Date: May 29, 2012
Interviewers: Susan Hartzold and Jeff Woodard
Note: Questions are in bold Italic
This is Jeff Woodard. I’m here with Susan Hartzold, who is the curator at the McLean County Museum of History. Today we’re interviewing Mr. Manuel Cordero in his home. And he’s here with his wife… And your name again?
Today is May 29, 2012. And I’ll start by asking Manuel, where were you born?
R1: I was born in Utuado, Puerto Rico on June 11, 1939. In a small town in Puerto Rico, Utuado. Utuado, Puerto Rico. Yes. And I lived with my mother and my father and my brothers—there were several of us. And my mom passed away when I was five years old. And by the time that I was seven years old, I went to live with my brothers. And it was from one brother to another. And I resided with them until I was about 17½ that I came to the States. I’m bypassing a few things there. You know, you probably don’t have to know everything. But I did start working by the time that I was 12-years-old. By the time that I was 17 I had decided that I was—There was a lot of Puerto Ricans in the 50s that were coming to the States because there was work; there was more work over there. Back home, even though I was working in what we call a Dairy Queen back home, owned by an American man from Philadelphia, I decided that I would start to go to New York. But I had a sister that had married a man from Bloomington while he was in the service. And they were living in Texas and then they eventually moved to Bloomington-Normal. When she heard that I was thinking about going to New York, she says, “You’d be better off if you come to a small place—a small town. Why don’t you come to my house?” Which I did. So I came here in November 6, 1956. She even got me a little job; I couldn’t speak English at all. And she got me the job working at a bowling alley, setting pins. Well, needless to say, coming here in November, you know, at first, you know, the temperature was kinda mild. But then it didn’t take long to cool off. (Laughs)
Now when you say here, was that in Texas or…?
In Bloomington. I have come to Bloomington. And so I work through the winter months what used to be called Imos*, in downtown Bloomington, and I worked there until the end of April. And the bowling lanes were over with. And needless to say it was a long, long cold winter. And I had decided right then that I was going to go back to Puerto Rico. And everything was all set and I had gone to the barber shop to get my last haircut in Bloomington so that I can go back home. And across from me—it was a not the Illinois house—there was a small hotel that used to be across from where Commerce Bank is now. There used to be a small hotel in there. And they had a little barber shop in the front. So I sit there—and it was a small place—and right across from me was this man and this woman sitting down. And it didn’t take me too long to realize that they were talking about me because they kept pointing at me and looking at me. And so I got a little bit—kinda… I said, “Hey! What’s this?” But anyway, I left the place and I lived down on Southwestern Avenue in Bloomington. My sister was sending me every other day or something like that to a little grocery store that used to be at Washington Street. And so here I’m walking with a note to the grocery store. And lo and behold, there comes that man there was there the day before in the barber shop. So he comes in and started walking toward me and he startled me a little bit. But he approached me again, you know, in a friendly manner, and my English was—I could hardly understand him, what he was saying. Then he kept pointing to the swing, talking about swings and trapeze. That’s the only thing I could think. And then I says, “You know,” I said to myself, “I don’t understand what he’s saying.” You know, but I says, “If he wants to come with me…” So I brought him to my sister’s house. I told my sister, I said, “You know what? I really don’t know what he wants. He keeps saying ‘trapeze’ and this and that and I don’t know what he’s saying.” So they talked a little bit. (Chuckles) And my sister just rolled her eyes and she said, “Oh, Manuel! You know what he wants you to do?” “No!” I says. “He says he wants to teach you how to do trapeze work.” “Whoa!” I says, “Well,” I says. “Hmm.” We talk a little bit. And I told my sister, “You know, there must be a deadline.” In about two weeks, I would have been gone. And so, it didn’t take too long. We decided that I would give it a try. And from then on, we went and he got all his equipment out. We went and set up this big outfit that I’ve never seen one. I call it trapeze rigging, you know. And this was in the west side of Bloomington. There was hardly any houses or anything around. You know, ’56. This would be the summer of ’57, the spring.
Can you pinpoint that location for us?
Yah. You know where Bob Evans sits today? It’s the next lot east of Bob Evans, right there. It was a farmhouse there and he came out there because he wanted to start out in the country. I said, “I don’t want to go to this when there’s people around. I don’t want to be seen by anybody when I’m up there*.” Here I am all shook up about it, let’s put it this way. (Laughs)
Say that again.
I was all shook up about the whole situation. And I says, “You know what? I might have made a mistake here.” You know, but as it worked out, we started there and from day one he was really excited about it. He says, “You’ve got what it takes to be a trapeze flyer.” I say, “What?” (Laughs) Here I am confused about this whole thing the whole time. And so, in about six weeks from the day that we started, we were leaving town, on the road to work in the trapeze act. I learned enough tricks. Lowell Sherer is his name.
How do you spell that?
R1: S-h-e-r-e-r. (Shuffling papers) I can show him to you there. This is Lowell Sherer.
R1: I pronounced it badly!
( showing us an article from the Pantagraph from July 1984.) …went out on the road. What happened was that we were having a celebration in Ottawa, Illinois. And they had an air balloon, you know, and all these small towns they have some sort of attractions to attract people. And the air balloon had burnt down just a few days before. And lo and behold, I don’t know how he found out about it; he called them up and offered them to say, “Hey! I have a trapeze act and we can come, you know and put a show for you.” Well, then, really the nerves really started… (Laughter) …rattling, needless to say. And that was the first show that we put on. And I was able to fill in the act because his wife and him have formed* an independent life and rode with different flying arts. He was the catcher for many flying arts. In fact, one time he had his own flying act which by some mistake came down and it got all folded up and he lost his rigging. It was during the Depression at that time and he just couldn’t get back on the road; he just didn’t have anything or anybody to work with. And he had come home and he was working at that time at Beich’s Candy Factory. And he was just so glad to get out of town. I didn’t realize that he was so happy to just quit the factory work so he could get out and do what he liked to do.
This was you, and him and his wife? Just the three of you?
Just the three of us. Yah. It takes three for a flying art. It goes, the one do the trick, to the catcher and one will hand her the bar. So I had learned enough that he would have to call the bar, you know, when to drop it, so when his wife did the trick…
His wife was Mary?
His wife’s name was Mary, yes. Then I would, you know, drop the bar and he will call it. And I know that once in a while it was a little too soon, a little too late. And it created a little . . . until we got, you know, synchronized together so that we can… you know. And little by little… From then on it was probably May that we took off down the road. And we came back to Bloomington in late September. So that summer was filled with new experiences. I was forced to pick up a few more words in English because there was nobody to speak Spanish on the road. And so we came home that winter and we—for the winter. And, of course, you know I mean, he was a little anxious for the next season to come in because most of your show business generally—circuses and acts and things like these do their work because most of it was outside, during the summertime. Until you get good enough to work indoors and the big buildings. Oh, you know, there’d be days it would rain, cold, hot… we would have to endure. That why they always says, “The show much go on.” But there were some days that there was never as bad as it seems to be* to work. Because I have worked under severe heat, under severe cold, well, cold enough that you could just hardly wait to take a few swings so you could warm up a little bit. You know, it was bad, you know? So we came home and we were home that winter. And I did a couple little jobs in town and that was in the summer of ’58. Then we started out early in the spring. And I think we went down to Florida and he called me to come down there. So I went down there and we practiced through the winter and in the springtime we got hooked up with a big carnival down in Florida. And there were probably one of the biggest carnivals that I’ve ever seen—still going on in today’s day. And it’s called the “Bluegrass Shows.” And we started working fairs in Florida. So many towns in Florida. I can’t even begin to name them because it was from one day at a time. We’d go every day. We worked Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. And then we came up North; I think we never did work in Kentucky or Tennessee. Well, if we did, I can’t remember. Because then it was just a job. You’re up and down with the rigging every day and trying to practice.
And who set up the rigging?
(Laughs) It was me! It was me and him. We would work and there was, you know, the steel stakes you would pound into the ground. Since I was getting a little bit stronger and so he would just kinda set them up for me and I would drive them. (Laughs) Needless to say, that put me in very good condition—physical condition. And we went like that for that one year. The next year—I think it was ’59—we got a job with the Hunt Brothers Circus out of New Jersey. And the Hunt Brother Circus is probably… about then it was about the same as Ringling Brothers; it was a huge, three-ring circus. And our first job with them was in Palisades Park. Did you ever heard of Palisades Park in New Jersey? They even made a song about it. The song in the 60s, the song about Palisades Park—I don’t know. But anyway, we were there for 30 days and one stand for thirty days with the Hunt Brothers. And people came from all over to see the shows, you know. Okay, at the end of 30 days, we were going to head out. He would have to go and look for other jobs with the flying act. So the circus people decided to keep the act so we traveled the whole summer with them. And we were in New York, New Jersey, through Maryland, and Delaware, Massachusetts. We would go in the towns with the Hunt Brother’s Circus until it was late September. Then we came back home again. And we went on like this for—let’s see, I worked with him on carnivals, I worked the first 2 years. And I think in ’59, we worked with the Hunt Brothers. And in ’60, we had another contract with the Hunt Brothers to go back to work in 1961. And I came to Bloomington and I had a girlfriend then. And I traveled many places in the United States. We performed in more than probably, approximately more than 25 and 30 states. . . . We went through Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, even South Dakota…
This is with the Hunt Brothers?
No, this was with carnival.
The Hunt Brothers we did it on the East Coast. When we came in 1959 . . . We worked 1960; that was the last year we worked with the Hunt Brothers. When we got married that winter it was going from ’60 to ’61. Then between my wife, my mother-in-law, and my sister, they didn’t let me go out on the road. So I had to cancel my flying career. By then, I had learned some fairly good tricks, you know . . . was one of the main flyers.
I would like you to backtrack a little bit and tell us about the act you were doing with the Sherers. Tell us what you were doing in that act.
Well, I started out learning. Lowell and Mary started teaching me and then it didn’t take long, you know, because I want to . . . then I became the main, you know, flyer. Because I surpassed her. And I was able to do double somersaults and rather big tricks, you know. And I was really beginning to learn how to really handle myself in the air by the time that I was quitting. And needless to say, there were some very unhappy people; the Hunt Brothers were disappointed. The last year that we were over there—and I never revealed this to many people—they wanted to set me up with my own act, but I felt that I was, you know, owed him [Mr. Sherer] something. I was loyal to him, so I stuck with him. They pulled me aside into their office—this is the owner of the Hunt Brothers, Mr. Hunt himself—and him and his secretary sat there and told me, he said, “We left it with you five* and we want to ask you a question.” And here I am saying, “Oh God, what have I done?” You know, and he says, “How would you like to have your own flying act?” And I says, “Ooo, boy.” And I says, “Yah, well, you know, anybody would.” But I say, “Well, you know, I’m tied down to these people.” And he, you know, sometimes had a different approach with people [Mr. Sherer] . . . made a few people unhappy. And it didn’t take long for Hunt to realize. He says that he’s not going to work out . . . they pulled me aside and they offered me. Then when I didn’t take them up on it, you know… They offered to set me up. He said, “We’ll get you a rigging, we’ll get you two partners, we’ll employ you and we’ll take care of you.” . . . “No,” I says. “I’m sorry. I deeply appreciate this, you know, but just I feel that I should be loyal to them.” And I was. I stuck with Lowell when things were good and when things were bad; I stuck with him. There was a time we went through some period of time that money was very tight and I would work for nothing, an IOU, and later when he got money coming in he will pay me. And he did. So when I came in 1960… when we came home that winter, I got married. And we did not go out. And I am sorry to say that I made a lot of people unhappy about it. Because even with that, the Hunt Brothers offered me a job they wanted me to *** with them. So that’s how they appreciated me. And what can I say, you know? Here’s these people who are willing to, you know, set me up. And they would have and probably I would have a different future. As if turned out, I came home and I was married to my ex-wife and got a job at McDonald’s. And worked there at McDonald’s from beginning ’61 to ’65. Then I went to work at ISU, in 1965. But I was off of the trapeze rigging for probably one summer when Harry LaMar found out that I was out with Lowell. Then he came to the house. And he says, “Manuel”—he called me “Manuel”—“I need to talk to you. Come to the house and take a swing with the boys.” He had a flying act that he had managed, but he didn’t do it himself. You know, Mr. LaMar flew until he was 62-years-old and he had a heart attack during a show. And he quit but he maintained an act and he would hire different people, different flyers from Bloomington-Normal. I got some other pictures here that I will show you. And so Harry convinced me to come and swing with his boys which I did. He had Sydney Smith* and Gerard Fenton*, and Jimmy Olson was the catcher. And Jimmy, by the way, used to live right down here just before the *** blacktop, just before you get to the elevator. I will point the house out to you. So we used to come and practice out here. And when Lowell and Mary found out that I was *** with them, they got very upset. And they would come out and park just a little ways from it… (Laughter) And I felt so intimidated, you know. I felt so bad. But in show business, this is what happened. You know, people go from one place to the other. And I had to come down the first time they came down. You know, Harry would swear. He would say kinda loud, “What in the world are they doing here? Don’t let them bother you, Manuel, don’t let them bother you. You just go up there and don’t worry about them.” I said, “Well, I’m done for today, Harry.” “All right.” But needless to say, I fit right in the act with the boys. I was still young enough; I was still in good shape. And Harry was very happy that I was working with them. Well, he had bigger ideas; he had some dates that he had booked the acts before he had he act. And after I practiced—Oh, it wasn’t just a couple of weeks, he approached me. He said, “I want you to go out with me this summer.” I said, (Laughter) “I’m working at McDonald’s. I can’t let go of my job; I lose my job.” “Oh, I’ll take care of that.” Well, low and behold, one day he showed up at McDonald’s. And he went directly to the boss. And I said, “Harry, what are you doing? I’m going to lose my job!” And he say, “No, you won’t!” And he talked to that man into letting me out for three months so that I could go out with him on the road. Well, my ex-wife and the family was a little bit disappointed; they were very reluctant to let me go, but they did let me go. So I went out for another season with Harry LaMar. We went out East again. And there was Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, and we came back down through New York and worked all those Eastern States. It was one-week stands which is very good. You go set up, you can work out, and practice. And we had a nice act. We’d do passing leaps and double cartwheels, and all that kind of stuff and he couldn’t be happier. So when the three months came, you know, I told the boss up here that, you know, I said, you know because I was not on my job, you know. I says, “I’ll be back in three months, you know?” So he start phone calling all of the—the only thing is it didn’t work this time. And during one of our jumps, we have a phone call that the catcher’s father had a severe heart attack. And so we was getting ready to go into Canada and it was going to be like a TV show there. There was going to be—I guess it wasn’t meant to be. But Harry was, you know, he was conscientious about that and as a result we parked the truck and the five of us—there were five of us, four of us flyers and Harry—got in his car and came home, drove straight through from Buffalo, New York all the way here. I’m glad we came home because his father passed away. So when we were in town, I stayed in town because Harry wanted me to stay and work more with him. And I just told him, I says, “I work with you three months.” And I stuck to the three months. And then when I come back, I still have my little job at McDonald’s, which I kept until the middle of 1965. And that’s when I started working at ISU. And it was almost a year to the day that the two Sherer young boys—I started to doing some messing around the trapeze bars. So they have gotten over their madness, the mother and dad. So they look me up and they want me to come out and take a few swings with the boys. Well, needless to say, we formed another little act, The Flying Corderos
And we start and we formed the act. It didn’t take long, the three of us. We had a few different boys. . . My son took part in it one summer, because one of the [Sherer] brothers got mad and they wanted to fight. Here we had a show and in the middle of practice. . . So I brought my son up and he filled in. In a couple of weeks—I’ll show you pretty soon the pictures—and we got through the act. Another year the same thing happened.. Well, I have put in my nephew. He came up and he fills in for the guy. And so we managed to get by. We always have somebody that can [fill in] —as long as you can have somebody who can be the main flyer and I was the main flyer then. So we were able to get through. You know, he’s got it all here on this thing. [shows article] We worked almost 13 years I think. We worked in Miller Park. We did other shows in the small towns around here. It was putting me up into the 40s when I was still doing the flying. And I think it was 1984 or ’85 when we put on the last show. I hurt my arm here; the muscle came apart from the bone. I was doing the trick and he caught me and you felt like a rip and it was the meat—the muscle came away from… And that—
I just want to know that everybody’s cringing as you describe this on the tape.
(Laughter)Well, you know, these are the things that people endure when you’re in the show. You pay to see a show. The people expect to see a show and the show must go on. And I’ve seen the Wallendas on the high wire act. The one lady that I saw had a 104 temperature and here she had to go up and she performed her act. And it was an amazing thing. The Wallendas were fabulous people. But that’s the way it went. So with pills and bandages and pain, we got through the last two or three shows that I worked. And there was—I forget the name of the town. One of them was Atlanta—they had a little celebration—that was the last one that I think we went on there. But then there was one north of here. I can’t remember exactly. But there were just so many towns…
That was in the 1980s?
That was probably 1983 or 4. I talked to Jim last night, his son, who used to catch me. I call himed, I says, “You know, this is what’s going to happen tomorrow. Somebody’s going to talk to me about my life history and about the flying act and I want to make sure that’s okay with you. I’m going to mention your name and stuff like that.” So he was excited about it. I would give you a little DVD of the flying act of the last shows that we made. You know, so…In fact, he’s going to send it to me. He told me last night. And that way, you know, you can see that it was… I was 45 then, you know, when we took that film. And I’ll be 73 in two weeks. (Laughs) I’m an old goat!
I want to back up a little bit. I want to ask you a question about your nephew. You brought your nephew and he helped with the show. And you say you brought him up. Where did he come from?
That’s actually my nephew’s son. Somehow or other, I don’t know how in the world we got together. And we had a guy working with us and he was a young professor at ISU, but he was very slow learning. So my nephew came up and then he wanted to take a couple of swings.
Came up from where?
He lives here in town. My nephew’s son. Mike Mink.* His name is Mike Mink Jr. Yah, and he come in and start swinging and then they started ignoring this other guy a little bit because Lowell was very up front. So he said, “Well, Mike, you know what? You’re doing pretty good.” He went on with that, and lo and behold, the other guy got mad and left. So Mike stepped in. And we did one show with Mike out at Miller Park. And I think the next year was that my son came in and with a couple weeks training…
What is your son’s name?
My son… same as mine. And look what they done in the Pantagraph. The next thing I know, I see this in the paper, and you know how sometimes you glance at the paper and you see things and you don’t pay much attention. But he said, “Hey Manuel, this is you*!” I said, “Holy cow, that’s my son.”
That’s with very little training.
This is your son in the daily Pantagraph, July 3, 1984. Above the headline. Above the header.
Pretty big for back then. I have two or three other write-ups in there…
I want to ask you another question. In getting into this story, naturally you went, you know, you were reluctant, but you went for a job. You needed a job. And it turned out to be this trapeze work. And, I think you ended up really liking it.
I did. And I made many, many friends in many different places. The only thing that I regret is that I didn’t keep better track of the pictures and places and acquaintances that I had. I have met some very very nice people who have offered me jobs… and anything, you know, that if I ever needed anything. It was, what I would call, a real blessing to me. I had a great opportunity to visit the United States. I have visited 42 or 43 states. And I have performed in many of them, you know. It’s been a really interesting and learning process for me. I learned how to travel around the United States that, you know, I didn’t realize the United States was so big. I come from Puerto Rico; it’s a little island, you know, 90 miles by 35 wide. And here we would travel for days and I would say, “Are we there yet?” (Laughter) Like the kids did to me: “Are we there yet?” You know, this is the truth. I was sitting around with Lowell and he would tell me stories. I mean, riding with him in the… Old tops* and ***, we had bed equipment, poor people equipment back then. But you know, I spent several hours on highways waiting with flat tires and break downs. It wasn’t all a bed of roses, but in those days people would step in and want to help you and even though they didn’t know who you were. Now today they’d be a bit more reluctant to, you know. But it was…
Diane Cordero: Tell them about your facilities.
Oh, when I first started with them, there was no pay. They would give me food and they let me sleep in their trailer. And then later on we had a truck, like an old mail truck. So I would sleep in the truck, you know. And we took everything out. Cleaned it out, sweep it up and I would sleep there and I would use their facilities inside, the bathrooms and things, you know. And then later on when we were out on the road, especially with the carnivals, we would put up the rigging and we were just soaking wet sweaty and hot and dirty. So, what I would do when we’d get to a place, I would get two big buckets of water and I’d put them around where the sun would hit them. And by the time we’d get done, you know, I’d have some warm water, so I’d get between the two cars and the truck and the some cars in there and put my bathing suit on and then take a bath. And I was always clean. Now not all the carnies—the people in the carnival, they call them carnies—back then they probably averaged maybe once a week about, maybe. I don’t know. Actually people were a little bit reluctant when the carnival came in town or the carnival people, they would put signs, “Closed. Bathrooms closed.” You know, it was kinda discouraging and scary. But I always kinda hung around with them because, you know, I kinda felt like I was one of them… until they find out that I was doing the flying act, you know. Then the people would come around me and start to say, “Hey! You’re not one of them. Come over here.” You know, and stuff. But I always associated with—I’m always kinda for the underdog. So, always been that way. But I met many many wonderful people that I just wish that I could see some of them. And several carnivals that we worked with and there was…
But that’s how I kept myself clean and, you know, even though when it was a little cool and stuff like that, you would have to take advantage when you’re hot, you know, and you cleaned up, you know, like that so. Because you know what? I got to clean up and then put a set of tights on and go perform. And you could see sometimes that I was in pretty good shape . . . now got a little weight put on me, but I was fit for fire and I had pretty good potentials to be… Now, this is what I was told, you know, he said, “You got potential to do whatever you want.” When we were growing up*. And I want to tell you one thing about Lowell Sherer that he was short and stocky but he—and I’ve learned some about flying to know that after all you learn—I was just beginning to really learn timing how to handle yourself in the air and I quit. And he even knew if I was going to be early or late, and we had ways of making up the time, because some days, you know, you don’t always feel 100% when you go up there. There are days when you feel a little bit more and you don’t put as much into it. But he knew how to handle his swing. And I was beginning to learn, that you know, that when you are flying and you’re going to do a trick, if it’s anything more than a single trick, then you have to put an effort to it and you’ve got to give it all you got, you know, and use all your senses. Because doing the trapeze thing is not just like anything else. When you put yourself up there in the air, throw yourself around, it’s an automatic thing that you already got implanted in your head. “This is what I’m going to do.” And sometimes a bad start or something will throw off the whole thing. And you miss. Fortunately enough, we have a net. You know you have to be careful how you land on the net. I took about three bad falls. Three mistakes and I almost broke my neck. But I’ve always had a bit of a problem coming out of my forward somersault. Instead of just ducking, I didn’t. So I went in headfirst down into the net and to this day, I suffer from it. I almost broke my neck — pulled the bones in my back. And the bad part about it was that he worked me that night and he shouldn’t have. He should have let me totally recuperate. But that’s part of the show, like he would say. . .
The show must go on.
(Laughs) The show must go on. We don’t care if you die, but you know… And there were just a multitude of things that took place. But anyway, I learned to survive. Talk about camper, I could camp anywhere because you know what? I just slept in the backseat of my car for one summer. And you know what? I live an average life. Once you get used to do something, when you have to, you’ll do it. And I wasn’t the only one. I’d rather do that than some of the carnivals we were in. They had bunk beds in semi-trucks that they fold up and they put the rides* in. When they get to the place, they put the bunks down and that’s where the guys that work on the carnival sleep. I got an old motor home by the side of the house that belonged to a friend. I say, “Boy, I wish I would have had this.” That would have been pretty good. (Laughs) It would have been really good. That was, you know, the high performers, the high paid people that got those trailers about then. You know, I went in the ‘50s and the ‘60s and things were tight back then. But the ‘70s were the best years for traveling. Stuff that I was able to… Actually when I was working part time, still working at the university, it was kinda fun. You went and did your little practice and then went back to your job and then when show time came, you did a little show. There’s people that still ask me, “Are you still flying?” I says, “Only when my wife gets mad!” (Laughter)
Through the backdoor!
You’re out on the road and you’re working for this act and your English is not very good. How are you learning the language?
Well, it was force. Lowell would once in a while would stop and correct my pronunciations and some words then they would finish the job ***. But you know, he would tell me, “This is how you said this. This is how you said that.” You know. It was a little critical of me. I say, “Well, Lowell, you know what? I didn’t go to school, you know.” And I didn’t. Because my young life when I went to live with my brothers that I started work at 12 o’clock that school went by the wayside.
What kind of work did you do?
In the Dairy Queen back home? Well, it’s just like a regular Dairy Queen: hamburgers, hot dogs. I would make ice cream by the 50, 60, 80 gallons. You know, cans. If you’re going to work, you’re going to work. You know? This is why I have a lot of good feeling and I feel for lots of the Spanish people that come here, legal or illegal. A lot of them are hard working people. If it wasn’t for them working and earning a little bit of money, their family back home would probably just suffer all the worse. Because most of them sent their money back home — just about every one that you see working in restaurants. Last week actually, in a restaurant. . . I say, “Hey, where are you from?” “I’m from Guatamala." He asked me my name. I say, “My name is Manuel.” He say, “My name is Manuel too!” He was really excited. You know, I’ve always been so much more fortunate than some of these kids. You know, thankfully, the Puerto Ricans are American citizens. We’re a commonwealth. And we’re under the umbrella of the United States. And we have the same benefits that the people here get. I am just grateful for that and I wish that those people were the same way. But you know, unfortunately, it’s very hard for them. And so I always feel for them and I make an effort to communicate with them.
You know what it means to be poor.
I’m still poor. But I feel very wealthy. I have a home. I have a good wife. We have a car… all the necessities of life. I had a job that provided me with an income from ISU. And I am forever grateful for the Illinois State University.
Can you talk a little bit about how that came about?
Well, when I was working at McDonald’s, I could see that the *** was going up there. I says, “You know what? I should get a job in there one day.” And a friend of mine—an acquaintance—actually a Puerto Rican boy, his name is Tony Ramirez, he was working in there. He said, “Go over there and apply for a job!” So the guy that he was working for, the foreman contacted him and told him that he was going to need somebody to wash pots and pans. Well, that was, you know, okay. So in my fourth year I was working in the McDonald’s. I was still making a dollar an hour.
Below minimum wage. You know, actually, I worked three years before I got a raise to a dollar and then after three years I got to a dollar ten.
So when did you start working at ISU?
I started working when I came left McDonald’s in 1965. I worked the road. And then I worked McDonald’s a little over four years. And in 1965, I can’t remember exactly, I think it was about September or somewhere around there. I estimated that I’ve been almost 45 years there. But you know, this fall would have been 47 years at ISU. But I retired in 1998. Going back to McDonald’s, you know what, I learned a lot from that man there. He was a very shrewd business man.
You remember your boss’ name?
Yah, his name was Paul Sapp and Paul Sapp Jr. They were very good business people. In all the families, the kids and everybody they were in business. And they got into the McDonald’s, and the one brother was into Hardee’s, and the other was into the *** business. The kids became very wealthy. But Paul was a very very good business man.
Was he a good employer?
Well, he was a rough one. But I was a hard worker and I was dependable and I was his key man. I would come and I would prepare everything. I would work from 7 o’clock. From the time that I started there was no let up because I had so many things to do.
And he paid you less than minimum wage?
Eighty cents an hour for the first three years and then he went up to a dollar and then he went up to a dollar ten and then he took me up to a dollar twenty-five. And that was what I was making and he thought that he was paying me big money. Anyway, when I heard about ISU, I went and applied, you know for the job. Bradford was her name. The lady, she said, “Well, you’re not going to be making too much money, we only pay 2.50 an hour.” I says, “Oh my God.” I says, “Two fifty an hour” I says, “You know what, if you give me the job, I take the job.” And what I told her, I have to give two weeks’ notice. And she said, “Well, I expect you to do something like that, you know. You’d better think it over good, because you may have a better future there now.” I says, “Believe me; I would like to have this job.” And I got the job at ISU, and needless to say, when I came back and told the boss that I’m giving two weeks’ notice he was devastated. He was really nervous about it. He called me right away, he said, “Well, I need to talk to you.” And then he was willing to pay. Then he was willing to match anything that anybody would pay me, anything that I wanted, you know. Anything! He says, “You know, I always thought about you and this and that.” But if he treated me okay earlier, paid me a little more to help me survive, he wouldn’t ever have to worry about me looking for a job. But when they told me you start out at $2.50 an hour, I went to ISU and I started there. And I was washing pots and pans. And before I quit there, we tried to train several workers so they could fill my shoes. He couldn’t get anybody, and he was just beside himself. His mom and dad quit talking to me—it was the Jr. *** more or less, his mother and father were the money people—and they just quit talking to me. They wouldn’t even look at me. And man, I would work hard. So you know what? I went one day just a couple of days before I quit, I say, “Paul,” I says, “I don’t have to start working in the university until 10:30. Since you haven’t found anybody, I could help you open up if you want me to. I could work from 7 to 10 and get your place ready. Ah! That was a different face on that man. He said, “Oh, well, if you could do that.” Then he says, “I don’t know if I can pay you 1.25 for that, though. Then I said, “Well, if that’s the case, then I’m…” He said, “No, no! That’s fine. That’s fine.” (Laughter) And for a year and a half, I worked without a full day off, except New Years. Because when I was off from ISU, he would put me to work in there in my two days off. And I would work full time at McDonald’s.
So did they otherwise reward you other than salary? Like Christmastime or maybe invite you to the home for dinner?
Nope, just by a lot more work on me. Like I said, he was a shrewd business person.
But let me ask you this: the other people that he employed, that weren’t Hispanic, did you have an inkling of what they were being paid and whether they were being treated differently?
As far back as I can remember, I was the only Spanish person he had there, other than my brothers. In those four years, I had one brother come in. He work for a year and he went back home to stay. And I had another brother that came in and worked for a little while and he couldn’t take him, so he quit. He couldn’t handle . . . you know, situations… I was married, we had a baby… I had to have a job. I took a little bit. There was, you know, little insults, different mistreatments, but—
Was he treating his other employees that way?
He would fire people for being late or anything like that. We had a lot of students in there. If you missed work or something like that, he wouldn’t let you work—you could be replaced real quick, you know. He was very strict with his business, he was very strict, you know. And toward the end he became more of a nice man and I felt bad for him later on. He had some rare health issues, you know. Eventually he died at a young age. But his two boys—his oldest boy year and years later, came through town and called me up. Say, “Manuel, this is Paul Jr.” He says, “I would like to invite you to have a hamburger with me.”
(Laughter) And he told me that his dad always spoke very well of me to the kids. So you don’t know, you know. And then he kept telling me that he was in business with his uncle, and about their business and he says, “If you ever decide that you need any help, a job or anything like that, you give me a call.” He says, “I got people and we’ll set you up.” I said, “Well, Paul, thank you.” You know, I mean, he had a nice, big Cadillac and everything. And I said, “Well, thank you.” They had money; they were money people. The Sapps were money people. Mr. Sapp told me one time that when McDonald’s—By the way, that was the second McDonald’s built in this country.
Where was that located?
That was located in Normal, Illinois. Right here. This was the second one. The first one was in ***, Illinois. And this was the second one. And he says—Mr. Sapp said that “McDonald’s people, they are good—“ He had a lot to say about McDonald’s. He says, “When they first started their business, they got in serious money problems. You know, selling hamburgers at 15 cents, French fries for 12 cents, and coke for 27 cents. That’s what it was. He says, “They went under.” And he says, “I loaned them a lot of money. And it was because of me lending them money that they came out of it.” He was a big shot in Montgomery Ward. Oh, he was a very shrewd businessman. And then his brother went into Hardee’s. They got rid of McDonald’s and went to Hardee’s. Well, you know business. But then, that’s the way it went. The reason I quit working for him was that I took the job at ISU and then it was custodian work, janitor work. And that was a dollar more an hour. So I went from, in a couple of years’ time —less than two years’ time, I went from $1.25 to about $3.50. You know, this was in 1965.
Well, I retired in 1998 at ISU with 33½ years, doing custodian work and it wasn’t just janitor work. I did a lot of the set up and banquets and everything and cleaning and everything that there was to be done at the Bone Student Center. Most of the time I worked at Bone [Student Center]. Then there were five years that I worked at Fell Hall and that was the International House. The rest of the time I’d been in the Bone Student Center. And I retired in 1997, and I think it was in 1998, this guy that was in charge in the Bone Center, you know, set ups and some, they called me back. They called me at home and they wanted to know if I wanted to come and work as extra help. And then I took them up on it.