Don and his wife Rhoda are well known in the community, through their generosity and continued involvement in what seems to be most every aspect of our lives.
I caught up with Don after an exercise class at the JCC recently, one of several he attends every week. Before I began attending several weeks ago, Don was the only man in the class. He was pleased to see that there are now two, though I’m still trying to keep up with him.
OK, let’s start. So you’re Don Mains.
Yes I am.
I’d know you anywhere. Let’s begin with where you grew up.
I was born right here in Saint Paul, and my mother Daisy (nee Ginsberg) was also born in Saint Paul, believe it or not. My father Alex was born in the Ukraine, and he had a circuitous route to get here – and I could talk about that if you’d like.
My father lived in the Ukraine until he was 14, when two things happened. There was a series of pogroms, which had gotten more and more brutal, and his older brother was about to be drafted into the army. And as I understand it, a Jewish boy drafted into the army back then was likely to never be seen again. So they sent him off, and he ended up in Winnipeg, Canada, and the rest of the family eventually followed, including my father – his brother.
My father’s father was never able to carve out much of a living in Canada. He had done much better in the old country, but that’s another story. Though my father went to work at the age of 14 and he never stopped since. Whatever education he had, he picked up by himself. He did all kinds of things to make a living – he worked in a foundry, he was a roofer, he was a steamfitter, he traded furs with the Indians.
Then he decided he wanted to learn about the business world, so he got a job at a bank in Canada. And from there, he ended up in the package liquor business. At that time in Canada liquor was not sold in stores, but was sold through mail order, like parcel post. That is when he met my mother’s brother (Cecil Ginsberg), who joined him in the business. Through Cecil, my father (Al) met and eventually married my mother (Daisy), and they continued to do business in Canada.
Later on they came to Saint Paul because my mother had physical problems, and they began looking for something to do here. They found somebody who was in the shoe business who needed a partner – the definition of a partner in 1921 being somebody who had $3000.
So they got into the retail shoe business. Eventually they bought out the partner, and my uncle died tragically in his early 30s, so my father ended up running the business, and I joined the business later. So that is my father’s story.
What do you remember about your parents?
I inherited very significant ethical values, I think, from my parents. They both believed strongly that we need to help others with whatever good luck or fortune we have. It is our duty and obligation to share with others less fortunate. They were both active in many Jewish organizations and it’s led me to do the same. In the golden years of my life now, though I’ve stepped back from active involvement, I still try to do what I can for many organizations
It is clear that you support a number of efforts all over town. In fact I see you all over town. How did you come to join Mount Zion?
My parents belonged to Temple of Aaron, as did my wife Rhoda’s parents (Wolf). She did not grow up in Saint Paul, she was from a small town, Worthington, MN, where her father had a dry goods business. We married at Temple of Aaron in 1954, it will be 61 years this month! We talked about this shortly after we were married – we both felt that we were more comfortable with a Reform congregation than with Conservative. Though there was more of a difference then than there is now. So we joined Mount Zion in 1956, and we’ve been members every since.
How long did Rhoda live in Worthington?
She was born there, and she graduated high school there, and she still has friends from Worthington. After high school she went to Stanford University. I came into her life during the Korean War, when we met, and shortly after she graduated, we were married.
Where did you meet?
Ha! That’s a question I’ve been asked a hundred times! I was in the army during the Korean War and about to go overseas. And a friend of my parents, and her parents, called to say that there is a girl from a small town in Minnesota who is going to school at Stanford, but is taking summer school courses at the University of Minnesota. And she went on to say that she is very intelligent and comes from a good family. Which when you are 23 years old is no recommendation at all! But anyhow I met her, and since my expectations were so low I was pleasantly surprised to see the wonderful person she was. So that’s how we met. And two years later we were married.
Her experience was vastly different than mine. Growing up I had some non-Jewish friends but most of them were Jewish. But by the time she graduated from high school, hers was the only Jewish family in town. Which was not unusual for small towns.
Some of Rhoda’s remembrances can be found at page 8 of an interesting article on Jewish merchants from small Midwestern towns, in a 1985 article by local historian Linda Schloff.
Rhoda’s father was very well respected, and a lovely guy, but tragically he died a year after we got married, so I never got to know him well. I got to know her mother a lot better, because she was a widow our whole married life, though she remained in Worthington until just a couple years before she died, when she moved here.
Where did you go to high school?
Like many other of my peers I went to Central High School, though I was just 16 when I graduated. It was at the height of World War II and I thought I wanted to be a chemical engineer. I thought I would help develop some wonderful product that could help win the war.
My father knew about MIT through shoe people in Boston and said “if you want to be an engineer, you should go to MIT.” And my immediate response was “what’s that?” I had never heard those initials. But they said it’s a good school, so that’s where I went. But the war was over by the time I graduated, and as I interviewed for jobs, though I had enjoyed my classes, I realized that I didn’t wanted to do that kind of thing.
And though I also didn’t want to work for my father, at the time, that’s what I did. I had accepted a job with Monsanto after graduating, but I worked for the summer in the shoe store that we had in downtown Saint Paul, and ended up telling Monsanto “sorry, I’m not joining you.” I stayed with the shoe business and that’s where I was my entire working career.
In the shoe business?
Yeah, we had a group of stores that expanded over the years that I was with them. It was called Tradehome. My father and uncle came up with the name in 1921. At that time, the competition in lower priced merchandise were the mail order stores – Sears, Montgomery Ward, Spiegels. So in order to encourage people to not to use mail order, they came up with the name Trade at Home, and they eventually shortened that to TradeHome. But as we opened more stores, and I had to pay for the signs out front, I wished they had come up with something shorter, like Gem, so the sign wouldn’t cost so much. That was a lot of big block letters.
Do the stores still exist?
They do, though my brother-in-law Harold Smith, who was with me in the business for 50 years, and I retired in 1999. We sold the business to a group of our key people. And they are doing very well. They have 108 stores now.
How about your family. Tell me about your kids.
We have two children, a son and daughter – the one regret in the wonderful life we’ve had is that they don’t live here. Our daughter lives in Boston, and she has a daughter. She went to Brown University, graduated in public health, and began training health care workers. Then she decided that she wanted a career change, and is now a librarian in Brookline.
And our son went to Yale, and now lives in Saratoga Springs, New York. He had been a research analyst for a brokerage firm, and followed the health care industry. He retired last year at the advanced age of 57, and now loves baseball, and sports. He trains and runs in the triathlon – he actually gave me the shirt I’m wearing.
You mentioned your passion for giving back. Do you have a particular focus or area of interest?
For most of my life, I’ve been involved with the United Jewish Fund, now the Jewish Federation of Greater Saint Paul. We were serving all agencies, and I was on the board of many of them. I saw myself as more of a community person, learning what all of the agencies do, here and overseas, more than getting involved with one particular agency. Then things changed a bit when I retired in 1999, and I began coming to the JCC, and started coming to the senior programs here. I am now here almost every weekday, exercising.
Where did you grow up in Saint Paul?
I lived with my sister and parents on Lincoln Avenue, not far from Macalester College. It’s funny, I have friends of my age from around the country – I’m 87 – who think I am unique. They talk about where they grew up, and say ‘I’d never want to go back there again.’ And I tell them where I grew up, it’s now a fancier neighborhood than when I lived there.
My grade school was just a block away. For a few years, our classrooms were in something called ‘portables.’ They were individual buildings that were made during WWI, and each one was almost like a one room schoolhouse. Each one held one grade, with room for 20 kids in a class, and we had a stove. We didn’t realize how rustic it was.
What do you remember about your Seders growing up?
We had a very close knit family with my grandparents, and aunts and uncles. Seders were usually at my uncle’s house, my mother’s older brother, who was a doctor named Bill Ginsberg, who incidentally was the first president of the JCC. And they had three boys, my cousins, who were older than me, and they were my idols. They were in Boy Scouts, so I had to be in Boy Scouts. They were Eagle Scouts, so I had to be an Eagle Scout. Their house was on Fairmount Avenue, east of Lexington. 935 Fairmount. There were actually more Jewish families in their neighborhood than there were in mine by Macalester.
Did you travel much as a kid?
Oh yeah, I went to YMCA Camp St. Croix, near Stillwater, and I went to Camp Widjiwagan in northern MN, near Ely. And I spent many summers at Boy Scout camp in Balsam Lake, Wisconsin. So every summer I went to camp. And we took trips to visit family in Winnipeg.
We took one long road trip to the west coast when I was 11 years old. My father had a sister who lived in LA, and I still remember, we went to Yellowstone Park, to the Grand Canyon, to Mount Rushmore. We saw a lot of things that still stick in my mind.
And we went to the 1939 World’s Fair in San Francisco on that trip. I still remember it well. I remember that better than what I did last week. I even got to see a television! They had a camera in one room and you could see it on the screen in another room. But we were told that television will just be a novelty and will never catch on. Unlike radio waves which follow the contours of the earth, television waves move in a straight line, and so in order for television to be transmitted you have to have transmitters, and people are never going to invest in transmitters.
How about friends from growing up?
There are not a lot of people left. Surprisingly, or I suppose sadly, many of them are no longer with us. There is Bill Oriol, he lived across the street on Lincoln Avenue when I was 9 years old, and we’ve been friends ever since. He is retired from advertising and has lived in New York for over 50 years, but we still keep in touch. The one friend that I still see around from the old days – and is alive, though there aren’t too many – is Don Frishberg.
Graduating high school at 16, as I did, was really not a good thing, looking back on that. I didn’t have much in common with my classmates at MIT – they were all older, and my friends were younger. And then it turned out I was only at MIT for three years because they had an accelerated program during WWII, so I actually graduated in 1947, when I was just 19.
Then after MIT, and working for a year in the store, I went to Harvard Business School and got an MBA. Interestingly, one of the things I did as we would open stores, I would work with the remodelers and contractors in these small towns – the stores were almost all in small towns. If they ever asked where I went to school I said “well, I went out east,” because I knew that they would not be impressed if I told them Harvard. And I learned that just because one has a degree from a reputable place does not necessarily mean that you are brighter or better than somebody who did not have that opportunity. I learned that there are a lot of very bright people in the smaller towns.
You went into the service then – did you make it over to Korea?
I did. I was in for two years. After Harvard, I received a direct commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Medical Service Corps, and I was in the advance platoon of a medical depot. We served advance battalions, battalion aid stations, forward medical installations, and something called Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH).
I’ve heard of those. What was that like? How did it compare to the show?
Ha! I have no idea. I just went to the officer’s club. Had I known it was going to be a TV series I would have paid more attention. The MASH was about 4 or 5 miles from where we were, and I got there occasionally in the evening.
There were girls there. Nurses.
Were you close to the action?
Yeah, this was late 1952, and by that time the front lines didn’t change. I was north of the 38th parallel, and the fighting was less than a mile away, so we could hear the artillery every night. The Chinese were doing most of the fighting by then, not the North Koreans. And we were always warned that they might advance, but they never did, fortunately, so I was never in any danger. But it was a little scary at times.