A Summer Job in Planning
By Michael Calvert
February 2, 2014
“ I just don’t like to be around people who can’t talk right.” A stunning admission from Joan, who had a master’s degree in speech therapy. I had asked if she planned to work when her young children went to school Joan paused, shrugged, stared into the distance, and said, “I’m just going to enjoy my babies.”
“How old are your kids?” I asked to shift to a more comfortable topic. While she spoke about her two little girls, I marveled at how Joan could not have learned of her aversion to speech therapy before graduation. Didn’t she have something like student teaching? The irony of Joan’s experience made an impression on me.
Years later, I recalled that Joan’s revelation had led me to pull out all stops to get a summer job at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission before committing to graduate school in city planning and moving to Baltimore to work as a city planner.
It was 1964, the spring of my junior year. I had already applied to the Graduate School of City and Regional Planning at Ohio State, but I wasn’t completely sure about this new profession. Professor Schwirian had sparked my interest in city planning in his urban sociology class, but when I spoke with him about it in his office, he warned me that local politics made it difficult for planners to be effective. Their plans were typically ignored by mayors and city council members more interested in ingratiating themselves with local developers, property owners, and other businessmen who contributerd to their election campaigns. Another professor had dismissed planning studies that always concluded with the need for more studies as an excuse for inaction by politicians. In addition, city planning was not an established profession like architecture, engineering or medicine.
I needed to know more about this field before I spent two years of my life to get a specialized master’s degree. I did not have any first hand knowledge of what city planners did when they sat down at their drafting tables each day.
A series of articles in our newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, had featured the Blue Plan. One of the librarians in the periodical room at OSU’s Thomas Oxley Library found the series on the microfiche and showed me how to use a machine to scroll through the articles. I learned that the goal was a comprehensive plan for the future of not just the City of Columbus, but the entire 12-county region. Planners were projecting the population for 1985, then two decades away, determining where growth would occur, and calculating the number of highways, schools, sewers, and everything else that would have to be built for the growth that was just over the horizon. It sounded pretty interesting. Columbus had experienced rapid growth in the two decades since the end of World War II. No one doubted that Columbus was becoming a major metropolis on the plains of central Ohio.
The Blue Plan was under development at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. City planners were engaged in this intriguing enterprise in my city. A summer job working on the Blue Plan might be a possibility there. The Dispatch articles had quoted Harmon Merwyn and identified him as the Director of the agency. I called, asked to speak with him, but was connected to his secretary Mrs. Hilda Helwig. I said that I was an OSU student interested in city planning and requested an appointment with Mr. Merwyn. She promised to speak with him, and call me back. I offered to call back since I was on campus and unavailable by phone most days. After a couple more phone calls, she informed me that I could meet with Mr. Merwyn two weeks from the coming Tuesday.
The next Tuesday, I put my charcoal gray, pin-striped suit, a white dress shirt and a narrow red knit tie in a shopping bag. It was my high school graduation suit, in fact, it was my only suit. After finishing my four-hour morning shift as a janitor at the Union Department Store, I changed into the dress clothes in the bathroom.
As I drove through downtown on High Street, the sleek new office towers and grimy old buildings drew my attention unlike before. I had never looked as closely at the grand old Neil House Hotel, the massive Ohio State House, and the huge Lazarus Department Store that I had seen many times before. I drove on to the modest, one-story building that may have once been a car dealership with bricks where show window once were. It was on South High Street near German Village, an authentic immigrant neighborhood where my mother recalled that she sat through sermons at St. Mary’s given in German.
When I stepped through the front door, I found myself in a small entryway with pamphlets, brochures and reports displayed like magazines at the drug store. A bell had chimed automatically and soon a middle-aged woman with gray, frizzy hair was in the opposite doorway with a question on her face.
“My name is Michael Calvert, a student at Ohio State…”
“ But your appointment is two weeks from today, Mr. Calvert. I put it in his book right after we spoke on Friday.”
had said with a pained look on her face.
“Oh, I know it’s not today, Mrs Helwig. I just wanted to see if there is any information on the Blue Plan available that I could review to prepare for my meeting with Mr. Merwyn”
“Thank goodness,” she said with an exaggerated sigh, hand on her chest. “I was afraid there was some misunderstanding. I can give you these, a brochure on our agency and one on the Blue Plan. That’s really all we have except for our first two technical monographs. We have a limited supply so we don’t give those away. I’m sorry.”
“Thank you for the brochures. I know you cannot give the monographs to me, but could you lend them to me? I could return them in a week.”
“Well… “ she said very slowly, drawing the word out to two syllables. “I guess it would be all right. You could bring them back when you meet with Mr. Merwyn. I doubt that anyone will even miss them,” she said with growing confidence. She plucked the two blue, spiral-bound booklets from the shelf, and held them out to me with a with a self-satisfied smile. I thanked her profusely as I backed out the door to the sidewalk.
The following Tuesday, I changed into my graduation suit, struggled to tie a respectable Windsor knot, and drove through downtown with its newly relevant buildings, to the commission. Mrs. Helwig answered the bell soon after I entered.
As soon as she came into the entryway, I quickly said “I know my appointment is next week, but I’ve read the monographs you let me borrow and I wanted to return them. I thought Mr. Merwyn might need them.”
“Well, very good, Mr. Calvert. I’ll tell Mr. Merwyn that you’ve returned the monographs. I hope you enjoyed them. They are very technical. I know, I typed every word. I’ll see you next Tuesday.”
A week later, Mrs. Helwig promptly greeted me and admitted me to the mysterious area beyond the entryway, down a hall past a room with several men leaning over drafting tables and into Mr. Merwyn’s office. She quietly closed the door behind her. The windowless room was paneled with imitation wood like I had seen in basement rec rooms. The paneling was covered with maps, all titled “The Mid-Ohio Region.” Each map showed a the same large Rorsach blot in bright color schemes. A spiderweb of roads and the meandering Scoito and Olentangy Rivers were common to all the maps.
Mr. Merwyn rose to a crouch behind his desk, extended his hand and introduced himself with just his name, “Harmon Merwyn. Have a seat.”
A few strands of dark red hair were splayed over his splotchy, bald head, connecting the thick, red hair above his collar. Bushy eyebrows arched above his pale blue eyes flanked by thick auburn sideburns flecked with grey. His pale brown suit was wrinklled and his tie was a faded gray shade without a pattern.
A large ashtray filled with butts smoked down to the filters and a plain white coffee mug with a brown stain inside were the only things on his his desk other than scattered papers and manila folders. The desktop itself was completely covered.
He sighed audibly as if he regretted agreeing to this appointment, and said, “I understand that you’re a student at OSU. Are you writing a term paper?”
“No. I am thinking about going for a master’s in city planning in city planning. I have talked with Professor Isreal Stollman, head of the graduate program at Ohio State. I have an application form, but I’m not sure about city planning.
“Is Stollman is a good man. He’s building an excellent program at OSU. We have a shortage of trained city planners, not just here but across the country. The 1964 Transportation Act passed by congress last year makes a comprehensive, regional master plan a requirement for federal highway funds by 1968. Every planning director in the country, including me, is scrambling to staff up to produce a plan like the Blue Plan before the deadline. Qualified city planners are in great demand these days.”
“That’s certainly good to know. My major is social studies – urban sociology, economics, and history, not architecture or engineering. Will that be a problem?”
“Not at all. A lot of city planners my age began as architects and landscape architects. Some have graduate degrees in city planning and some don’t, but that’s changing. We don’t really need planners with a design background to develop the Blue Plan because it’s a regional plan. Social science is an excellent foundation for regional planning. City planning, too. Designers can be hired for specific sites, but planners are needed for broad, comprehensive regional and city plans. I am recruiting trained city planners for three positions, and I would be glad to get three with social science backgrounds.”
“City planning is an intriguing field, but I am not sure I am ready to make a commitment to two years of graduate school. I would like to get a better understanding about what it means to work as a city planner. I read the first two monographs for the Blue Plan, and got a general idea, but…”
“Oh, yes, Mrs. Helwig said you had borrowed them. Did you actually read them? They are theoretical planning studies. We’re working on a dozen more on the need for highways and everything else by 1985. Finally we’ll evaluate alternative schematic plans for the entire region and then draft the 12-county Blue Plan. The we hope it will be adopted by our board and local governments. It’s a big undertaking.” By this time, Mr. Merwyn was transformed, sitting up in his chair, waving his hands around to make his points.” I was impressed with his passion for planning when he concluded.
“The Blue Plan is an exciting project I would really like to work here this summer and see how a plan takes shape. I want to see how professional planners do their work. I am sure I could assist your planners in some way. I will do anything to help out – sharpen pencils, color maps, get coffee. A summer job here would be great for me. I hope you will consider me for a job this summer.”
Mr. Merwyn’s benevolent, fatherly demeanor clouded over and his smooth face crumpled into a frown. He looked down at the helter skelter on his desk for a long moment. When his watery, faded eyes met mine, he said, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have any summer jobs budgeted. There is a lot of resistance to city planning. It’s new and some people believe planning and especially zoning threaten the American way of life. Some of the mayors around Columbus say it’s the beginning of socialism. One county commissioner called me a dupe of the communists. Can you believe it?” His voice had risen and he concluded with his hands turned upward.”
“Any way we don’t have funding for any summer jobs at this time. You can check back with me if you wish, but I don’t ho;d out much hope for anything this summer. I do encourage you to pursue a career in city planning. I am confident that it’s going to become an important profession in the future. Good luck to you , Mr. Calvert.”
As I thanked Mr. Merwyn for his time, he was picking up his phone and reaching to dial a number. Mrs. Helwig appeared in the hallway with her frozen smile to show me out through the entryway.
Although I didn’t have a job, I was elated to be in a city planning office where maps plotting the future development of Columbus were spread on drafting tables. I took note Mr. Merwyn’s words “not at this time” and I chose to take them literally. They were a beacon of hope for me. After all, I recalled, he said I could “check back” with him. I was determined to get a summer job there.
I changed clothes at the Shell station near campus and met my best friend, Tim, at the Student Union cafeteria. Over a cup of coffee, I told him I was going to get this summer job. At least, I was going to put on a full court press.
The next Tuesday, I hung my graduation suit in one of the janitor’s lockers at the Union Department Store, and when the floors were swept, carpets cleaned and the store had opened, I stepped into a stall in the restroom, slipped on the suit, and got the Windsor knot right the first time.
Soon I was in the entryway of the planning agency. Mrs. Helwig seemed a bit flustered as she stood in the door that led to Mr. Merwyn’s office. “Oh, Mr. Calvert, I’m surprised to see you. Mr. Merwyn didn’t tell me he had asked you to come back today.”
“He said I could check back with him about the position he had discussed with me. Is he available?”
“Mr. Merwyn’s in a meeting,” she responded with her poise regained. “I’ll certainly tell him you came by to inquire about a position.” She radiated self-assurance with her professional smile and her head cocked slightly to one side.
Every Tuesday morning I returned in my charcoal suit with different ties I had borrowed from my dad’s tie rack. I had nearly identical conversations with Mrs. Helwig in the entryway. On my third such visit, she suggested that I could just call. She promised to let Mr. Merwyn know that I had called.
“Thank you,” I nodded, “but I can drop by easily. It’s on my way to campus.” Again the Chesire cat smile. I would not have been surprised by a curtsy.
On the fifth Tuesday, I was repeating my lines flatly in an abbreviated form and Mrs. Helwig went off script. “Mr. Merwyn said that he would like to see you if you came by again this morning. This way, please.”
I was jolted out of my comfortable Tuesday morning routine. It occurred to me that I might be about to get a stern lecture on my impertinence and firmly told that there would be no summer job and not to come back. I could envision Mr. Merwyn’s stern face as I began to form words of apology in my mind.
Mr. Merwyn was not scowling. Much to my relief, he was smiling broadly and leaning back in his desk chair. “Well, Mr. Calvert, you have certainly been persistent and it may have paid off for you. I have some jobs this summer funded by a federal grant we have received. Now, I want to be clear that these are not city planning positions. They are land use coding jobs, recording information about the location of houses, stores, factories, and other land uses on maps. You’ll be sitting on a stool at a drafting table all day long. Is this something you would be interested in?”
“Well, yes,” I stammered. “I would definitely be interested,” I continued in a firmer voice. “I’ve applied to the graduate program at OSU, but I want to be sure that city planning is the field I want to pursue.”
“ Again, please understand that you won’t be doing city planning this summer, but I think you’ll get some sense of the planning process for the Blue Plan.”
“Great! When can I start? My finals are the last week in May.”
“ How about Monday, June 4th? We begin work at 8:30 am. By the way, the pay is a dollar, fifty an hour, but no benefits for summer jobs.”
“I’ll be here. Thank you very much. I really appreciate this summer job in city planning.”
After thanking Mrs. Helwig several times as I passed her desk and walked through the entryway. On the sidewalk, I could barely contain myself until I reached my car. With the windows rolled up, I screamed “Yes! Yes! Yes!” at the top of my lungs and pounded the padded dash with my fists.
I have always been grateful that I did not commit to a career blindly like my neighbor Joan who didn’t find out she didn’t really like her chosen profession until after it was too late. I have also said, mostly tongue in cheek, that even though I was exposed to the practice of planning that summer, I still became a city planner.