A Talk with a Subscriber: Oscar Greene

A Talk with a Subscriber: Oscar Greene

You never know who will be on the other end of the line.  The COVID-19 epidemic has had me answering office phones remotely, and one day, in came a call from Mr. Oscar Greene, an amazing gentleman.  He was signing up for a subscription to Maine Seniors Magazine.  We got talking, and I learned he was 102 years old.  Why was this man getting a year’s subscription to this magazine, when he lives in Somerville, Massachusetts? Simple! He spends lots of summers in Maine, has a keen attachment to its folks and culture, and so had asked a friend to send him some magazines from Maine. And of the sampling that arrived, he greatly enjoyed Maine Seniors, as one of “the best magazines he ever read.” A nice compliment from anyone, but especially from someone with Oscar’s long and varied experiences with the written word! 

We agreed to speak again, so I could learn more about his story. Oscar Greene is a veteran of World War II who fought in the Pacific theater. He is a man who had a long career with General Electric in machines and engineering. He is an author of several memoirs and many technical works, a book reviewer for the Boston Globe, a contributor to Guideposts, Highlights, and other publications. And he was a good friend to Mr. Alonzo Fields, chief butler and maître d’ in the White House from 1931 to 1960—which is a whole story in itself.  On the end of the phone that day was one of our readers, with a story that needed to be told.  Meet Oscar Greene. 

Mary: 

Hello! Thank you for talking with me, Oscar. Can you please tell me where you are originally from and where you were brought up? 

Oscar: 

I was born in New York City, Harlem Hospital, in 1918. Then my family lived in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and I was brought up there. 

Mary: 

Where did you go to school? 

Oscar: 

I went to school at Williamstown High School. When I graduated from there in 1937, I got a scholarship and I went to Hampton Institute in Virginia, now Hampton University. 

Mary: 

Tell me about your parents, if you don’t mind.  

Oscar: 

Well, my mother was from East St. Louis, Illinois. She was born in Arkansas and she lived most of her life there before coming to East St. Louis. She lived in Hope, Arkansas. That’s where Bill Clinton came from.  

She had trained in New York as a nurse, but all her life, she was in domestic work because that was all that was available for her. She and my father divorced. I didn’t know my regular father, my birth father.  

Mary:  

How old were you when you moved to Williamstown? What was it like? 

Oscar: 

I was seven years old. My mother had remarried in 1926, to a person who lived in Williamstown, and his name was Eugene Morgan.  When I moved to Williamstown, I was in the house that my stepfather built. Both my mother and stepfather worked at fraternity houses there on the Williams campus. They were domestics and cooks and assistant cooks. 

Mary: 

What happened after you went to Hampton Institute in Virginia?  

Oscar: 

I graduated from that school on May 27th, 1941. The next day, May 28th, was my birthday. I was 23 years old. I left there and came to West Medford, Massachusetts, which was just outside of Boston. 

I came there looking for a job, a teaching job. Then I was with my cousin there, whom I loved dearly, and I got a telegram from a Mr. Joseph Taylor, offering me a teaching job at East St. Louis, Illinois, for $120 a month. It was the night Joe Lewis and Billy Caan were fighting, which was tense because we always felt like we had a lot to prove. I took that job and went and taught high school, for 14 months, in East St. Louis. 

Mary: 

Why did you leave that job? 

Oscar: 

Well, I’d passed the Civil Service Exam. I was 1A in the army, and I was looking for classified work because I was a man of color, but I was trained. So, I made my application, and I got a job at the Rock Island Arsenal in Rock Island, Illinois, which was north of East St. Louis. At the Arsenal, I had a skilled job. I was a machinist and a machine operator teacher, one of the few black skilled workers, out of 18,000 workers. In fact, there were only three of us, out of around a thousand in Shop L. 

I met my wife Ruby in East St. Louis, and we married. Then we went to live in Moline, Illinois.  

Mary: 

So, you and Ruby settled down. What came next?  

Oscar: 

I worked at Rock Island Arsenal for 24 months. Then I returned to Williamstown because my mother said she needed help. My stepfather died in ’42, at 53, from cancer. She needed help, so we came back. Then I was drafted. My cousins in West Medford took Ruby, and Ruby was just pregnant. They took her and took care of her and the baby. When I came home, the baby was 14 months old. 

Mary: 

During World War II, where were you stationed? 

Oscar: 

First, I was trained at Fort McClellan at Anniston, Alabama. I trained there as a rifleman. That’s infantry. Then I immediately went overseas to Luzon Island in the Philippines. 

Like many others, I was in combat. And I was supposed to be on the invasion of Japan. The war ended, but I came to Japan. I was there about eight months, and then they shifted me to Korea. I think I was there three or four months. Then I came home in August of 1946. 

Mary: 

When you came home, you found your wife and your son who was a growing boy? 

Oscar: 

That’s right. I was trying to get settled, get a job, get myself established, and get a home for Ruby and Oscar, Jr. We eventually got a home right there in West Medford, where we lived for 50 years. We had a very nice seven-room home, in Medford.  

Mary: 

What did you do for work? 

Oscar: 

I worked at the General Electric in Everett, Massachusetts, a nearby town. I worked as a machine operator. Because I had had the experience in Illinois, they had me teaching people who were coming in to be machine operators. Then in 1957, I was laid off in Everett. I went to Lynn to work at GE, and there I went into engineering, becoming an engineering technician on the Gemini Space Program, specifically the fuel cell on Flight 7. The fuel cell provided water, electricity, and power for the Gemini Space Craft. Then I moved to tech writing, heading that group. I retired from that job in 1981. 

Mary: 

During your long working life, is it fair to say that at times you have experienced racial prejudice? 

Oscar: 

Oh, yes, yes, yes. Oh, yes. That’s also why I left the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois. I had a good job, and I was making a good salary, but it was Ku Klux Klan country. I didn’t know how to handle people who either ignored you completely or were hostile, didn’t like you. But I was glad to have a good paying job! And overall, I had the advantage of having been brought up in an all-white village. So, I understood white people. Then when I went to school, I went to a Black university, and I had to learn Black people. 

Mary: 

Interesting.  I know you wrote book reviews for the Boston Globe, from 1965 to 1975.  What was your favorite book you were asked to review? 

Oscar: 

None of them were my favorites that they sent me. I didn’t select the books. They sent them to me. They were all Black books that dealt with “them and us.” I didn’t like that.  

Mary: 

You’ve written several books. What are they about?  

Oscar: 

I wrote four personal books and 13 technical books. The first personal book, House of Strangers, is about my life in Williamstown. The second, Hampton and the War Years, is about my life and experiences before and during the war. The third, From Homecoming to Twilight, is about my living and working for General Electric and living in West Medford and serving on boards in the community. The last one is Ruby: A Love Story

Mary:   

You had told me earlier that you had a good friend, Mr. Alonzo Fields, who was head butler and maitre d’  in the White House.  Can you tell a bit more about him?  

Oscar:  

Yes, we lived down the street from each other. He had written a book about his experiences, My 21 Years in the White House, which I read.  This was 1961. I asked him to autograph it, and later I asked him for advice on writing, and he and his wife and my wife and I became friends. It was a lesson to me, that someone well known can still welcome having regular friends. He was a modest, gracious person. He worked in the White House, but he felt still like a servant, not like a celebrity. 

Mary: 

Did he tell you about his time working with presidents and White House visitors? 

Oscar:  

Yes, he would always say that Truman was courageous, fair, and direct, and that Truman never treated him like a servant. And that Eisenhower would give orders to everyone like he was still in the army, that Kennedy was not truthful, and that Roosevelt and Hoover were difficult to work for, in the sense of not treating people all that respectfully.  He told about how Churchill would visit and be very authoritarian and drink a lot.  And how, the Southern senators would call him “boy,” even a man of his mature age, and how General Marshall used the [n word] in front of him.   

Truman was one Lonnie always spoke highly of.  In general, though, Lonnie would always see people, even high and powerful people, as regular people, with flaws and good points.   

Mary: 

Were there any stories he told that stand out? 

Oscar: 

I remember he told me about being there in the room when Roosevelt heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Lonnie said that Roosevelt broke down. Then Roosevelt had the Japanese representative brought in to see him. And Lonnie said Roosevelt insulted that man angrily, with racial slurs. Then, by 3 p.m., Roosevelt had called together the heads of government, and he was in charge and in command again, smoking.   

As the war got going, he had a trusted position, and he stayed in the White House for eight months, even though his wife was ill at home. Because of his position, he was the only domestic allowed in the war room, the room with all the maps.  

Mary: 

Incredible to think about.  And he helped you get started with writing.  What other writing have you done? 

Oscar: 

When I retired from General Electric, I was writing all the time, for magazines and newspapers. And I was sent to New York, to be trained to write for Guideposts

Mary: 

Is that a religious magazine? 

Oscar: 

They like the word “inspirational.” I worked for them for 36 years.   

Mary: 

What do you attribute living until 103? How do you figure you did that? 

Oscar: 

Everybody asks me, and you know what I tell them? I don’t know.  

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Mary Barstow