Selling Shoes and Going to College

Selling Shoes and Going to College

Epiphany of a Shoe Salesman

I had an epiphany in my junior year in high school. My buddy, Ralph Fertig, suggested that we earn pocket money as Maling’s Shoes salesmen. Maling’s was one of many low-priced stores on the South Side of Chicago catering to poor, mostly black, women. We applied to Maling’s with no experience and were immediately accepted in the labor-short market of the 1940s. My first day I discovered what many shoe salesmen know: women enjoy shoe shopping more than shoe buying. My first day I helped many ladies enjoy the pleasure of trying on pairs of new footwear, but I didn’t sell many shoes. My 8 or 10 hours of work left me exhausted. Selling shoes was hard work for little money. I easily connected the trajectory of my academic career with selling shoes…if I didn’t improve academically, I might spend my life at Maling’s.

That wouldn’t do! At this “ah ha!” moment, the epiphany of an academic slouch, I resolved to change my trajectory.

Learning to Study

I was poorly positioned to make that change. I had an atrocious academic record. I knew little about the best approaches to study, how to take notes in class, or even what classes to take. I could not get into most institutions of higher learning because of my academic record and the year—1946. Millions of soldiers returning from World War II sought to reestablish their lives by applying for college. Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois rejected my applications. The rejection by the University of Chicago galled my father who noted that all the Egers had completed college there with honors. Dad had his Phi Beta Kappa key as proof. And he had been generous in his contributions to the University’s endowment. It made no difference; my dismal record spoke too loudly.

A local community college, Roosevelt College (later Roosevelt University) accepted my father’s check and me. I enrolled there, highly motivated by carrots (I’d like to be a country physician) and sticks (I did not want to sell shoes). Ralph went as well. I don’t know why, because Ralph had the academic qualifications
for a better institution. Having never learned how to study, I studied inefficiently. I compensated by studying for longer hours than any sane student would spend. The summer before school I prepared for the classes I would take, reading and rereading the required books. When school began, classes and studying became my life. I slept 4 to 6 hours a night, ate meals, and studied. I studied every day, including holidays. To develop better note-taking skills, I took a course in an off-beat shorthand. It worked, and to this day, I still take notes in shorthand. I was not a brilliant student, but I was a persistent one. Years later I came across a marvelous comment on persistence by an average president, Calvin Coolidge:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

I had been lucky, by chance hitting on persistence, probably the best approach to study that I could apply. The D’s and F’s of grammar school and high school became A’s in my year at Roosevelt. Armed with A’s, the following year I applied and was accepted to the University of Illinois (Chicago and Northwestern still rejected me). The success did wonders for my self-image. Success in school, at Roosevelt, and in my 3 years at the University of Illinois, became an addiction.

A Summer at Columbia University

Academic success was only assured by developing an obsession with course preparation. I studied my courses before taking them. Given my challenges with foreign languages courses, I knew I was in great danger of failing German in my second year of college. In the summer prior to starting at the University of Illinois, I attended summer school at Columbia University to prepare myself to study German. After several weeks, it was clear that I was correct: I indeed had little aptitude for German. I completed the course at Columbia, but took it without credit. That fall I repeated the course at the University of Illinois, scoring an A, the only A I’ve ever received in a language other than English. I took three more semesters of German. With great effort I managed to get B’s.

One of the necessary life skills required to attend Columbia was learning the New York subway system. Exiting one summer evening somewhere near Grand Central Station I found a sign for the New York Chess and Checkers Club. It directed me to the second floor. Checkers? Yes, checkers! Played by old men in a smoky room—I stood watching intently, and finally caged a game with one of the old men. I would show him what the captain of the Hyde Park High School
Checker Team could do. But despite great effort, at best I could gain a draw. The old man scarcely looked at the board. This provided a great lesson in humility, and a mini-epiphany. I would not make a living selling shoes or playing checkers.

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May 24, 2022 | Posted by in ANESTHESIA | Comments Off on Selling Shoes and Going to College
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