Shoe-repairman, veteran, bobbin boy, Communist: 93 years with a twinkle in his eye

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — John Hovan has been reading this newspaper, and its predecessors going back to the Daily Worker, since the early 1930s — in the depths of the Great Depression. It’s been a key to his lifetime of activism for the working class.



Hovan will celebrate his 93rd birthday on May 19. “I have lived through a whole century of historic events,” he noted this week, sitting at the dining table in his senior apartment here. “I was born in the middle of World War I and I grew up in the biggest, deepest economic depression in the history of this country. Ironically, I am ending my life with another deep economic crisis.”

At age 15, he had to drop out of school to find work. He learned the shoe-repair trade. Became an organizer of unemployed workers in his home state of Florida. Volunteered with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, fighting fascism in Spain. Three and a half years in the Navy during World War II, with a stint on Midway Island, where he repaired the sailors’ shoes. Then learned a new trade — “bobbin boy” and weaver — for a decade of work and union activism in Rhode Island textile mills. Lost his job in the McCarthy anti-Communist witchhunts, with the local paper’s headline blaring: “John Hovan, Communist.” Undaunted, learned yet another trade — installing linoleum — kept working, raised a family, continued activism in his community.

He recalled his start in the rayon mill with a chuckle. As a bobbin boy, he had to get the correct colors of thread to the weavers, “and I’m color-blind — they all looked red to me.” He figured out how to get the weavers to help him, then he watched them at their work and learned that job. “They showed me how to tie the knots, how to start and stop the loom.” He was hired on as a weaver, and later became president of his United Textile Workers (AFL) local. After that plant shut down, he got a job at a Ciba-Geigy chemical plant, where he was a picket captain in the frequent strike battles that the CIO union there had to wage.

Then, when the McCarthy red-scare hysteria hit, “Not only did I lose my job, but my house was fired on, my windows were broken by rocks, there were swastikas painted on it. It wasn’t easy,” he said, but “I knew I had the strength to endure.”

So how did he become a lifelong organizer, a Communist, and not get discouraged or give up?

“I was fortunate,” he said, “because my father, a Czech immigrant, was progressive-minded, a strong union person.” Socialist and communist foreign-language immigrants’ newspapers loomed large in Hovan’s early years.

“All of my years growing up I would hear my father talk to my mother about what he was reading in the left-wing Slovak-American newspaper, Rovnost L'udu (Equality of the People),” Hovan said.

When his father, with too many mouths to feed, told him he’d have to quit school and “make it on my own, that really made me angry,” Hovan said. “I had learned that this is the richest country in the world. I learned about the threat of fascism and another war breaking out in Europe. I read the Daily Worker and saw how people were struggling. It’s the right thing to do, I thought.”

As an apprentice shoe-repairman, he came across left Jewish workers and their newspapers too. He subscribed to the Daily Worker “with one of the first paychecks I got.”

Today, Hovan has to use a magnifier to read the paper, but his blue eyes twinkle with a combination of tenacity, humor and optimism.

Reflecting on his 93rd year, he said, “I’m more convinced than ever that Karl Marx was right.” Marx and his followers “didn’t have all the answers, but they know a lot more than the jerks that tried to run the country into the ground.”

He noted with pleasure that President Obama acknowledged the other day that today’s financial crisis began right here in New York, in Washington.

“The tide is against imperialism, against capitalism. It can’t continue,” Hovan said.

His advice: “Keep reading the People’s Weekly World and supporting it.”