He was a great story teller and a bad poker player. A veteran of World War II and he became a union leader at a time when few dared to be. How do you fit a story like his in a blurb?
He puzzled me. He often retreated into a catatonic-like stare and I’d wonder where he’d gone. I knew him as a kind man, a generous man. I knew him as brilliant and well-read, but to say I knew him as a man would have been untrue. He never shared the darker aspects of his history with me. He hid them, as veterans often do, and who knew what elements of life this man had seen? After a conversation with him I left with more questions than answers. Remnants of war hid in his deep dark eyes but before this man left for Europe and World War Two he’d already been a boy in a mill town.
We travelled back to Lowell, Massachusetts, the city we called home. It’s known as “The Cradle of the American Industrial Revolution”. The Boott Cotton Mill, now a remarkable museum, depicts a history of workers who made this possible. Tens of thousands of nearly indentured people worked in hazardous conditions with no real chance to do anything more than toil. They barely feed their families. We toured the mill behind a young docent with my daughter asleep in her pram. But the stories of the mills were the stories my father had lived. By the end of an afternoon at the Boott Mill, the tour guides surrounded him and he relayed firsthand accounts of what mill life was like in Lowell.
My widowed grandmother worked two shifts a day in the deafening noise of the weaving room. With younger brothers at home he needed to help, so he entered that world as a young teen in a dye room. An kind older worker had trained him for this job, to stand on a platform and stir a vat of boiling dye. In a steam filled room… no railings, no safety gear… a child with nothing to protect him from falling to his death but his fear of moving on that rickety stand in a pall of fog for hours of necessary hell.
One mid-day, as the steam cleared he noticed his friend writhing in pain on the floor below. He jumped down to help but the foreman ordered him back up the ladder to stir. From that rise he watched his friend die. And that was the moment that ignited the fire and a young, impassioned Demitri Boutselis decided to dedicate his life to improving the inexcusable conditions in the mills.
He borrowed money to print union cards and began to assemble the force needed to bargain collectively. By age twenty he represented thirty-five thousand families as the youngest paid labor leader in history.
He fought battles, organized strikes, lived in constant threat of bodily harm but he fought for fairness, for principle, for rights, which in those days meant one paid sick day per year and one paid holiday, their choice of either Christmas or Easter at home with their family.
I’d heard this story from others but never from him, never with such ache in his voice and never through the hungry minds of the tour guides at the Boott Mill. They sat at his feet, this Master of Tale, hearing his story first-hand.
I wished that my child had been old enough to witness, to understand that greatness and courage stood before her. I wished her to know that this grandfather (who bought her every toy she ever looked at) once fought for a cause he believed in. I wished her to understand the impact he made on so many lives in ways that profoundly mattered.
And for the first time I understood who he was. Beneath the persona of irresistible charm, inside the brilliant mind who lectured everywhere from Holy Cross to the University of Moscow, there lived a man born from struggle, a defender from Hitler and greed, a man who had to Anglicize his name in order to feed his family. He was my protection from the deplorable.
And it was best not to know where his mind went to when he tranced.
A few days short of eighty nine, his well lived life ended. The Lowell Historical Society gave us CDs of his recorded interviews. Not even a Wikipedia entry graces a man such as my father. Before he passed he wished he had better provided for us.
Compared to money, Dad?
You were the wealth, so much brighter than gold and if you’re listening, Dad, I never told you how proud I was that day at the Boott Mill, what an example of generosity you were.
I never said what an honor it is to be your child. Your granddaughter is teaching the underprivileged now, making a difference. You have provided well for us, Dad, because you left us the genes that we carry.
We are your progeny.
Happy Memorial Day to you and for James J. Ellis, my father.