Saturday, November 21, 2020

#86- Victor (Jack) Higgins: A Tribute to a Good and Generous Man

Jack Higgins Defies the Odds

Personal history does not lend itself to those in our past who were the do-gooders, the generous, and the simply good. I think because those people did not leave personal records as they were too busy doing things, they did not leave ‘tracks’ because they weren’t arrested, etc. And, they spent time with their loved ones, rather than "making a name" for themselves. Those uncatalogued and unknown deeds done by our predecessors will never get acknowledgement nor showcased. Our unsung heroes remain unsung because their deeds are in the past.

So this tribute goes to my paternal grandfather (with a bow to my grandmother). 

My grandfather “Jack” (Victor) Higgins, who died in 1969, would fall into the category of a generous man. 

I was reminded of this in September of 1991. When my father and his siblings threw a birthday party for my paternal grandmother, Catherine (Barnwell) Higgins. By then she had been a widow for a long time widow as my grandfather died at 63.

At that party several of her children lived in the same town, or in surrounding communities.  They got to reminiscing about their father. Aunt Grace who lived in town told a story that was very representative of my grandfather. She said: “I saw ? name? the other day. He talked about “Pop.” [my grandfather]. He still remembers him and said that Pop was the most generous man he ever met.” 

This is a remarkable statement about a man who had been dead for 25 years. Though papers don’t survive which testify to his goodness and generosity, yet in those who still live, he’s alive and remembered for both his generosity and goodness. 

A few years earlier (in 1988) at my high school reunion (a school 9-10 miles from there) when I heard a story about him.

A fellow classmate told me he had taken over “Rec” (recreation) in the “Yard” at the Woodbourne Prison. This was the same task my grandfather last held before he died. 

The classmate said that my grandfather was still spoken of and he was something of a legend: for both the inmates and guards liked him. 

In the 1960s, the Catholic chaplains would offer baptisms and confirmations for converts to the faith. My grandfather always made himself available as the sponsor as well as the guard on duty at the time.The photo here is my grandfather (bottom right) and my father (bottom left)

John Higgins (L) and "Jack" V Higgins at Prison Confirmation. 1960s

To contextualize my knowledge of him: I saw him every Sunday and all day long, and I can verify that he did not have money, looks or influence. Nor did he have a great job. 

Most of his life he did not have much extra time, he had a large family, so he worked two (and sometimes three jobs) to support for his family. 

Jack Higgins made a lie out of ‘reasons’ or excuses not to be generous with people.

Excuse To Not to be generous: “But I can barely support my own family” 

Between 1929 and 1937 my grandparents had 5 (surviving) children: John, Thomas, Joseph, the twins: Catherine and Richard, and Agnes. By 1937 they were living in Sullivan County. He was an employee of the New York State Department of Corrections (a prison guard). 

Defying the Odds, He supports his family and his widowed mother & his half-siblings:

At some point he moved his widowed and 100% Irish mother (Catherine Higgins Devaney) up from New York City, along with her two sons (his half-brothers Joseph and Tom Devaney). His mother had no means of support. Sons Joe and Tom went to high school, but his mother’s economic dependence was hard to carry. 

His mother had been an immigrant and Jack was born out of wedlock within a few years after her arrival. 
Then in 1919, when he was 13 ½ his mother married Patrick Devaney. He did not like his stepfather so moved in with friends, finding his own way in the world. 
Although his mother began her application for citizenship in the 1920s, she did not finalize it. Then her husband died in 1926 and she had no means of support.
His mother restarted her application for citizenship in 1928 only completing it in 1933. She was sworn in as a citizen in March 1934. 
My father told me, and records indicate, that she applied for State relief as soon as she was a citizen. 
After he had moved  upstate, my grandfather moved his widowed mother and her two young sons from NY City to Sullivan County (either in 1939 or 1940). 
I believe that my grandfather was helping to support his mother and her two boys.  (State relief was a very small amount).
When I was born, my great grandmother was about 73. As a small child, I remember my grandfather would stop in to see her in Liberty when I was with him—he’d do that when he was en route to check with his half-brother Tom (who owned a bar in White Sulphur Springs). 
I would guess he put himself in the role of being a father and coach (they were ball players) to his half-brothers. His mother died on December 9, 1960 at the age of 78 (if her birth date is accurate), when I was 5 years old. My grandfather kept up with the half-brothers.

Joe Devaney (L) and Jack Higgins (half brothers) abt 1945

Tom Devaney New Years Eve 1958 (half brother)

Defying the Excuse: He Takes in those without Family

I mentioned in a prior post that “Hank” was a friend of the family—a bachelor who never married, but joined in with the family for all the holidays and spent Sunday meals at the house (where he worked in exchange for lending a hand). Apparently, he was the off-and-on baby sitter as well, after all, my grandparents had plenty of kids. Hank became a member of the family. He was so close to them that his headstone is next to my grandparents. This is how generous the family was.

Hank Monahan (far r) & some of the Higgins family 1950s

Excuse To Not Be Generous: I Have To Have More First

I stumbled across data which told me that a few years before my parents wed, he was really struggling with money.

Defying Logic: When Family Finances Go from Poor to Worse

The family moved from NYC to Sullivan County between in the 1930's. They lived in a rental house in Neversink, NY. But soon that part of Neversink was set to become part of the NYC Reservoir, so they had to move. (The whole town moved to a nearby location & the old town was flooded abt 1940).

The family moved to a house on the property of Woodbourne State Prison. When my father was at college, the single phone call from home that he received was to tell him that his parents’ house had burned down. The house had gone up in flames (kerosene heater) and the family escaped with their lives, but few possessions remained. 

I went through the papers at the bottom of the old photo bin of my aunt’s. There I found some letters. I read that my grandfather applied for a mortgage to build a house on Budd Hill in 1947. 

In the mortgage process, he received a letter saying he had an outstanding lien for $700. This lien had to be settled—either paid back or somehow included in his new loan. His new loan was about $6000. 

I have no clue how he was able to get the loan. But the house was eventually finished. The new house was basic, and not of the best quality but it was big enough, had two toilets and it was theirs.

The data told me that a generous person is often (in today’s language) a "financially unfit" person. Had he waited, he would never have had enough  money.

Defying Logic: Despite Financial Disaster They Find a Blessing in the Ashes of Disaster

The fire was a trauma at all levels. My uncle and my grandfather had to return and rescue they infant twins and were both burned in the act. They lost goods, sentimental objects and photos.

But I venture to guess really cemented the bond between the Higgins family (who were transplanted “City” folk) and the locals. This was particularly valuable for my grandmother who for many years had to cook and clean for a large family, keeping her out of circulation.

In retrospect, once she was a widow, she could have moved then back to the city (or at any point later). But she remained in Woodbourne—apparently bonded to the place.

After the fire, the Woodbourne locals donated what they had (it was a low income town). They gave them household goods, and clothes, food, and shoes. 

Someone had an abandoned farm house. It had little insulation and no toilet inside, but it was a house. They stayed there for free. And, like people do the world over, they gave them moral support.

In my view the tragedy of losing their house had the benefit of bonding them to the Woodbourne community. 

An Excuse To Not Be Emotionally Generous: What Will People Think of Me?

Defying Convention. No one is truly without prejudice. Hopefully we come to see and to reject our prejudicial reactions as we mature. My grandfather was seemingly a man without any.  Of course, it was a different era, and I saw things through a narrow lens as a child, but I recall he was a kind man. My grandfather couldn’t be shoehorned into a mold, even though he enjoyed his pipe, his routine, and his religion.

At the time, I don’t think there were any blacks in our town, nor any ethnicity that was other than “white.” But in terms of religion, there was a lot of variety. That is often a divisive point. Every Sunday he would go to downtown. Woodbourne is small, the meeting of Route 42 and Route 52. Downtown was a small strip of shops on either side of the main road, including a soda fountain and a fire department, amongst others. 

Across the Neversink River were a few more shops: Katz's Bakery and Lebed’s drug store were practically facing one another. Katz’s made the best pumpernickel and rye bread; and on Sunday’s Lebed’s was my grandfather’s haunt. He would buy the Sunday paper, his tobacco, Grandma’s Lucky Strikes, and whatever else he needed on a pretext to chat.  He was friendly in Katz’s but lingered in Lebed’s. Both places were owned by Jewish families. My grandfather was Irish Catholic.

He would chat with Mr. Lebed, and to anyone else who wandered into the store. 

He gave money to help others, disregarding their religions or beliefs. He never missed a chance to donate to a good cause. If there was a hand-out, or a box out, he would drop money into it.

And, he quickly accepted my Quaker mother to the family as if there was no difference between her and his relatives of Catholic faith.

Conclusion: Filling the Bellies and Filling Hearts

He was supporting his own mother and, for a while, his half-brothers. The Higginses added 5 more children after 1940.  

In case you lost track, my grandparents wed in 1927; my grandmother had just had her 16th birthday and my grandfather was almost 21. They had 13 children in 19 years.

By the 1950s and early 60s when everyone was home for Sunday dinner, we had to all eat in shifts in order to keep people fed, and the food hot. The Higgins children learned how to be efficient.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, everyone was invited to the Higgins table, my grandfather sat at the head of a bunch of tables borrowed from the fire house. Squeezed in amongst the family members was family friend Hank, fianc├ęs, spouses, boyfriends, kids, and grandkids. We had only the basics: turkey, potatoes, stuffing gravy, cranberry sauce, carrot sticks, and celery, and pie. And spiked egg nog. 

Thanksgiving at the Higgins house 1958

The Backbone –

My grandmother and grandfather were quite different, as couples often are.  While I am sure my grandmother held her ground when she differed with my grandfather, but had he not had her complete backing, he would not have been as happy, as kind or as generous. 

In her own way, my grandmother did her own work in making him a Good and Generous man.

Jack and Kitty Higgins 1950s kitchen

The Nature of Generosity 

The uniqueness of human language as opposed to animal language is that it is both infinite, and ‘generative’ or creative. Humans are given the privilege of being generous in multiple ways, and there are creative ways to be generous.

Generosity is transformative. A truly generous person is going to become a more godly person, for they’ll see they are not the beginning and the end, but a human conduit for God’s love. 

Before our thanksgiving or Christmas meals, my grandfather would say the blessing, it never varied. He made the sign of the Cross to indicate the commencement of the prayer. Then recite the Lords Prayer, which while short, can be a wonderful summary of our existence and our persistence on earth.

“Our Father, Who art in heaven

hallowed be Thy name

Thy kingdom come [which sums up his view of God and the world]

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 

Give us this day our daily bread; 

and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us;

and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”

I can never separate the man “Jack” Higgins, who did good deeds, from his Creator God, who gave him the life to do good deeds. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

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