Dick’s story covers a few years, so it may help to put them into perspective.
Dick was born in Minneapolis in the late 1920s, where his father had a sporting goods store (actually named Dick’s, if he recalls correctly), but lost it during the Depression. He and his parents then moved to Los Angeles, where they lived through the 1930s, while his father managed a beer garden owned by his brother-in-law (Philip), before starting his own place called “Arnold’s Malt Shop”. In 1941, by now with brother Barry, they then moved back to his mother’s hometown of Hayward, Wisconsin, where they took over Rivkin’s – his mother’s family general store.
High School graduation in Hayward led to stints in the Navy, Superior State, and then to the Air Force, before attending the Brown radio school, and taking a job at a radio station in Rice Lake, WI. Along the way he met Jill, marrying her in 1955 (they celebrate 60 years this year!), before moving back to Hayward, where they raised their own family of four, as brothers Dick and Barry operated the Rivkin’s store, eventually selling it in 1988.
But wait, there’s more!
Dick and Jill moved onto Las Vegas in 1988, and then finally, back again, full circle to the Twin Cities in 2005, to be near their family. It was then that they arrived at Mount Zion, where they now seem inseparable, and are often known simply as ‘the Swilers’. For the first several years back here, we were blessed to have Dick and Jill take part in our Rashi Torah study group downtown each Thursday at noon, though they now keep up through our weekly online summaries, as they live the good life from a condo overlooking the foot of the 35E bridge in Lilydale, with three of their four children nearby.
OK, now we’re ready.
Much of your life has revolved around Hayward. How did the family originally arrive there?
My maternal grandfather was Harry Rivkin, he had moved to Hayward to start a store. He decided that Hayward was going to be a booming town, full of lumber, so he started a store there. Of course, that didn’t develop. But it was called Rivkin’s and it was a general store when he had it. Groceries and clothing, and upstairs was furniture, and they had to carry coffins in and out. Because when you were in the furniture business in those days, they sold coffins as well.
By 1941, an uncle Rivkin was running the store and decided to retire, and my father leaped at it. My father loved small town living, he loved hunting and fishing. So we moved back from LA and from 1941, until we sold the store in ’88, that’s what we did.
It was in downtown Hayward, but it burned down, I think after the war, while I was in the service. And they built a brick building in its place. More sensible. A one story, brick building, that is still there. In fact I had a picture of it on my computer recently that one of my kids sent me.
And you then left Hayward after high school?
After high school I enlisted in the Navy. My father insisted, if I had to enlist, the only thing he’d accept was the Navy, because I would get three squares a day and a clean place to sleep. So I joined the Navy, but the war was ending. I took the train from Superior to Great Lakes (Naval Station), along with two other guys from Superior – Walt Westerback and Harry “Bud” Grant. (Yes, that Bud Grant). Then they shipped me out. Believe it or not, I went to Yokosuka Japan, which was the major naval base for the Japanese in Tokyo Bay. I was there maybe 14, 15 months.
My role? I was a baker in the Navy. Why I became a baker, I don’t know. Except the first Jewish fellows that I met in the Navy, in fact the first Jewish fellows of my age that I was ever friends with – one of them was a storekeeper and the other was a baker. Hank Jaffe and Howard Goldstein. So I said “what the hell, I’ll become a baker”.
And what then took you to Superior State?
When I came back out, I went to Superior State because we got free tuition. But with all the guys coming out of the service, of course Madison was packed, so if I wanted to go there I would have to go at night. So I went to Superior, figuring I would only go for a year and then transfer, but I had such a good time I stayed all four years. I majored in music, the band, glee club, all that. I played clarinet and accordion, but I don’t play anymore.
(Note: at this point Jill offered from nearby “I’ve never heard him play.”)
And while I was there, I joined the Air ROTC at Superior because they wanted to organize a drum and bugle corps. I was a music major, so I had to join the ROTC to do it, but I got 50 bucks a month while I was there! When I graduated, the Korean War was on, and they took me in. And where did they place me? In Las Vegas! I spent the whole time, two years, at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas. I was in “special services”. In fact my superior officer, Captain Rawlings, was a Mormon, and after I left there he went on to become the head of the Nevada Air National Guard. He just died recently. But he was stationed there at the same time, and at night, he would be Master of Ceremonies, and sing at the Thunderbird Hotel.
According to one history site, the Thunderbird was known for its slogan “Tell them you saw it first at the Thunderbird”. One night Rex Allen and the Sons of the Pioneers (presumably not a synagogue) were performing there, with Rawlings as MC. Allen’s horse Coco was on the stage when, on this particular night, Coco violated the cardinal rule of all animal acts- all over the stage. They quickly killed the stage lights, as stage hands frantically tried to clean up the mess and a barnyard aroma filled the room. Pianist Fritz Becker played the song “Tenderly”, a popular love song of the day, as Rawlings sang ‘the evening breeze caressed the trees tenderly’. After the laughter subsided, they got on with the show and Rawlings said “Remember, folks, you saw it first at the Thunderbird!” The audience roared with laughter.
What did you do after your second stint in the service?
When I was a student at Superior, I was a good – but not a great musician. If the Korean War hadn’t started, I had an offer from Winona State Teachers College, to teach the band and glee club. But then after I got out of the Air Force, I didn’t want to go back into music. So I went to radio school at Brown Institute. Eventually I got a radio job in Rice Lake, this would be WJMC – FM and AM! I was there for about a year and a half, and I was on for about 60 hours a week. Why? Because I was the last one hired and I was only getting 75 cents an hour, so they could afford to have me. I remember I had a program for three hours every afternoon called Poor Richard’s Record Rack. I was a disc jockey, that’s all. And I was living with a family called the Meskens in Rice Lake. They rented out the upstairs. They weren’t Jewish. No, I take that back, I think they were.
I was there about a year and a half, and I bought a little car when I was there. A little Pontiac. Two door, green. This was in the early 50s, so it was a ‘52 or ’53. Any extra money I made I put in for gas. I bought it in Hayward, at the Chevrolet agency. I still remember my Dad bought a Chevy there about 3 weeks before the war, and he paid $610 for it, and after the war some guy paid him $650 for it!
Note: the manufacture of passenger cars was suspended for years to support the war effort, so a car of any vintage was a hot commodity after the war ended. His Dad probably could have got more.
Are you married?
Am I? Yes! There she is. We were married in ‘55.
I came back from the service to go to radio school, and my Aunt Charlotte gave me a list of women’s names and numbers. All Jewish of course. And Jill’s name was about half way down the list. But it was written this way, like slanted upward, compared to all the others. So I called her number first, and her brother answered, but I asked for a different girl on the list – and I guess the person I asked for didn’t have a great reputation at the time, so he hung up on me.
I think the first time I actually met Jill, the University was putting on some sort of event, and her sorority had a booth, where they were showing evening clothes or something. And Jill was standing on a pedestal, in evening clothes, when I saw her. And that’s where I first … in those days she had auburn colored hair.
We were married at Temple Israel … 60 years ago this year. We just celebrated. We were married by Rabbi Minda, he’s famous at Temple Israel. Oddly enough – I think this is true – my Dad used to say that my mother and father were one of the first couples that he married, in 1925, and we were close to the last couple that he married in 1955, before he retired. So that’s 30 years.
What was life like as the only Jews in Hayward?
We enjoyed ourselves, we had the advantage of being an old family there, so we were accepted. I had no problems there. But there was no synagogue and no Rabbi, so we couldn’t practice our Judaism, we always went into Minneapolis for Passover, until Jill and I were married.
So I did not become a bar mitzvah. My Bar Mitzvah was at Mount Zion.
That’s right, I was there.
It would have been about 2007, so I would have been 80. Let’s say I wasn’t among the youngest in the group, but it was a great experience for me.
So let’s go back, what do you remember of your years in Los Angeles?
I was a movie extra when I was a kid. My mother’s cousin was a movie writer, Allen Rivkin. He wrote things like The Farmer’s Daughter with Loretta Young, and she won an Academy Award for it. And so he got my name into Central Casting at the age of 8 or 9.
A lot of the movies I was in were really bad. But I was in Boys Town and Men of Boys Town, with Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy. And I was in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with James Stewart.
Can you pick yourself out in any of those scenes?
Oh no! But I remember I was in a Shirley Temple movie and I’ll never forget it – they had about 50 of us kids, as an audience, and they had us sitting in this little auditorium. And the first two rows got ice cream cones to hold, but I was never up front. I was always about four rows back, and those of us in those rows got cones that were filled with white mashed potatoes – so they wouldn’t melt.
But I saw Shirley Temple! She sang a song or two, and we clapped, and that was the end of that. Most of these were three days, four days. We used to get between 5 and 7 dollars a day. But if you said anything on screen – anything! – if you just walked by the star and said “hello” you got 25 dollars – and in those days, that would buy a month of groceries.
Did you have any parts where you could actually spot yourself?
No, I was always in a crowd scene. The only single part I ever had, showing me, was for a commercial they would show in the theatres before the movie started, and I was carbon. I snuck up on these little kids to steal their marbles – just like carbon (build up) steals the power from your car. It lasted like three minutes. And I was supposed to be carbon.
But mostly I was an extra, that’s all.
We were called “atmosphere” in those days.
Keep an eye out for Dick and Jill, who still try to attend an occasional service with their family. You will find Dick has made his way to the front rows this time, and clearly with a speaking role. Still no ice cream, but now providing far more than just atmosphere for our congregation.