Recently, I found a nearly 60-year-old clipping from The Berkshire Eagle of my first experience as a columnist in the newspaper.
My 1961-62 columns were about the activities of the local Junior Achievement organization that I joined in 11th grade. This national organization was actually founded in nearby Springfield in 1919 by three Western Massachusetts industrialists: Horace Moses (president of the Strathmore Paper Co.), Thomas Newton Vail (president of AT&T), and Winthrop Crane (a principal in Crane & Co. in Dalton, as well as governor and U.S. senator).
In forming Junior Achievement, their goal was to inspire and prepare young people to succeed in a global economy by teaching the basics of business, financial management and the principles of free enterprise with a "Learn by Doing" philosophy.
As baby boomers in the central Berkshires became high schoolers in the 1960s, we were given an assembly talk and shown a movie about the Junior Achievement organization. Students from several high schools and different programs, e.g., commercial, vocational and college prep, were recruited to join this after-school program. It met weekly, on Monday or Tuesday evenings, on the second floor of 101 West St. in Pittsfield.
Although I wasn't particularly interested in business at the time, I did look forward to extracurricular evening activities and making new friends. Junior Achievement offered this opportunity, so I signed up. Under the local leadership of Ralph Levine, a General Electric Co. manager, the organization worked with several high schools to prep and screen students. Once approved to participate, we were assigned to one of four groups of about 15 teens each.
Advisers from the business world oriented us to the program and guided us through all the steps in forming a business and working as a team. As time passed and we became more experienced, we were pretty much on our own. During our first two sessions, we spent time getting to know the other group members and we selected company officers, a product and a company name.
Our advisers, four creative General Electric managers, helped with the product and design, e.g., a unique book holder. Composed of two pieces of wood, two coat hanger-thick wires and a clothespin, our product was designed to hold a book and an index card. We called the product Book Boy, and it was ideal for home chefs for holding cookbooks or recipe cards. Students and businesspeople using it could also benefit from being able to do hands-free work.
Before we could make them, our first order of business was for all of us to sell stock to family and friends to raise the capital for tools and material for our company that we named Practical Products. Stock was 50 cents a share, with a maximum purchase of five shares to prevent "corporate takeover," a new concept to young entrepreneurs.
Each week, our company president began the two-hour session with a group meeting, during which each officer — secretary, treasurer, sales VP and production VP — gave a report and all members shared their weekly sales experiences. The bulk of the evening was dedicated to production of Book Boy.
During the week, every member of the company sold the book holder for $1.50 each, most often door to door. The other three companies followed the same protocols and peddled their products that included manufactured home safety tags, "snow-getter-outers" for car tires, and a combo-folding coat hanger and clothes brush. At the end of the school year, before the companies closed down, stockholders got paid back and "profits" were donated to local charities.
In addition to the local business activities, JA held a banquet every May called "Futures Unlimited" and presented a scholarship, trophies and recognition awards to participants. The organization also selected a couple of members to attend annual regional and national conventions and an individual to compete in a regional sales contest.
I was fortunate to win several trips to these events during my two years of participation in JA. Through the organization, I made many friends, some lifelong. With the organization's philosophy of "Learn by Doing, " we all acquired business knowledge and skills that have been helpful throughout life.
But, the most important benefit of JA, to me, was that I met my future wife, Jackie, at the National Convention in 1962. In a few months, we will be celebrating our 50th anniversary and just may return to celebrate in Bloomington, Ind. where we first met.
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Junior Achievement or an event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org.