Does MPHS have photographs: Yes
Date of Interview: Unknown
Interviewer: Dolores Haugh
HOWE: Vic would like to start. Tell us where you were born.
BITTNER: Well, I was born in Wisconsin Rapids December 20, 1896, on a Sunday morning. And my dad was a preacher. Now, you can imagine what shape he was to preach that Sunday service. That wasn’t the only service he had to preach. In the afternoon, he had to preach eight miles away at Rudolph. Then he had to preach at Sherry, another ten or twelve miles away, and then come back nineteen miles –a distance of almost forty miles and three sermons –to come home. And how much sleep did he get? I have a feeling, and he’s been kidded about it, that it was a good thing the horse knew the way. Let me tell you, the roads were terrible. I often went off in the company of my dad in these trips. We had trails to follow. You couldn’t see the sky because the trees arched over. And we would hear bear and fox and wolves and things like that in the shrubs, and skunks sometimes. We’d have to take our clothes off outside before we could get inside.
HOWE: That is really something. Tell me a little more about your dad.
BITTNER: Oh, my father was born in Brown Deer, Wisconsin July 4, 1864. Brown Deer lies just north of Milwaukee on the Milwaukee River. And his father settled there in 1844. At the time, Wisconsin was a territory. It wasn’t even a state. It became a state in 1848. And they had thirteen children, ten of them boys, three girls. And my father was the second youngest. My grandfather and grandmother were very religious, and they said they were going to give their last two boys an education to serve the church. So it was decided that my father would become a minister. And so he was a real student –a very intelligent man in languages. He could speak English, German, Hebrew, Greek, Latin. And when he would prepare a sermon, an important one, he’d often go back to the original Greek because he says there’s too much lost in translation. And he taught Latin for one year at Northwestern.
HOWE: And what about your mom?
BITTNER: My mother was born in Germany and came here as a babe right after the Civil War. They first settled in Buffalo for a little while and then they went to Watertown, Wisconsin. She became a professional seamstress and must have had talent because my sisters were always the envy of every child at school because of the clothes they wore. She could do so much with material, design and so on that others could not do, that it always looked so professional that it was an art. My sisters were the envy of others. At the age of sixty-five, my sister, who’s also a water colorist, took my mother with her one day when she was going to paint watercolor. And she said, “Mom, I want you to sketch this scene while I draw.” She sketched, and do you know that that was a wonderful sketch. A person who had never taken any lessons in sketching, at the age of about sixty-five, had rendered a scene that was –I would have been proud of it.
HOWE: It was a natural talent.
BITTNER: She had ability that she never explored. And I said, “Mom! Goodness sakes. We’ve missed the boat. You should have been in the art field.”
HOWE: Tell me about some of your early recollections with your family.
BITTNER: Well, I think my earliest recollections go back to about 1901. We had a parsonage that was next to the church. Back in the church, there was a sort of a depression, and when it rained really hard, water would collect there. My next younger brother, who was still wearing diapers –I took him by the hand and we waded through that water, and the water came up to his navel. And I’ll tell you, I got a real ______ spanking for that. So that seemed to have stayed with me because of the fact that I did something that was foolish. I was too young to be doing anything like that because he could have fallen down in the water and I wouldn’t have known what to do with him. Then the next thing I remember, my brother who became the minister –he was the oldest brother; he celebrates his eighty-sixth birthday December 5th -he was quite an athlete. He was always doing things that were unpredictable. We had three horses. Besides teaching, my dad taught school. (sic) So, you see, he didn’t have much to do. And then he also ran a farm to make ends meet. And so one noon, he takes one of our horses and leads it through the school. He goes into the back, up and down the aisles and up front. We had a family that did not need any neighbors because we always had something going on and something doing.
HOWE: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
BITTNER: There were five boys and three girls. And I happened to be the middle one.
HOWE: How did you usually spend your Sundays?
BITTNER: Well, I don’t know what it was, but I traveled an awful lot with my dad. Now, was it just because of the years or was it because I was always the sort of a fiery sort of fellow wanting to do things? I always had ideas. I was always getting into things. Maybe he liked my attitude. I don’t know. He never said anything. I was always with him. Now, can you imagine hearing a sermon in German –which I didn’t understand –in the morning, hearing it again in Rudolph, Wisconsin, eight miles away, hearing it again at Vesper where Sherry, ten to twelve miles away, and then coming home, sleeping alongside of him on the way home? So that, generally, was my Sunday. Sometimes it would vary. Sometimes we’d go to Port Edwards. Sometimes we’d into Tustin. My dad was quite a preacher, and he was in great demand. He just simply worked too hard. He gave too much, and he didn’t realize that he was undermining his health by doing what he was doing.
HOWE: Was he Lutheran?
BITTNER: Yes. He was a Lutheran minister. Imagine, he was only getting three hundred dollars a year at that time. This is back in 1903. The going was rough. One day, a man came to him and said, “Reverend Bittner, I’d like to get married.” “Well, that’s fine.” He said, “Could you come to my farm? We live near Nekoosa. Could you perform the ceremony?” “Oh, I’d be happy to do it. Give me directions.” So he gave him directions and, well, he knew when he got across the Wisconsin River he had to go south. And, well, it was an evening wedding and it was long. It became darker and darker, and then all of a sudden the horse stopped and he didn’t know where he was. He was at the end of the trail. And what to do? It was almost eight o’clock then already, and the wedding was supposed to be at eight. He climbed a high pine tree and there, about a quarter of a mile away, he saw a light. Somehow he worked himself around that bar fence, got over to the farmer’s place, and he said to the farmer, “Could you direct me to the Friedrich farm?” “Oh, if you’re going to the wedding, you’re too late.” He said, “That wedding was supposed to take place at eight o’clock. It’s a little after eight right now.” He said, “No. That wedding hasn’t happened yet. I’m the pastor.” And then he said, “Oh. Let me put the saddle on my horse and then we’ll ride over there together.” So they, both on horseback, went to the other farm about a mile away. Well, the bride had already taken down—they were taunting the groom. No wedding tonight. But when my dad came, there was the greatest cheering that was ever heard in that area. And he married them. He hadn’t heard much about them, but a year later, he said, “Pastor, would you come to our house and baptize our first-born child?” He said, “Fine, I’ll do that.” So he went there. he baptized that boy, and that man turned out to be one of the greatest athletes in the world. His name was Ed “Strangler” Lewis. Now, that was not his right name. His right name was Friedrich. Mrs. Friedrich and my mother were very good friends. And many looked down upon Strangler Lewis because of his crushing method of strangling people in his wrestling. But in later years he was a real benefactor to the youth. He went around from high school to high school, to YMCAs and other places, made talks telling the young people what counted in life, how they should do it. You’d go to Port Edwards, which is only about two miles from Nekoosa, and this was told to me by our pharmacist, Keefer. Keefer told me there is a monument now erected in the park at Port Edwards honoring Strangler Lewis.
HOWE: You dad was the one that baptized him.
BITTNER: That’s right. Now, Strangler Lewis came to Chicago in 1923 to train for a match. I was too bashful—boy, I thought Strangler wouldn’t pay any attention to me, being a rough old wrestler. I should have gone to his training headquarters, introduce myself, but I didn’t. That’s one big regret I have had –that I didn’t do that.
HOWE: That’s a real interesting story. Now, you want to talk a little more about…
BITTNER: About my father? Yes. As I said, he had to keep making ends meet. Three hundred dollars a year income wasn’t enough. He was teaching and preaching, and then he bought a farm. Well, that was pretty tough doing all these things. And finally his health was failing, and he had a nervous breakdown. I remember that so well, when the doctor was there and he said, “Well, Reverend Bittner, you’ve got to take it easy. You can’t continue as you have. You’ve got to quit some of these things.” As a result, my dad asked for another location for where he’d only have one congregation to serve. And as a result, he got a call to Mayville, Wisconsin. We moved to Mayville, Wisconsin, in 1904. That was an unusual community –eighteen saloons and two breweries, population of two thousand people. It was the town where they manufactured pig iron and coke. It had a mixture of people, but most of them were German descent and only spoke German. And they were the highbrow Germans who left Germany because of the political problems it had, and the established – scholars and butcher shops and everything –they were the merchants. They had their Turner Hall, they had Donnachor, their women’s glee club, Mennerchor, the men’s glee club, and they had turning festivals and so on. I tell you, you were living in Germany –the whole swooshal activity surrounded that particular group of people. We were not in Mayville too long when my dad died at the age of forty-four. Here we were –eight children. The oldest, about nineteen years old and no income.
HOWE: Were you old enough to work then?
BI1TNER: Not quite. I’ll tell you, we had to do some scrapping. I got my first job right after my confirmation. I was confirmed rather early. I was confirmed at the age of twelve because of being a son who lived with a pastor. I heard legend all the time, and I knew my catechism like no one. I’m getting ahead of my story. I had to learn German to play with the kids in the street. That was sort of a handicap, but still I think I was a heck of a lot smarter in those days than I am now. I got my first job in a German newspaper office –the Dodge County Pioneer. I set type by hand. I know what a stick is, I know what a galley is, I know what twelve point is, I know what sixteen point is. I’ve gone through all of that because that was ______ printer in those days. I worked there before and after school. And then I changed jobs and I worked for the other German newspaper office –two German newspaper offices, one English newspaper office that could barely make its goal. It had a circulation of about 8- or 900 while the German newspapers had a circulation around 3,000. So here at the Dodge County Pioneer, I became very proficient in German. I worked before school and after school. I worked on Saturdays. We had an editor who had a doctor of jurisprudence, a university in Germany. It escapes my mind right now, but it was one of the high- ranking universities. It may come to me. And he was such a well-educated man that I just worshipped him. He was offered, for instance, being the head of the department of German at the University of Wisconsin but he turned it down. He wanted to be with his own people right there in Mayville. One day, I came into the office with a book under my arm. He said, “Vic, what do you got there?” I said, “The Merchant of Venice.” He said, “My old friend Shakespeare. I’ll ask you to read any line anywhere in that book. I’ll tell you who said it, I’ll tell you what chapter, and I’ll tell you who said it. I tried again and again. He said, “You know, we Germans, we study Shakespeare more intensely than English. It isn’t just Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice is from Italy. You name it, I can tell you.” So, you see, he gave me a real inspiration insofar as knowledge is concerned.
HOWE: Tell me some more about your youth now.
BITTNER: Well, as a teenager, I was doing everything. As I told you before, I had a very lively spirit. I had to be in everything. I played shortstop and pitched for the high school. I played basketball. You probably won’t believe this. In one basketball game, I shot thirty-two field goals, sixty-four points, everyone was a field goal and not a single free throw. I had sixty-four points. I set a record that has not been beaten since that time. I didn’t miss any. They kept on feeding that ball to me, and it just went in. It was just like no effort on my part. It’s just like when you sign your name. That’s the way it was with me. Now, we had a very unfortunate situation when we had to leave the parsonage. We moved to a home on a bank of the Rock River in the city of Mayville. Here we have the Rock River at the end of our lot. Here’s where we did all of our skating and canoeing and swimming and things like that. Here, in back of us, were beautiful hills for skiing. So we did our skiing, we had our tobogganing, we had everything there. It was just the greatest place to live as a youngster. And I was in all of those things. If there’s one thing I really did well, it was the matter of skating. I did a lot of racing at the University of Wisconsin when I was there. Then when I got older, I found out that I couldn’t skate quite as fast as I used to anymore. I started figure skating. So I did a lot of figure skating. And what age do you think I skated my last time?
HOWE: I don’t know. Tell me.
BITTNER: Seventy-seven. I took Bobby King with me because I hadn’t skated for about six to seven years and I thought, Bobby, you come along in case I need you, in case I fall down. At first, I tell you, it was difficult for the matter of balance, because skating is the matter of balance. And I had that down to perfection. But after a half an hour, I could do things. And the fellow on the ice said, “Hey there, Grandpa! Don’t skate so fast!” Well, when I skated, this was the sort of free skating where I would ride the runner on the back inner side on the back outer side, the front inner side, the front outer side –and so this to make my skates do various things. I curved in and out among the missing the people, and this guy was afraid I was going to be hitting someone. And so it’s too bad. I’ve been thinking several times, should I go back and try it once more? But maybe I should spare my loins. In addition, as I said, we had some excellent hills for skiing. The last time I skied was when I was the age of sixty-six at Fox River Grove. Our little town of Mayville was very tennis-conscious. My oldest brother, who is the minister and who’s quite a baseball pitcher, he pitched for his college team –he was quite an athlete and taught me how to pitch and how to play tennis. And with his help in doubles, we cleaned up anything and everything around.
HOWE: Were you in high school by this time?
BITTNER: Yes. I was in high school by this time. As I said before, I was an eager beaver and I had to get into everything –plays, oratorical contests, you name it. One of the greatest things I ever got out of high school was this –freshman year I entered the oratorical contest. It was open to all the members of the school. At the contest, I delivered Patrick Henry’s address, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Since I am quite an emotional guy, I could really give it emotionally, and just a freshman getting up there and doing that in what he could do. And in this contest were professors of the principal’s son, a senior. He’s going to go to the law school. Well, when the decision was rendered, I took first place. He took third. I felt sort of a bad feeling there for a while, but later one, everything was okay. But, you know, that was such a shock to me that I as a freshman could do that. And, of course, thereafter I had entered other oratorical contests, and I have won first place in the county, and I went to the district and won there also. I didn’t make it to the state.
HOWE: Tell me some more about your high school.
BITTNER: We had, of course, basketball and baseball, which were our main sports. And then, of course, in the evening everybody came down the river and skated. And we did a lot of skating and swimming as a group. The bathhouse was only about 500 to 600 feet from our place. Of course, we just used our own home for changing clothes. We had well-qualified principal. He was a man that was a father to everyone. He gave us advice that was so helpful later on in college. His name was Keeley, Professor Keeley, and he was a lawyer by training, but preferred to teach. He was a master at speaking. And everyone got lectured. They were always so wonderful mainly because kids need –he knew that many kids came from homes where the father and mother could not correct the children in the right channels, so we got that help from him. Then I graduated in 1916, and I left the old German printing office and went looking for a better-paying job. And this was during World War I. We were not in it at that time. And it wasn’t progress in Europe, however, and I took the job at the coke plant. Since we lived in a German community, loyalty to the United States, its cause, was questioned, and this bothered me. I volunteered for the Armed Forces. I was stationed at Camp Bradley, Peoria, Illinois, and I was retained there several times to give post order drills and to run the camp while they changed every two months for the new group coming in. It was at Camp Bradley that they finally told me, “You’re going to the officer’s training camp.” Well, nothing happened. All the sudden, if you wanted to visit your family, anyone who wants to go home for a week can do so. And what happened is this, they had word of the armistice already and didn’t tell us. And so I went home, and the day I had to leave Mayville to go back, the armistice was announced on November 11, and I celebrated in Milwaukee. It was _______ there. Oh, I tell you. Girls came around hugging me and kissing me. They treated anyone in uniform. ..
BITTNER: Now, I never got to officer’s training camp because of the Armistice. And I was discharged about a week later and went back to my old job at the coke plant. But I should mention this, that we had a terrific flu epidemic at Camp Bradley. And over half of the soldiers were sick in bed at one time with the flu. I contracted the flu, I think, probably the very first one. My brother, who was a pharmacist, advised me to take aspirin. I didn’t have any, but I hailed a woman who was across the street to come to the camp and asked if she would go to the drug store and get me some aspirin. She did that. I had aspirin and, 10 and behold, in a few days, I got over this. But then I had to take care of the sick. And finally, my last assignment was taking the very sick –those that had pneumonia –to the hospital. And many of these dear friends of mine I never saw again. Now, I did now get to the University of Wisconsin after three years of interruption because of money and because of the fact that the war intervened. And the state of Wisconsin is a very nice thing. It gave each soldier one dollar a day for every day he attended the school of higher learning ______.And you know, that was enough money, in those days, to buy my meals. One dollar a day, in 1918, bought my meals.
HOWE: Did you live at home?
BITTNER: I lived at home, but I roomed in a boarding house with my younger brother at the University of Wisconsin. And there I met an unusually fine group of young people. We organized a Lutheran fraternity. Outside of that, I didn’t do much because the course I was taking was a very difficult one, and I had to spend a lot of attention studying because of the assignments that we were getting.
HOWE: What was the name of the fraternity? ~
BITTNER: Delta Phi Epsilon. It has gone .My life at the university was really uneventful. However, I did one thing. A pastor came to me one evening and called on me. He was a Lutheran pastor and said, “I’m trying to found a Lutheran student church here at the university. Won’t you help me?” I said, “Certainly.” And so with the friends that I knew, we had a nucleus of Lutherans that became the first Lutheran student church in America, I believe. During the first year, I was on the board of directors. The second year, I was its president. And then the next year I graduated. But outside of that, I didn’t do much at the University of Wisconsin.
HOWE: Where did you go to work?
BITTNER: Well, there wasn’t much work at that time. We were in sort of a depression. But there was a friend of mine who graduated from the University of Wisconsin, who was working with the People’s Gas, Light and Coal Company on a special assignment, and he let me know about it. He said, “Come down here for an interview.” So I went down there before the final examinations were written. I was accepted. And going back was one of those hot June days. I was on my way to North Western Station, and I said to myself, “Gee, I’m going to go back to this dirty, muggy place. Who wants to work here?” But then I began to think about it. Okay, jobs aren’t plentiful. You better stick to it. So I went back. That, then, became my permanent employment until I retired.
HOWE: What were you thinking about when you got married?
BITTNER: You know, this is the first time I was free –when I didn’t have to keep my nose to the grindstone. And we were enjoying Chicago. It was a new city, for me. And I had a cousin who said to me, “Vic, you’re old. You ought to get married.”
HOWE: How old were you?
BITTNER: I was about twenty-seven when I got married. And you know, that woke me up. He said, “I know of a girl that you should marry.” _______ And it was the daughter of a Lutheran minister who lived on North A venue. She was a very nice girl –gifted and all that. But for some reason, I enjoyed her company, but it was a time that I felt really at home. However, there was a young girl there who always made it a point to open the door, and she was really nice. I had a friend then who came to Chicago and graduated at mid-semester and he lived with us. I said to him, “How would you like to double date? I know a nice girl. You take her and I’ll take another girl living there and we’ll go out.” He said, “Sure.” So I called up Esther, the girl I was dating, and I said, “Say, I have a friend Leo. He just graduated from the University of Wisconsin. He’d like to go out, and I don’t know any girls. Would you mind dating him?” She said, “No. That would be fine.” I said, “He’s a fine fellow. I can vouch for that. I know him.” I said, “By the way, that leaves me out. But there’s another girl in the house. I don’t know who she is. Maybe she wouldn’t mind going.” She said, “Oh, Meta. I’ll ask her. Yes, she’ll go out.” So we went out together and, well, I switched horses in the middle of the stream and started to go out with Meta steadily. It wasn’t long. The whole household was down on her. The father, the pastor, should have known better than ______. They made it so rough on her, she had to move. And she, luckily, had a lot of friends that were in school, and she found a very nice place in the state, out in Oak Park. And that’s where she went and that, of course, brought us closer together. And then that resulted ultimately in marriage.
HOWE: That was a real interesting courtship, though, wasn’t it?
BITTNER: It was.
HOWE: You went on afterwards and had a family.
BITTNER: Yes. We had one son. Now, my wife taught a couple of years after we got married. And then we had one son. This is a funny thing — the head of the school had his principalship changed, and the new principal didn’t think that a married woman should be teaching there because the children would be looking at her wondering when she’s going to be pregnant. So he asked her whether she would resign at the end of the year. Well, that was all right with us. We didn’t care. But it shows you how times have changed. So, I told you in the interview that our son was born April 19, on a Sunday morning just as the sun was rising. And then half a year later, of course, we found that that little apartment of ours was too small. We had to get out. And I bought a lot. I bought this lot right here, 300 West Melbourne, from Besander. And of course —
HOWE: You know what? Excuse me for interrupting, but you know he sold us our lots too.
BITTNER: Oh he did?
HOWE: That was in the fifties, though.
BITTNER: And I said, “We want to find out if we want that place.” We knew Al Hackey was out here. I said, “Listen. Live there for a while.” Okay. So we moved into the apartment above the Gift Box. And that was on Main Street. It was a seven-room house, and there were less than a thousand people here.
HOWE: What was it like living here in Mount Prospect at that time?
BITTNER: This was a radical change that we made. We had no friends. Meta cried. She could not speak German. The next-door neighbor could speak no English. Most of the communication in the business establishments were in German. Going three blocks in and direction from the business area, you’d see nothing except sidewalks and paved streets, no buildings. And there was one train that we caught at seven-thirty in the morning. Oh, the men were so polite in those days. There were five coaches. They let all the ladies get on first because we didn’t have to worry about seats, you know. And there was only one church in town. That was St. Paul’s Church. And all the services were held in German except one was held, once a month on a Sunday evening, that was held in English. People were kind to us and soon we were treated just like natives and I was, in fact, ______. Now, the farmers in this area transacted most of their business in town. I have knowledge of them running large accounts. They wouldn’t pay for their bills during part of the winter or spring and summer until their harvest came in. And then they’d pay it in large sums of money. I know of bills of up to a thousand dollars being paid. And, oh boy! That was a big day. Meeske and the whole staff would celebrate when the farmer paid his bill. And this happened one day when I was in there -I said, “Say, Meeske. You’re a ______ and giving him credit, and here I’m paying you cash every time I buy something. When in the dickens are we going to be treated alike?” Well, he gave me a gift. He said, “I never thought of that. I never realized that we were not treating folks alike here. I hope this will make up for it.” And, as I said before, this was an onion center. And there were a number of large onion sheds in the area, west of Wille and south of Central Street. In the fall, the North Western Railroad parked railroad cars on the sidings of farms, for farmers to load them with shipper beets and other things. I might mention that while we were living there on Main Street, looking west, there was a triangular piece of property bounded by Main Street, Busse and Northwest Highway. When we were looking through the papers of the Myan estate, I found a receipt for taxes, back taxes and penalty. That triangular piece of property was sold for four dollars and something like eighty-nine cents –I’m not sure of the cents –for back taxes and penalties. And can you imagine what that could sell for now. Here it was right in front of our nose and we didn’t realize. Now, the city had its public school as well as the Lutheran school and, prior to our arrival, the beginning of the high school. We knew most of the people in town and we really liked the community. And Melbourne and Elmhurst was our home. We moved into it in 1934. As we moved here, there were only two buildings in this area. Everything was wide open. We had vacant land all around. In the later years, we’d lost our loved wide-open space for the construction one-by-one of house after house. And finally we were completely surrounded with buildings. I was still working for the gas company in 1937, and I was promoted and placed in charge of providing natural gas to Kokomo, Indiana. We didn’t want to have it, but we got it by trade somehow. Now, this involved the laying of gas mains and converting the existing gas supply to one of a natural gas supply. I was away from home about three months at that time doing that job. At about this time, I was put in charge of all engineering, planning and budgeting for all the expanding natural gas sales in Chicago. The job also included extensive engineering and planning for work created by the Chicago subway system –and later, all the expressways, the cost of which ran into millions of dollars to the city of Chicago.
HOWE: What were some of your other activities?
BITTNER: Now I began to participate in the activities of the American Gas Association and a little later in the American Standard Association. I was elected chairman of many committees in the American Gas Association. The most important and prestigious was the one where I was responsible for the operating sections of the American Gas Association, consisting of some five thousand members. Then my job was to report to the board of directors, and that was the highest that one could obtain at that time, beyond being a board member. Other jobs like vice-president of a section of the American Standard Association was also a challenging one. U.S. Representative Hessleton of Massachusetts wanted Congress to pass laws to regulate the gas industry. The industry said, “No. Let us do it.” So it was agreed that we do it subject to their approval. A committee was formed to write a code to regulate the safety of gas transmission and distribution mains. This committee was composed of the best consultants in the country –professors from university who were best informed in regard to these matters and engineers from various engineering schools and the top men of the industry. We met often and after three years produced a code acceptable to Congress, to Canada, to other countries in the world, and you might say it established a code that was generally acceptable to the industry throughout the world. The two jobs, in addition to my work in Chicago, gave me considerable national exposure and in addition required much travel. I always took Meta with me, and we enjoyed the company of nationally important people in most of the large cities and important resort hotels in the nation.
HOWE: What about your other travels? I know you like to travel abroad and around the world and so on.
BITTNER: Well, I’ll you. These ________ matters. They really whetted our appetite. We really considered travel seriously. We crossed the Atlantic twenty-six times. And we visited every country in Europe, all important islands of the world –including even Fiji, where a hundred years ago they were man-eaters –every important country in South America and Central America. We visited Egypt, Morocco, Africa, Asia Minor as well as Asia, Australia, Japan. You’d be surprised at what the Japs did for me. They visited me just a year before I retired. I told them I had planned a trip there and they said, “Let us know when you come.” So, here ______ Osaka and Tokyo gas company, together with Mitsubishi trading corporation, took us in -and furnished us with chauffeured cars and guides. It was almost unbelievable. At one location, I believe it was Onara, we had the geisha girls entertain us who just a .short time before entertained Senator Robert Kennedy. The lavishness of the entertainment by the Japanese was in response, I said, to the visits that they made at in coming to see me here in America. It was my pleasure to advise, help and entertain many people from many countries like Canada, England, Germany and France and Argentina. When the Argentine representative who worked for the governor heard that I was retiring, he wanted to hire me as a consultant to go down there. But I refused to do that because I had my…
HOWE: Were you active in any other affairs here in the Chicago area?
BITTNER: Yes. There was one responsibility in Chicago, not directly connected with the gas company, which gave me pleasure. I was a member of the board of directors of the First Central Association. This was a group of businessmen who had business establishments and business interests in the area, bounded by the river on the east, Ashland west, south by Roosevelt Road and north by the railroad tracks. This was an area that was going to pieces. There were so many robberies that people refused to work there –going to and from work, they were being robbed. They had special police assigned to help the people. Our organization was trying to see what we could do to help these people. We had a survey made. Now, for this reason –skid row was ______ at that time. See, this goes back about some twenty years ago. We had a survey made and we found out that 65 percent of the people in skid row were not alcoholics. They were people who were so poor they could not afford to live any other place in these areas. That was the cheapest place to live. And the other 35 percent was made up of bums, transients and alcoholics and so forth. We had a problem there, and we had been doing some work in trying to see what we could do to relieve the pain of some of these people and get them a better place to live their many lives. These meetings are where we met monthly. We would meet Mayor Daley, city planners and also planners from the state of Illinois, and also U.S. planners we’d have come in and talk to us. It was quite a find. The results and the improvements that took place –because you go down there now, you will see large buildings in many places just west of the river that did not exist at that time that had replaced the slums and lousy things. Well, some of these buildings were even built above the tracks. But that was the up-growth of the work that we were doing in this association. So I’m not a stranger to planning it all together. Today you have the Gatewa~ Building and other high-rise buildings –many improvements because of our earlier efforts.
HOWE: Is there any particular job or work you like to think about?
BITTNER: My last job, just prior to retirement, was unappreciated and opposed by every one of superiors. One day, after sending many progress reports to the vice-president about these projects, he came to me and said, “Vic, forget about that big crosstown interstation system that you are planning.” I asked why. He told me he doesn’t know how to clean it, and we’re not going to spend any money like that. I said, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing. You are not going to be running this gas business in two more years unless you do something about adopting this system and installing this system. You will be up against it in rates and everything else, and you’re going to just be up against one hell of a big problem unless you do something. Give me one hour. Give me one hour. I’ve made a lot of starts.” I had some of the best brains in the gas company –fellows that had master degrees that I put to work on this. It outlined them. I’ve shown the difficulty that we have, what we have to solve and so forth. And then it finally got to the point where one of these men had a breakthrough. He was able to do some of these things on IBM machines, and we were the first in the United States to do gas network problems with IBM machines. No one who is _____ acquainted with the network system and the difficulties in working them out will appreciate what a great clue that was and what a wonderful thing it was. “I’ll give you that hour. I’ll call you.” So he prolonged the -of the company and one hour, I talked and I talked and I talked and told him about all the needs and what would happen if they didn’t do this and that and so on and so forth. Finally, the vice-president said, “This has been a wonderful study. I’m going to the chairman of the board and tell him we will fail to supply Chicago with gas in two years unless we get started on this system immediately.” Incidentally, the cost of this project was 26 million dollars. I told them, “Get started. You’ll do one third next year, one third the next winter.” They followed my recommendations, and the system has been installed and I talked to the president in the meantime. And one vice- president told me, “Vic, this is the biggest that even happened in a gas company since 1908,” and so I was very happy. And you know, I had only seven more months before retiring. The next paycheck I got was the biggest paycheck and raise that I ever received in my life.
HOWE: What else were you doing around the town here?
BITTNER: Many years ago, I was an average photographer. I was a member of the Chicago Camera Club and I advanced in photography very quickly. I made straight enlargement, I made paper negatives, I made ______ oils, and all those things that the average photographer knows nothing about. I began throughout the United States in photographic _______ , competing with the best amateur photographers in the United States. I won a number of awards. I even went competing against Dr. Max Thoruc and Dr. Poundstone and others considered among the best in the country. For a number of years, until I took up painting, I was listed in the American Annual on Photography’s “Who is Who” in amateur photography.
HOWE: Tell me about your watercolors and oils now.
BITTNER: I could effectively manipulate photographs –take out telephone poles, put in trees or whatever I wanted to do. But I was limited in what I could do because of the nature of the medium. Meta solved that problem when I was recovering from an operation. She purchased my first set of oils and, of course, some instructions, and I began painting. I was so frustrated in painting my first picture –of course, I wasn’t quite well yet. I was ready to quit. I recuperated, and I was urged to try it again. To my surprise, things began to go a little bit better and easier. I finished a number of pictures after that. And then I heard of Grace Hemingway. And a good friend of mine knew her. I went to Grace Hemingway, the mother of Ernest Hemingway, the author, and I took oil painting lessons from Grace Hemingway. That picture there and another one in the hall are two …
BITTNER: My work and objectives at the People’s Gas, Light and Coal Company made me responsible of many matters on a national level. And I regret that this gave me little time to enter into local activities to a greater extent. However, Meta more than made up for my inability to participate in community affairs. I don’t know if you remember Ivan Besander? He tried his darndest to get me to run for alderman. And when the Busses heard that, oh, they were in uproar and they came and said, “Vic, you can’t do that. You’re a Republican.” Well, and the thing is this –Ivan Besander became president, and if I had run with him on his ticket even though I was a Republican, but politics should not have entered in on this at all at that time. But they saw a thing there that. ..
HOWE: Well, I think you’re being overly modest anyway because you’ve been very active in the Art League, ever since I can remember when it started.
BITTNER: Well, I can probably tell you a little more about that some other time.
HOWE: How about a few words about yourself?
BITTNER: Well, I’m not going to say much right here except as a tie-in that I was known as Mrs. Bittner’s husband. After graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 1923, I accepted employment with the gas company in Chicago. My work soon got me involved in the American Gas Association, in which I held a number of chairmanships and also in the American Standards Association, where I served as vice-president of one of its sections. The activities required considerable travel throughout the United States. Whenever possible, I took Meta with me, thereby enjoying the hospitality of the country’s finest resorts and hotels. This whetted our desire for overseas travel. We visited all countries in Europe and all important countries and islands in the world. Our last, planned in connection with our fiftieth wedding anniversary, was a sea voyage around South America. This didn’t come to pass because of Meta’s untimely death.
HOWE: Tell me a little bit more now about son and his family.
BITTNER: Well, my son was born April 19, 1931, in West Suburban Hospital, Oak Park, Illinois. It was six o’clock in the morning and I was in the delivery room, and I can still see that sun coming up just as young Vic shouted to let the world know that he was alive. Well, as I said before, a half year later, we moved to Mount Prospect, and it was really in our home here at 300 West Melbourne where he grew up. There were no homes around here at that time but one home in this block. Everything from home to the North Western Station was vacant. We crossed the fields. We had a path. There was nothing that obstructed us. The Lutheran church up there and all the other structures –there was nothing there. This, at first, seems strange –but you know, finally, we felt that a house being built here and another one there was an infringing upon our rights to enjoy the wide-open space, and we didn’t like that quite so much. But yet we had some wonderful neighbors here –most of whom have died or moved away. And I am about the only lone person. Now, my son got married.
HOWE: Where did he go to school, first of all?
BITTNER: He went to Northwestern. He wanted to play football in the worst way, and he was asthmatic. And we had one awful time raising that child, because Dr. Custer told us, “You’ll never raise him,” because his asthma was so severe. Meta was up every half hour for weeks in a run to give him adrenaline to keep him alive. And, well, he survived. He did play football in Arlington High and was a very good defensive end. And he wanted to play football at Northwestern. I said, “No. With you having to take adrenaline and then the additional energy you have to expend playing, that’s going to be too much for your heart, and I will not permit it.” And so he didn’t and to date he says, “Dad, it’s a good thing you did what you did.” He got married to a young lady from Lincoln, Illinois. Her name is Jean. ..
HOWE: You’ll think of it.
BITTNER: Isn’t that funny!
HOWE: We all do that.
BITTNER: And she was TWA airline hostess and a very nice-looking girl. And they met through mutual friends. And then they got married. And, well, what should they do except to take a flight for a honeymoon, and it was a flight overseas. Well, I helped them a bit on that. And so they took their honeymoon overseas. Their first child was Margaret. She was a delicate blond. And then a little over a year later, Betsy was born. Now, these girls have grown up, and both are beautiful girls. They are really a credit to the family. Betsy has been asked again and again to model, but the family just will not permit it. Margaret now is in her third year at the University of Illinois at Normal, Illinois. Betsy chose not to go to school. She was not very much interested in school, although she finished high school. She is now attending a riding academy at LaCrosse, Wisconsin, at which place she is getting a credit at the University of Minnesota for this course. And they are teaching her everything about training horses, breaking in horses, teaching them the various ways of running along and teaching her how to judge, how to run a riding academy and things of that sort. Oh, she’s so happy about it that she’s on cloud ten right now.
HOWE: Where does your son live now?
BITTNER: They live in Elmhurst, and they have lived there quite some time. He’s been very fortunate boy. He attended university at Northwestern. He entered the school of journalism and, of all things, he did write very well. He has written all kinds of poetry that we’ve saved, and I have now given it to him again. I had tried to encourage him to continue to write poetry, but he quit after he finished university. But he could have written some very, very beautiful and worthwhile things because he showed that in his writings. And Howard, he took ______ well, diversified chorus that would give him the ability to get into business in various lines—salesmanship or anything else. And so he got himself a job with Commerce Clearing House. He was the youngest man that Commerce Clearing House ever hired. When he called for an appointment, the first question that the manager of the Chicago asked was, “How old are you?” He said, “Twenty-three.” “Man,” he said, “didn’t you read our ad? Our ad said ‘No one under thirty-three need apply’.” My son answered calmly, “I can sell. Now if you want to turn down a good salesman, you say. But if you want someone who can sell and will be a credit to your organization, you will have an interview with me.” He said, “Come down and see me.” He was hired. He was the youngest man that they ever hired. Later on, he became manager of that sales office. Now, he is an official of the company. He’s in charge of forty district sales-offices in the United States. He travels quite a bit throughout the United States and has quite a bit of responsibility. And he told me in a sort of soulful voice, “Dad, it looks like I must look for a tax shelter.” I said, “Oh, boy.” Aren’t you something else.
HOWE: What were some of the businesses that were here in the 1930s?
BITTNER: Well, I would like to go into some of those things at a later date. I can talk about these things. We had a hardware store, we had a very good grocery store- Meeske’s. It was the finest grocery store in the area. They got customers from distances as far as ten miles away. And the most unusual thing about this store was this –when we started to shop there, all we could hear was German. And German was spoken. ________ And so on. But to me, I understood everything, but Meta didn’t. The first days were very difficult on Meta. She cried because she had no one she could speak to. The woman next door could speak no English. Here she was with a young child, half year old, with an apartment to be put in order because we had just moved in, and she was crying. Mrs. Besander happened to come in and find out. She then got her acquainted with people and straightened things out. But otherwise there wasn’t much here. There was one thing here, too. This was the onion center of the United States, you remember. There were onion sheds west of Wille and south of Central Avenue and they grew onions, and people from around about here, young people, would go out and weed onions. And then the farmers would harvest their onions in fall. You know, those farmers would not pay any money to the merchants during the early spring and summer season until the harvest. They’d run up their bills. Some of them, as much as 8- and 900 dollars. And then when they paid their bills, Meeske used to make a lot ado about it, give them cigarettes –he’d give them candy and everything else. I said, “Fred Meeske, what kind of a businessman are you? Here, I’d been paying cash for everything I buy. And I don’t even get a stick of gum. And here you’re giving them credit.” Well, the first thing you know, he gave me a box of candy.
HOWE: We really appreciate your time. ..
BITTNER: There’s one thing –this is hearsay, but I think it is true. Noble Pfeffer, I believe, was county superintendent of schools. He came out here probably about the time that I, or a little before, wanted to buy a lot. He went to old George Busse –not the George Busse we know who belongs to the Historical Society, but his father –and he said to Mr. Busse, “I’d like to buy a lot here.” He said, “Why do you want to buy a lot here for?” He said, “These are Germans. They’re all Lutherans. You don’t belong here.” He probably didn’t say it in quite that gruff a manner, but he did say it to get that sort of a story. And that, supposedly, was the true fact. And here we had quite a town when we moved in. We had a lot of paved streets and sidewalks, but no buildings. The Depression came along, everything stopped. The year I built this house, there were only two homes built in this town. And it took a lot of nerve to get the building started.
HOWE: Did you go into the World’s Fair?
BI1TNER: Yes I did. And I was in charge of the gas supply to the World’s Fair. And I have a couple of pictures upstairs that I’m going to give to the Historical Society that I took at that time of the World’s Fair. They aren’t the world’s best, but I’ll go into photography some other time and tell you something about it. But I’m going to donate those to the Historical Society . Now, I was in charge of bringing the gas supply in there to see that every building got gas and the proper amount for heating, for cooking, whatever need. I had a pass that allowed me to go in and out in everything everywhere all the time. There was only one place, the Belgium village, that they ever questioned me in regard to the authenticity of the pass and the right to be doing these things.
HOWE: Well, Vic, thank you. And we’ll sign off. This portion of the tape will complete the interview with Victor Bittner. And so we would like to take up just about where we were talking about the watercolors.
BITTNER: I had just been speaking about the work I had been doing in oils, and I took up the suggestion of my friend and began seriously working in watercolors. He assured me, “I know you well enough to know that you will be very successful in it.” And I only painted two more oils thereafter. One is the old St. Paul church which hangs in the new St. Paul Church at the present time. Well, then I really painted, whenever I had a leisure moment, in watercolors. I was one of the early members of the Mount Prospect Art League and became its second president. By this time, we, the Art League, were doing well and had members from all of the adjacent communities. I exhibited extensively –so much, in fact, that right after retirement, I could not produce all the pictures that I could sell. Of course, I have materially increased my prices. But in place, I chose to exhibit less often. One time, when I was exhibiting in Barrington, a woman wanted a particular picture of mine, and I said, “Look. I’ve got to have something for Golf Mills. Look, I’m selling everything out here. I’ll boost the price up, double the price and then after exhibiting at Golf Mills, I’m going to call you and you can pick up the picture.” I go to Golf Mills and I start putting up my pictures. And one of the first pictures I put up was the one I boosted the price to double. And a girl comes along a buys it. I never had the nerve to talk to her again, and she never got in touch with me again. But it shows you. A friend of mine had that very same experience. He said, “When I doubled my prices, I sold more pictures.” And I’ve had a number of people complain that I do not charge enough for my watercolors. But I said, “I’d rather sell them than have them hanging around.” I exhibited extensively. I’ve won my share of prizes and have pictures throughout Illinois and Wisconsin. Some in Connecticut, in New York, Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado, Florida, Japan, Germany and Italy. I’ve painted for leisure, primarily. And for me, the rewards were more than worth the efforts put into it.
HOWE: I think our interview has been one of interest. People should know about the contributions that you and Meta have made, not only here but also for the whole entire Chicago area. I feel that as we do these interviews, it’s to our advantage because so many times, we don’t know what our senior citizens have really contributed. We thank you very much. We appreciate all the things that you and Meta have done.
BITTNER: I’d just like to say this. Meta always underplayed and things and, to a certain degree, I did the same thing. I never boasted about the things I was doing. For that reason, most people in town –people who knew me –really didn’t realize the work and the quality of the work that I was doing. And I said, “Sometimes I think it’s all wrong because here we’re doing this and nobody knows about it and it’s going to be buried. And I think we shouldn’t be quite so modest.” Meta said,”I don’t care. I hate a braggart.”
HOWE: Well, this isn’t bragging. This is what we call oral history, and this is what we wanted and we thank you very much.