Ben Shahn caption: Newsboy, Newark, Ohio, 1938 Summer.
In the summer of 1938, Ben Shahn, then a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, made a long trip through the Midwest. He stopped in the small town of Newark, Ohio, and snapped a few pictures of ordinary street scenes: a man standing in front of a drugstore, another man reading the paper in front of the Salvation Army headquarters, and a newsboy squinting at Shahn’s camera. None were identified.
The newsboy attracted my attention immediately. The photograph is reminiscent of the many newsboy photos by Lewis Hine taken a generation earlier, although they tended to have a much gloomier look about them. What are we to think of this boy, with the mop of hair and the missing front tooth? Why did Shahn pick him out? Perhaps, like the other Newark photos, he was just recording 1930s America for posterity, a mission his boss, Roy Stryker, had a passion for.
I resorted to what has become a reliable method of identifying photos. I got the Newark Advocate to publish the photo and an article. It appeared in the paper on March 23, 2008. That evening, I received a call from a woman who identified herself as Pam DeVaul. She said: “I opened my paper today and was surprised to see a picture of my Uncle Beans.”
Uncle Beans was Richard Wolverton. He was born in Ohio on March 18, 1925, the son of Paul Wolverton and Bessie Cochran Wolverton. He was one of nine children. Paul and Bessie were married about 1911. In the 1930 census, Paul is listed as working as a machinist for the railroad.
In her own words, Pam described her uncle as “a little slow,” but that she had very fond memories of him. On the following pages, see my interview with her, and a lovely photo of Richard as an adult.
Edited interview with Pam DeVaul (PD), niece of Richard Wolverton, conducted by Joe Manning (JM), on April 14, 2008.
JM: How well did you know him?
PD: I knew him when I was growing up, then kind of lost track of him when he moved to Columbus. I think I was about 18 or 19 then.
JM: You told me that he was a little slow. What did you mean by that?
PD: He had a funny way of talking. And whenever he would come out on the bus to visit, I think he wore just about every piece of clothing he owned, summer or winter. He was a little different. I sent the photo to his sister, my Aunt Esther, and we were talking about him. She told me that Richard hadn’t always been slow. I just assumed that he was born that way. But she said that didn’t happen till he was about nine years old. They just suddenly started to notice it.
JM: How far did he get in school?
PD: I don’t know. He couldn’t read and write very well. He lost his mother when he was young. She died of TB in about 1929.
JM: When did his father die?
PD: In the 1960s. He was always working on the railroad or busy chasing women. In his later years, he was in a rest home. I don’t think any of the kids had much of a relationship with him. After their mother died, they had to kind of fend for themselves.
JM: Were you surprised to see him selling newspapers?
PD: I guess he had to do whatever he could to get by.
JM: What kinds of jobs did he have when he was in Newark?
PD: He was a dishwasher and a cook and a janitor, jobs like that. He had an older brother, Andy, who drove a taxi, and he helped him sometimes, like helping passengers load and unload suitcases, and stuff like that.
JM: Did he live alone and take care of himself?
PD: Sure. He would rent a room at somebody’s house. At one time, he lived with two of his older brothers.
JM: Why did he move to Columbus?
PD: I think the job opportunities were better, and his oldest sister, Esther, lived there. He wanted to be closer to her. By that time, some of his brothers who had looked after him in Newark had passed away.
JM: How big was he when he grew up.
PD: He was about 5′ 9”, and pretty chunky, close to 200 pounds.
JM: Did he still have that mop of hair that he had in the photo?
PD: Yes. That’s how I recognized him right away, his hair and his teeth.
JM: Did he own very much, besides his clothes and necessities?
PD: No. He had just his clothes and a few odds and ends that meant something to him.
JM: Did he have any favorite form of recreation?
PD: I can remember him reading comic books, and I think he liked baseball.
JM: Did he talk a lot, or was he quiet?
PD: He was quite a storyteller. He had lots of stories about all kinds of things.
JM: How old was he when he moved to Columbus?
PD: Maybe about 40. I don’t remember that I ever saw him again after he moved.
JM: Why did you call him Uncle Beans?
PD: He just loved beans. You couldn’t feed him enough beans. If he’d come over to the house, and you asked him what he wanted to eat, he always wanted soup beans, like navy beans and lima beans and northern beans and butter beans. He’d sop it up with his bread. Other people called him Beans, too. My mom called him that. We also called him Dickie.
JM: How did you find out that he died?
PD: Aunt Esther called my mom and told her. We sent some money to help with the cremation. I remember that he seemed to like everybody. He was always nice to people and liked to talk to them. I think that he wanted friends, but he was different, so it was hard to make friends. A lot of people don’t talk to folks like him. There were even people in the family who kind of ignored him. But I was never embarrassed about him. When I was growing up, I would introduce him to my friends. He was a good, hard-working man, and deserved to be remembered.
Richard Wolverton died in Columbus, Ohio, on December 28, 1985. He was 60 years old.
*Story published in 2008.