Our Girl Friday

M. Wolf 1 M. Wolf 2

 

“Accomplishing the impossible means only that the boss will add it to your regular duties.” – Doug Larson

My grandparents didn’t believe that girls had any need for college, so when my Aunt Liz won a four-year scholarship to Mundelein College, she turned it down and went to a secretarial school instead. Liz, a bookish and bright young woman, was unable to buck her parents’ edicts, and lost the opportunity to further her education. My mother Mary, five years younger, had no college aspirations, but even if she did, she knew that it would be a losing battle.

After high school, Mary, a strong student if not as academically minded as her sister, attended the Stenotype School of Chicago where she learned bookkeeping, typing, and stenotype — machine shorthand. Armed with the ability to stenotype at 200 words per minute and type eighth words per minute, she began her secretarial career.

Mary’s first job was at a downtown law firm where she earned $140 dollars a month, a good salary for a young woman in 1944. With a big chunk of her earnings, Mary splurged on two suits, one gray and one tan, which she bought at a little dress shop on Devon Avenue. The suits each cost about sixty dollars – quite a large sum—but Mary loved their quality and classic style and wore them for years.

Mary didn’t stay long at the law firm, however. She was expected to balance operating a switchboard while typing legal documents with no errors from dictation, a very difficult task. Besides, she’d never wanted to work a switchboard. She was a secretary. Mary’s boss was a nice guy, but when she submitted her resignation to the head lawyer, an “arrogant, hoity-toity SOB” who belonged to the Union League Club, he told her, “I can’t give you a good recommendation.” So be it. She quit anyway.

Mary’s next position was at the Hire’s Root beer Company in a warehouse at Illinois and Grand, right next to Nay Pier and where Lake Point Tower stands today. The warehouse building held lots of single offices of a variety of companies, like Life Savers and a cosmetic company, along with warehouse space for each. Her little office handled orders of the root beer syrup sold to drug stores’ soda fountains. Mary was the only woman in the Hires’ three person office. Still, she didn’t lack for friends. She and the other young women working in the building became friends and sometimes fit in card games during the lunch hour. Another perk was the warehouse’s location next to Navy Pier, teeming with good-looking sailors and coasties at the end of the war. She and her friend Emily often hung out the windows to flirt with the cute military men passing below.

Mary liked working at Hires. When there was some down time in the office, she and the office manager sometimes worked together on the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. Then one day, while Mary sat next to him working on a puzzle, he reached over, grabbed her and kissed her firmly on the lips. Mary was horrified. She jumped up, sputtering her indignation and shock. Why had he done that? He was a married man! He apologized profusely, but Mary couldn’t face him. Soon, even though she didn’t have another job lined up, she told the boss that she was quitting. Did she tell anyone what the office manager’d done? No, not until she recalled the episode just this week. Like so many victims of sexual harassment, Mary herself was embarrassed about the incident, as if she were to blame. Certainly, her parents must have been questioned her about what appeared to be a rash decision. Still, Mary kept the story to herself.

The Illinois Bankers Association on the thirty-fifth floor of the LaSalle Building was next. Mary loved working there. As a secretary, she had the opportunity to attend a convention in St. Louis. She and another secretary traveled there by train, and on the trip home, they drank whiskey sours for breakfast. Another convention in downtown Chicago gave her the opportunity to stay in the luxurious Palmer House for three days. Her fiancé Ted joined her and her bosses at a dinner one evening, and when they talked about their honeymoon plans, the guys invited them to take a ride on their yacht docked in St. Louis.

Mary continued at Illinois Bankers until February 1949, just a few months after her wedding. Pregnant women didn’t work back in those days, and besides, she couldn’t bear the bouts of morning sickness that kept her running from the el into her office so she could throw up every morning.

 

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4 thoughts on “Our Girl Friday

  1. Ellen – This is just wonderful. Just love those old stories – and what pretty pictures of your mom. To add a bit from the Liz end of things: Liz was fired from her first secretarial job on Christmas Eve because the boss needed to give the job to his niece. And Liz kept that scholarship letter from Mundelein College in her possession for the rest of her life. I still have it around here somewhere.

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    • After I read this piece to my mother, she told me that she, too, would have liked to have gone to college, but didn’t even bother to ask. She said she wanted to go AWAY to school, as if that would have ever been a possibility. Such a waste of bright minds.

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