Mike Elk on Memorial Day
For Memorial Day, here’s a reminiscence from my buddy, Mike Elk, a labor reporter at POLITICO.
One of the proudest days of my career was when was I got to tell Susan Glasser about my grandfather Regis Holden. All of my life I have always swelled pride when people said I looked like my grandfather. He played a big role inspiring me to imagine a world beyond Pittsburgh, but to not forget where you came from either. I have kept his thermos on my desk for all of my career to remember all the hard work he did to make me a labor reporter.
During the Great Depression, my grandfather had dropped out of junior high in order to support his family. When World War Two happened, all four of my grandfather’s brother volunteered to fight, but my grandfather was too young to go. So when my grandfather was 16, he lied about his age and joined up. He was afraid to fight for the things that he believed in.
Two weeks after D-Day, he landed on Omaha Beach as a member of an anti-aircraft battalion tasked with defending the beachhead from periodic strafing from the Luftwaffe. A few months later, when he was only 19, he participated in the liberation of Paris – a story that has fascinated my imagination ever since because I had about how much it fascinated his. He spent the rest of the war in Antwerp defending it from buzzbomb attacks while trying to marvel in the city’s architecture as the constant rain of bombs threatened their destruction.
After the war, my grandfather got his bricklaying card using the GI Bill and become a leader in the bricklayer’s union in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. One day, my grandfather was building a school when the superintendent of the school came out to ask him if he’d like to teach high school. Following the war, there was a housing boom and they needed guys to teach bricklaying so the school was willing to give him a few years to get his college degree at night school.
My grandfather didn’t know what to do – he had never gone to high school so how would he teach it. He talked to my Nonni and they came up with a plan.My grandfather claimed that he couldn’t find his college diploma because his high school had burned down and they gave him the job.
In those days, teachers didn’t make terribly much money so to support himself, he laid brick after work. My grandfather would come home exhausted and he would lay in my grandmothers lap as she read his college textbooks. She helped write his papers and prepare for his exam, but never got credit on the diploma.
My grandfather went on to become a pioneer in the field of vocational education in Pennsylvania as well as city council president of his town and a one time bar owner. His biggest fight as a politician was to save the library that his wife loved so much.
The one thing that my grandfather hated the most was when he would go out to bars and his working class buddies would speak poorly of teacher’s union. My grandfather told them that he had a hell of time training to be a teacher and that teaching was tough work. He believed that everybody deserved a union and that he had France and Belgium for the right to unionize.
Last year, I got laid off as a labor reporter and was told that by several people that no one wanted to hire me because of my reputation as a union leader in the Newspaper Guild. A lot of mainstream publications refused to even interview me because I was seen as activist and not a reporter. I thought that perhaps I would never work again as a labor reporter and I was looking into possibly getting my card as a bricklayer to support the meager earnings one can make as a freelancer . I thought as a PTSD survivor that I would find solace in laying brick the way that my grandfather found solace from the terror he had seen during the war.
Then one day, I got a call from POLITICO. Susan Glasser was the new editor and they wanted to hire me as a labor reporter. I had never meet Susan Glasser before or heard of her, but she had made the decision to hire me based on the reputation of my work. My reputation has a union leader would not outweigh the hard work I had done as a labor reporter at In These Times.
I told Susan that when I got the call from POLITICO, I understood what my grandfather must have felt that day out on the construction site when someone came out to ask him to be a teacher. I was finally getting a stable job in one of the most exciting newsrooms in America. Much like my grandfather, I wouldn’t be giving up my union card either. A lot of trade unionists like my grandfather had done a lot of hard fighting in France for that right.
Here’s to all the veterans who fought all of our nation’s wars for the right to collectively bargain.