Boulder and the roots of privilege

Black and white photo of a man on a balcony, painting

Robert Fleck at Bad Kissingen, Germany, June 1945

BOULDER – I spent a few nights last week in a $200-plus a night hotel in Boulder, Colorado, that someone else paid for. It was bigger than the first apartment Lissa and I lived together in. That’s privilege, I guess?

There was some Colorado River stuff going on in Boulder – huge thanks to the Getches Wilkinson Center for getting us all together, renting a hall, and footing the bill. Lots to talk about there at some point.

But I also had a chance to think about the GI bill and a young artist named Robert J. Fleck who spent a couple of years in Boulder after he got out of the army in 1946, making his peace with a war we infer he hated and making a new life as an artist.

Dad, GI bill money, and a life in art

I argue here that the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act – the GI bill – made me. A government policy made me.

Dad wanted to make art (the photo above is my favorite picture of him – dragging his paints across Europe – London, D-Day+N, VE Day). Absent the GI bill, dad would likely have returned to a Pennsylvania steel mill. As early as 1942, less than a year after Pearl Harbor, the National Resources Planning Board began talking about how to deal with the economic complexity of soldiers returning from war, flooding the workplace at the same time wartime production was winding down. My dad at that point was a young draftee with artistic inclinations being trained in photography (In Hollywood! The Army sent my dad to Hollywood to learn photography!)

The result of these things was twofold. First, at a micro level, my dad began a life carrying cameras along with his paints. Second, at a macro level, the government created a massive post-war education program that sent guys like my dad to art school – and a bunch of other schools:

Approximately eight million veterans received educational benefits. Under the act, approximately 2,300,000 attended colleges and universities, 3,500,000 received school training, and 3,400,000 received on-the-job training. The number of degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities more than doubled between 1940 and 1950, and the percentage of Americans with bachelor degrees, or advanced degrees, rose from 4.6 percent in 1945 to 25 percent a half-century later.

The result was a chance for a guy like my dad to live a life of art, doing for the rest of his life the same thing he did all across Europe in that dreary, awful trek across Europe – dragging along his sketchbook and cameras and paints and seeing and recording and reacting to his world. The years in Boulder to get a GI bill-funded “Master of Fine Arts” was a ticket to a stable career teaching art at a junior college in California, a ticket of entry to a world that would have been closed off a generation before.

The way he modeled that life is the great gift he gave me. For me it was notebooks and pens, but the schtick is the same – seeing and recording and reacting to the world. It’s the gift he gave to me, the life he handed me, and it has been a delight.

But I am mindful of the privilege. The phrase “a guy like my dad” above was carefully chosen.

While there is some debate among historians, (see here for a discussion of disparities among African Americans, and here for a discussion of the challenges faced by women artists), it seems likely my dad’s white guy privilege played a role.

The lists of artists who the GI bill launched, who remade post-war American art, is wonderful. It is the art I was surrounded with growing up, the art – beyond my dad’s work – that helped make me. I love this art.

It’s also almost all white guys.

It’s that privilege, along the with the world view, that was handed on to me when a completely unqualified John Fleck began doing radio news and writing words for newspapers thirty years later. I didn’t know shit and people kept giving me jobs! I’ve done OK in the years that followed, but I know I entered that world with a golden ticket already in hand.




  1. My first wife’s dad landed on the Normandy coast on D+3. He was a medic, and came back with a lot of PTSD from the carnage of those first few weeks. But he also took advantage of the GI Bill to get a civil engineering degree. If you go back to many of the big school and municipal projects from Western and Central New York built in the sixties, you might find his signature on the blueprints. I guess that is a different sort of art but it gave him something constructive to do after seeing so much destruction. One of my uncles, the eldest of the five kids of which my mom was the middle child, had joined the Corps of Engineers before the war and when the war was over, that was his ticket to major projects in NY such as the Mt. Morris Dam, as he was an aide to Gen. Raymond Wheeler and Wheeler was a big shot in the Corps of Engineers.

    Like you, their kids all were the indirect beneficiaries of the GI Bill. Most of those kids, including my ex-wife, went on to get college or advanced degrees and enjoyed a good life. It is just too bad that given the racism and sexism of that era, the beneficiaries were primarily folks who looked like us. My mom, who worked in a war factory, just went back to work after the war.

  2. Was it the GI bill that made you or was it the GI who had a better chance to take advantage of the GI bill because he was white (and, who knows, may have been able to take advantage of it even if he didn’t happen to be white?

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