I hitchhiked, and there I was.”

Where he was physically was on a roadside in Missouri. But he was also at the beginning of a story that would tell where he and the country were going over the next three generations. His story is that of the 20th century American everyman—the story of our fathers and grandfathers.

It’s a story about a country in turmoil during a great depression, a country whose sons and fathers were killed in a second world war, a country that later knew greater prosperity and economic success than any other nation in modern history.

There was great wealth along the way. The nation reveled in the economic boom that followed the end of World War II. Nethington embraced that success.

He became a union president for a chapter of the United Steel Workers of America, and later accepted a position in the California Labor Department under Governor Pat Brown.

And he did it all with a seventh-grade education.

But great success is sometimes accompanied by great tragedy. While the country celebrated its accomplishments in both the war and the global economy, it also mourned the death of so many of its sons and fathers who had died on foreign shores.

Nethington also mourned. First for his youngest son Daryl, who died of cancer at the age of 23, and later for the loss of both his first and second wives.

The stories of 20th century America and Perry Nethington are not parallel ones. They are interweaving. This country has evolved and grown and flourished because of men and women like Nethington, middle-class Americans who worked hard and raised families.

This isn’t just his story; it’s the story of post-war America.

I first met Nethington in September in the lobby of Sycamore Glen. His posture has begun to slump a bit over the years, but at one time, before turning 91, he must have stood a little over six feet tall.

He’s bald now and slim. He sports a well-manicured mustache across his upper lip. His mustache is the same pure white as the minimal amount of hair that rings the back of his head. That day, he wore a clean, flannel shirt and blue jeans.

He wears glasses and has trouble reading, he said, but that hasn’t stopped him from keeping up with the daily news and mailing in the occasional letter to the editor.

Sycamore Glen is not a place people go to die; it’s a place people go to get the most out of the last years of their lives. The environment is more like a casino then a nursing home.

Every time I visited him, there were at least a half-dozen tables of gray-haired men and women playing cards on the first floor. There is a pool table on the second-floor landing. Though I never saw it myself, I’m told there’s a bar that serves cocktails before dinner.

Nethington doesn’t go in for many of those activities these days. He seems to prefer the quiet comfort of his quarters—a studio with a bed, a couch, his recliner and a few wooden shelves and tables.

In this small room, several dozen pictures line two walls. There are pictures of his family, his first and second wives, his numerous children and stepchildren as well as pictures of his many grandkids.

After our first meeting, I usually saw him in his room, where he would sit comfortably in his recliner. He was usually watching the news on TV or reading the paper when I arrived.

We met a half dozen times, and I never saw him without a smile on his face.

Although most of the time I spent with Nethington was confined to his room, he stays active outside the retirement center in his own ways.

I remember the surprise I felt when I went to vote in the November election. I walked into my usual polling place and there on the other side of the sign in desk was Nethington, volunteering at the polls. He was smiling, as usual.

Visiting him reminded me of visiting my own grandfather after he moved to a retirement center. Nonno (that is the Italian word for grandfather) had the same bald head and minimal gray hair. He wore the same kind of wire rim glasses, and he, too, could often be found sitting in his own soft, comfortable recliner.

And like Nethingon, my nonno was always smiling.

As did so many young men of his time, Nethington left home to find work. He spent his formative years working in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The CCC work camps were established in March 1933 by the U.S. Congress to help lower the national unemployment rate, according to the Library of Virginia Web site “Legacies of the New Deal.” Three months after it was established, a quarter of a million men had enrolled to work.

Nethington joined in 1936. He made about $30 a month.

A recruiter from the Marine Corps came to the CCC camp one day. The then-17-year-old liked what the man had to say about adventure and travel. Soon, Nethington was on his way to Pendleton, Ore., in the state’s northeast corner, to enlist. With his parents’ written permission, he joined, and found himself in boot camp.

It didn’t take him long to learn to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut, he said. One experience early on made him question whether or not joining had been a good idea.

“The first night we went to a movie,” he said. “This old squad leader, I’ll never forget him, his name was Peyton—big, husky guy. I remember he said, ‘Get in step!’ I didn’t know he was talking to me. ‘Get in step!’

“And he stopped—‘Halt’—and he comes up and grabs me by my shirt collar. We had to wear khaki shirts and ties. He grabbed that tie, and he said, ‘Goddamn you! I said get in step!’ And, of course, I just froze; I thought, what the hell did I get into?!?

In spite of that incident, enlisting was one of the best decisions of his life, Nethington said. Through the corps, he did get the chance to travel—and eventually meet his first wife, Leva Wallis. They got set up on a blind date while he was on leave, and that night they planned the rest of their lives together.

“We had our first date and we planned it all,” he said. “We planned how many children we were going to have. But it was a little bit later until we got married.”

They were wed in Los Angeles on September 27, 1938, and a year after that their first son, Bobby Lee, was born. Nethington left the Marine Corps just as the U.S. entered World War II and the family settled in California.

He worked in a steel foundry and his ability to organize people and events soon brought him to the presidency of his local union. He negotiated with management and lobbied for workers rights at the state capitol.

Later he helped plan Lt. Gov. Glenn M. Anderson’s 1958 campaign and was appointed to a position in the state Labor Department.

He worked for more then 60 years to provide for his family. Just like my grandfather. Both men told me the same thing. Such a life comes at a price.

“One of the things that I regret most in my life, was not spending time with my kids when they were little,” Nethington said. “I was so busy working and trying to make a living and, moving, doing the things that I thought were important, that I didn’t get to spend time with them. I never saw my kids play a baseball game. And I regret that.”

The stats on Nethington’s life read something like this: Born in 1917, ran away from home, joined the military, married, had children, worked to provide for his family, retired, remarried.

So many men from his generation have a similar story to tell. My grandfather, Val, was undrafted because he worked on a farm during the war, but other than that, his story reads about the same. He missed watching my mom grow up, and he told me once that he would regret that until his dying day.

It was a lifestyle necessitated by the times. An entire generation of men worked hard to put food on the table, to put their kids through school, to provide for their children a better life then the ones they had for themselves.

But was it worth it?

Nethington and my grandfather share something else in common. They both related to me a feeling of satisfaction in the lives they lived. They both said they regretted that in providing for their children they missed watching them grow up, but life is nothing if not a compromise.

Where would America be without their sacrifice? Their contribution gave the generation that followed theirs a quality of life better than most of the people in my generation will ever know. Their dedication paved the way for the success of their children and grandchildren, and because of that, they have something substantial to be proud of.

I guess that’s why both Nethington and my nonno always had something to smile about.