The recent creation of a Facebook Group for people from my hometown "This was Randolph" quickly drew nearly 5,000 members. Thousands of posts, comments and reactions indicated life in Randolph, Massachusetts in the 1960s into the 1980s was overwhelmingly positive for children and teenagers. No doubt young people in many small towns across the country in the same period shared that positive experience.
The creator insisted that members must have lived in Randolph, Massachusetts at some time. Group members could submit a post on pretty much any topic except politics. Postings quickly poured in and thousands of reactions and comments followed. Additional conversations were sparked and in many cases friendships that had faded with time were renewed. Reading through the posts and comments an abundance of fond recollections and appreciation for the environment, institutions, and people of my hometown flowed readily.
In a 1993 Washington Post Sunday Magazine feature about Rod Langway, an NHL Hall of Fame hockey player from Randolph, the author described Randolph as a “tough blue-collar community south of Boston.” I was living in Washington, D.C. at that time. Reading the article I was taken aback by that description of my hometown.
When thousands began migrating from Boston to the fast-growing town in the 1950s it was considered a country backwater. It quickly became a blue-collar working-class town in the 1950s and 60s, but it never seemed “tough” in a pejorative way. It was a place of large families and bursting schools where children played outdoors with little or no supervision. It wasn’t perfect, and there were some that suffered in isolation and abuse, but the reflections on the Facebook Group surely show it was in general a wonderful place to grow up.
Reading the posts within the group, one could not help but think how much has changed - not just in my hometown, but in many small towns across the country.
Who are these 5000 people in the Facebook Group?
A survey of a substantial sample of the Group revealed that response participants mostly graduated from high school in the 70s and 80s. Half graduated in the ten-year range 1973-1982.
Nostalgia is defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” The numbers suggest you begin to get nostalgic when you approach 50. Those 55 to 65 are most nostalgic based on participation in this group. Of course, there are many older and younger than that participating but not in the numbers of those who graduated in the mid-70s through mid-80s.
Younger graduates simply haven’t grown nostalgic or their experience is not filled with the fond shared memories of those from an earlier time that had more cultural cohesion. And maybe the things of childhood need begin disappearing before you really miss them.
There may also be a technology barrier. Fewer of those who graduated in the 60s are likely to be familiar with or use social media.
My home town, like many others, grew substantially after World War II from a sleepy country hamlet of about 10,000 in 1950 to 28,000 in 1970. Large post WWII suburban neighborhoods of modest ranches and Cape style homes proliferated. Imagine the building of 500 homes per year in a small town through the 1950s! It was commonplace in that time.
Those many houses were little more than 1,000sqft with a bath. They cost somewhere between $7-$15,000. Large families lived in these small homes. For many, they lived week to week struggling to make finances work. Children shared bedrooms with bunkbeds and older children often moved to the basement or even a quickly renovated garage for some space. Lunches were made at home and carried to school in large part. Most families had one car and only one parent typically worked full time.
Health insurance was not common and when available was largely for hospitalization and surgery. Medicare and Medicaid were not established until 1965 to address the basic needs of the elderly, disabled, and poor. Most parents working full time had one or two weeks of vacation. Sick days and personal days were uncommon. If out of work - they were often out of pay. Children were brought to the doctor only when there was a clear and serious illness or injury.
Economically, it was a community largely at the edge living pay check to pay check. But the hard work and devotion of parents pulled it together. American Chop Suey or shepherd’s pie and milk were often put together for two dollars as a staple in homes. Hand me down shoes, clothes and bicycles were the norm. The local fire department put together a skate swap every year to the glee of children in town that could not afford new ice skates for growing feet.
Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren and her daughter pointed out in their 2004 book, The Two Income Trap, a detailed argument that economically families today may have larger homes and better cars but the costs of maintaining core costs of housing, healthcare, and education are far more than in the 50s and 60s. As a result, there are far more bankruptcies and foreclosures despite about 75% more income generated by both parents working.
Are families better off economically today than in the time of the nostalgia group? It seems they are, but that may largely be due to stepping up from one economic class to another. If one compares working-class blue-collar workers of that time and those of the present maybe they were less vulnerable to economic collapse in the past, but the safety nets of today may be more supportive when a crisis befell them.
The rapid expansion of the town from 10,000 in 1950 to 28,000 in 1970 brought many children as large families were formed. The median age of the town was declining throughout the baby boom period as was most of America.
To accommodate the growth the town built six new schools and expanded two others over a very short time. As in many communities a Roman Catholic School, St. Mary’s, opened in 1962 to give some relief. At its peak the town could not keep up. For a period in the early 70s the J.F. Kennedy School was used only for 9th Grade while double sessions began at the North Junior High School in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In double-sessions students attended from either 7-12 or 12:30-5:30pm.
The student population peaked in 1974/1975 with a high school enrollment of nearly 2400. By 2018 that student population was only 697, reflecting the aging of the population.
Randolph also became more religiously and racially diverse in two distinct periods. The Jewish population grew from a few dozen in 1950 to 7,000 or nearly 25% of the population in 1970. By 1990 the Jewish population had peaked at 9,000. Two synagogues opened in the period. Many children in the congregations attended Hebrew classes regularly.
The 1990s saw the town undergo a major racial, and ethnic shift. An overwhelmingly White young community of families in the 50s, 60s, and 70s began a transition in the 80s toward a much older and more diverse population. The racial makeup of the town today is estimated to be 38% Black, 36% White, 12% Asian, and 8% Hispanic.
In the 1950s and 60s families were leaving apartment buildings, triple-deckers, and public housing in Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan to venture to the “country” in Randolph to obtain a small single-family home in which to raise their children and pursue the promise of better education opportunities.
When the children born in the 50s and 60s became adults in the 70s and 80s intent on raising their own children they largely moved out of Randolph to less dense growing communities south of Randolph. They scattered all over the South Shore, Neponset Valley, South Coast, and Cape Cod. More than half moved to Bristol, Plymouth and Barnstable Counties. One can find many folks who grew up in Randolph in the 60s and early 70s living in towns such as Bridgewater (commonly referred to as Randolph South).
About ten percent moved out of state with the largest portion moving to the warmer climate of Florida. Only 15% of the nostalgia group remain in Randolph.
Ironically, many of the children of those living south of Randolph are moving back into Boston’s neighborhoods. A circle is complete, but the triple-decker in Jamaica Plain or South Boston that cost $12 thousand for all three floors in 1950 has now been split into three condos that cost $400,000 each.
Technology. Children growing up since the mid-1990s are living in a different world largely resulting from the digital technology revolution. This revolution is transforming our society with unknown consequences for children growing up engrossed in it to the near exclusion of direct physical engagement with nature and even other human beings.
People in my hometown nostalgia group remember when color TV entered their homes. They remember when telephone numbers didn’t require area codes and included exchange name designators when you gave your phone number to someone (e.g. WOodlawn3-1987). Some remember party lines where the conversation could be heard by a neighbor.
You wrote letters to a brother in the military. On occasion you might talk with him or a distant relative for a short five minutes on the telephone. Long distance calls were expensive. The instantaneous and near constant connectedness of the modern era was non-existent. There was no need to text or Facetime Gramma in another state because Gramma lived nearby or in your home. The cohesive ethnic extended family life in city neighborhoods was dispersed to the suburbs in the 50s, but reconnecting was easy in a vehicle or on a bus unlike today when families are scattered across a continent.
Music was controlled by record companies and delivered on vinyl 45RPM single records and 33RPM Long Play (LP) albums at record stores. Reel-to-reel tape was the only recording equipment available and was rare to find in a home. Eight-track tapes were introduced in the late 1960s and were common in the cars of teenagers in the mid-1970s. They were later overtaken by compact cassette tape. Radio was mono AM frequencies up until the early 70s. By the late 70s about 50% of stations were FM. By 1982 FM was the primary broadcast for nearly 85% of 12-24 year-olds.
Photographs were rarities until the 1960s when the Polaroid camera and later the instant film cameras were invented. Even then they were scarce because it cost money to buy film and develop it. The nostalgia group has brought forth some iconic pictures of a burned town library, ice harvesting at a local pond, and casual pictures from childhood that are highly prized because they are rare. So different from the modern era where digital pictures are taken of everything and really, in the end, will have almost no value because of their volume.
A five-year-old was recently overheard saying to his mother, “Mom, stop taking pictures you are ruining my birthday party.” The constant taking of pictures and posting to Facebook or Instagram was diminishing the experience for this five-year-old.
In the modern era the focus is on documenting the experience for immediate distribution rather than experiencing the moment and preserving it for the future. There are so many pictures their value is minimal. The nostalgia group largely experienced life with very little documentation and so they treasure those photographs that do exist.
Really, when you have 300,000 pictures on your phone what are you going to do with them? What value do they have? As many in the nostalgia group know it is hard enough to get your adult children to come by and pick up from the attic the bin of hard copy pictures you saved for them.
Risk and Independence.
Modern society seeks to eliminate risk - especially to children. By controlling their activities and exposure to the broader world through organized activities risk is reduced. Laws and regulations proliferate and a culture of litigation brings suit whenever a misfortune strikes.
For those growing up in my hometown in the 60s and 70s such was not the case. The nostalgia Group were independent explorers of the physical world that was their neighborhood. Children were left to their own devices. Parents drove them from the house early in the morning (not in a car to the bus stop - they threw them out of the house) and did not expect to see them but for a quick lunch and calls for dinner. They roamed a world typically about one square mile without supervision or monitoring beyond a neighbor or older sibling spotting them in one activity or another.
They walked or rode their bicycles everywhere on their own – to the corner variety store, on newspaper routes, to the pond or brook, to Little League practice, to their first part time job. When very young the only restriction was crossing a main street. A parent took them and tested them on the procedure if they were to cross, but once they demonstrated they knew what to do, they were on their own to cross with a verbal caution after notifying a parent of their destination.
In winter they would go to a nearby pond to skate if they thought it was safe. They would remain all day on weekends and after school on weekdays until dinner. They or a friend might break through the ice on occasion. They would rescue one another and the wet ones would go home for dry clothes to return later. This could not happen today as the owner of the pond property would not allow them on the ice for fear of liability. Present day risk averse parenting would not allow unsupervised activities such as this.
Rod Langway, a sports phenomenon who graduated from Randolph High School in 1975, faced an extremely difficult upbringing when his mother died and his father abandoned seven children ages 10-19. At the age of 15, his two older brothers having left the house, Langway was the head of household with four younger siblings. He said he didn’t realize then, but appreciated later, how much neighbors were doing to help the family. His experience is also illustrative of the way the community further served children even in this extreme situation.
In the 1993 Washington Post article Langway provides a great illustration of the environment in the town:
Langway’s hockey development happened not so much in expensive rinks as on the ponds around Randolph, and on the tennis courts at North Junior High School. Town firefighters would flood the courts each winter to make ice for the hockey-crazed kids. The courts were lighted and they skated there far into the night.
"Nobody told me what time to be home, so I skated until 12 o'clock at night," Langway says. "The police had to kick us off and tell us to go home. It was amazing the fun that you had as a kid. When I look back, a lot of that stuff just seems like a dream."
Young teens might venture a long bike ride with their friends to the nearby Blue Hills or to a beach 30 miles distant, or maybe to an unsupervised camping trip in the woods of a local park. No one drove them anywhere. More likely they rode in a stranger’s car while hitch hiking to school or to a favorite beach in summer. Sounds dangerous, but are Uber and Lyft any safer today?
Attempting to eliminate risk in the modern day comes with the cost of diminished independent exploration and experience for children. Worse, the alternative is largely the viewing of a virtual world on screens.
At a recent 4th of July parade, as the antique cars passed by, my brother-in-law and I would say as they approached, “1968 Chevy Camaro, 1934 Ford Pickup, 1957 Thunderbird, etc.” A nephew of about 35 years of age watching the parade with his own young children said, “how do you guys know all of these old cars so well?” I said, “in our time cars were a work of art. When the new model year rolled out they had themes like the introduction of two tone paint, or push button transmissions, or rocket lights reflecting the space age. They were things of beauty that we all wanted. Cars today for your generation, like so much else, are consumable items. They all look the same. You lease them and turn them in. Do you foresee anyone coming to a parade like this when you are our age saying, ‘Oh, wow, there goes a 2015 Nissan Rogue or a 2007 Toyota Corolla?’ ”
Cars were a common shared experience of our youth. Teens were bursting to obtain their license. It was a means and a symbol of independence. They almost immediately purchased a car for as little as $50 (my first was that price - a 1961 Dodge Dart). They paid for the car, the insurance, and the gas. They did everything in their cars. On weekend nights they rode up and down Main Street, stopping for an ice cream and to talk with friends. They boys did much of the maintenance themselves. Girlfriends and boyfriends went “parking” at the reservoir or some other place for romantic encounters at the end of a date. Cars were an integral part of their culture.
Motorcycles too were a major part of teen life. Most boys wanted a minibike powered by a lawn mower engine as a child. Then they wanted a dirt bike that they might take to distant places like the Brockton McDonalds following railroad beds. Ultimately, they wanted a motorcycle and that desire mostly pointed to Harleys in our town.
Harleys, mostly XLCH Sportster models, roared up and down the main street late on summer nights. Throttles open and headers roaring the distinctive Harley sound could be heard all over town. Minibikes and dirt biking are too dangerous for most parents to permit today. Harley Davidson is not a stock to buy today. The expansion into accessories, marketing to women riders, and more recently an overseas expansion emphasis were the early indicators of Harley’s impending decline. Our generation’s love affair with motorcycles, the Harley in particular, have sustained the company through a second era when in middle age we bought what was not within reach in younger years. But, we are the end of the line for the Harley culture and the company.
Music was another shared experience of tremendous importance. We received music from a very few AM music stations. When at the beach everyone was listening on a battery powered transistor radio to the same music on a scratchy 1510 WMEX broadcast or another of a very limited number of channels. The music was linked to the experiences of teenage years. Your first date, your first kiss, dances, a breakup, a prom were all highly impactful events linked with music that we all shared. How many times did I play “Nights in White Satin” on the cafeteria juke box at RHS? The Eagles and James Taylor can still fill stadiums with the contemporaries of the nostalgia group. Their music is a part of a shared experience. The linkage of the music to formative activities binds us all. Today, music is an individualized tailored music list on iTunes or Spotify that is experienced alone with headphones.
Television was an event shared within families. Gathering around the TV for Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Wonderful World of Disney, The Brady Bunch, or The Ed Sullivan Show were shared experiences in every household. Popular culture of toys, lunchboxes, hairstyles and much more flowed from those shared experiences. The expansion of Cable TV in the late 1970s and early 80s began the transition from shared experience to individual on-demand selective viewing. Often experienced alone on a phone or iPad today the experience is not shared. A common framework of memories across the culture is lost.
Institutions and Traditions
Community institutions are in decline in a society moving toward individual focus and expression, and digital engagement, in a largely self-affirming world. For the nostalgia group, institutions and community traditions played a major role in their shared youthful experience.
Churches and Synagogues were places of worship and the practice of faith was far more common, but these organizations provided additional social engagement to children and youth. Dances were held in church halls. Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) baseball was common for many boys, and softball for girls.
Veteran posts were common places of socialization for World War II and Korea veterans, but they also provided child and youth development activities. They sponsored Little League teams. They organized and financially supported Drum and Bugle Corps. An Amvets Post in my hometown at one time sponsored and organized three drum and bugle corps for children from age 6 to 21.
Children in those corps traveled to competitions around the country and marched in national parades in New York and Washington. They learned music and self-discipline on the marching field. The entire community enjoyed drum and bugle competitions on the local high school field during summer.
Veterans and social organizations like the Elks and Rotary Clubs organized and sponsored parades in my home town. The Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades were powerful traditions. Each saw a route lined with people 4 deep along a route of over 3 miles. The towns drum and bugle corps, high school and junior high school bands, cheerleaders and twirlers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Police and Fire Departments, veterans organization color guards and antique cars could stretch a two mile long parade. Children rode along the parade route with wheels decorated with baseball card flappers and crepe paper streamers. Services of remembrance were held at the Jewish, Protestant and Catholic cemeteries exposing children to solemn traditions as a shared experience of community. These traditions reinforced the bonds of community.
Businesses also contributed to the shared experience of the nostalgia group. Favorite variety stores across the town were places of wonder and sweets for children. Children would implore parents to let them walk with their friends to the local corner store to buy penny candy. It was an experience they all shared. A 5&10, a shoe store, a bowling alley, a clothing boutique, a theater, super markets and dry good stores were places of exploration and joy and later maybe a place of one’s first employment.
Food is a major part of the shared memories of the nostalgia group. There were no chain restaurants in those days, although the 2nd Dunkin Donuts stores was in our town before it became a chain. It was the favorite for coffee and even breakfast in the group survey. Brigham’s Ice Cream Shop was a favorite for ice cream. Fred’s Fish store was another that people long to return to when they are back in town. But pizza is the food of Randolph.
Lynwood Café, Zacks, and Amvets (now Hoey’s) Pizza garnered more comments than just about anything else. Our group loved the pizza of their youth and remain committed and loyal to their favorite pizza today. Randolph is the epicenter of the bar room style pizza found at Lynwood and Amvets that originated in Brockton but expanded in Randolph and has since spread all over the South Shore. Some fly in for pizza. Others have it shipped frozen to other parts of the country. Pizza is a real cultural icon for the group.
Those unique family founded businesses had character and appeal. The smells, the settings, the sounds, the furniture (even the sawdust lubricated bowling games) are forged in the minds of those who experienced them. The variety and uniqueness of so many of the places of our youth stands in contrast to the sense that "everywhere is anywhere and anywhere is everywhere" that has become our country. Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, and Target are everywhere. Strips of McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and corners of Dunkin Donuts, CVS, and Walgreens are everywhere. They have made inroads in our little town, but some islands of our unique youth remain and we swim to them with longing whenever possible.
Icons and Characters
A number of individuals were remembered fondly and in strength by the nostalgia group. These were just people pursuing their lives that may not know the impact that they had on so many of the nostalgia group.
Hugh Winford "Win" Powers owned Powers’ Farm. He allowed hundreds, even thousands, to skate on Norroway Pond at Peat Meadow on his property every winter. He maintained and stocked two wood stove equipped cabins where children could change their skates in warmth. He set up boards and powered lights over a rink cut into his land and flooded by the pond for semi-professional hockey teams and children to enjoy. Such a warm rich memory for so many to skate on his frozen pond. No compensation. Simply a gift to his community.
Dr. David Weiner was a beloved pediatric doctor with a practice in town. He was professional, kind, and gentle. He made house visits. He worked with families struggling to pay a medical bill. He was always accommodating to family circumstances. It was greatly appreciated by struggling parents and that gratitude apparently continues to this day in another generation. His example taught us the importance of kindness and charity.
Elias Gordon owned Randolph Fabric and Yarns. A group member reminisced about going to the store with her mother as a child and later asking her mother about the ink on the man’s arm. Her mom sat her down and told her the ink was a tattoo. Mr. Gordon was a Holocaust survivor. So many comments poured in from women who had gone to the store with their mothers and met Mr. Gordon. He was regarded very highly by all that met him. He stood as an example of goodness overcoming evil. A lesson in history and life.
Paul Maloof ran the Randolph Youth Center in the 70s and 80s. He recently passed away. Again, an individual that left a mark on hundreds in our nostalgia group by providing a safe environment and good times, but also a kind and supportive ear when some struggled.
There were many more - teachers, policemen, coaches, and ministers. But these stand out in my mind. They show us how an example of kindness can make a tremendous difference in so many lives.
Then or Now?
Every generation thinks that their time was the best or that younger people have gone astray. It is human inclination to remember the good and forget the bad. Part of our survival instinct I think. But our time was not perfect. Not everyone in the group viewed the past with “wistful affection”. Some felt bullied. Others had abusive homes. Others felt isolated. It was not all proms and adulation for them. I thought hard when I read their comments.
Human beings tend to remember the good and forget the bad. But is the longing for a time gone by just nostalgic sentiment and affection for happier times or were things really better? Like most things the answer is mixed. Much in our lives has improved in the last half century. But it is clear that a major shift in social relationships is underway that is decreasing civic engagement and negatively influencing discourse.
In 2000 Robert D. Putnam provided an excellent description of the decline of “social capital” in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Bowling Alone documents the decline of social engagement and civic life in traditional community groups such as churches, Elks Clubs, PTAs, and bowling leagues. The precise cause of the decline is not clear, but it appears generational shifts, social upheaval, and increasingly technology, are major contributors.
In 2014 Marc J. Dunkelman built on the work of Putnam and others to produce The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community. Dunkelman takes a different approach and describes a shift from geographically based “townships” in which all manner of direct social engagement occurred with neighbors to “networks” facilitated by technology today.
When neighbors knew neighbors or had other direct engagement with them through community organizations and traditions it was much harder to classify them. They were decent human beings who worked hard, obeyed the law, cared for their children, attended your house of worship, or participated in a civic group with you. So much of their life, the struggles and the joys, was like yours. These relationships allowed for disagreement without judgement or rejection.
Dunkelman describes our modern relationships in three rings that form a network. Family and close friends make up the inner-ring and are a bigger part of our lives today. The digital age has enabled greater connection in these nearest of relationships. The digital age has also advanced outer-ring casual associations across the globe with those with whom one shares interests. But middle-ring relationships like those of the town or neighborhood have declined precipitously, though pockets of days-gone-by can be found, particularly in rural areas.
In recent decades these changing patterns of life have enabled Americans to move further and further into isolated groups of self-validation. Watching, reading, and listening only to that which reinforces personally held viewpoints is increasingly the norm. The institutions and traditions of life that once offset this behavior in our youth are largely gone.
I am hopeful that those who follow us will find their way and make the world increasingly a better place. In time maybe they will see the value of those carefree childhoods and institutions and traditions of community and inject them back into their lives. I see some inkling of this in efforts to shift back to a village-centered life. I am optimistic as always in our ability to find the right path over time.