Jack S. Futterman - Oral History
Part I- Early Life
Q: So, how have you been?
Okay for an old guy. I have aches and pains, my hip is still out of whack.
Q: Well, you look good.
That's what everybody tells me. I don't know whether it's a curse or not. But people say, "I never thought you are 84 years old." They didn't believe me a lot of times, and I'll say: "yeah."
Q: Well, that's a compliment.
Well, it is in a way.
Q: Good genes if nothing else, I guess.
I don't know about that. When I was in college, I thought: "Well, I'm not going to be long-lived because the rule of thumb that existed then for longevity was take your grandparents' lives as an indicator. My grandfather on my mother's side must have been dead at about 40. I don't know how he had as large a family as he did on the other side in Poland. I knew my grandmother. She came over to this country and she lived with an aunt of mine. She seemed very old to me when I was a kid. She wore a wig. It was the custom in those days for Jewish immigrants from the lower economic strata, from the working classes, to wear wigs as they got older--although we never regarded ourselves poor. So that and also her lack of the English language made me think of her as very old. Her appearance was old, too. My grandfather, my grandmother's husband, I don't know much about him. Probably when I thought she was very old, she was in her 70's. My father's father died before he was born. His mother died before he was a year old. So not much longevity on my father's side and certainly not a hell of a lot on my mother's side. Her father died young and her mother was in her 70's. Today we would regard this to be nothing remarkable. Talk about genes, I'm not sure that my genes are all that great.
Q: Maybe it's luck.
Futterman's Education During The Depression
Q: Jack, how did you come to work for SSA?
How did I come to work for SSA?
I was one of the few people in the 30's, relatively few people, who wasn't hurting all that much. My family felt the pinch, but not all that much. We were a large family. There was somebody working, more of them were working than were not working. And as long as anybody was working in a family, providing in some way, the family could get along. My father was just a working man, an independent sort of guy. He didn't speak the language very well, but he managed to find work. He had a family, and he was devoted to his family.
I was the first one in the family to go to college. I was, as I say, not hurting. But I couldn't go to college without some income. Obviously in the 30's, given my family situation, there wasn't money for that kind of thing. But my family gave me the go- ahead and said, "If you can work it out, go ahead," and I went to college. I graduated in 1933 with a Bachelor of Science and I wanted to be a teacher and so I took another year and got a Masters degree in education.
Well by this time it was very evident that the much-sought job of teacher in the school systems of New York was not available--and it was prized in those days. Not just because it was one of the highest paying teaching positions, not just because one had tenure, which meant job security in those insecure times, but it was a school system that had a very good reputation nationally. It was one of the best public school systems in the country. And positions were highly sought after. So it was no wonder that in 1933 and in 1934, when I was ready to assume a teaching position, there weren't many available. They had stopped giving teaching examinations, which were very difficult in New York, in 1931 or 1932. The reason for it was that they already had a list of people who had passed the examination. The list was, as I recall, a hundred thousand long. These were for positions in the school system. And they had stopped giving the tests for the position and there was just no chance of getting in.
Furthermore, it was made even more difficult, because in New York there was a requirement that one pass an oral examination. The written exam was difficult enough. People found it very difficult to pass this examination, especially if they were out of school for some time. I don't remember how many hours it was, but it took many hours. And then that only opened up the door for you to take the oral examination, which was far more difficult for New Yorkers to pass. The reason was that they would use the weaknesses of a New Yorker's speech against him. And a fellow by the name of Larry DeWitt, if he wanted to get a teaching job in those days and his only experience was in a 10-child school house in Montana, on one of the peaks where people can get to, and he made $600 a year, he would have the teaching experience that would qualify him in the first place. And his speech, unmixed with the "New Yorkisms," would make him super-qualified. They went by the quaint (but valid) notion, which has long been discarded, that children are quick to imitate speech, good or bad, and that it was important not only that the teacher be able to deal with substance, but also to use the English language orally in a way that was excellent. Today most of our TV commentators, the guys that dish out the news features, would fail the test. And the writers would fail the tests, in that they don't write grammatically.
So I was now ready to entertain some idea about other employment, which I hadn't given any thought to. The reason I had gotten to college, and I wasn't hurting financially, was that my brother owned a small business making clinical thermometers--which is a skilled job. They were manufactured by hand and it involved blowing glass and things like that, which I had learned to do. I had learned that while I was growing up. My brother's business never did very well, except during World War II he had done a little bit well. He was 10 years older than I was, he was born in 1902 and during World War I he was working. When I was a child, I remember that one could get working papers at age 14. He worked in the clinical thermometer business and he eventually acquired the business. The owner decided, "You can have the business, I can't pay you." And he had to wait to World War II before he made some money on it. In between he made a kind of a living. I learned how to make thermometers and my arrangement was he'd pay me when he could, and when he couldn't my work would go into stock.
Futterman's First Job in the Federal Government
I was in contact with some of the people in those years who had gone down to Washington. One fellow in particular by the name of Max Bergchad, who became an important staff member at the Railroad Retirement Board, about 1935. Max was writing me and telling me how thrilling it was to work with Murray Latimer. Max was an outstanding student, he was a mathematician, as I was, but he was a better one. He made mathematics his career.
So here was Max, for whom I couldn't get a job--I had some contacts in department stores, etc., and I tried to get him a job but couldn't. Max was Phi Beta Kappa, and he was magna cum laude, and a personable young fellow. And, I couldn't get him a receiving clerk's job, during the depths of the Depression. Max takes an examination, and we're thinking in terms of a statistical clerk, things like that, and he gets a job. And he's writing me these interesting things. He was obviously not working at some clerical level, he was working as some kind of an assistant to Murray Latimer. And that seemed kind of interesting to me, so I said "I'll go down for a few weeks and take a look at it," contemplating that I wouldn't be there very long. So I went down there, and I reported as a statistical clerk to the accounting operations division--or whatever the name was at that time.
Q: How did you get hired?
I took the Civil Service examination at a Post Office, for the job of Statistical Clerk, and I passed it and then I waited. I had a call from the FBI. I mean I had a communication from the FBI to be a Finger-Print Examiner. A lot of people from Social Security, that later on I got to know, had worked at the FBI. But I wasn't interested, I can't recall the reasons. But I probably was not entranced by the idea of working for a police agency.
But Social Security appealed to me, and this gets to the intangibles of what was Social Security's role, and the organization, the kind of people that went there. The interesting point is I was an idealist of sorts, I still am. I felt very strongly, "Why not the best, why not strive to get the best?" And Social Security was identified in my mind in those days, as it was in all of my working years I'd have to say, as an agency that did good for people. They did good for society. They did good for the nation. In fact, they were indispensable. And there were a lot of people who became Social Security employees who had that same attitude. We came from all over the country.
I have to say here, maybe your research hasn't uncovered it, but in those days the Civil Service jobs were highly sought. They were apportioned by State, so that there was a quota for each State. Obviously, the poor souls who came from Virginia and Maryland, and Baltimore especially, being so close to Washington, which were far over their apportionment, found it difficult to get permanent civil service positions. The best they could do was to get temporary employment for six months and then hope their jobs would be renewed for another six months. They had learned that in Washington, if you hold on long enough, you might be blanketed-in. Not all of them were, often times, most times, it didn't happen that way. Generally, blanketing in did not take place because the normal need for employees in that particular organization was not continuous. But at Social Security it was, and eventually those poor souls that came in from the District, Maryland and Virginia, who had temporary status, finally became permanent civil service employees like everybody else, but that took a while.