After I graduated from Adrian High School in June 1936, the Methodist Church gave me a $50 scholarship to attend Albion College, a small Methodist college in Albion, Michigan. Also, I started working at the college soon after graduating that summer. The job was digging ditches for a new water system on the Albion campus for 34 cents an hour. It was hard work, but I didn’t spend any money for meals, as I helped the landlady with chores at a rooming house on campus. Over the summer, I earned approximately $200.00. The college business office held the money that would pay for a year’s tuition and room and board.
Albion was a small school (approximately 1500 students), and I hoped to play football, basketball, baseball, and tennis, just as I had done through high school. Baseball took a back seat because I enjoyed tennis much more.
In late August, just prior to starting school, football practice started. During practice one afternoon at Albion, the football coach came up to me to say that Coach Franklin “Cappy” Cappon, basketball coach from the University of Michigan, wanted to talk to me. As practice was just finishing, he said I could leave to meet the coach. I had previously had a couple of letters from Coach Cappon congratulating me during my high school days, and he, in fact, had written to my high school coach regarding the possibility of my attending the University. He had been quite successful at Michigan, but I really didn’t think that I was Big Ten caliber. I’ll never forget Coach Cappon, as he wore a long and heavy raccoon fur coat. I learned later that this was sort of his trademark. When we met, he asked if I wouldn’t like to enroll at Michigan. He thought that if I would stay out a year for experience, it would enhance my chances of making the Michigan team. Anyway, he asked me which one I would rather have, one “M” for Michigan, or a bushel of “A’s” for Albion. I’m sure that every Michigan high school athlete at some point had dreamed of playing at the University. Certainly, I was proud to even talk to Mr. Cappon, and I said, yes, one “M” would obviously be more of an achievement. He said he would arrange a job for me at Ford Motor Company anytime I wanted to start work. Also he told me to see a particular fellow who coached an independent team in Detroit. He said that Bennie Oosterbaan, another Michigan coach, would make the contact for me. To make a long story short, I left Albion to pursue my dream.
Needless to say, the Albion people were not happy with my decision, and, in fact, refused to pay me my summer wages because I changed my mind after they hired me to work on campus that summer. A business manager by the name of Cochran was very harsh. He said that I had agreed to attend Albion, so they would keep the money. He told me that I would never amount to anything and would never graduate from Michigan or anywhere else because I was a quitter. Of course, that was all I needed in the way of motivation, and I was determined to work, save my money, and go to Michigan for sure.
From Albion, I returned to Adrian to work at the Simplex Paper Company. The owner was a good tennis player and wanted me to play in some fall tournaments with him. He said I could always go over to Ford’s when the basketball season started. My job at the paper company was making paste for the large paper machines that lined the factory from end to end. They had large rollers that made the panels for the insides of cars. It was quite a process to put multiple sheets of heavy paper together. The paste was made of glue and water. The 100 pounds of powder for the glue was mixed in big vats with water and then boiled for several hours by steam. After a couple of weeks on the job (midnight shift), I mixed up a batch of paste and turned the steam up to boiling. For some reason, I was especially tired that night and fell asleep. When I woke up, about an hour before the day shift workers were to come in, you can’t believe what the whole factory ceiling and machines looked like. The paste was blown out of the vats all over the place. It was covering the place like giant cobwebs. I was so ashamed and yet could do nothing about it. There was no way that I could clean up the mess, so I just walked to the time clock and punched out. I went home to wait for a while until I could call Red Murphy, the owner, and tell him what happened. To make a long story short, he wasn’t very happy. He said I could come back to work but would have to help clean up the place. I told him to keep my two weeks of pay and that I was too embarrassed to return. He couldn’t persuade me to return to the job.
I immediately went over to Detroit and went to work at Ford’s. I learned a lot from that experience at the Simplex Paper Company. In later years, I did meet up with Red Murphy. He laughed about it, but it sure wasn’t funny at the time.
My job at Ford Motor Company was in the glass plant, where I started working putting glass through a laminating process. This was combined with sweeping up the broken glass on the factory floors. What a job, but it paid well, $5.00 a day. Ford was the first to pay that much to the common laborer. It wasn’t long before basketball season started, and I played after work in the evenings with a few other guys who were also headed for Michigan. Bennie Oosterbaan, the new basketball coach at Michigan, arranged for me to play basketball in an independent league in Detroit. It was a year of growing, both mentally and physically.
In late June, Randy Price and I decided to drive a couple of cars out to Los Angeles, like we had done in 1935. Randy was a freshman at Michigan Law School, and we had good memories of our previous trip across the county. We had an interesting trip. The two cars we drove this time were used ones. Without exaggerating, we must have had a dozen flat tires along the way. We drove from Detroit to El Paso, Texas and crossed over into Juarez, Mexico for a short side trip, and then on to California. It was an experience that I’ll never forget, and one that certainly helped me deal with problems in later years.
We delivered the cars in Los Angeles and headed north hitchhiking up the west coast to Washington. It soon became apparent that we could get rides much faster if we split up rather than trying to stay together. We agreed to meet up with each other at the post office of a specific town. At one point, in Oregon, we separated and agreed to meet in WallaWalla, Washington. We always left notes under a leg of the outside mailbox. In Walla Walla, I got to the post office, located the outside box, and because there was no note, I assumed Randy hadn’t gotten there as yet. So I sat down on the post office steps. As I recall it was noon when I arrived, and after staying in a park overnight, I returned to sit and wait. While whittling and playing my mouth organ as I often did, I noticed a piece of paper, folded and lying in the grass about 20 feet from the mailbox. At first I thought nothing of it, but then for some reason, I picked it up, only to find it was Randy’s note from the day before. He had gotten there a day earlier and had started on. Our next meeting was in a small town in Idaho, after which we headed back to Michigan.
The first twenty years of my life were full of growing up, adventure, elation, hardship and satisfaction. Without a doubt I had to learn early in life how to be independent. In the fall of 1937, just a few months before my 20th birthday, I entered the University of Michigan.I enrolled in a pre-law program and wound up with a major in political science and minors in history and geology. I also played varsity basketball until I graduated. Little did I know that I would wind up coaching college football as my profession.
My freshman year at Michigan was very difficult, as I had been out of school for a year and needed to learn how to study all over again. I dropped out of football when freshman basketball started, because Bennie Oosterbaan, the basketball coach, was anxious for those of us he was developing, to begin concentrating on basketball only. I earned my Michigan numerals ’41 that year and then made the varsity team the next year. It was very hard to earn a varsity “M” as there were only 12 men on the team and they played only 7 or 8 most of the time. It wasn’t until my senior year that I was in the group of 8 and earned my “M.”Most of my attention in my freshman year was focused on playing basketball and tennis, studying, and working at a little restaurant for a noon meal that had to do for supper as well. I didn’t have any money for other meals. I also worked at the Michigan Union managing the soda bar. At least I got plenty of ice cream to eat, along with great meals when traveling on varsity basketball trips.
On Sundays I sang in the Methodist church choir and attended the church young people’s meetings with Randy Price. It was at those church meetings for young people that I met my wife-to-be, Shirley Martha Mackey, for the first time. She was in nurses training, having graduated from Wooster College the year before. Each spring there was a formal nurse’s ball on a Saturday night.In 1938, Shirley asked Randy to be her date, and he accepted, only to realize two days before the dance that it was on the same night he had already made a date with another girl. As a solution to an embarrassing situation, he asked Shirley if she would let me take his place. She said she would if I were willing. As I knew Shirley quite well through the church meetings, I agreed if Randy could rent a tuxedo for me and buy the corsage. He agreed, and that was the beginning of what turned out to shape my entire life. Three years later, when I was a senior, we were married on October 11, 1940. The wedding was in Wooster, Ohio. Shirley’s uncle was a minister there and performed the ceremony. Our mutual friend Randy Price was my best man and gave us fifty dollars as a wedding present. We used it to buy a bicycle that we used as our transportation. Now, after 66 plus years, I know how very lucky I was to have had our paths cross back in 1937. After the wedding we drove back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I had a job with Herb Twining. Herb owned Camp Al-Gon-Quin where I had been a counselor for four summers. During my college years I had spent the summers as a counselor at the camp on Burt Lake near Petoskey, Michigan. It was an eight-week camp for boys ages 6 to 16. I had four boys in my cabin and taught tennis and general sports. I was also an assistant riding instructor. Herb was a resident of Ann Arbor who had purchased the Burt Lake shorefront and built the camp in 1925. Each summer he would hire a few University of Michigan athletes as counselors. Benny Oosterbaan, Michigan’s great All American, was my basketball coach and had recommended me to Mr. Twining soon after my freshman year. Starting in 1940, Herb offered me a permanent job to recruit new campers, and stay in touch with former campers so they would return the next summer. My pay was to be a hundred dollars a month but most of Herb’s checks would bounce at least once. It proved to be a very difficult time financially for Herb. He originally borrowed the money from various parents of campers to buy the camp property and actually built it all from scratch. Now after fifteen years he had never paid, either the interest on the bonds or any of the principal that he had borrowed originally from the parents. He was a real manipulator. Things got so bad that at one point several of the parents had asked me to take over and run the camp if they foreclosed on Herb. I didn’t have any money to really get involved, so nothing ever became of it. However, those years of working at Al-Gon-Quin turned out to be a valuable experience later in my life when Shirley and I owned and operated a children’s camp of our own in Maine.
In the spring of 1941 after making the varsity basketball team, I dropped out of school and went to work at Ford’s again. During the next few years, we would experience the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Second World War. During those years, too, Shirley and I rejoiced in the birth of our four beautiful children. Sandra Jean was born on October 18th 1941, then Pamela Kay on February 10th 1944, David Scott on July 12th 1946, and Gary Scott on May 16th 1948. When the children were quite young we gave each of them a nickname.Several books could be written describing the many experiences involving our children and their growing up — from playing in their sandbox and learning to climb trees, to their high school and college years, and now with their own families. Memories that immediately come to mind include Gary’s broken leg, Sandy and her new bike as well as falling on the ice requiring stitches in her chin, Dave breaking a front tooth, and Pam almost putting out her eye when pulling a file out of a crack in the workbench. I remember, too, the silly names we gave them all when they were very small: Bitsy Beebo for Sandy, Bini (Bambino) for Pam, Daffy Down Dilly for David, and Boo for Gary. Our children have been a blessing in my life that all started when I winked at Shirley back in 1938.
As we all know, it was on Dec. 7th 1941 that Japan destroyed Pearl Harbor, changing the lives of all Americans for years to come. The United States immediately mobilized and started a military draft. The national draft classified all men from 18 to 30 years of age. At the time I was 24 years old and married with a child, so I was given a draft status of 3A indicating that I was temporarily deferred. Many of my college buddies went off to fight and never came home. I was lucky to say the least, but I regret not having served in the military during those terrible years.
After Pearl Harbor I stopped working for Herb Twining and went to work at the Willow Run Bomber Plant located in Ypsilanti just south of Ann Arbor. Four-engine bombers, called B-24s, were being built there. Those planes could carry tanks, army jeeps and soldiers all at the same time. The plant was completed by early 1942 and was turning out fifteen to twenty planes every 24 hours. There were 90,000 men and women of all ages employed in three 8-hour working shifts.
At Willow Run, I worked on the Plant Protection force, run by a former FBI agent. The job required that I wear a uniform and carry a 38-caliber revolver. Some days I walked the plant floor and other days I would drive a patrol car around the outside plant grounds. There were many saboteurs around during all of the war years, and we were able to catch many of them who were later prosecuted.
After the first two years in Plant Protection, I was assigned to help Mr. Cooley oversee the nationally-required rationing program for gas, sugar and shoes. We had 25 secretaries in an office where three eight-hour shifts of 90,000 workers would make applications for special rationing stamps. The rationing would continue through the war years. People who were not employed in essential jobs during those years were issued a very limited stamp book depending on the number in the family. All of the Willow Run workers were given coupons for these items, but had to fill out applications to get them, and everyone had to share rides so as to conserve gas. As a result of this job, my draft status was changed to 2B indicating permanent deferment. I had planned to join the Coast Guard or Air Force, but my 2B classification by the draft board prevented any change of status. Only after the European victory did the draft board agree to my release. Then would you believe, the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the war was over. After the war ended, the Willow Run bomber plant where I had worked for four years, closed down. As it turned out, I was the last worker there, classified as a statistician and assigned the job of checking off all the workers after they picked up their final paychecks, and then closing the doors and turning over the keys to the new owners, the Kaiser-Frazier Company.
In the fall of 1945, I returned to the University of Michigan to finish my undergraduate degree, and since I had another year of eligibility for basketball, I got to play one more season. Bennie Oosterbaan was still the coach and said to me, “Westy, you’re the old man of this team, so I’ll depend on you to get these youngsters to bed on time.” I had a good season and earned another Varsity “M” that year; of course it didn’t hurt that I was 26 years old and most of the other guys were only 18 and 19. It was fun to play basketball again, and nice to complete my Bachelors degree in Liberal Arts majoring in Pre-law and History.
We were living in Ann Arbor, Michigan at 1012 Forest Avenue, and I soon got a job at the YMCA. Because of the war, and also the need to support our family, it had taken from the fall of 1937 to the spring of 1946 for me to complete my degree. In retrospect, it was like so many other things in life, accomplished in small increments, but enormously satisfying when completed.