At Union Seminary Richard decides to study Christian social ethics under Reinhold Niebuhr. In his first semester, Richard immediately audits a seminar being co-taught by John Bennett and Reinhold Niebuhr on “Christianity and Communism.” The seminar is prompted by the victory of the People’s Army of China in driving the Nationalist Army out of mainland China to Taiwan in 1949. Niebuhr shows his humility by bringing in outside speakers: overseas people, missionaries, and those with expertise in international affairs. During these years Niebuhr is invited by George Kennan to take part in State Department policy deliberations in Washington, D.C. Richard comes to appreciate the more measured approach of John Bennett in contrast to Niebuhr’s charismatic and exacting insights into world politics. Nevertheless, Richard is drawn to Niebuhr’s central insight into human sin as the pride in power, and to Niebuhr’s humanity as a New York Giants fan. In 1951, Niebuhr shares with Richard his theological response to Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.”
Richard’s Saskatchewan experience opens him to join the Young People’s Socialist League on his return to New York. He spends the 1948 Fall election season organizing student chapters of the League for Industrial Democracy on college campuses. The presidential election campaign brings on the prominence of the Progressive Party and Henry Wallace’s candidacy. Richard is impressed with the Madison Square Garden gala and presentation of Henry Wallace as Progressive Party nominee and is moved by the performance of Paul Robeson. His loyalty to the candidacy of Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate, is not swayed. He poll watches in his Bronx district and waits for the results at the Socialist post-election gathering at the Claremont Hotel. There he meets Vincent Sheehan, who has just published his best seller on Gandhi.
After the CCF convention in Moosejaw, the students move on to the provincial government in Regina, where they visit offices responsible for universal health insurance, universal auto insurance, and new industrial ventures. The study tour officially ends, but the “Model T Four” sign up to work on the newly organized Carrot River Co-Op Farm in the sparsely settled, harsh northern terrain. The six-day workweek was long and hard, broken up three times a day by a bell calling the workers to the dining hall for meals. The co-op members cleared deeply rooted trees and sawed and planed the trees in a lumber mill for materials to be used in building the settlers’ homes and community facilities. Leaving the farm after a week of heavy rains, the Model T gets stuck in the mud. The farmer who pulls it out gives the four travelers a piece of Saskatchewan advice: “Choose your ruts carefully and stay in them till you get to Prince Albert.” Richard hitchhikes from Winnipeg to West Virginia, arriving just in time for the wedding of his college roommate.
In June 1948, Richard prepares for his upcoming study trip to Canada to see “democratic socialism” in action. The governing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party in Saskatchewan was holding its convention in Moosejaw. Before he leaves on his journey, Richard accepts an offer from the League for Industrial Democracy to serve as Student Secretary in the fall. Richard hitchhikes 1,000 miles from Greenwich Village in Manhattan to the Madison, Wisconsin, farm of Walter Uphoff, the Socialist candidate for governor. In Madison he meets up with a group of eighteen students. Richard decides to throw in his lot with three other men and travel the remainder of the way in E. Scott Maynes’s Model T Ford half truck. At the CCF convention, Richard is moved by the down-to-earth nature of the delegates and their pragmatic concern about how the government programs were serving the people. In meeting one of the CCF’s founders, Richard receives validation of his conviction that there is a place for religion in social and economic justice.
Richard returns to Wooster after his mother’s death emotionally drained. With the encouragement of his friends, he runs successfully for the Student Senate, wraps up the school year, and returns to New York. Richard’s job as director of a Y.M.C.A. summer camp for 12- year-old boys keeps him busy; nevertheless, he witnesses one of his father’s epileptic seizures. Richard remembers the fun times he had with his father going to Giants games and “crabbing” on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. They had gotten along well, but Ernest would never understand Richard’s aspirations or his decision to go away to college. Back at Wooster in the fall of 1946, Richard throws himself into his academic work, four jobs, and campus political and social activities. He helps organize a chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which heats up criticism of his “socialist” leanings. He runs for president of the student body and loses in a run-off election. Moving on, Richard is elected as president of “the Big Four,” representing the four major religious organizations on campus. Richard returns to New York where his leadership in the Student League earns him a job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.
Richard’s grandfather, Richard Poethig, emigrated from Saxony, Germany, during the anti-Socialist campaign of Otto von Bismarck. He sees organized religion as antagonistic to the cause of working people. For Richard’s mother, a religious upbringing was essential to life. Her tenement neighbor, Emily Masek, encourages Henny to enroll Richard in Good Will Sunday School, an East Side mission of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. At Good Will, Richard learns about more than the Bible. He discovers the wider world on field trips to the countryside and the lower East Side casbah, and through participation in a model League of Nations, where the invasion of Abyssinia by Italy is up for discussion. In loyalty to his street friend Tulio, Richard plays the part of Italy.
Born in 1925 in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan’s East Side, Richard grows up in a working class German-American family surrounded by immigrants from the now defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. Scenes of the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler in Germany, and anti-Semitic sentiment become etched in his memory. Richard receives an early political education from his Socialist cigar maker grandfather who emigrated from 1880s Germany, by hearing over-the-counter conversations about European politics at the butcher shop where Richard worked on Saturdays, from the Franciscan priest at the Hungarian parish where Richard made meat deliveries, and through his aunt Augusta Wagner, who in 1937 returned to Yorkville while on furlough from occupied China, where she was a professor of economics at Yenching College for Women in Peking.