Ted Stevens had 'Mark Twain' childhood in Indianapolis

Michael Carey
Photo courtesy Michael Carey

So much has been written about Ted Stevens in the last few days. Not just locally but nationally. At this point, it is hard to say anything new or original. Except about Ted's Indiana childhood, which he rarely discussed with reporters.

In 2007, I hired an accomplished Indianapolis historian to help me find Ted during the years 1923, when he was born, until 1938, when he moved to California. I told Ted about the historian by e-mail; he neither approved nor disapproved but was excited when I sent him a color photo of the old Stevens home on Carrollton Avenue. I promised to send him additional photos but fell victim to sloth and never did.

The Stevens home was small -- and in the 1930 census 10 people lived there! -- but near a handsome neighborhood with parks and an attractive shopping district. His elementary school -- PS 84 -- was in a similar neighborhood. Among those who later attended PS 84 were Sen. Richard Lugar, Marilyn Quayle and David Letterman.

At PS 84, Ted was a member of the school patrol and served as a crossing guard. He also participated in scrub hockey games on a pond adjacent to the school.

Ted started his secondary education at Shortridge High, one of the finest public schools in Indiana and later named one of the best high schools in the nation. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, born 1922, attended Shortridge and later described his experience with something approaching awe. "My God, we had a daily paper, we had a debating team, had a fencing team. We had a chorus, a jazz band, a serious orchestra. And all this with a Great Depression going on. And I wanted everybody to have such a school."

Ted remembered his Indiana education less enthusiastically but was still appreciative, telling the Indianapolis Star in 1981 the local schools "developed individuals."

In the same interview, Ted recalled his days delivering the Star. Money from his paper route bought tickets to the Uptown Theater, where he enjoyed westerns featuring Hoot Gibson and Tex Ritter. As the Depression worsened, young Ted went to the movies no more. His father and grandfather both lost their jobs; the paper route was, for a while, the family's only income, Ted said. The Depression also forced the family to give up their car, a Chevy.

According to what Ted told the Star, he had a "Mark Twain" childhood. "Where we lived was almost the end of the city. We hunted for rabbits and squirrels and went fishing in Fall Creek. We used to camp along the creek, sometimes." He added that he acquired several false teeth after he fell off the Fall Creek Dam and banged his head.

Anyone who has read Twain knows his novels contain darker moments. Ted's childhood did too. The deprivation of the Depression. Periods of shabby gentility near people who, in some cases, enjoyed wealth. Parents who split up. A father dependent on his father -- grandfather George Isaac Stevens -- who died at the house on Carrollton when Ted was 12.

Soon Ted would begin his journey westward to Los Angeles, where he lived with his aunt Gladys -- his father's sister -- and her husband, Walter Swindells. It was a good life, Ted said, and he thrived until World War II closed the book on his childhood and adolescence.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. E-mail, mcarey@adn.com.

Michael Carey