Near Midlife: C. Rodgers Burgin’s Biographical Submission for His 25th Reunion at Harvard

While I could have included more of the writing by and about Grampa composed at the end of his life, I remain particularly fascinated by this piece, written for his twenty-fifth at Harvard. The collected thoughts of a man in the act of creating his life.  The comments of a player, taking a brief time-out, before jumping back into a very undecided game.

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The obvious distress of the Secretary’s third request for my biography has finally got me pinned down.  The first two had the easy and rather gentle sound of the notices I send out for interest, not too long overdue,— but this third one!— “Angels and ministers of grace, defend us,”— what can any self-respecting man do but push aside the litter on the study desk, order the bewildered offspring off to early bed, and prepare to grasp the proverbial bull firmly by the horns.

Just what it was that turned my aspiring steps toward the investment banking business on that early July day in 1921, I am not exactly sure. As I look back, I suspect it was a combination of a financial family background, the stimulation provided by Professors Taussig, Ripley, and Dewing, plus a certain lack of resistance to the contagious inspiration of “Get Rich Quick Wallingford.”  But in any event, I suddenly found myself, at nine dollars a week, (there was no C.I.O. in those days) brushing shoulders with financial tycoons, and grappling with such soul stirring tasks as opening the office, filling the inkwells, and examining the boss’ checks and letters each night before I put them in the envelopes to mail.

The pleasant hours spent in those early days on the messengers’ bench produced some lasting and delightful friendships.  One of my associates is now a senior partner of a well known firm in Wall Street and a real mogul in his own right.  Another who I haven’t seen for almost twenty-four years, and now a Colonel in the Army, called me up just today en route to Washington from three years in the European theatre of operations.

As the months rolled into years, there came advancement and a growing familiarity with the jargon of the trade;— yields, good delivery, balance sheets, earnings coverage, syndicates, ton miles, liens, and what have you,— and gradually a clearer understanding of where each piece fitted into the whole puzzle.  Those were the exciting days of the “roaring twenties,” when the elevator boy talked glibly of Electric Bond and Share; when the everlasting question was, “How many shares can you let me have?”— when everything was headed for 500,— and the “new era” had come.  In the light of hindsight the whole thing,— the false magic of the boom, the terrific impact of the crash, and the dreadful depths of the depression,— was a ridiculous performance, but for those of our generation who went through it at close hand it held more economic lessons than are usually experienced in an ordinary lifetime.

On the whole, I liked the securities business.  The experience of selling,— whether it is bonds or brushes, is, I believe, a good one for everybody to have a taste of.  Most of the time I worked hard, and read all the financial books and papers that I could get my hands on in my spare hours.  When the going would get tough, and sales just wouldn’t come, another fellow in the office and I used to revive our lagging spirits by roaming around the streets of the financial district playing the fascinating game of “beaver.”  In the excitement of the chase we both had several narrow escapes from arrest at the hands of some of the good but indignant gray beards of State Street.  The species has today become almost extinct, but possibly with the present prices of warm clothes and the further help of our planners in Washington, the game may be revived again in the years to come.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned in those years from 1921 to 1932 was that I really liked the financial field, and that I wanted to stay in it.  But with the investment banking business paralyzed, and the new responsibility of a bride to consider, I came to the conclusion that a bank offered the best opportunity.  Thus it was that, except for my marriage, I made the best move of my life and went to the Quincy Savings Bank to take on the job of handling the bank’s securities portfolio.

The fact that my father was the President of the bank was largely my reason for going there, but I knew, before I ever stepped foot inside the door, that the relationship would be no guarantee of preferential treatment. As time went by I was inevitably drawn closer and closer to him in the handling of the different phases of the work, and the experience was one of tremendous value to me.  He was a born banker, and in his shrewdness in appraising risks plus his willingness to take all reasonable ones, his natural cheerfulness and desire to help all who came to him for help, and his knowledge of human nature, he had few equals.  The daily work of the suburban and country banker differs from that of his city colleague, among other ways, in that it is less specialized, and deals more with individuals acting in a personal capacity than as representatives of companies and large organizations. It brings one in contact with all kinds of problems and all kinds of people, and it is that feature which to me makes it an occupation which is seldom dull, (particularly in these days of sleight-of-hand federal finance).

One evening, almost three years ago, my father was suddenly taken from us by death, and within a few days I found myself holding the reins of a twenty-five million dollar bank.  For the first time I began to recognize the truth of a remark that Dick Chute had made to me several summers below when we were cruising together— “The first assistant never sweats.”  But somehow one gradually gains confidence and goes about the work of building and improving and carrying on.  Increased responsibility seems, in my case anyway, to have brought wider contacts, and with these have come wider interests and more work.  But I can truthfully say that I enjoy it and that it is fun in the more serious sense of the word.  Leisure moments to read for pleasure have been a little on the scarce side of late, but perhaps that situation will improve itself in time.  A good part of what few I do have go to my children and where better could they go?

And so here, in a few words, is the story of my twenty-five years.  The span doesn’t seem half that long, but gray hairs and sparse thatch lend evidence to the truth of the calendar.  It is typical, I suppose, of lots of others, and portrays the true course of education, —from the early self-confidence of full knowledge to the mellow humility of acknowledged ignorance.

–CRB

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