When Forest Park resident Jim Murray was a boy, all he would get for Christmas was socks, underwear and maybe a shirt.
His father died in 1948 at the age of 39 leaving his mother with the task of raising six small children “on her own.” Overnight the family plunged from middle class into poverty.
What made life bearable for the struggling family living in the West Englewood neighborhood also had a profound impact on the character and values of the former District 91 social worker: The family did not have to do it on their own.
The federal government had three programs in place that provided assistance. Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) and death benefits from Social Security provided some cash every month, and his mother would take the streetcar to the corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove to pick up surplus government commodities like flour, sugar and powdered milk.
Soon after the funeral, support also came voluntarily from the community. Neighbors and members of the Catholic parish held fundraisers, which allowed them to completely pay off what remained of the mortgage on the family’s bungalow.
With reduced income, Murray’s mother could no longer afford the one-dollar-per-student-per-month tuition at the parochial school, so when his mother explained the situation to the nuns, they told her all six children could attend the school for just a dollar.
In high school, Murray worked in a small grocery store and butcher shop. Every Friday his mother would send a list with him of things she needed.
“My mother might say a pound of ground beef,” he said, “and the butcher would put two or three pounds in the package for the price of a pound.”
Neighbors and parish members would also bring boxes of gently used clothes, which his mother would sort through, keep what would fit her children, and pass on what didn’t fit to another person in need.
Murray attributed the outpouring of support to his father being very active in parish and community organizations, building up a lot of what sociologists call “social capital.”
“The core idea in social capital theory,” Robert Putnam explained in his book, Bowling Alone, “is that social networks have value. … Social capital refers to connections among individuals, social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”
Murray’s father would come home from working as a pipefitter several days a week, change into a white shirt, and go to a meeting at the Moose Lodge where he was governor of the Holy Name Society at his church. He also served as an usher and was a member of the Knights of Columbus.
When a neighbor of theirs got polio back during the 1950s epidemic, the elder James Murray organized a fundraiser through the Moose Lodge to buy an iron lung for the girl. Likewise, he organized the annual Moose Lodge picnic for the kids in the neighborhood.
Long-term, committed relationships serve as the foundation on which social capital is built.
What Putnam worries about is that these days people are so individualistic, so consumed with doing their own thing, they don’t have much social capital to draw on when times get rough.
He chose the title Bowling Alone as a metaphor for how folks these days are much less willing to join any organization that requires commitment — whether it be a bowling team, church, or fraternal organization like the Moose — but those are the very groups where social capital is built.
Putnam distinguishes between two kinds of social capital — one is bonding social capital, which “constitutes a kind of sociological superglue.” Murray lived in a community where “everyone” was Irish, Catholic and working class. In that homogenous setting, bonding social capital served the Murray family well.
The other kind is bridging social capital, which “provides a sociological WD-40.” For some reason, angry people in Congress don’t have much of that sociological WD-40, nor does the nation.
What is true for both kinds of social capital is that it requires long-term committed relationships with people who are alike, in the case of bonding social capital, and different in the case of bridging social capital.
Jim Murray has built up both kinds.
“I think in a lot of ways I’m a conformist/traditionalist,” he said as an example of intentionally building bonding social capital. He and his wife Ann, for example, have lived in one community, Forest Park, for 48 years. And he has spent much of that time forming committed relationships as a school psychologist, as the one who organizes the Kingdom Retreat at St. Bernardine’s, and as a resident who shops at local businesses. When he walks into stores in town people will greet him with “Hi, Jim” instead of “May I help you?”
He built up bridging social capital in his work as a school psychologist and as a resident as both the schools and the town have changed demographically.
And then there is this from Laurie Kokenes:
“Police Chief Tom Aftanas asked that I send a note to all who attended the Chamber Holiday Lunch on Dec. 10 to thank everyone who donated to help support the family of Lauren O’Connor McDonald. The generosity from folks at our luncheon was incredible and raised a total of $1,080. Chief Aftanas very much appreciates your generosity and he said the family could not have been more grateful. Happy Holidays!”
As we approach the primaries, voters are asking whether the solution lies with government or the private sector. The answer is Yes.
Perhaps the personal message of Jim’s story for us in these times, from Christmas Eve to New Year’s resolutions, is, “Blessed be the ties that both bind and bridge.”