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Interview with John Sedlak

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Sedlak, John ; Politylo, Nettie


John Sedlak discusses his upbringing in Endicott as one of seven children of Czechoslovakian immigrants, his work for Endicott Johnson stores as a shoe clerk, where he learned to understand Italian, Russian, and Polish. He tells of his work for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, including working with immigrants. He compares benefits of Endicott Johnson workers and IBM workers before WWII, and emphasizes the charitable work of George F. Johnson and the Endicott Johnson Corporation.




This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.

Date Modified


Is Part Of

Broome County Oral History Project


33:56 Minutes ; 11:52 Minutes


Broome County Oral History Project

Interview with: John Sedlak

Interviewed by: Nettie Politylo

Date of Interview: 3 February 1978

Nettie: This is Nettie Politylo, interviewer, talking to John Sedlak of O'Day Drive, Endicott, New York on Feb. 3, 1978. John, will you tell us about your life and experiences in the community?

John: Well, to begin with I'm the first generation in this country, my folks having come from Czechoslovakia about 1907 and I was born on Oak Hill Avenue and delivered by a midwife, one of seven children with the exception of one, all of us were delivered by midwives—ive of us are living—two brothers died shortly after birth. On my folks when they came to this country they did not come from Czechoslovakia, it was known then, as Austria-Hungary. As a result, they both spoke and wrote Hungarian as well as Slovak. And many times during our youth when they didn't want us kids to know what they are talking about—they would speak Hungarian. They even sang in Hungarian, that he's—I used to remember some of them but I can't say them now because I can't remember them. But, I believe my first recollection I have as a youth, I lived on Oak Hill Avenue up to a age of twelve—here our next door neighbors were Italian. They came on the same boats as the rest of the foreign people those days and yet, our parents, even though they were different nationalities we would have a good relationship with the Italian people by sign language if nothing else or with a few words of English that we learned at work and we had good relationships with these foreign neighbors who, when I say foreign neighbors, we were foreigners, too, or our parents were. And I recall, as a kid, Endicott Johnson was mainstay of this community, they were the biggest, the best and you thought nothing of, rather, you thought, not of going to work somewheres else, your ship was sighted towards gonna work for Endicott Johnson, unless you were going to be a professional person which was a rare thing so—we—ah—ah see what I want to say ah. I just want to recollect that the great benefactor, that the Mr. George F. Johnson, was because, as a youngster it—we were benefited with sleds, wagons, parks, and as I recall every school that went up in the community the Endicott Johnson Corporation or George F. Johnson himself was grant maybe about half the payments for school which reduced the tax for all the people in the community. Christmas time he gave shoes to all the school kids and it didn't make any difference where your parents worked he got a pair of shoes free. Great humanitarian! And occasionally maybe you ought to stop that thing.

Nettie: Take your time—relax—we'll just keep it going.

John: Well, no, I'm relaxed—the only thing I'm just trying to think what I should inject in your machine and it is picking up our conversation. (Laughing). I was just gonna say that I would recall the honesty of the working people. I have a good example of my own. One day my mother wanted to wash my clothes, I was then about 10 years old, I had picked up a couple of combs at the dime store which I didn't pay for. To make a long story short, my father said, "Take your pants off and give them to your mother to take them to scrub them on a scrub board at that time.” I took these combs out of my pocket and he saw them and asked me, "Where did you get them?" I had to tell him—I stole them. Well, he told me to change my clothes and he took me all the way down Oak Hill Ave, stood in front of dime store and he said, "Now, you go in and put them in—put them back,” and that's what I had to do. Now that was the greatest lesson of "not stealing" that I ever had because it put me in good stead because all my life after that I never had to worry about a job if—I—-handle a lots of money. I wasn't tempted to walk off with any of it because—it just didn't—he put that lesson so clearly to me—that your name meant so much—poverty isn’t that bad—as long as you had a place to sleep and you had enough to eat. I don't care what you ate, you can get by in this world, get by with soup every day of the week. You don't have to have steak, potatoes—so that rubbed off on me so deeply that I am now 66 and I never forgot that incident and haven't touched anything since. I don't mean to throw stones on anybody else—but I certainly used that as a comparison that you can get by—by working and saving and the things of life which you really need first, the other pleasures come when you have the money—if don't have ‘em—don't worry ‘em but enjoy your neighborhood, your friends close by. You don't have to travel the world over—in other words to think you're missing something, if you don't go to Spain, France or something—someplace like that. If you can, fine, like to go and got the money—go—really—but what I'm just saying—the best thing in the world, as far as I can see is to make friends in your immediate neighborhood, your community and enjoy them. And I wanted to mention something else, and we moved on the farm about 1923 because of my mother's health but that didn't work out too well. It was too far for my father to travel to work—Endicott Johnson so we moved back to Endicott on North Street, this time, from there I developed to adulthood.

Nettie: Is this about the time you were entering into the insurance business, John?

John: No, no I did not enter into insurance business until I worked for about 8 years with Endicott Johnson as a shoe clerk. I started on Washington Ave transfering to Johnson City for 2 years and from there I was transferred to a new store, which opened up on Odell Ave… They needed someone who could speak the Slav languages. Well I didn't like to take the job in the first place because actually there was a reduction in pay—at least they told me there wasn't gonna be—finally it turned out it was and I stood with it—but for five years but after I got there the work turned out to be very, very good, very interesting. The people would speak Slav or they understood me, anyway if they were Russian, or Polish, we would get by. But the greatest thing I can remember from that, that experience, rather, working in that shoe store was mostly this—that I had an Italian lady who recently had come from Italy, I say recently, she may’ve been here a year or so she had been in tie shoe store numerous times and after time she would ask for me and she would always speak in Italian. The manager was Italian but she didn't want him, I guess because of his forceful sales methods, his forceful way of selling a shoe. She didn't like it—she always, when she came in the door—she would tell me in Italian that she wanted me—I can even repeat that—"Beaj ju va" [sic]—and that was a strange relationship because I would talk to her—I knew how to say colors, like I could ask her if she wanted black, brown or white shoe. I'd sit her down, measure her feet and I'd even tell her the price in Italian and I got so, I was, that much I can get by with and she appreciated that much and we got along very well. And the reason I brought up this incident is the fact you show some compassion towards people and they responded in kind and it didn't make any difference what your nationality was as far she was concerned, made no difference to me that she was Italian. I just felt wonderful with that experience, here's a person in that store that speaks as well as good Italian as she could but she preferred me, of a Slav descent and she knew it. Though, that was one of the experiences I had in life there and as time went along I wanted to leave the store and go to the Washington Avenue store which I had started in many, many years back. There was a vacancy there—and it would pay me almost 50% more in pay and I got the OK from the district manager but then he referred me to the vice president of the company, Lawrence Merle and when I sat down and talked with him he said, "We built the North Side Store for North Side people—if I take you from there and put you down on Washington Avenue you’re going to pull some of that trade down there and we can't do that." I got up on my haunches about then and said, "Mr. Merle, most companies pay a person more money because they can speak more than one language and you are penalizing me." He says, "No, no, no." By that time I got up and in spite of this man's vice presidency in that corporation and overall command of all the stores in United States, I FELT PROUD BECAUSE I could get up and say what I thought. About a year later, I left the store because I figured that wasn't the proper treatment. When I gave my notice about a week before I was to have my final days, I got a phone call asking me if I would take the manager's job in Cleveland, Ohio which I refused because I had given Metropolitan a—my OK that I was coming to work for them. 

And even, there, I was hired because I could speak more than one language—they needed an agent who could speak other than English, In other words, the Slav language. And there again, it was in the same area as the shoe store. I got wound up with what they used to call it a debit in those days—a debit meant you had accounts, that were weekly, monthly, quarterly, semi or yearly and you collected mostly your money from the people on scheduled calls. I found out when I got the debit it wasn't as much Slav as I thought. I had almost as much Italian accounts but there again those same people were going to the shoe store, and they knew me, and I had a reasonable amount of success in the business of selling, regardless of what nationality there were. As I mentioned before you had we were not in full Depression at that time that, and this was in 1938, and still the country was not in a rosy condition either. We did have to collect some accounts every week, some people paid 2-3 dollars every week, those were big accounts. You try to equate that today, 2 - 3 dollars a week would mean about 20 dollars a week at least and those were pretty good size accounts, when you analyze them on today's market.

Some of the experiences there were—oh—let's see I had something in mind, Nettie—and I can't think of what I was going to mention—Oh—I recall—yes—I had a man who I always had a hard time collecting from him—seldom home and drank a lot and lots of times I let his account go—after stopping there—I would let it go until the last day and I would go 2 or 3 times, see if I could catch him home. This one night I decided, well, I've had it, I was going home. I had stopped previously there, he lived on the third floor. Before I came to—on my return trip home which was almost 9 o'clock that night I've had a glass of wine at the last place I collected, and just one glass.

I didn't know how to drink too much anyway, I came up to this fellow and he was giving me a hard time and I guess he could smell I had something to drink. We weren't supposed to drink. But this was the case, as I said, where the man—always giving me a rough time and here I was stopping, figuring I was going home, it was on my route home so I stopped because I could see a light on the third floor. I went up, I guess he paid me but don't remember that either except I do recall the next meeting, Friday of that week, we generally have meetings every Friday, the manager got up and he mentioned without mentioning names, he said, “One of you was reported to have been drinking this week. And I don't like that and this man didn't like it.” So I thought, "Ho, I bet they're talking about me." So when the meeting did break up, I did go into the manager·'s office and asked him if it was me. I gave him the circumstances. He says, "Johnny, we all drink but he says we never drink while you work.” He did tell me it was me. He didn't want to mention the man's name and I told him if it's this man and I told him the circumstances and what type of man that man was. We shook hands and that was it, the boss realized he just had a crank situation on his hands and told me to disregard it, he wasn't going to to make no report to the home office on that, so that's the way that situation ended.

Now as far as selling the foreign born, most of them came to this country not knowing what insurance was. They didn't have no such things in Europe in those days. If a person passed away there, the village carpenter in the smaller communities, made a pine box and they were buried. However they paid for in those years—in those countries, I don't know. So we had to instill into the minds of people that just came into this country that you had a little different process here—you had the undertaker, you had the priest to pay or the minister as the case may be, because in many European countries the priest or the ministers were paid by the state so they didn't have any of that outside expense. Here, they had to uphold their own churches, and as a result you had to pay the priest, as I said again, the minister so the convincing—was sometimes hard, sometimes these people came were little above average, they had to be, they were pioneers, see—they must’ve been brave, leaving their mother country and come these thousand of miles away, not knowing the language, customs. Just picture ourselves, if we had to do this—even in our country transplant ourselves from here to the west coast, and all our other relations are here. It takes bit of forethought and courage to go out and do it—especially if you are close to your family and that was so in those days, our people came to this country they were close to their mothers and fathers and brothers—and they came from common stock and nobody was actually professional—not as we see the many foreign people come to this foreign country today—have a education, they are professional—it is easier—welcome better and they have a generally—they know there gonna to travel, they try to get books, that they can at least translate and get by until they make up their minds if they will go into further studies and be more proficient in the language.

They can at least get by translating or reading the—other book—where our parents, with a limited educations—over there. My father told me he was—he went to school ‘til he was twelve years old and that was it. Here's this man that knew two languages at that time and he went up to the third or fourth grade. So, sometimes I used to, as a young man, take a hold they didn't know nothing. I look back they knew lot more. They knew the land, they knew how to work the land, they knew seasons, they knew what the seasons represented—by that, I mean—ah—if it was gonna be cold—they knew it by looking at things that natures provided—for them—in other words—they had a first hand course of their parents who, that would teach ‘em—all about these things—like for example, grafting a tree—I seen my father doing that as a kid. Here I am a high school graduate, years of experience in this community, I don't know how to graft a tree. That's what I mean. They knew how to put in a good garden—and why it did grow or not grow—they could tell you, without a formal education from nobody—so most of it came from their parents from their experience they were shown and they did. My father, when he came to this country, most people that left school and wanted to be for example, to be a tailor, they would go—work as an apprentice with a tailor. And so many years afterward—before he was granted some sort of a written certificate, I presume—someday he could come out and be a tailor on his own, either be hired in the industries or set up his own shop. That's the way they began life and some of ‘em prospered by it—especially those who came to this country which ways. We knew so little because so little was written about our country.

Nettie: John, what kind of policies did they have at first?

John: Oh—did digress away from the insurance business.

Nettie: Oh—that's quite all right.

John: When I began, actually most people paid insurance either by the week or by the month—most people had a hard time if you wrote them a policy to pay 6 or 7 dollars every three months—with the size of their families being large they felt it would be better if you wrote it by the week. But as things improved, you started writing more policies by the month—otherwards—I said, I began in 1938 and I recall that I had a break in there in 1944—I was drafted into military service and even in 1944 the economy had improved and you were writing more insurance that people were paying by the month—but again—that might not run over 5-6-7 dollars a month and it wasn't until after World War II when you started to write people 8-9-10 dollar premium a month plus what they already had—and these plans of insurance vary—most of our people did like to have a policy where they paid all their life. Even though, life policy was less expensive and they were having more protection for their dollar. They didn't feel they should be paying when they couldn't work any more, for example, So they would prefer a 20 payment life. We sell more of that—but the younger generation got better educated—some from service—realizing that—eh—why not be insured for $10,000 instead of let's say, 5 or 6 thousand under 20 payment for practically the same premium. So the people—as you educated people to understand insurance better and telling them—well, look if you take a whole life and can't pay it all your life that doesn't mean you are going to lose that money—say you come to 65 and you want to stop paying and you want to take what they call a reduced paid up insurance policy for over $6000 or whatever the case exact may be, without a rate book I'm just guessing here, but anyway they could see that instead of paying $15 a month for a $10,000—20 payment life they could pay maybe $9.00 for a whole life for the same protection. My company will pay the same whether you pay $9 or $15 but the only advantage was after 20 years you didn't have pay anymore, but again it took $15 instead of $9 out of your pocket. And, if you had a larger family and had other obligations, which most people did, something would have to give, unless income in 70 went up and in those years there wasn't that steady income, that steady increase in wages, as some of the industries are getting today. There was no such thing as every year you got a increase, you could get a decrease for a lack of work. The situation as you see today.

Nettie: John, may I interrupt at this time? When you are talking about increases maybe you can tell us the difference between Endicott Johnson and IBM—when it came to wages at that period.

John: Well, back in—when I graduated from High School in 1930—you been better off going to work for Endicott Johnson because Endicott Johnson had a full medical program and IBM or at that time known as ITR, did not. They made about the same wages excepting in the tanneries where you made bigger money than working in ITR and ITR as I said, had no medical program, as I recall, but EJ or Endicott Johnson did—you went to a hospital you didn't have to worry about a nickel, went to see their doctors, got a prescription filled, had your eyes checked, the only thing I can remember after after your getting your eyes checked—you had to pay for your glasses if you could afford it. If you couldn't, even there, Endicott Johnson would pick up the tab. I remember instances, where people got hurt in car accidents on the highway and Endicott Johnson would send a plane to pick up these people and bring them back to the local hospital at no expense to these people. I seen people at instances where they needed special medical care that was not furnished locally, again—Endicott Johnson would furnish the plane to the patient as well as a family member to fly ‘em to a destination and when were through with their treatments bring them back. And all this and even the living expense of these people was absorbed by Endicott Johnson. However, after World War II IBM became a different ball game—they started to really prosper—you can't say today that they don't have good benefits—they have tops—Endicott Johnson, of course, is also a good corporation today to work for. Does that cover it?

Nettie: John, how about going back to the Slovak people? I think it would be interesting if you told us some of the traditions—I think—

John: Oh—well—see—what we can—like Easter?

Nettie: Yes that would be interesting.

John: Well—of course Easters back in our day—when we were kids, especially bring some recollections of the Lent season. First of all, we did not eat meat—generally on two days of the week—Wednesdays and Fridays at all and that was all during the 40 days then during the—course—also those who were of age were generally from 18-60 were supposed to fast—and that is one full meat meal a day and the other just light lunches you might say but that was just what many other religions did too—the Orthodox probably even stricter than the Roman Catholics in their upholding of their Lent. When Easter came there is a custom we want to bring out is that was I would get the pussywillows and my father would braid these pussywillows in a form of a short switch and it was a custom that on Easter, although they tell me in Czechoslovakia it was on Monday, where the men run around and they sort of whip the women, this is sort of reminiscent when Christ being whipped by the Jews before being crucified. It was done in a playful manner when you whipped the girls and the following day on Tuesday, was the girls’ day·to do the same. And this naturally, being a youngster, you go out to see your relatives and close friends, you switch the women folk even some times, kids your age or some little older—naturally would run from you because they didn't want to be beaten but sometimes you get a little too carried away and hit too hard, and the man of the house would naturally give you an egg or an orange or money—a few pennies but—was fun—was fun—because we didn't have much money if we got a few cents at the end of to go to a movie we thought we did pretty good. Matter of fact, this custom we did every year—I had an Italian friend who was very close to us—and he kept asking us if he could go along, finally, one Easter we took him out, then we got him a whip, and, my dad a few extras and he went with us too. (Laughing). 

I can still remember the boy's name, I don't know if you want names—but Tony Fanara—neighbor practically to Helen's there—and I can still recall that. Then another custom was at Christmas time—which we would go out—oh—before I go on Christmas. I just want to mention one thing about the young adults—we sort of switched from that switch—that's going to be confusing now on tape but instead of the kobachis we used to call it—we started to using water—we used—seltzer bottles. So I recall we didn't have too many cases where you could do that but we had, I remember Margaret Gondek's folds—she was up to date on these things—wouldn't want us to miss her house so we get up early Sunday morning—Easter morning—and she'd leave the house open so we'd walk in and we knew where the girl's bedroom was already—so we'd go up daybreak and pull the covers and swish the seltzer bottle—

Nettie: Good ol’ days.

John: Yeah—yeah—but somebody had a wet bed—you call that good ol' days—but maybe they didn't like it—they say they didn't like it—but again—I'm sure but what would you do with a wet bed? Take days to dry out.

Nettie: That was youth!

John: But that was the fun of youth—yeah—we enjoyed doing that. Next day the fellow—generally the girls took it over the following day—which as I said—the custom was Sunday and Monday—in Europe it was Monday and Tuesday. No… But other than that—oh—church dances when they used to have festivals—like in October—they would have a harvest festival then they would dance in native costume—native dress costumes of the Czechoslovakia. They were different costumes different, depending of what part of Czechoslovakia you came from, seems as though every town had its own style of costumes—kroys—I think they called them. I even got away from term insurance—I never mentioned that yet—

Nettie: Do you want to mention it at this time?

John: Well, you’re gonna have this interlaced with costumes and other—so you will have to adjust.

Nettie: That's all right—you want to mention this term insurance—it's all right.

John: You asked a question about the term insurance as I mentioned a—a—on previous discussion—term insurance is insurance that has no cash value at any time—as long as you pay for it—you have the coverage once you cease paying on it, the coverage ceases and that's not immediately because if you paid the current month you don't pay until the next premium, you have 30 days or 31 days—after that all coverage ceases because you didn't pay the premium. Now very few people at the beginning would buy this type of insurance but back in—oh—I think following World War II it became more prevalent because all these servicemen became acquainted with term insurance because that's what we bought as servicemen from the government, term insurance—and that of course, the government said when you got out you can convert to other forms of insurance—which today you can buy almost any type of insurance you want—even with the government you have been in service, so you can have your policies paid up as at a given time—you know—whole life policies which would build up cash reserves.

Now that's mainly the difference—much of your—again—another idea of having to understand term insurance, is insurance most industries carry for their employees—is term insurance—builds up no cash reserves. Those who die along the way—their families would benefit by that and those who live have very little coverage in their older years of their life.

Nettie: Now some of these insurances you had—was there a high rate of lapsing?

John: No, no—because there again—that depended on the agent and how he explained things and how forceful he was to oversell ‘em—and that's how many agents were overzealous with—talk a man into a large amount than he can pay for. So the man may struggle for with one year—or or maybe a 6 month—and the first thing you know lapsing—his policy and couldn't afford it so I was always watchful of that—because I thought—look—I might better sell this man a smaller contract now with the hopes things, if things would improve for him or he can handle this he would not hedge against buying additional coverage as he got a little older. You might have to pay more—but again he knew what he could handle—in other words it's one step at a time. If you use that philosophy I think you found—I found at least that they did better with their insurance program. I didn't have—I never had a high lapse ratio like some of the agents. I was never the top salesman as some of these men were but amount of lapse. I often wondered how they were rated that high but they—I guess—

Nettie: John, you told me quite a few interesting things but do you still have any more recollections toward our interview? 

John: Well, I really don't think so—I'm not here to—you can't bring EJ back to life like the way it was—we've seen the community replaced by IBM instead of Endicott Johnson—I believed I mentioned in previous discussion all Endicott Johnson did before and if we could have another benefactor like—Endicott—like George F. Johnson—this community—and every community in the United States—it would be wonderful. This man didn't die forgotten—at least in my mind—I've always thought of this man and I always have prayed for this man. He was just a beautiful man—he's a man more people should try to copy.

Nettie: Ok—John—thank you for your interview and it was very interesting.

Streaming Audio

Date of Interview



Politylo, Nettie


Sedlak, John


33:56 Minutes ; 11:52 Minutes

Date of Digitization



Broome County Oral History Project

Subject LCSH

Sedlak, John -- Interviews; Broome County (N.Y.) -- History; Endicott (N.Y.); Children of immigrants -- Interviews; Endicott Johnson Corporation -- Employees -- Interviews; Johnson, George F. (George Francis), 1857-1948; Life insurance agents -- Interviews; Shoes; Italians; Russians; Polish

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This audio file and digital image may only be used for educational purposes. Please cite as: Broome County Oral History Project, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York. For usage beyond fair use please contact the Binghamton University Libraries Special Collections for more information.



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