I owe the greatest happiness in my life to the Wisconsin Telephone Company. It happened when I was 14 years old, and it was the answer to a prayer. At that time, my parents and I lived in the small town of South Milwaukee (population 12,000 and about 20 miles from the much bigger city to the north). I was overwhelmingly unhappy.
I was one of only three Jewish children in the public school system, and the only one in my grade. At that time, South Milwaukee allowed African Americans (called Negroes then) to enter the town to work at our largest industry — the Bucyrus Erie steam shovel plant. However, they were not permitted to stay overnight. Things were a bit better for the five or six Jewish families. We could live in South Milwaukee, but we were certainly not welcome.
One of my most bitter memories was of a fifth grade class where the teacher talked about celebrated African Americans such as George Washington Carver and Luther Burbank. She certainly shifted gear when it came to Jews. Here, she spoke of the peddlers of Maxwell Street in Chicago, vividly described as sly merchants, Jews with long, filthy, flea-ridden beards. I recall that when class ended, one little boy told me that he knew that all Jews were not bearded because my physician father was clean shaven. He said these kind words just before he pushed me over another student’s stooped back.
When I told all of this to my mother, she was afraid to confront my teacher and did nothing.
Then — MA Bell intervened! She ended the long distance telephone rate between South Milwaukee and the nearby metropolis of Milwaukee. I don’t remember if the cost of calls had been 5 or 10 cents, but with the elimination of any rate, my father was now willing to move. He had feared to do so earlier lest his patients would stop phoning. Now, with this monetary obstacle removed, we left South Milwaukee — which could equally have been called West Hell — and moved to Nirvana, the big city of Milwaukee where could attend a high school with other Jewish children and actually have friends.
There was no greater joy. Thank you Ma Bell, you will never know how you changed my life. But every year, and especially on Yom Kippur, I remember you with infinite gratitude.
Beverly Oberfeld Friend of Lincolnwood, Illinois, is 84.