News & Views from 465 California Street


Clint Reilly

When I was a kid, my father was a world-class recycler. He rarely bought anything new. Instead, he had an eye for quality used cars, bikes, wagons, lawn mowers, television sets, coffee pots, kitchen equipment and other consumer products that he purchased from secondhand stores and flea markets in San Leandro, Oakland, Alameda, Hayward or Fremont.

He and my mother also had a constant eye out for bargains on food and clothes. They were experts at scouring the newspaper for sales at Safeway, Lucky’s, Capwell’s, Sears, Mervyn’s and Montgomery Ward.

Do-it-yourself was a way of life for my family. Our home in San Leandro was the site of an ongoing infrastructure project orchestrated by my father and implemented by successive generations of Reilly children and relatives.

In my dad’s view, buying new, paying retail and hiring contractors were luxuries only wealthy families in Piedmont could afford. How else could my mom balance the books on a milkman’s salary with 10 kids to feed?

I left St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park and moved to San Francisco to pursue a new life. I had become a student for the Roman Catholic Priesthood as a young teenager, but beyond the cloistered walls of St. Joseph’s – where I went to high school – Silicon Valley had been born and a technological revolution was exploding.

I attended college at St. Patrick’s, only a short distance from Stanford University, where many of the Bay Area’s leading executives received their business degrees. Unfortunately, none of this elegant financial training seeped through the walls of the seminary. I had no idea how to get a job or earn a living.

So, I fell back on memories of my childhood. Like my father, I searched for old, unusual things that were extremely well made. Unlike my dad, I bought them to sell – not to use.

I started small, buying old milk cans and selling them as antiques. Then I made an eye-opening discovery. In those years, America was transitioning from permanent to disposable packaging.

Do you remember the wooden Coke cases and oak milk boxes that were used to transport these products from the manufacturing plant to the supermarket? Or the sturdy wire baskets made to carry ice cream quarts and gallons?

These exceptionally crafted boxes were rapidly being made obsolete by cardboard and plastic containers.

I bought them by the thousands and sold them to antique dealers and department stores. I even opened my own shop. They flew off the shelves as wine racks, flower pot holders or pieces of Americana. The lessons I had learned from my dad about recycling used objects had helped me create my first business.

Today’s crystal ball forecasts increasing unemployment, more foreclosures and tighter credit. Families face stricter budgets and financial stress.

The prognosis is for a severe contraction in consumer spending that will shrink the economy – further impacting jobs and incomes. Housing foreclosures continue as old loans come due on properties that have declined as much as 50 percent in value.

The bright light is a promised federal government infusion of as much as a $1 trillion on infrastructure projects to substitute for the wounded consumer.

What should we do? How can we cope?

If we are truly in the worst recession since the Great Depression, why not learn from the last generation of Americans who actually lived through that time, thrived as adults and literally built the modern Bay Area into a global economic powerhouse?

They are in their late 70’s and 80’s, but they can still teach us.

Let’s make it our New Year’s resolution to ask them.

Comments (10)

  • Clint,
    Good advice.
    In his book, The Millionaire Next Door, Grossman concludes with the simplest and common sense advice, “get and education/acquire a skill, live below your means, work hard, and stay married.”
    The problem is that common sense is not too common.
    Our practice has been to live Grossman’s advice—even before we read his book.
    Perhaps this recession will bring us all to practice more common sense.
    Happy New Year……….Hank R

    Posted by: Hank | December 30th, 2008 at 11:00 am

  • Mr. Reilly,

    Your story today struck a chord with me. I grew up on a small farm in Ohio
    with the kind of parents who also saved/re-used EVERYTHING! It’s
    interesting that we now have to formally address the issue of recycling
    instead of it being a normal part of every day life. My father straightened
    nails, for god’s sake. (That’s a little too far in my opinion.)

    Saving/re-using was a Way of Life in those days. Thanks for the reminder
    that earlier generations had a handle on “waste not, want not” way before we

    Keep up the great columns.

    Ruth P

    Posted by: Ruth | December 30th, 2008 at 11:01 am

  • I just ran across your column after being overseas for a
    while. I’m sure you have opinions and insight about dealing with
    greenhouse gas pollution and climate change. I’d be interested in
    reading about it in future columns.

    Posted by: wheat | December 30th, 2008 at 11:02 am

  • Clint –
    I always enjoy reading your columns! This one brought memories of my Boston Irish Catholic mother who taught her 5 kids: “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.” That Yankee approach to materialism might just come back into vogue in this Recession New Year.

    Posted by: Jim Illig | December 30th, 2008 at 12:11 pm

  • Clint – very nice story & well told… but you forgot the bus-destination rolls! I always enjoyed hearing about those early days…

    Very best Christmas & New Year wishes for you, Janet, and the girls. Stop by sometime on a visit to Our Nation’s Capital :-)

    – lewis

    Posted by: Lewis Shepherd | December 30th, 2008 at 12:24 pm

  • I enjoyed reading today’s article with its timeline from 1959 to 2009. Most interesting for me was the part about buying and selling old milk cans. I remember seeing you down at one of the piers on the waterfront selling cans, crates, Mao butttons and and various other items. You’ve come a long way. Keep up the good work.

    Posted by: Tom | January 5th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

  • I check out your articles in the SJ Merc. A couple of them hit home
    for me. Your article on Mervyn’s and Cerebus was right on. And to
    think that they want funding for Chrysler, to save their bet. (not
    able to dismember it fast enough?).

    I also liked 59/69/09. Maybe it’s because I’m much of a do-it
    -yourselfer; I grew up in San Leandro; (Mervyn’s and Capwells were
    staples for us too).

    You’ve got a good thing going w/ these columns. I know that SJ isn’t
    really your beat, but you’re in the Merc., so if you want to get into
    it , and provide an alternate forum, you might check out, for some of the local stuff we don’t see in

    Posted by: Mark | January 5th, 2009 at 2:09 pm

  • I thoroughly enjoy your common sense commentaries in the IJ. The 1959/1969/2009 column made me think, immediately, about an excellent book I read last year. You may already be familiar with it. It’s called “Little Heathens” by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. It’s about “Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm during the Great Depression.” It was named one of the TEN BEST BOOKS of 2007 by the New York Times.

    It was well and delightfully written. I felt as though I’d spent time with my grandparents and developed a greater sense of what their lives were like. The resourcefulness and self reliance common in those times is glaringly missing from the American way of life 75 years later. I marveled at how things were used, reused and repaired, at their simple tools, and that the “make do” attitude was unspoken, universal, practical and conservationist by instinct.

    I hope you have read this book and recommended it as I have. If not, you must read it. The IJ did a feature story on Mildred Kalish and her book.

    Posted by: Donna | January 5th, 2009 at 2:10 pm

  • I think it would be a terrific article for your column to
    review the Good Samaritan Law as it applies in California and the
    recent Supreme Court decision (see NY Times Opinion 1/3/09). When I
    was in training, in Chicago, as a physician we were told NOT to stop
    for accidents or try to help when people were in distress because we
    could and many doctors were sued. This was a terrible situation and
    then The Good Samaritan Laws were written. However each state has
    different versions and the California law is a poor one. After
    reading this I think we could be back in the 50s were people wouldn’t
    stop to help because of the threat of a law suit. This law needs to
    be changed and I thought your article would be a great place to
    Thank you


    Posted by: Stone | January 5th, 2009 at 2:12 pm

  • Dear Mr. Reilly,

    I just want to tell you that your beautifully written article in the San Jose Mercury on 12-23-2008 very much follows along the lines of my own philosophy concerning the general thinking in America today. How I would like to see more people adopt the beliefs that you expressed. Let’s hope that your writings convince many others to change their ways.

    I look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    yours truly,
    Los Altos, CA

    Posted by: J.Hall | January 5th, 2009 at 2:20 pm

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