By Kathie Kerr, Editor “Tower Talk”
(Some examples of photos and letters found in our attic are interwoven in this article and at the bottom of the article.)
If only the walls in these old Waldo houses could talk, what secrets they might share. In our case, it wasn’t the walls, but letters from the attic that told a tale of the Great Depression and the hopefulness of youth.
Shortly after we started renovating our almost 90-year-old home near 75th & Oak, we found letters from around 1935 tucked hazardously between the attic rafters and covered with insulation. They are yellowed and crumbling memories of a young man who used to live here, William “Bill” Patrick Dooley.
Thanks to Dr. John Horner, researcher/writer at the Kansas City Public Library, we know that Bill was the son of William and Florence Dooley, and was three years old during the 1920 census. His sister, whose name was Florence, was 9. In 1935 when most of the letters were written, Bill would have been 18 years old. Bill Jr. would be about 97 today if he is still alive. I don’t know how to reach any surviving family members, so maybe this article and the names it mentions will ring a bell with someone.
The letters reference the Great Depression and how hard it was for these young folks just graduating from Southwest High School to find work and how their families were getting along. The letters also vibrantly pictured teenagers who were still being kids—going to dances, going on dates, gossiping, and attending events in places in Waldo long ago gone.
Letter after letter written to Bill was, with a few exceptions, from teenagers from Southwest High School, and from young people attending the new St. Elizabeth Parish Church. For this reason, I believe Bill was a recent graduate himself. Our house was built in 1925; if Bill had indeed been living here since childhood, he would have been 8 years old when he and his family built the house and moved in.
The profile of Bill Dooley isn’t hard to piece together from his letters. And, I will call him Bill because the man I see in my head is young, handsome and self-assured. Bill doesn’t seem like a typical teenager, after all, he took the time to saved all these many letters from his days in New Mexico.
From the dates on the letters, he appeared to have left Kansas City sometime in the winter of 1934 and ended up in Artesia, New Mexico, a very tiny town. We don’t know why. A letter dated Feb. 21, 1930, presumably addressed to Mr. Dooley Sr., mentioned mineral rights in Artesia, so there might have been a family business or connection to the town in that regard. We do know from the letters that Bill Jr. was active in leading a Boy Scout Troop there.
We also know from the letters that Bill was missed when he left Kansas City to go out West. From the gentle chiding of his friends back in Kansas City to some rather insistent young ladies begging him to come home and go to dances, you get a sense of an easy-going, trusted confidante who didn’t let the nation’s economic disaster knock him down. In fact, all the letters from these young people were bright and sassy and filled with hope.
Could this be Bill? This photograph was found with the letters.
The first letter Bill received while in New Mexico was dated December 10, 1934 from Josephine “Jo” Hecht whose returned address was 7345 Walnut. “I went to the Waldo on Sunday and saw The Count of Monte Cristo,” she wrote. “I think that was its name but anyhow it wasn’t any good.”
She probably saw the movie at what was then called the Westmoreland Theater at 7428 Washington Street. When it opened in 1924, the theater offered silent films, vaudeville and burlesque during its first 15 years in business. By 1939, the theater was solely a movie house and had changed its name to the Waldo Theater. It remained a movie house until it closed in 1972.
Ms. Hecht went on to write in that same letter, “I think the church dinner was a success, at least Father Kennedy hasn’t asked for money again.” This reference is to Father Peter Kennedy, who served as pastor at St. Elizabeth from 1924-1957. He passed away in 1958, shortly after his retirement.
One of the most entertaining letters is not signed, but was written on Jan. 8, 1934. “The Nash still eats as much gas as ever. We ran out of gas yesterday at 51st and Ward Parkway and pushed the car to 48th Street where we forged Brush Creek by foot and bought some gas. Neil and I are seriously considering buying or trading for a Austin. … We asked Mr. Taylor the code price on a ‘31 Austin and he said $81 sounds like a good buy. They get 48 miles to a gallon of gas.”
According to a description in Wikipedia, they really did get that much per gallon, but I can’t believe it. That’s better than some hybrids today! The coupe was billed as a sedan, and sold for $445, slightly less than a Ford V8 roadster. The Great Depression made the cheaper secondhand cars more appealing, so sales dropped off.
A final piece of correspondence in 1934 was a postcard picture of two ladies in hats. The names appear to be Mrs. Hepworth and Doris, according to the back of the postcard.
Bill received his first letter in 1935 on Jan. 9 from Lois. She wrote: “I suppose you are having a grand time in New Mexico. But I hope you’ll come back to K.C. once in a while as I really miss your cheerful telephone calls. I was surprised to hear that you’ve become a “Boy Sprout” leader. I just can’t imagine it. Do you blush when you have to give orders to the boys?”
Ms. Josephine Hecht wrote to Bill again on May 23, 1935 with news that “The towers are now on St. Elizabeth Church only there are no bells in them. They had a real nice dedication and Father Kennedy didn’t get mad at someone in the middle of mass. Your sister sang.”
The timing would have been right. By the time the church was dedicated on April 22, 1935, the exterior also had two stone towers (one with bells) added, and the faith community had grown to 265 families. It was a vibrant part of the Waldo community.
Several letters were sent to Bill in May, 1935. Ms. Flynn (no first name that I could find) lived at 5730 Forest Ave. She sent Bill homemade fudge with her letter. In her letter dated May 27, 1935, we get a glimpse of how hard the times were back then as she described a special dinner with guests.
“We had stewed chicken, noodles, Popeye’s favorite dish, salad, and ice cream. Best we’ve had since the depression!”
Ms. Flynn mentions that Kansas City had been caught up in the “dime chain letter gang.” “Golly, KC certainly went crazy! At least it was a change from the everlasting talk about the depression. I got in on one of them, and so far all I’ve gotten is 50 cents.”
Chain letters began to circulate in 1935 promising the poor that they could become rich quickly.
The origin of the chain letters is still not known. But the post offices of that time had to hire people to get extra help as the chain letters were too many in number to handle by the normal staff.
This chain letter below was found among Bill’s letters. It is a typical Send-a-Dime money chain letter.
Also on May 27, 1935, Bill received a letter from Leroy. Leroy was hopeful that he would be getting a job with American Products in Cincinnati, although he wanted the Kansas City dealership. “If I get the agency I should make about $40 a week; but if I could have gotten the dealership, I could have made $60 and up (not too bad).” It is an excellent possibility that this is same Leroy F. Magee who later that summer sent Bill an invitation to attend his high school graduation at Southwest High School on June 5, 1935.
Some letters raised some intriguing questions, like the unsigned letter dated June 6, 1935, presumably from a young woman that reads, “Dearest Bill, I want to tell you that I had a wonderful time last night and I am honest and truly sorry for the way I acted … ”
Ken “Dagger” Davis from 7128 Jefferson typed a letter to Bill on June 21, 1935, addressing him comically as “Senore William.” Mr. Davis talked about his romantic conquests on the dance floor, and then the dialogue turned a little sad.
“Say old pal do you think that if I come down there I could find something to do. As you probably know there is nothing doing here. I have been going out on the road with my cousin while he sells shoes. In fact I just got back from Atchinson with him. … My birthday is next month you know and I was just wondering where in the devil I’ll be. I might try to come down to New Mexico there if you think I could find anything to do. Do you?”
It’s interesting to me how many young men wrote Bill as well as young ladies. One unsigned letter from a young man confesses to Bill, “I had another enjoyable evening and this time brought her home (in cousin’s truck). I did not kiss good night maybe because I am too bashful or perhaps I thought it better to be a gentleman. I told her to be sure to wash behind her ears and she told me to be sure and changed my socks.”
One letter is from Des Moines in August, 1935 from Ruth who is on her way to California to find work. “I’ll have an address when we get there so you can write to me then.”
Sometime in the summer of 1935, Bill moved back to Kansas City from New Mexico. It seemed as though Bill left a string of broken hearts wherever he lived. One letter dated August 1935 has “Avis” writing, “I miss your bright and smiling face. Why don’t you take another sudden notion and rush back to this beautiful city of Artesia—no, don’t. I like you too much to wish that misery upon you even for selfish reasons.”
So many references in the letters were about dancing and going to dances. The letters didn’t mention dance marathons by name, but it would have been the right time in history. Dance marathons spread from New Orleans to Chicago to Kansas City to Harlem. Dance marathons (also called Walkathons), an American phenomenon of the 1920s and 1930s, were human endurance contests in which couples danced almost non-stop for hundreds of hours (as long as a month or two), competing for prize money.
And, Bill must have been a very good dancer.
Ruth writes on Aug. 4, 1935, “If you go to a dance tomorrow night I’ll pretend that I’m dancing with you every dance!”
A few things strike you about these letters. They are beautifully written and they are long. Thank goodness there was no 140-character Twitter max back in those days. Another is just the feeling you get from those youthful voices who are talking about going to business school, or becoming hair stylists and secretaries.
I don’t know how long the Dooleys lived in our house, but I can say one thing. Sometimes I smell cologne and can imagine a handsome young man shining his shoes and whistling, combing his hair and smiling, getting ready to trip the light fantastic with a bevy of Waldo beauties.
Did Bill marry Lois or Ruth or Jo? Do they have grandchildren still living in Kansas City? If anyone reading this knows of this family or any of the others mentioned here, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, if you, too, have found treasures in your attic, I would like to feature your finds.
Here’s a postcard we found with the letters.
Wonder who these children were? Photo found with letters.