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Crowning jewel of a long career

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Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Bert Wilson had no luck as a career guy.

At the best newspaper reporting job he had, the newspaper died. When another big town paper hired him, he got pitched out with dozens of others in a downturn.

A subsequent employer never gave him a raise from his starting pay.

Still, there were compensations. He had his health, journalistic talent, a sense of humor about the craziness of it all and a long, happy marriage.

He even knew some triumphs amidst the ruins of his luck. And one unforgettable day, he ate like royalty.

So let him be an inspiration to the millions among us in this holiday season unemployed or underemployed.

Wilson died at a ripe age a few years ago, before the Great Recession set in. His heyday was the Great Depression.

Fresh out of college in Philadelphia in the 1930s, a journalism major, he applied at all the city's newspapers, a good half-dozen then.

At the Public Ledger (long gone now), he stepped onto an elevator with a frail old man. “Can I be of any help to you, son?” the senior asked.

Looking for a job, Wilson confessed. The elder smiled and scribbled something on a business card. “Give this to the managing editor,” he said. “Perhaps he'll be able to help you.” He had written, “Mr. McFarland, please see Mr. Wilson. CHKC.” Well known initials. The name on the card was Cyrus H.K. Curtis, publisher of the paper (and of the co-owned Saturday Evening Post, too). The big boss himself.

Didn't help, though. There just weren't any jobs. And when he was turned away, crushed, Wilson overheard the editor muttering: “I wish the old man would stop sending all these kids in here.”

Wilson told the incident in an autobiographical novel written long afterward. It never found a publisher.

Decades later, he wrote columns for a little newspaper put out by the retirement community where he and his wife lived — and never got paid for them.

When he had finally landed in the 1940s with a big town paper, it was the Philadelphia Record. But the Record died in a 1948 labor strike, all hands lost. Wilson picked up his socks and went back to the much smaller, and lower-paying, Atlantic City Press. He eked out an income directing duplicate bridge games at a resort hotel; he happened to be an expert bridge player.

In the 1950s the Philadelphia Daily News, then under new management, hired too many people. Way too optimistically. Soon enough came a layoff. Newest hired were the first fired. Union rules, never mind the talents that went overboard.

Wilson got the message.

He made the midlife career switch to public relations, at the Philadelphia food service company now called Aramark — and never got a raise all the 17 years he worked there. He should have asked of course, but he feared that he'd be shown the door.

But he must have been as capable a PR man as he'd been a reporter. Otherwise would the boss have sent him to Mexico City?

The Queen of England was making a state visit, and Aramark had the catering. A gala banquet ended with a parfait: ice cream, fruit and cake layered in a frosted glass.

Wilson kept his eyes on the queen. He saw her take one taste of dessert and lay down her spoon. When all the guests got up to leave, he made the move of a bittersweet career. He picked up Her Majesty's spoon and, careless of royal germs, finished her parfait.


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