John Thomson: Superstar

by Derrick Bostrom

 When I was growing up, nobody could explain my grandfather's job to me. Even when I was an adult, my mom couldn't really tell me what he did for a living. I knew he was a Shriner, because I saw his hats. I knew he liked to collect restaurant menus, because I saw the blog posts. Beyond that, all I ever knew was he had an office downtown. Last month, I finally learned the truth.

My grandmother was a regular fangirl when it came to her husband. From the 1930s right up through the mid-sixties, she kept a huge scrapbook about my grandfather, tirelessly collecting  hundreds of photos and newspaper clippings documenting the ups and downs of his career. And while my grandfather was no Frank Sinatra or Mikey Mantle, he was quite a superstar in his own right.

The story begins shortly after my grandparents' marriage and finds my grandfather working for a liberal newspaper in Syracuse, Nebraska. In 1936, the Otoe County Democrats elected him the youngest party chairman in the nation.       

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In short order, he was formally swept into the local bureaucracy, first as Assistant County Clerk, then as a trucking inspector for the Nebraska Railway Commission. Thanks to his ties to the newspaper business, or maybe just due to his basic inherent interestingness, my grandfather collected boatloads of ink throughout his career. He gathered tribute every time he climbed the ladder, garnering praise and support from peers and politicians. Along the way, he signed off on major issues of the day, and contributed "humorous" human-interest filler that would be considered inappropriate today.

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Alas, despite Nebraska's deep roots of progressive populism (or maybe because of it), the state couldn't sustain a consistent majority for FDR. In the spring of 1940, my grandfather managed the Democratic candidate in a special election to fill the vacancy left by the death of a sitting senator. The Republicans campaigned against the New Deal and won by a landslide. Later that year, after Nebraska awarded its electoral votes to Wendell Wilkie, my grandfather found himself out of power and planning his return to the private sector. He soon relocated to Minneapolis, reinvented himself as a successful businessman, immersed himself in the Chamber of Commerce, and continued to generate column inches in the local newspapers.

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Around this time, his media visibility expanded and took an unexpected turn. During the war, my grandfather began appearing as a model for print advertisements. (An earlier accident kept him out of the service.) Significantly, the roles he adopted charted both his own trajectory and the country's -- out of the Depression and the war, and into the boom of the late Forties and early Fifties. The earliest of these ads portray him as an overall-clad working class hero putting his back into the war effort. Later, he's an upwardly mobile everyman in a hurry to claim his slice of postwar prosperity. Finally, he's a successful self-made man, living the model suburban dream.

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After the war, my grandfather owned several successful businesses before he finally moved out west and joined CIT Corporation (yes, the very same CIT that's been struggling for its life lately). As the vice president in charge of the Phoenix office, he doled out financing for many of the construction companies that built the modern Arizona. Here, he finally becomes recognizable to me as the man who became my grandfather -- the guy with the carving utensils, serving up the holiday meals with a gruff efficiency and a policy of zero tolerance for tom-foolery at the dinner table. While these later years tend to strike me as anticlimactic, this period certainly brought him his greatest rewards. Like so many of the men of his generation who saw his country through the crises of the day, he was glad to take his place in line when it was time to reap the rewards he deserved.

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And yet, my grandfather lived long enough to watch his country become unrecognizable to him. He saw the Democratic party fall apart during the Sixties, prey to both its own hubris and events beyond its control. Unable to corral its own disparate elements, the party splintered. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?) Eventually my grandfather switched sympathies. But if he found any real satisfaction in the party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, he never said anything to me about it.

In the end, extreme age and deteriorating health telescoped his life into a series of restless nights and passing days. I got to know him a little better once I got older, and he always impressed me as a serious, savvy son-of-a-gun. To hear him tell it, he never knew a fool that he suffered gladly. As his photos clearly show, he was a good-old-boy to the core, even as a young man -- a true big fish in a small pond. And though I might not have believed it when I was younger, nowadays I can't help but see a little bit of him staring back at me in the mirror. I'm glad I finally found out what he did for a living.