Salesman, Hubert Harris, 1935
(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)
A few days before her twenty-third birthday, in May of 1934, Mary Ellen’s grandpa John Townsend died. She went to the Big House where she and Grandma Mary comforted each other, and recalled those childhood days when Grandma’s house was Mary Ellen’s favorite place to be. So much had changed for each of them, yet in their souls they were closer than ever. Mary Ellen had no idea that just six months later a whole new chapter would begin to open in her life.
Salesmen came and went at the Cincinnati office of the Smokeless Coal Company. Mary Ellen enjoyed talking with them, so nothing seemed noticeable on a November day when a young man came in selling office supplies. Somehow he seemed different from the others–neat, pleasant, polite–not just talkative or flirty. He said his name was Hubert Harris. They really didn’t need supplies in the office, but she liked this guy and hoped he’d come back again.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said as he got ready to leave. “I’ll talk to my boss. Maybe we can give you an order. Can you come back next week?”
After he left she went in and told Mister Gillespie about him. “Do you think we could buy a couple of things from him?”
Gillespie leaned back in his chair. “Well, you know all you have to do is pick up the phone and order what you need from the office supply store on Fourth Street.”
She detected a slight twinkle in his eye. Leaning toward him she cocked her head to one side and said, “I know, but he’s such a nice guy…he’s just getting started. It would help him to get an order from us.”
Mr. Gillespie gave her a dismissive look as he turned his attention back to his work. “Well…okay.”
Mary didn’t see Hubert for several days, and then ran into him on the elevator. “I talked to my boss, and he said we could give you an order. Just come on by and I’ll tell you what we need.”
He looked surprised. “Okay, I’ll do that.” The elevator stopped and the attendant opened the door. “Right now I have to be somewhere else. I’ll be in touch.”
Mary continued to her floor feeling excited. He didn’t come that day, or for several thereafter. Then one afternoon he walked in. It was close to quitting time and after she gave him the order they got to talking. He was easy-going and their conversation flowed easily.
“By the way,” he said. “You don’t have to call me Hubert. Just make it Hugh. That’s what I prefer!” That settled, they talked a bit more and then he asked, “By the way, when were you born?”
Sneaky way to find out my age, she thought. “1911–May 21st.”
A puzzled look briefly crossed Hugh’s face, then he lightened up. “That’s okay. My mom’s a year older than my dad.”
Wow! Not so fast there, buddy. “Is that so?”
That was the beginning. Hugh made frequent visits to the office after that, and not to sell office supplies. Mary told him about growing up on the farm and then moving to Price Hill, and about the dairy her dad managed. She learned that he was from Norwood, a city within the City of Cincinnati, and had lived for a time in Boston, where he went to high school. His parents lived in a rural community fifty miles east of Cincinnati. He was living downtown at the WMCA. She didn’t imagine he got many home-cooked meals.
“Come on home with me for supper,” she said, tucking her arm under his. “My mom’s a great cook and I want you to meet my family.”
That soon became a regular routine, as did strolls around Price Hill and Mt. Echo Park. Hugh like to sing and had a little notebook with the words to all the popular songs of the time. He would sing them to Mary in a soft voice. Her favorite was, “They’ll Never Believe Me.” She knew her daddy approved of him when he offer to let them use his car.
Several weeks later Hugh asked Mary to go with him on the train to meet his parents at their home in Mowrystown. He explained that his dad had been the art director for Gibson Greeting Cards there in Cincinnati, then they had moved to Boston where he worked for a different company. The stress had gotten to him so he’d moved back to Ohio and bought the sixteen acre farm where he and his wife, Toy, lived in retirement. Mary looked forward to meeting them.
As it happened, her picture appeared in the Sunday newspaper a week before they were to go. She was chair of a business woman’s sorority called Beta Sigma Phi. The picture accompanied a story about a card party they were giving for someone. In the same paper was the picture of another woman who was also named Mary Townsend. When they got off the train at Mowrystown they discovered his parents had been trying to figure out which of the two “Mary’s” their son was bringing home! She was the one they’d hoped for.
Mary and Hugh had a whirlwind courtship. They were together as often as possible and after three months decided to get married. With the depression in full swing, jobs were scarce. When his office supply job was terminated, Hugh found another at a Cincinnati department store called Shillito’s. They were installing a grocery and meat department and hired him to draw peoples’ attention. Dressed as a butcher with a butcher block, knives and all the trappings, he stood in a store window on Seventh Street. He was statuesque, with cleaver raised, standing perfectly still. A crowd would gather as people tried to figure out whether he was a real person or a manikin. That’s when he would suddenly swing into action demonstrating several cuts of meat.
It was little wonder when Mary told her dad they planned to get married that he replied, “Well, if you marry that guy you’ll never have a dull moment, nor will you ever have a million dollars.”
The job at Shillito’s was temporary. When it ended, just before the wedding, Hugh was hired as an office boy by a Buick agency. They would start their life together with his salary of $14.00 per week, combined with her $25.00 weekly pay. It wasn’t much, but many people had no work at all. Elmer told Mary he didn’t want them to get married until Hugh had a steady job–but love and romance overpowered his opinion.
On Hugh’s birthday, May 5, 1935, at four-thirty in the afternoon, Mary stood with Hugh in her parents’ transformed living room. She wore a navy blue dress trimmed in white with a gardenia corsage amidst a setting of palms, candelabra, a kneeling bench and flowers. Standing with her was a close friend, Helen Crawford, who was Matron of Honor. Opposite her stood Hugh, dressed in a light tan suit with a rose in his lapel, and flanked by his friend, Jack Flory, who was the Best Man. The room was filled with relatives and friends of each family.
A ninety-year-old pastor, Reverend Roughton, officiated. He had married several people in the Harris family over the years. They took their vows and pledged their troth to each other, exchanged rings, and then he prayed over them. The ceremony was followed by a reception with cake and punch. The room reverberated with excitement, mingled with a measure of anxiety, for this depression-era couple. It would be a few years later that they would realize one thing had been overlooked…no one took any pictures!
After the wedding, instead of a honeymoon, Mary and Hugh borrowed Jack’s car and visited his parents in Mowrystown for a few days. They drove all around the countryside and bought a few things for the kitchen. Then it was home to a furnished three-room apartment on the seventh floor of the oldest building in the Walnut Hills section of the city.
In the aura of their wedding and new life together, if felt like they were going into a castle, instead of an inexpensive flat. She caught her breath as he picked her up and carried her into the rickety, self-operated cargo elevator with folding grill-like doors. Next came the threshold of the apartment. He stepped inside, held her for a moment, then put her back on her feet. They stood in the middle of the room and kissed.
In that moment they were in what they called “Seventh Heaven”–from the title of a popular movie they had seen. They were home! Life was brand new. They could face anything–they had each other!
Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1935 in Mowrystown, Ohio
(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)