On Selling Shoes and Penicillin

My father sold shoes. During the Depression, if you could find work, not working was not an option. He was in school but worked when he could. Everyone had to work. If you were fortunate enough to find a job, you worked. You may not have enjoyed your work but you enjoyed being able to eat. At the shoe store, my father learned to measure people's feet, how to make sure that the shoes fit properly and how unscrupulous salesmen would try to convince customers that ill-fitting shoes actually fit well. This was at a time when a shoe salesman actually helped the customer buy and properly fit shoes. The salesman would sit on a sort of lopped off triangular seat with a mirror on one side and on the slanted side the customer would place her foot. After measuring the foot for the proper size with a wonderful metal gizmo that worked for left and right feet, and for men and women, the salesman would go to the store room for some shoes. Upon returning, he would sit down on the lopped off triangular seat and ceremoniously remove the shoe from the tissue paper lined box. He would then carefully pick up the customer's foot and slide the shoe, with the use of a shoe horn, onto the customer's foot. Then he would repeat this with the customer's other foot. The customer would stand up and the salesman would gently squeeze the toes to see how much room was there, squeeze the widest part of the foot to see if that was in the proper place in the shoe and check the back of the shoe. Then they would sort of run both hands down the length of the shoe for some other sort of mysterious check Then, if the shoe seemed appropriately sized for the foot the customer would walk about admiring the shoes in the mirror. This job paid my father a wage but it did not provide joy or fulfillment.

To get to his job at the shoe store, my father rode the trolley car into town. He watched the other people on the trolley. These people on the trolley had the grim expressions of people on their way to jobs they didn’t like, to jobs where they worked hard for little pay and for little joy. He watched these faces. He brooded on these faces as he rode the trolley and determined that he would not settle for a lifetime with no joy. He decided that he needed a career that gave him joy and fulfillment. He decided that he would become a doctor. I believe those faces on that trolley may have taught him one of the best lesson of his life and he taught us what they taught him. Even as an old man, taking pride in checking our shoes for proper sizing, he told us about the people on the trolley to remind us to pursue endeavors that we loved and that gave us joy.

As World War II began, and young men were being wounded, the Army needed doctors and provided scholarships for medical students and so it was that my father was able to attend medical school at Temple University in Philadelphia. All the medical students studied hard. In addition to their passion for medicine, they also feared flunking out and then being drafted. These people wanted to be healers not fighters. He told me that once the armistice was signed the relief was palpable and seen in the lowered level of studying.

By the time he finished med school, the war was over but he was indebted to the army for his medical training and he was now an army doctor. During his internship in Philadelphia a young girl came into his care in the hospital suffering from pneumonia. He knew that this girl was facing a death sentence. There were no options but to wait, try to keep the fever down, keep her hydrated, but that without the grace of God, she had little chance of survival. He had heard about penicillin that had been devised and used by the military to fight infections in wounded soldiers. He had never used it, I don't know if it had ever been used in the hospital, may not even have been available outside of the war hospitals. Now with the war over, penicillin was beginning to be available. Having no other good options, he decided to try it on this girl. He talked with her mother. He told her mother that he could not promise a cure for her daughter but that the army had used penicillin with success in the war. The desperate mother agreed to try this new drug. The new drug was administered. He sat with the girl and waited, watched and hoped. Within a short time, a day or two, this girl who was certain to die, was doing the unbelievable. She was recovering. My father was a party to a miracle. He had brought a miracle to a young girl’s family. This experience should not have been hers or his. The young girl was supposed to die. My father was supposed to sell shoes in a joyless life of getting by. This miracle of penicillin touched them both. This young girl was given her life back. This young doctor, still in his twenties, who would be selling shoes were it not for the grim faces of his fellow trolley riders, was consumed by profound joy and awe. He rode home on the trolley that day, and through the rest of his life, in well-fitting shoes, with joy on his face and the memory of miracles deep in his heart.


My father, Tom McGavin (left), with Bill McKinney and their cadaver, in medical school

Jean McGavin
Bethlehem, CT 2011

Add your story to this page!

Comment on this Story

Add a New Comment

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License