Wagner College received word that lifelong Wagner booster and alumnus John "Bunny" Barbes passed away yesterday, April 1, 2013, his 96th birthday.
In memory of Bunny and his wife, Lila Thompson Barbes '40 (who died in 2009), Wagner Magazine here offers a repost of a story we ran in the summer 2009 issue: "Hard Times: Survival Stories and Strategies from Wagner Alumni." In the midst of the financial crisis of 2008/09, we interviewed alumni who had managed through economic hardships of past eras in U.S. history. (Share your memories of Bunny to post on the Wagner website by emailing them to Lee Manchester, director of media relations, at email@example.com.)
‘A Lot of People Helped’
John “Bunny” Barbes ’39 and Lila Thompson Barbes ’40 grew up on Staten Island and met at Wagner during the Great Depression. Wagner Magazine asked them how people survived during those very tough times.
Lila: “We were very fortunate. My father had a city job. He was a surveyor. So that was steady work, and my parents owned a couple of houses that they rented. I took piano lessons, and I had two lessons a week.”
Bunny: “My father worked as a dock superintendant, but he lost his job just after I started college, in 1937. He ended up as a watchman, but he was still working. We went to college in the Depression times, so we were not really in the toughest economic state.”
Lila: “The only thing I ever heard about it was one of the people who was renting a house from my mother and father lost his job and wasn’t paying rent. So, my mother said, ‘Fine.’ She used to shop and send him a package of flour and sugar, every month. Finally they moved, and they gratefully promised my mother, ‘We will pay you back everything.’ Never materialized. She said, ‘I couldn’t let them live there’ — I think the wife had just had a baby, too — ‘and not have something to eat.’ That’s the way she was.
“We used to have people come around and ask for a meal, and she’d fix a plate and put it out on the porch and let them eat. We also used to have a monkey and organ grinder come by, and the monkey would tip his hat and collect pennies. We had one man in particular, he used to sell candy, came around almost every week. His wife made the candy, and he would sell it. My mother would never say no.”
Bunny: “Those were crazy times. Do whatever you had to do. A lot of people helped. Unless they were in such bad states, they would help. Something. Even a bowl of soup.
“We had a family who lived back to back with my house, the man over there had worked as a dock builder, and they stopped building docks. So I can remember carrying a bucket of food over to the Hillises. They had eight children. It was like full house! But in the meantime, he would do anything he could to make money. He would come over and cut the grass, trim the hedges, and so on. My father was still making the big bucks, compared with those times. And every week there would be something sent up to Mrs. Hillis.”
“My advice for people facing hard times is: Just keep going. Don’t give up. We just did the best we could, that’s all.”