My family history and civic events over the course of my 80 years have shaped my world view.
All of my grandparents were immigrants. My paternal grandfather, Paul Reps, a machinist, emigrated with his wife, Mary, of Czech descent, and infant daughter, Julia, from Russia in 1903 and settled in Moline, Ill., where Paul worked for the Rock Island Railroad.
My father, Joseph, wanted to be a manual arts teacher, but teachers were being paid in scrip, so my grandfather told his son to go to Chicago. He found work at Illinois Bell Telephone Co. climbing poles and later installing phones.
Joseph met my mother, Sophie, also of Czech descent, at the magnificent Aragon Ballroom. She was a telephone operator, and after the crash of 1929, my parents worked part-time.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took his first oath of office in 1933, a third of non-farm workers were unemployed, and 40 percent of banks had failed.
FDR's 1933 banking regulations and federal insurance protected my parents' deposits, and when my dad bought AT&T stock, he benefitted from the Security Exchange Commission setting up to regulate the market.
When FDR enacted Social Security in August 1935, poverty among senior citizens exceeded 50 percent. Today it is 15 percent.
In 1938 FDR established union rights, unemployment insurance, aid for blind and disabled, minimum wage, 40-hour workweek and abolished child labor. From 1935-1943 the Works Progress Administration employed 20 percent of the work force.
By 1937 unemployment fell from 25 percent to 15 percent, and GDP averaged 7.5 percent, higher than any peacetime period in U.S. history.
But concerns over the deficit prompted FDR to drastically cut government spending, and a second depression occurred. He asked for $33 billion for the Public Works Administration and WPA and avoided another disaster.
World War II gave further stimulus, and the 1944 G.I Bill expanded the middle class. Between 1937-1947 income inequality fell dramatically.
From 1953-1961 President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to cut taxes. Instead he enacted the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorizing construction of the interstate highway system, the single largest public-works program in U.S. history. In 1957 he enacted the first significant civil rights legislation since 1875, ensuring that all Americans could exercise their right to vote.
The National Defense Education Act of 1958 provided funding to improve the American education system, particularly in areas of science and technology. Ike signed legislation that expanded Social Security and supported government construction of low-income housing. The economy expanded robustly during his term, the poverty rate declined and personal income increased 45 percent.
My elementary and high schools were built by the WPA and had well-equipped gymnasiums, libraries and auditoriums. My high school had an indoor, Olympic-size swimming pool, and all learned to swim in a five-day-a-week PE program that included sports, fitness training and health classes.
There were spacious choir, band and orchestra rooms with cabinets to hold the instruments we were allowed to use for free. Group piano lessons were offered in grade school, and in high school I took free violin lessons during my study hall. Chicago had free city college and a free teacher's college, but in 1955 I opted instead for the University of Illinois when tuition was only $90 a semester, about $1,000 in today's dollars. I was able to work my way through with no debt.