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Partners in Business, My Grandfather and I

By Clinton W. Trowbridge / May 28, 1997



My grandfather and I were pals - buddies, confrres. Oh, he knew more than I did. He had more experience. But that was it. In all the important ways we were the same.

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We had the same name: Clint. We backed the same baseball team: The Brooklyn Dodgers. We were born in the same month - January - only three days apart. Someday I would grow up to be just like him - a successful businessman. I, too, would run my own company, have a grand house in the suburbs, and be called "Boss" by my doting wife.

To help get me ready for my future success, he made me his business partner when I went off to boarding school at the age of 12. I sold cocoa for him, which came in envelopes, 50 to a box. There was an invoice and a machine-printed bill, and I sold the cocoa to upperclassmen and some of the teachers - the water in the tap was plenty hot enough - and mailed him a check every month along with a re-order form. The next year I had so much business I had to pay another boy to help me. I actually gave some of my profits to British War Relief. I thought he'd be pleased about that, but he wasn't.

"The British are going to drag us into this war. You wait and see," my grandfather said, glaring across the table at my father who was carving the Sunday roast.

"We ought to be fighting along side of them right now," my father said. "As the president says, 'England's our first line of defense.' "

"Roosevelt!" said my grandfather, contemptuously.

When my grandfather took me to a baseball game or out to lunch we never talked about such things. Mostly he explained how something worked, how something was done. He had the straight poop on everything, and liked nothing better than to pass it on to me. "See that feller there?" he'd say, nodding at the plate. "If he gets a hit, he'll be breaking .350."

My father, who was a minister, was always talking about politics and world affairs. The summer after we got into the war, I practically didn't want to go trout fishing or sailing with him because all he did was talk about De Gaulle.

Grandpa Whiting loved to play tricks. He would read something aloud from the paper at the breakfast table: "Twins born to 84-year-old woman in New Mexico." One of us would react and he'd read some more, and it wasn't until he actually passed over the paper, that you'd see he'd made it all up. By then, of course, he'd be laughing. Indirectly, he was responsible for me setting off my first stink bomb. Until he told me, I had no idea you could send away for such things.

I took up the trombone at school and within a year I knew what I wanted to be: a jazz player in a band.

"Well," he said. "If that's what you've decided, you might as well start now. Save your father some money."

"You mean leave school?" I said.

"Not much point in finishing, is there? Not if that's what you want to be."

"Wow!" I thought. I never imagined he'd take my side.

"Maybe you should think about it, though," he added. Six months later I discovered classical music, and dropped the trombone for the cello. But by then my passion was civil rights. I had joined the NAACP and with my father's help persuaded Walter White, the president of the organization, to speak at our school.

At college I sold pennants at the football games and by senior year I was head of the agency with 12 underclassmen working for me. I made enough to buy my future wife an engagement ring. My grandfather was impressed.

"What are you going to do after graduation?" he asked me one day, over lunch. I knew what he was getting at and I didn't want to tell him that I was going to graduate school, that what I wanted to be was an English professor. When I finally spoke, he looked startled for a moment, but then he smiled. "It's up to you, pal," he said. And if he was disappointed with what I'd decided to do with my life, he never showed it.