Michael Garofalo (MG): It’s the StoryCorps podcast. I’m Michael Garofalo.
And in this episode, we’re going archive diving — deep into the thousands of interviews in our collection.
We’re looking for stories from people who took the long view in life. These are people who stuck it out — people for whom persistence and patience paid off.
Take, for example, Bob Heft.
He told this first story at his home in Saginaw, Michigan — surrounded by dozens of American flags. He was wearing an American flag polo shirt, which he explained he would buy in bulk so that he’d never run out — even his car had flag decals covering most of it.
Bob has a particular claim on our current flag — he designed it as a high school student. It was for a class assignment, but there was a problem. Bob’s flag had 50 stars on it — and at the time, there were only 48 states.
He had a hunch that more would be added soon. And, as it turned out, Bob was right.
Bob Heft (BH): The Betsy Ross story intrigued me. My mom and dad, they had a 48-star flag they received as a wedding present, which of course meant a lot to them. Well, I took a scissors and cut it up.
I had never sewn in my life. I watched my mom sew, but I had never sewn. And since making the flag of our country, I’ve never sewn again.
So anyhow, we get to class: I had my flag on the teacher’s desk.
The teacher said, ”what’s this thing on my desk?”
And so I got up and I approached the desk and my knees were knocking.
He said, ”why you got too many stars? You don’t even know how many states we have.”
And he gave me a grade of a B-minus. Now a B-minus ain’t that bad of a grade. However, a friend of mine, Jim, he’d picked up five leaves off the ground — he’s taping these leaves down to the notebook and labeling them elm, hickory, maple — and the teacher gave him the grade of an A.
I was really — I was upset.
The teacher said ”if you don’t like the grade, get it accepted in Washington. Then come back and see me. I might consider changing the grade.”
Two years later: I had written 21 letters to the White House. Made 18 phone calls. Now, you can imagine when my mom got the phone bill:
”What’s this number?”
”Well, mom, that’s the White House.”
So anyhow, I got this call, and it said, now, ”the President of the United States is calling you later on today.”
Well at that time Eisenhower was president, and he comes on the phone and he says ”is this Robert G. Heft?”
And I said, ”Yes, sir, but you can just call me Bob.”
And he said ”I want to know the possibility of you coming to Washington, D.C., on July 4th for the official adoption of the new flag.”
And so I have the grade book. It’s encased in plastic; it’s kept in a bank.
My teacher, he said ”I guess if it’s good enough for Washington, it’s good enough for me. I hereby change the grade to an A.”
MG: That’s Bob Heft. He went on to be a public school teacher, college professor, and mayor of Napoleon Ohio before he passed away in 2009.
Recently, I was talking with someone about the idea of hopping from job to job. You know those statistics that say that people will change jobs four or five times before they are 30. Anyway we were talking about how that’s a relatively new idea. I mean, especially in the last century. When people found work, they mostly stuck with it.
And this is a story about someone like that.
Arthur Winston was born in Oklahoma before it was even a state. As a young man he hopped a freight train heading west, and ended up in Los Angeles. He got a job working on city buses.
African Americans like Arthur couldn’t drive the buses then, so they put him on bus maintenance. And that’s where he stayed until 2006.
Just a week before retiring from that job, when he was 99-years old, Arthur Winston came to our mobile booth for an interview with his great nephew, Eric Givens.
Eric Givens (EG): What’s the secret to working so long and why do you do it?
Arthur Winston (AW): Well, I like my job. You can’t stay on any job 77 years if you don’t like it. So I got a perfect record. 1934 until today. Missed one day of work.
EG: That’s about 72 years.
AW: That’s right. I missed one working day.
EG: Now has your job changed a lot since…?
AW: It’s changed a lot. It’s changed a lot. Job has changed. Managers change. I still stay there.
EG: A lot of people wonder how a person lives to be 100 years old… what do you think you did that allowed you to live so long healthy?
AW: We livin’ too fast on junk food. Tastes good. But I don’t fool with it.
EG: A lot of people today try to do things to fight growing old and the last time I talked to you, you had made a comment about Viagra.
AW: Awww. No no.
EG: You were talking about Viagra.
AW: Hell. You don’t worry about things you can’t do. Don’t worry about it. And trouble of today people seem like they can’t get the… they go to the store and they’re on these talking phones all day and night trying to work and talk on them phones all the same time. Everybody. Kids got the little phones and they’re talkin’. I don’t have one. I don’t need nobody to keep up with me that tight all day and night and I don’t wanna keep up with nobody all day and night.
EG: Right. What would you like to talk about?
AW: We goin’ to far in life with the credit card. Credit interest is killing ya. People don’t understand that. I don’t have all them credit cards. I don’t have to have all this luxury stuff, if I can’t afford it I don’t bother with it. I can do without it.
EG: What do you plan to do after you retire?
AW: You can’t wait till 99 to do hardly anything. See I did a lot of goin’ all the way up. I been all Europe, Asia and all around Hawaii and Bahamas and Puerto Rico and Tahiti and everywhere else. I rode the freight train farther than some people rode inside. Wasn’t scared to go nowhere.
EG: Uh huh. That’s amazing to be 100 years old, still working, still in good health, and still smart, bright.
AW: If I go to think about how old I am I won’t be able to get up in the morning and go to work.
AW: I don’t worry about age. I don’t think about it. Moses and all them other people, a lot of people over there have lived 8, 900 years. I think I’d go to live 900 like all the rest of em or something else.
EG: Well I know you’ve inspired me and I love you and I think what you have to say is important. You’ve lived in a time, in an era where so much has changed
AW: that’s right.
EG: and you’re still here to talk about it. So thank you very much uncle Arthur.
AW: Thank you.
EG: Love you.
MG: That conversation was recorded back in 2006. Arthur Winston has since passed, but podcast producer Elisheba Ittoop and I recently got his nephew, Eric, on the phone. And it turns out, Uncle Arthur’s work streak got him some official recognition.
EG: He got a commendation from President Clinton for being the American that worked the longest in US recorded history without missing a day of work. And then I guess shortly after that Oprah Winfrey got word of the story and he had pictures with her. He was super happy about that. [Laughter] And he got to hang out with the Laker girls who came to meet him and he got to take pictures with them, and he was pretty excited about those photos as well. [Laughter]
MG: While we were on that call, we actually found out quite a bit that surprised us about Uncle Arthur.
EAG: He had got hired by the 99 Cent Store. He was going to be a representative for them after he retired from MTA.
MG: He was going to keep working?
EAG: Yeah he was, he was going to do another side job. Because he was 99, they hired him. So he was all fired up about that.
MG: When did Uncle Arthur actually retire?
EAG: He retired actually, on his 100th birthday. March 22, 2006.
MG: So how long was it after he retired, that he passed?
EAG: 3 weeks, roughly 3 weeks. He died some time in April. My Uncle Arthur made it to 100. His younger brother North, he lived to be 102 or 3. So he lived till about 2011.
MG: So Arthur didn’t even live the longest of his siblings?
EAG: Correct. He’s just the one that lived the longest and kept working and (laughs)
MG: He says he only took one day off?
MG: Do you know why he took that day off?
EAG: Yeah it was the day his wife died. Francis, my Aunt Francis. He had a pretty positive outlook on life, in spite of the fact that many people around him had actually passed away. When I interviewed him that was probably the saddest thing about the interview, and the more I reflect on it, I guess that happens to all people that live a long time, you outlive your spouse, you outlive your kids. But, most of the bus drivers that I’ve known, they pretty much all know who my uncle was and when I would talk to them like, Oh yeah Mr. Winston, he would hang out here and we’d sit around after work and he’d talk, or we’d go down here and have coffee or whatever. So he, he stayed active with people that were probably half his age and it helped him stay pretty young too, I think.
MG: How do you think Uncle Arthur would want to be remembered?
EAG: I think he’d want to be remembered as an honest person, a hard working person, and a person that tried to help other people whenever he could. And also as a person that was proud, not arrogant, but proud and not willing to take no extra stuff from anybody.
MG: If you’re in Los Angeles and curious, the Arthur Winston Bus yard is at 5425 Van Ness Avenue — near West 54th street. It was, in fact, named before he retired, so for the final few years of his career, Arthur would show up to work each day at a place that was named for him.
We’ll wrap up this episode with a story that should give a little hope to anybody out there suffering from heartbreak.
It’s a love story that spans one war, three countries, and four decades.
It all started in 1958 at a roller-skating rink on the Indian Head naval base in Maryland. That’s where Peter Headen met a girl named Jackie.
Peter Headen (PH): I was there one night and I saw this young lady skating around, and I, uh, waited for her to take a break and go get a Coke before I made my move.
Jacqueline Headen (JH): He just grabbed my hand, rolled me around and said, ”I’m Peter Headen. Who are you?”
PH: And she says, ”My name’s Jacqueline Le Fever.” And I looked in those big green eyes, and I was a done deal.
JH: From there we started datin’.
PH: And in 1959, her father got transferred to Japan. So I decided, well, I’ll go to Japan and get her. So, I went and joined the Marine Corps and said, ”Well, I want to go to Japan.” And the Marine Corps said, ”Oh, you’ll go to Japan–when we tell you you can go to Japan.” And, I was home on leave and stopped by to see Jacqueline’s mother. She said right away, ”Jacque got married.” So I reenlisted in the Marine Corps. I said, send me overseas.
JH: I—I just got married for all the wrong reasons. And I was very unhappy.
PH: I carried a picture of Jacque in my pack for three years in Vietnam. When we’d have a hard day, I’d just pull the picture out and say, ”I guess that’s why I’m doing this.” So I wrote her a letter. Told her how I felt.
JH: I don’t know how the letter found me. It had all these forwards stamped all over the envelope. And, he said, ”I love you. I’ve always loved you. I just have to get this off my chest, and I’m done.”
PH: I did my tour, and I came back from Vietnam. I spent 24 hours at home. And I went into my mother about 4 o’clock in the morning and said, ”I gotta go to North Carolina to see Jacque.” And she kinda looked at me and she said, ”I think you better leave that one alone, but I guess you gotta do what you have to do.”
JH: And I sent him away.
JH: I came from a divorced family and didn’t want my kids to have a broken home. And my husband was a very domineering, controlling person. If I left, he wouldn’t let me have my children.
PH: She said, you know, ”I’m not gonna see you anymore.” That was September 25, 1968. And I didn’t hear from you again until September 25th, 1998.
JH: I had tried to call him off and on over the years and I’d always call the operator and say, ”Do you have a T.P. Headen?” And she’d say, ”No.” And, then, in ’98, I had made up my mind: “I am just outta here. I’m so miserable, I’m so unhappy.” So, I say, no one ever loved me but Peter. I’m gonna go see if I can find him one more time. [Laughs] And the operator said, ”I’ve got a T.P. Headen in White Plains.” I said, ”Oh my god, that’s him.” I said, ”I have been trying to find this person for 30 years. It’s the love of my life.” [Laughs] She said, ”You want me to dial the number for you?” I said, ”Yeah, you can dial the number.” She says, ”Can I stay on the line?” I said, ”I don’t care what you do.” [Laughs].
PH: And the phone rang. And she says, ”You know who this is?” And I said, ”Yeah, I know exactly who this is.” She says, ”I bet you’re mad at me.” I said, ”No, matter of fact, I’m still in love with you.” [JH laughs].
JH: It’s really true.
PH: It’s worked out well. It’s just sad the time we lost, but I got her back. So I won. You know? [JH laughs]. And she’s just as beautiful as she was when she was 15.
MG: That’s Peter and Jacqueline Headen.
And that’s it for this episode. Our stories were produced by me and Katie Simon.
The podcast was produced by me and Elisheba Ittoop.
Rate or review us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you want to leave a message for someone on this show, give us a call at 301-744-Talk. That’s 301-744-T-A-L-K. We pass your messages along to the participants, and we might even play them here on the the podcast.
Until next time, I’m Michael Garofalo.
Thanks for listening.