To My Granddaughter On Turning 16

With the permission of my oldest granddaughter, who recently turned 16, I’m sharing with all my readers my birthday message to her on that glorious occasion. I’m be writing a second one to my grandson Kolby in just a few days as he reaches 16.

My Dearest Jennifer,

Happy 16th birthday! Believe it or not, I was 16 once, a long time ago, back in the dark ages of the 1950s.  I turned 16 in 1951, and I’d like to share with you what it was like from my 70-year-old rearview mirror.

Harry Truman was president, having upset the overconfident Republican presidential candidate, Thomas Dewey, with a last-minute comeback victory. This shocked my died-in-the-wool Republican parents, who thought Truman was just a failed haberdasher. Truman owned and lost his clothing store in Kansas City, Mo., ’20s.

As I got older, and hopefully wiser, I came to appreciate the greatness of Truman after reading about his exemplary life and political courage in "Truman" by David McCullough. McCullough, one of the greatest modern-day historians, recently authored another wonderful book, "1776."

While life was awfully good in 1951, there was a black cloud on the horizon.  North Korea, with the support of the Soviet Union and Red China, had invaded our ally, South Korea.  The so-called Cold War heated up and became a hot war of the United States and the United Nations containing North Korea and China from taking over the whole Korean peninsula.

But at 16 and in the 11th grade at Fairfax High School in West Los Angeles, all I was concerned with was football, baseball, movies, girls and studies – in exactly that order of importance.

The Rams of St. Louis were in Los Angeles, the Lakers were in Minneapolis and the Jackie Robinson-led Dodgers were in Brooklyn.

Jackie was a hero of mine because he played football, track, basketball and baseball at UCLA and became the first African-America to play in Major League Baseball just four years earlier in 1947. It’s hard to believe that in 1947 Jackie broke the rigid color barrier in baseball, and in 1948 the great Indiana University tailback George Taliaferro of the Baltimore Colts and the Los Angeles Dons was the first black to ever be drafted by the NFL.

Truman had declared segregation in the military to be unconstitutional, but blacks in the south still faced daily the humiliation of segregated schools, churches, restrooms, drinking fountains, public accommodations – and even worse – could not vote or get a mortgage to purchase a home.

Technology was beginning to dramatically change our world in electronics, manufacturing and computing.  But we were a long way from what your generation now takes for granted.

We watched TV on black-and-white sets.  AT&T was the only telephone company, Sears and Roebuck was the biggest retailer, and GM, Ford and Chrysler owned more than 82 percent share of the auto market.

There were no cell phones, no fax machines, no e-mail and no Internet. There were but a very few mainframe computers (the very first was in the ENIAC – electronic numerical integrator and calculator) at the University of Pennsylvania and it ran on vacuum tubes.  Your laptop exceeds the power and memory capacity of that huge computer.

The U.S. Patent Office had been on record early in the century as saying that everything that can be invented has already been invented.

Jennifer, it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t add that in 1951 the top income tax rate was 90 percent, and tax on investment of capital was 50 percent, but as yet there was no inflation, because the dollar was "as good as gold."

Let me close, Jen, with some grandfatherly advice.  First and foremost, stay as sweet as you are and always be a leader, not a follower.  Study hard and play every sport you can.  While I’m still skiing at 70, please slow down so I can at least watch you "board."

As far as our nation is concerned, we’ve come a long way, and we still have a long way to go.  Be part of the solutions, not the problems and help mend our many flaws.

This July 4, America will be 230 years old, and with all its faults, it’s the ideals we must fight to uphold. In 1776 there was only one democracy in the world, and while today there are more than 120 democracies in transition, we must remember Abraham Lincoln’s vision that freedom is the ultimate destiny of all mankind.

Never give up on yourself, your family or your country. In Winston Churchill’s words to the students at Harrow School in 1940, "Never yield, except to conviction of honor and integrity."

Finally Jen, shoot for the stars. While you may not reach them, you won’t come up with a handful of mud, either.

And P.S., call your Grampa Kemp, now and then!