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Interests in high school


My parents' finances
Donald Knuth Scientist
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I guess I can say a little bit more about my… my parents' finances. Of course they… they were married during the Depression, and my dad's first job, when he came to Milwaukee… they… they decided after a year, that they should cut his salary by $5 a month.  And they told him that he would learn thrift, and he would… this would be, you know…  this would be good for him, to… and, of course, the church was always having trouble with fundraising, but… but our family didn't have an automobile till 1951, which is when I was in seventh grade. We took our first, you know, auto trip at that time, to my mother's family in Ohio. Before that we had gone once or twice a year by train, and rarely would… would relatives from Illinois or Ohio be able to come to visit us. We… my dad would always ride his bicycle to work, and my mother – well, Milwaukee had good public transportation, and in fact it was a very safe city; completely different from now, when… because of drugs and things now.  But when I was growing up, I could… I would always ride the streetcar downtown at all hours of the day and night. And now you take your life in your hands doing this. You know, no… no parent would let their child do any of the things that we… that we were doing.
I was… once I took the… the streetcar; I don't know how old I was, but I think it was, you know, maybe fourth or fifth grade, and I took the streetcar downtown, and went to the public library, and… and started reading books, and I didn't know that the library hours, that the library was closing, and… and the lights went off.  So I went over to a window, where I could sit, and I kept reading, and finally the people, you know… and my parents didn't… were wondering what happened to me, why didn't I come home? But somebody at the library found me, you know, just in the stacks, reading the… reading the books, and… and but you know, still they wouldn't worry too much about… about letting kids go… go around the city.

And so my mother would take the streetcar downtown to her work, and we never thought of having an automobile until… until they could finally afford something from the little jobs that my dad would take outside of his… outside of his teaching experience. He would… he and his friends got together and they invested in stock market, what they called penny stocks. You could buy stocks in various mining companies. He… he met a man at the… I think it was at a… what do you call it? A bathhouse? Or, you know, a public bath, where you can go for a hot bath, and met a man there who introduced him to some… some people from Colorado who were into mining and so then, you know, they decided they were going to make, you know, make some money this way. Well, I inherited all these stock certificates now, which make great wallpaper, but, you know, they're completely useless. One of the stocks, however, did well. It was called Silver Bell Mine, and we've… eventually we went out to Colorado, visited the… visited the place, and saw the, you know, we… the stock was sold to Union Oil eventually, and made a little bit of money on that.

So, and my parents bought stock in Walt Disney, and that kept… that kept doubling and multiplying. So by working hard and saving money throughout my mom's life – she died at almost age 90, and she never retired – she stayed working in real estate.  Even in her… in her late 80s they had an office for her downtown, and she could… and she could come in, maybe 3 days a week, and… but putting money in the bank, and being a generous person contributing to charity and so on, but she had accumulated an estate of more than $1 million by the… by the time that she died. And this surprised everybody including her. But… but they were… my dad was the bookkeeper for the high school, and so he took some classes in accounting, and… and so he spent a lot of his time actually filling out what we would call spreadsheets now. And… and he'd stay keeping track of… of little transactions with stocks. The… so… I think it's interesting to see that the way they could, just by being responsible citizens, make… make a good life for themselves… the way the times were in our country at that… at that period. And this idea of personal responsibility was something I always took for granted, because I got it from my parents. So I never… it never occurred to me that there was any other way to live.

Born in 1938, American computing pioneer Donald Knuth is known for his greatly influential multi-volume work, 'The Art of Computer Programming', his novel 'Surreal Numbers', his invention of TeX and METAFONT electronic publishing tools and his quirky sense of humor.

Listeners: Dikran Karagueuzian

Trained as a journalist, Dikran Karagueuzian is the director of CSLI Publications, publisher of seven books by Donald Knuth. He has known Knuth since the late seventies when Knuth was developing TeX and Metafont, the typesetting and type designing computer programs, respectively.

Tags: Depression, Milwaukee, Ohio, Illinois, Colorado, Silver Bell Mine, Union Oil, Walt Disney

Duration: 6 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008