A Father, a Son, and a 10-Cent Mistake

Samuel Black and his wife, Edda Fields-Black, visited a StoryCorps booth in Pittsburgh, Pa.

hide captionSamuel Black and his wife, Edda Fields-Black, visited a StoryCorps booth in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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Notes on John L. Black Sr.

  • Passed plant-operator exam in 1960s
  • Supported a family of 11 children
  • Retired from the school district in 1993
  • Died in June of 2004

To say that Samuel Black's father worked would be like saying that Bill Gates made money.

In 1955, John L. Black Sr. started his job as a janitor for the Cincinnati school board. He regularly put in 16-hour days in the boiler room of Woodward High School, keeping the building's pipes from freezing.

"Working all those hours," Samuel tells his wife, Edda Fields-Black, "he didn't have time to discuss things. You had to get it right that time and that time only."

"He was a very stern disciplinarian," Samuel Black says. Often, all his father had to do was look at his sons, and the meaning was clear.

That was the case one day when Samuel was 10. He and a friend went out looking for returnable pop bottles to bring to the local store, seeking the deposit money that they hoped would cover a root beer and some potato chips.

Realizing he was 10 cents short, Samuel decided to take a shortcut and claim some of the store's bottles as his own. At almost the same instant, he looked out the store window, where his father was standing, watching him.

The walk from the store, Samuel says, "seemed like the Long March."

But it wasn't until years later — after his father died in 2004 — that Samuel Black realized how big a mistake he had made.

Produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo.

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