Are today's values better than our parents'?

Posted Online: April 24, 2013, 2:13 pm
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By John Donald O'Shea
What happens when the people of a nation turn their backs on the values of the preceding generation?

My father was born in 1902. He lived through WWI, Prohibition, the Great Depression, WWII and the Korean War.

He witnessed the civil rights movement and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and he watched as Americans landed on the moon. These events and others shaped my dad's values and the way he lived his life.
And while I watched television, dad read books. I can recall him telling me about the Horatio Alger books he had read as a boy, and how the heroes always succeeded through brains and hard work. I recently read one such Alger book, The Young Salesman.

One reviewer, has described the "Alger philosophy" as "strive and succeed." And he lists the element of Alger's philosophy: hard work, study (informal rather than formal), loyalty, abstaining from alcohol, frugal living, importance of dress and personal grooming, personal integrity, speaking and writing effectively, non-creedal religious values, avoidance of violence and revenge, speaking the whole truth, protecting the weak and unfortunate, duty to mother and/or sisters, courtesy, accepting the success of others, emphasis on a secure home, accepting assistance of benefactors, expectation and acceptance of own success, eschewing class hatred.

Dad said after reading Alger's works, he decided he wanted to make his living as a salesman. And that's what he did. But perhaps, being an Irishman, it was too much to expect he would abstain from alcohol. Indeed when Prohibition ended, dad went to work as a liquor salesman and "opened up Indiana."

But dad accepted, with perhaps that one exception, all of the other Alger values. He worked all his life; the idea of living off the dole was utterly un-American to him.

When his siblings needed financial help, dad helped. When his sister-in-law died, he brought her son into our home, and raised him as his own.
By his reading, he was self-educated. I was always amazed at his grasp of history and geography, and his understanding of government. I can recall him explaining clearly the meaning of a "blue-ribbon grand jury" to me when I asked what it meant after hearing the term, while listening on the radio to "Twenty Questions."

I can also recall absolute loyalty to my mother, his parents, his friends and his family.

I can recall that after WWII, when his future employer asked him to take the job of his friend with whom he had sold liquor just after the end of Prohibition, dad declined and told the employer to keep Sam on, and that he (dad) would work under Sam. Only if it became clear that Sam could not return, would he take Sam's place.

Dad and mom also opted to live within their means. Except in the case of their mortgage, they never bought "on time." Alger was reinforced by the lessons of the Great Depression.

Dad also accepted the idea of wearing a businessman's suit. I recall that when occasionally he played softball with us, he would wear suit pants and winged-tipped shoes. And on his daily afternoon round of golf, he dressed as the pros dressed. Shorts were never worn.

Dad said what he meant, and meant what he said. He had an unquestioned reputation for integrity. The notion that he might tell a lie to benefit himself was utterly foreign to him.

Dad was a divorced Catholic, yet he put his boys through Catholic grade school, high school, and college. He supported the church, and the high school generously, yet after his divorce, remarriage, and excommunication, he never again attended Mass.

When as a child I took it upon myself to lecture one of his friends on the superiority of the Catholic Church over the Episcopal Church, dad interrupted and asked, "Are you a bigot?"

One day when I was 5 I used the "n" word. Dad said, "I don't want you to ever use that word again. That word is disrespectful and is meant to hurt the negro's feeling. Don't use it." And one afternoon when a gentile member of the country club verbally abused a new Jewish member, dad intervened and said, "Stan, cut it out. He has as much right to be here as you do."

Dad believed in the Golden Rule. He held non-creedal religious values. He treated everybody with courtesy and respect. I never knew him to be jealous of the success of others. Instead he admired success.

And like his wealthy friends, he expected to succeed, and expected his boys to succeed. But still, he never cared about being rich.

It was enough for him that his job gave him financial comfort and security he hadn't known during the Depression, and provided his family with a secure home, and a quality education for his sons.

Horatio Alger's philosophy was my dad's philosophy. And without quite realizing it, I think it has also been largely mine. But is it the philosophy of modern America?

And if not, why not?

What was wrong with it?
John Donald O'Shea of Moline is a retired circuit court judge.


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