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  • Reverend James Squire

From Janitor to Jarvis Fellow: A Journey Out Of Hardship

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

In my middle school years I became aware that our family financial resources were severely limited. We had just enough to get by with no extra frills. There were no travels, no vacations, clothing was bought at the least expensive stores and a simple bill of fare was served at the dinner table. Every purchase of every kind was carefully considered. I am not totally sure where I was and exactly when I became aware of this because all of my friends and extended family members, with the exception of one aunt, were in the same circumstance.

My father and I would have good conversations on our front porch during the summer months. It seemed as though whenever I heard about a new job that a person could do I would ask him, “Well, how much does that person make?” His reply would take the form of a litany. I would think of a job, never a vocation, and ask the same question. He would give me a rough answer regarding whether the salary paid a lot. We went through countless numbers of jobs! Some I dismissed outright because they didn’t pay well. Notice it had nothing to do with the quality of life associated with the work or if it involved helping others. It was all about the money!

Our lack of money made me aware that I felt I had no backup. The feeling had to be strong then for it is still with me today no matter what I do to try to resolve it. There is no way to completely get rid of it so I have accepted it and the acceptance has taken most of its power away. Alice Walker in a poem she composed in her mid 30’s, Sunday School, Circa 1950, wrote

“Who made you was

Always the question. The answer was always God.

Well, there we stood three feet high heads bowed leaning into bosoms.

Now I no longer ponder the catechism or brood on the Genesis of Life. No.

I ponder the exchange itself and salvage mostly the leaning.” (Walker 1973)

I don’t salvage the leaning. I loved to read and loved school and, as you will see later in this post, I excelled at the highest level, but there was no talk of college. My parents had no concept of what happens at college. Only one cousin who would become my mentor had gone to college.

My brother, Walt, who was two years older than me, was a source of great support. When I entered his bedroom to get help in the sciences and math, he always put down what he was working on at his desk and gave me his undivided attention. He wanted me to succeed, and I wanted the best for him.

And succeed he did. He majored in physics in college. Then he went to work at the Frankford Arsenal In Philadelphia where he was one of seven scientists who were honored for a cartridge case breakthrough. The award was the Army Research and Development Award and was presented by Dr. Martin E. Lasser, Chief Scientist, Department of the Army.

Walt received a B.S. in Physics from West Chester University and an M.E. in Engineering from Penn State. He also completed a good amount of the coursework for a Ph.D. in Engineering from Villanova University and became a Senior Executive Fellow at Harvard University. The last years of his professional life were spent as a Senior Researcher at the Pentagon with the highest level of security clearance. His division was in the location damaged by the attack on 9/11. He initially did not know of the attack for he was deep in the Pentagon structure working on a top-secret program at the time.

After my brother’s death I learned of the significant work he had accomplished regarding fluid mechanics and munitions that made a distinct difference in the lives of our troops in battle. He was a patriot. His battlefield was the planning and execution of the use of conventional munitions and anti-armor munitions within the United States Army.

In our home there was no expectation that either one of us would go to college. College was a foreign world. My father had a 6th grade education, and my mother graduated from high school in the secretarial track.

I think this is a good time to raise the question of why and how two brothers from a family, community, and school that did not place a significant value on higher education wound up pursuing so much of it. There was no college counselor in our school. They weren't really needed. You were on your own to figure it out! What you do with your hands and not your mind is what is valued in the blue collar world.

I have no idea about why my brother pursued so much education and what drove him to be such a success in life for we never talked about such things. I was valedictorian of my high school class and would become the Jarvis Traveling Fellow from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale to Duke. Why did I choose to have so much education eventually getting advanced degrees at Yale and Duke? My memoir, "The Times Of My Life", provides an answer to that question. So why didn't I begin higher education at a private institution. There is a brief answer, lack of money and no back up!!

My brother attended West Chester University and had a good learning experience there. I was aware of his favorable experience so I decided to follow him there. Our choice was also largely based on knowing it was a school we could afford as we would be paying for that education ourselves. The state system of education in all states is a valuable starting place for working class people. In addition we have a growing community college option today for people to get their foot in the door of education beyond high school. I wanted to be at Penn (The University of Pennsylvania) but it was beyond what I could afford. I knew that the financial responsibility would be mine. Unlike today there were no scholarships or financial aid that I was aware of. I never heard anything about grants or work-study options either. I would have seized those opportunities quickly. I read recently that Penn has committed to helping those from underserved communities. The two key student leaders for 2020-2021 in their student government are students who are the first to attend college in their families.

Dr. Richard Oermann was the superintendent of the public schools in our area. His office was based in my school. He asked to see me the week prior to my class’s graduation. After congratulating me on a stellar high school career, he asked if I had a summer job. I said that things in the community were tight. My brother had found a job at a tire company delivering mail throughout the offices. That factory eventually closed a few years later.

Dr. Oermann told me that he had a job for me. He knew about my father’s stroke and the challenges it presented. I could be an assistant janitor working with the full time janitor, Mr. Banks, during that summer. This was Dr. Oermann’s way of giving me a “scholarship” to pay for part of college expenses. I was grateful beyond what words could express. Mr. Banks was a dignified fellow who I knew would be a good worker. The first tool Mr. Banks gave me was a putty knife. It was used to remove gum from the underside of desks and from the walkways. It was always with me. I liked painting and doing carpentry work. I didn’t like cleaning the public toilets. Who does? Mr. Banks had standards and the restrooms had to sparkle.

Mr. Banks taught me one of the important ingredients of leadership. His plan for me was to work with him each day. We would meet outside the office area at 7:30 A.M. I assumed that I would end up cleaning all of the toilets, and he would take the easy jobs like cleaning windows. If you have ever had thoughts of cleaning a public restroom, you know that would not be high on your list of desired things to do so I wouldn’t have blamed Mr. Banks if cleaning all of them was to be my fate.

But he surprised me. All the tasks for the assigned area to be cleaned were divided in half. He did half the restrooms in our designated area, and I did the other half. This was true for each task.

Backup is about money, support and love or respect for another. People in a working class culture always have money on their minds. The thought of money is never far away. When you have money as backup you never have to think about it. It is like the air you breathe. It is life giving and you have the luxury of never having to think about it for much of the time. It is a given in your life. For working class people money is the shadow that follows behind you wherever you go. It is always on your mind and you never take for granted that it will always be available to you.

Backup or lack thereof and a conviction regarding my beliefs are key drivers in my life.

Please don’t ever say to someone who has come from nothing or little that money doesn’t matter. It does. But it matters in a very particular way. It gives you choices.


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