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- The Americanization of Edward Bok - 4/64 -


that no other paper carried, and the "among those present" at the parties all bought the paper and were immensely gratified to see their names.

So everybody was happy, and Edward Bok, as a full-fledged reporter, had begun his journalistic career.

It is curious how deeply embedded in his nature, even in his earliest years, was the inclination toward the publishing business. The word "curious" is used here because Edward is the first journalist in the Bok family in all the centuries through which it extends in Dutch history. On his father's side, there was a succession of jurists. On the mother's side, not a journalist is visible.

Edward attended the Sunday-school of the Carroll Park Methodist Episcopal Church, in Brooklyn, of which a Mr. Elkins was superintendent. One day he learned that Mr. Elkins was associated with the publishing house of Harper and Brothers. Edward had heard his father speak of Harper's Weekly and of the great part it had played in the Civil War; his father also brought home an occasional copy of Harper's Weekly and of Harper's Magazine. He had seen Harper's Young People; the name of Harper and Brothers was on some of his school-books; and he pictured in his mind how wonderful it must be for a man to be associated with publishers of periodicals that other people read, and books that other folks studied. The Sunday-school superintendent henceforth became a figure of importance in Edward's eyes; many a morning the boy hastened from home long before the hour for school, and seated himself on the steps of the Elkins house under the pretext of waiting for Mr. Elkins's son to go to school, but really for the secret purpose of seeing Mr. Elkins set forth to engage in the momentous business of making books and periodicals. Edward would look after the superintendent's form until it was lost to view; then, with a sigh, he would go to school, forgetting all about the Elkins boy whom he had told the father he had come to call for!

One day Edward was introduced to a girl whose father, he learned, was editor of the New York Weekly. Edward could not quite place this periodical; he had never seen it, he had never heard of it. So he bought a copy, and while its contents seemed strange, and its air unfamiliar in comparison with the magazines he found in his home, still an editor was an editor. He was certainly well worth knowing. So he sought his newly made young lady friend, asked permission to call upon her, and to Edward's joy was introduced to her father. It was enough for Edward to look furtively at the editor upon his first call, and being encouraged to come again, he promptly did so the next evening. The daughter has long since passed away, and so it cannot hurt her feelings now to acknowledge that for years Edward paid court to her only that he might know her father, and have those talks with him about editorial methods that filled him with ever-increasing ambition to tread the path that leads to editorial tribulations.

But what with helping his mother, tending the baker's shop in after-school hours, serving his paper route, plying his street-car trade, and acting as social reporter, it soon became evident to Edward that he had not much time to prepare his school lessons. By a supreme effort, he managed to hold his own in his class, but no more. Instinctively, he felt that he was not getting all that he might from his educational opportunities, yet the need for him to add to the family income was, if anything, becoming greater. The idea of leaving school was broached to his mother, but she rebelled. She told the boy that he was earning something now and helping much. Perhaps the tide with the father would turn and he would find the place to which his unquestioned talents entitled him. Finally the father did. He associated himself with the Western Union Telegraph Company as translator, a position for which his easy command of languages admirably fitted him. Thus, for a time, the strain upon the family exchequer was lessened.

But the American spirit of initiative had entered deep into the soul of Edward Bok. The brother had left school a year before, and found a place as messenger in a lawyer's office; and when one evening Edward heard his father say that the office boy in his department had left, he asked that he be allowed to leave school, apply for the open position, and get the rest of his education in the great world itself. It was not easy for the parents to see the younger son leave school at so early an age, but the earnestness of the boy prevailed.

And so, at the age of thirteen, Edward Bok left school, and on Monday, August 7, 1876, he became office boy in the electricians' department of the Western Union Telegraph Company at six dollars and twenty-five cents per week.

And, as such things will fall out in this curiously strange world, it happened that as Edward drew up his chair for the first time to his desk to begin his work on that Monday morning, there had been born in Boston, exactly twelve hours before, a girl-baby who was destined to become his wife. Thus at the earliest possible moment after her birth, Edward Bok started to work for her!

III. The Hunger for Self-Education

With school-days ended, the question of self-education became an absorbing thought with Edward Bok. He had mastered a schoolboy's English, but seven years of public-school education was hardly a basis on which to build the work of a lifetime. He saw each day in his duties as office boy some of the foremost men of the time. It was the period of William H. Vanderbilt's ascendancy in Western Union control; and the railroad millionnaire and his companions, Hamilton McK. Twombly, James H. Banker, Samuel F. Barger, Alonzo B. Cornell, Augustus Schell, William Orton, were objects of great interest to the young office boy. Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Edison were also constant visitors to the department. He knew that some of these men, too, had been deprived of the advantage of collegiate training, and yet they had risen to the top. But how? The boy decided to read about these men and others, and find out. He could not, however, afford the separate biographies, so he went to the libraries to find a compendium that would authoritatively tell him of all successful men. He found it in Appleton's Encyclopedia, and, determining to have only the best, he saved his luncheon money, walked instead of riding the five miles to his Brooklyn home, and, after a period of saving, had his reward in the first purchase from his own earnings: a set of the Encyclopedia. He now read about all the successful men, and was encouraged to find that in many cases their beginnings had been as modest as his own, and their opportunities of education as limited.

One day it occurred to him to test the accuracy of the biographies he was reading. James A. Garfield was then spoken of for the presidency; Edward wondered whether it was true that the man who was likely to be President of the United States had once been a boy on the tow-path, and with a simple directness characteristic of his Dutch training, wrote to General Garfield, asking whether the boyhood episode was true, and explaining why he asked. Of course any public man, no matter how large his correspondence, is pleased to receive an earnest letter from an information-seeking boy. General Garfield answered warmly and fully. Edward showed the letter to his father, who told the boy that it was valuable and he should keep it. This was a new idea. He followed it further: if one such letter was valuable, how much more valuable would be a hundred! If General Garfield answered him, would not other famous men? Why not begin a collection of autograph letters? Everybody collected something.

Edward had collected postage-stamps, and the hobby had, incidentally, helped him wonderfully in his study of geography. Why should not autograph letters from famous persons be of equal service in his struggle for self-education? Not simple autographs--they were meaningless; but actual letters which might tell him something useful. It never occurred to the boy that these men might not answer him.

So he took his Encyclopedia--its trustworthiness now established in his mind by General Garfield's letter--and began to study the lives of successful men and women. Then, with boyish frankness, he wrote on some mooted question in one famous person's life; he asked about the date of some important event in another's, not given in the Encyclopedia; or he asked one man why he did this or why some other man did that.

Most interesting were, of course, the replies. Thus General Grant sketched on an improvised map the exact spot where General Lee surrendered to him; Longfellow told him how he came to write "Excelsior"; Whittier told the story of "The Barefoot Boy"; Tennyson wrote out a stanza or two of "The Brook," upon condition that Edward would not again use the word "awful," which the poet said "is slang for 'very,'" and "I hate slang."

One day the boy received a letter from the Confederate general Jubal A. Early, giving the real reason why he burned Chambersburg. A friend visiting Edward's father, happening to see the letter, recognized in it a hitherto-missing bit of history, and suggested that it be published in the New York Tribune. The letter attracted wide attention and provoked national discussion.

This suggested to the editor of The Tribune that Edward might have other equally interesting letters; so he despatched a reporter to the boy's home. This reporter was Ripley Hitchcock, who afterward became literary adviser for the Appletons and Harpers. Of course Hitchcock at once saw a "story" in the boy's letters, and within a few days The Tribune appeared with a long article on its principal news page giving an account of the Brooklyn boy's remarkable letters and how he had secured them. The Brooklyn Eagle quickly followed with a request for an interview; the Boston Globe followed suit; the Philadelphia Public Ledger sent its New York correspondent; and before Edward was aware of it, newspapers in different parts of the country were writing about "the well-known Brooklyn autograph collector."

Edward Bok was quick to see the value of the publicity which had so suddenly come to him. He received letters from other autograph collectors all over the country who sought to "exchange" with him. References began to creep into letters from famous persons to whom he had written, saying they had read about his wonderful collection and were proud to be included in it. George W. Childs, of Philadelphia, himself the possessor of probably one of the finest collections of autograph letters in the country, asked Edward to come to Philadelphia and bring his collection with him--which he did, on the following Sunday, and brought it back greatly enriched.

Several of the writers felt an interest in a boy who frankly told them that he wanted to educate himself, and asked Edward to come and see them. Accordingly, when they lived in New York or Brooklyn, or came to these cities on a visit, he was quick to avail himself of their invitations. He began to note each day in the newspapers the "distinguished arrivals" at the New York hotels; and when any one with whom he had corresponded arrived, Edward would, after business hours, go up-town, pay his respects, and thank him in person for his letters. No person was too high for Edward's boyish approach; President Garfield, General Grant, General Sherman, President Hayes--all were called upon, and all received the boy graciously and were interested in the problem of his self-education. It was a veritable case of making friends on every hand; friends who were to be of the greatest help and value to the boy in his after-years, although he had no conception of it at the time.


The Americanization of Edward Bok - 4/64

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