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Three-Sixty Journalism: Lessons from the Great Depression made fresh

For one St. Paul family, the current economic downturn is reminding them of the trauma suffered by family members during the country’s worst economic crisis – the Great Depression of the 1930s.FROM THREE-SIXTY JOURNALISM


For one St. Paul family, the current economic downturn is reminding them of the trauma suffered by family members during the country’s worst economic crisis — the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Judy Woodward’s mother, who was six years old in 1930, faced a lot of difficulties during that horrible time.

“When this economic crisis started — I don’t react like a normal person. I start thinking about my mother and I get very scared and very worried,” Woodward said.

The stories Woodward’s mother, Cathy Fitzsimmons Hansburg, told her stay fresh in her mind. Cathy was living in Milwaukee, Wis., when the Depression razed the life the family had built. Cathy died 10 years ago, but her stories of that time live on in her daughter.

The Great Depression is said to have started with the stock market crash on Oct. 29, 1929, and by 1930, Cathy’s dad, Bob, had lost his job as an insurance salesman. Like many people today are losing their homes, Cathy’s family lost their home.

Bob moved to California to look for a job while the rest of his family stayed behind and went to live with Cathy’s grandmother, Clara, who was wealthy. Cathy told Woodward that she thought she’d never see her father again when the family separated.

“Men who were healthy but couldn’t work because the jobs had disappeared, they would come to the back door and ask for food and they wouldn’t look anyone in the eye because they were ashamed of being poor. My mother would stand in the kitchen and watch them deal with the maid. … My mother thought that her father was doing the same thing in California,” Woodward said.

Cathy’s grandmother made the situation worse, Woodward said, by telling Cathy’s mom to divorce her husband.

“She said: ‘Bob Fitzsimmons is never coming back. Divorce him.’ My grandmother wouldn’t divorce him. My mother felt such a sense of divided loyalty. She felt she was living in an enemy camp in her grandmother’s house,” Woodward said.

Bob later found a job, and saved up enough money to send for his wife and the baby to bring to California, but Cathy and her older brother Bob were left behind.

Woodward said her mother felt like she was a prisoner living inside an enemy camp, that the children felt their grandmother was an enemy of the family and of their father.

In time, Cathy’s father sent for her and Bob as well, and the two journeyed by train across the country from Wisconsin to San Francisco.

The family reunited, but Cathy always carried with her the memories of the suffering her family experienced during the Great Depression — lessons she passed on to her future husband and children.

“The lessons my mother taught us were ‘Never trust bankers’ … ‘Always vote the Democratic Party because Roosevelt — FDR — Franklin Roosevelt, saved the country,’ ” Woodward said.

Pinned with an Obama button, Woodward said she has never voted for anyone but a Democrat.

“So when I was a child, my parents never bought a car” with a loan, Woodward said.

“My parents would save the money, the whole $20,000 and then go buy the car because they never wanted to owe the money,” she said.

Cathy’s husband, Milt Hansburg, 96, said America’s habit of borrowing rather than saving is partly to blame for the current crisis. The other part of the blame goes to lending agencies and banks for lending money to people who couldn’t afford the debt.

“As a matter of fact we have a depression now because of all the credit consumers borrowed. In other words, consumers spent more than their income and they borrowed the rest. It came home to roost,” Hansburg said. “They issued all these subprime mortgages where they didn’t even ask if they had a job, all they had to do was sign their name and they got a house.”

“My mother would not have approved,” Woodward said.