Liberal lessons from Oberlin and Frank Shapiro

September 1, 2017

OBERLIN - Becky and I pedaled into this north central Ohio town last Monday. Our arrival put us 604 miles into our Traverse City Adventure and 48 years back in history.

We lived here together for three years after I purloined her from a junior college in New England in 1969, hitchhiked west, and introduced her to my roommate who made space for a third while we found an apartment to make our elopement complete.

I graduated Oberlin College in 1972 with a liberal arts degree in American Literature. That wasn't an official degree, but it was a a time when officialdom was being challenged in every direction. I could choose to call my major whatever I wanted and take whatever courses I wanted - or make up a few - to support that major. My favorite was a course in experimental farming. My brother Mike would understand. His favorite book was "Candide" by Voltaire. Its essential message: Cultivate your garden, whatever garden that may be.

Political correctness is no modern-era concept for Oberlin. The college was in the vanguard of political correctness when it was established. A historical marker on the edge of the town relates that message proudly: "Oberlin: Town and college founded 1833. First to welcome male and female students of all races." Simple, sweet, direct. Less is more.

Another Mike, a friend from way back, has told me a number of times that I'm the most liberal person he knows. Oberlin stamped me hard. And liberal feels good to me. Free-thinking, inclusive, progressive, inquisitive, open-minded. I'm all for finding good paths forward.

But I'm also conservative in the sense of conserving what is good. Preservation and conservation go hand-in-hand. Definitely not one to throw the baby out with the bath water. Finding that Goldilocks-Just Right groove is a never-ending, but always worthwhile, challenge.

Oberlin's internationally acclaimed Conservatory of Music also stamped me hard with a great appreciation for music from bluegrass and rock to classical and jazz.

Frank Shapiro's lesson

The main street fronts on Tappan Square, in the middle of town and college. It's huge, at least 10 acres with specimen oaks, maples, cypresses, birches, beeches and a wide variety of conifers. The veneration of trees is one of the things I like about college campuses.

One of the stores fronting the square is a Ben Franklin 5&10. Its big, red-and-white sign is a nod to preservation. Most Ben Franklins - named in honor of the thriftiness of Penny-Saved-Penny-Earned Ben - have gone the way of other five and dimes across the country.

It put me in mind of Frank Shapiro, who owned and operated the Fox's five and dime on Second Street in Lewes when we moved to town in 1975. Five and dimes were to that era what dollar stores are to this era. Oberlin had filled my head with all kinds of notions, philosophy, history, literature and music. But I needed the practical lessons of people like Frank to broaden my abilities. It's often been said that Oberlin students do good, but not often well. Doing good is great - the only worthwhile thing at the end of the day - but I figured out that if I was going to be able to do good, I would also have to do well.

Balding, glasses as thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles, unpretentious as the clouds, Frank taught me a basic business lesson. It came in the midst of a conversation about the candy suckers - pops, he called them - that the chamber of commerce would buy that year for Santa Claus to give to each visiting child. Meticulous as always, watching every penny, Frank talked about the quality and value of various options and the discounts available for bulk purchases.

For Frank, asking for and getting the discount was as good as making money.

"Dennis," he said, "in business it's important that you make money, even if it's just a little, on every transaction. That's what will keep you in business. That's what will help you do well."

At the bicycle shop in Cumberland, a mechanic fixed a tool that I have for my bicycle. Somehow it had loosened and dropped a couple of washers. He found two small washers, replaced them where they needed to be, tightened the tool and handed it back. Five minutes.

"What do I owe you?" I asked.

"Don't worry about it," he said. "It was nothing."

I fished in my pocket, found a couple of folded bucks and threw them on the counter. That tool was important for me and he had fixed it. Frank was in my ear.

"Here. I'm in business too and I know it's not easy. It's important to make a little on every transaction."

Learning and labor. That's also an Oberlin tradition.