A Comic Superhero Saves A Family Institution
The office was closet-sized.
Squeezed inside sat an old gray filing cabinet topped by a black desk phone with no dial; these were the days of operator-assisted calls where the caller lifted the handset and waited for an operator. The phone number was 262. Crammed next to the cabinet was a rolltop desk so old and weathered that, though made of oak, it had a soft, furry surface. Tucked underneath was an iron pedestal wood stool that could spin endlessly if desired. And there, on a hot summer afternoon in that tiny office, was a ten-year-old boy spinning the seat round and round. Until the boss said, “Stop that!”
The boss was my father and he grew frustrated watching me spin the seat… round and round. Sensing my boredom, he reached over my head, where, between many catalogs was a hardbound book the size of a yearbook; it’s cover gray with black text. He grabbed it and handed it to me. Looking it over, I grew excited. “Wow, this is a comic book!” I said, as I immediately began reading. And a love affair with hardware began. From a comic strip.
Titled Forty Years With Mr. Oswald, the book was a compilation of monthly comic strips writer Russ Johnson had been creating for Hardware Retailing, an industry trade magazine.
In 1925, while working at his father’s hardware store in Gibson City, Illinois, Johnson began crafting cartoons for the magazine. Two years later, he formalized this with a monthly series in a twelve-panel format known as big-foot style. It featured a bespectacled Oscar S. Oswald, a hardware store operator who eagerly raced around to help customers and handle daily operations. It had plenty of drama and comedy provided by the exaggerated antics of its characters – townsfolk asking about everything but purchasing nothing or whose mischievous behavior and insistence that “the customer is always right” was apt to give one pause. Employees would frequently stand around and gossip. And then there was Higgins and Higgins Hardware, a stealthy competitor located across the street; they routinely caused Oswald grief.
Written over decades, Johnson’s work captured the essence of each decade: chapters focus on eras like the Great Depression and War in Europe, Rationing, a Post-War Recovery and then, Inflation! All sounds like modern times, right?! Fortunately, these are followed by Prosperous Times and an economic recovery. My favorite was the Chapter when Johnson introduces readers to shopping centers; in Oswald’s town it was called Dippy Center. Nothing killed American downtowns faster than the invention of cars and of shopping centers. Dippy Center became Oswald’s foil.
By the 1980s and in my mid-twenties, I returned from college to work with my father, Larry, and Uncle Al in their 850 square foot shop.
One day, while catching up on Hardware Retailing, I noted an odd article sharing the discovery of cases of Johnson’s book which had been put in storage. Returned to Johnson, the article encouraged readers to purchase copies by writing him. Instead, I picked up the phone and called him directly, pleading for a dozen copies. Soft-spoken and very polite, he responded that with so many requests he could only spare six copies… at ten bucks each! Delighted, I sent him $120 and when they arrived, included in the three parcels of autographed books was a comic strip personally addressed to me. I have since given away all but one copy; it and the personalized strip along with the roll top desk, are some of my most treasured possessions. All three now sit in my office.
According to Rob Stolzer in Hogan’s Alley (hoganmag.com), an online magazine of the cartoon arts, “Mister Oswald might very well be one of the best comics strips that scarcely anyone knows about.” Stolzer interviewed Johnson in July, 1995 when Johnson was 101 years old; he had fully retired only six years earlier, proud to have penned a strip continuously for 62 years! He passed away five weeks later on September 7, 1995.
For a ten-year-old boy, Forty Years With Mr. Oswald was magical and I was fond of him.
That Oswald shared a striking resemblance with my father only enhanced my affection. And while the tales were funny, the book itself was a history lesson. In adversity, it taught perseverance. In service of customers, it taught patience and understanding. In life, it showed that humor is healthy and essential. As I spent that summer of 1967 pouring over Johnson’s masterful strip, Oswald became my Superhero that I began to see a future and purpose in the industry that would eventually result in my taking over the family business. As we now enter into our centennial year celebrating the 100th anniversary of Pedrotti Hardware, I must acknowledge Mr. Oswald, Comic Superhero, for our longevity. And to my father and uncle, as they were Superheroes, too!
As we find ourselves today under the shadow of a pandemic, political unrest, inflation, and war in Europe, re-reading Forty Years With Mr. Oswald is helpful to gain a perspective… of the joy in helping others and of our American resilience. Like Oswald, we will survive.
Mister Oswald fans can connect on the Mister Oswald Facebook Page.