Remember our Mother's Day podcast? We wanted to share some of the stories from that podcast. So today we learn more from Kris Ruggaber about her grandmother, Marie Cusack Slakes.
My paternal grandmother, Marie Cusack Slakes, was born in Gary, Indiana just after the turn of the century when Gary was a brand new town on the map. Grandma’s parents, Timothy and Ottilie, had worked for a wealthy family in Evanston, Illinois, she as a cook, and he as a coachman. After marrying, they saved their salaries and moved east to Gary to help settle the new little steel mill community on the south side of Lake Michigan. There, they bought a small 9-acre farm. My Irish immigrant grandfather continued to work as a coachman, while his wife and children cared for the farm.
Marie grew up to be a feisty young lady, with her own ideas about what it meant to be a woman. She became the bookkeeper for the Tolleston Fruit Market, which was more of an all-around grocery business than merely a fruit market. Soon after taking the position, she married the owner, Michael Slakes.
Marie, being a well informed and highly intuitive business woman, sensed trouble coming with the U.S. economy. Just before the great stock market crash, she bought a huge safe and withdrew all their money from the bank. She then bought a brand new Mack delivery truck and learned how to drive it.
My father always remembered life during the Great Depression as being a time when he lacked nothing. He saw how the other families were suffering, but in his home, all was well. One of my grandparent’s best customers was Valparaiso University. They had students to feed and no money to buy food. My grandmother, always with an eye to business, struck a deal with them to give the university food in trade for a complete college education for one of her sons. A contract was drawn up and the university was able to feed their students throughout the Depression.
Unfortunately, upon graduating from high school, my father patently refused to go to VU. He had his heart set on going to Notre Dame and he stubbornly stuck to his guns. It was going to be Notre Dame or nothing. Grandma dug her heels in, too. Soon after, World War II was declared and dad joined the Army Air Corps. When my uncle graduated he had no interest in going there either. Grandma continued to go court to sign the judgement every two years, but by the time her grandchildren were ready to enter college, the University had been sold and the agreement deemed null and void.
Valparaiso University was not the only customer Grandma helped through those times. A multitude of neighbors and friends also got necessities on the ‘tick’ as it was called back then. But what my grandmother never got over was the fact that when times got better and folks went back to work, most of the people she’d helped, refused to pay what they owed over the years and reviled her for even asking for payment. Most refused to even come into the store during the war years. She was angry and confused by their behavior. I don’t blame her either! Eventually, she became so upset that she applied for a great paying job at U.S. Steel, got it, and closed the store forever. Her advice to me was this: If ever you decide to help your friends and neighbors, NEVER expect to be repaid. And if you want to get rich, NEVER own your own business!