March 5, 2001
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"Uncle Billyism"


Dave Uphoff

One of the favorite people in my life was Uncle Bill VonBehren who died at the ripe old age of 101 in 1996. He was like a second father to me when I was a child and I wish now that I had pried more information from him on what it was like to be around Minonk 100 years ago.

So what the heck is "Uncle Billyism"? My friend Jack Cullen and I coined this term a few years ago. Specifically, "Uncle Billyism" is the oxymoronical(new word) condition of carrying moderation to an extreme. Uncle Bill never over-worked, over-ate, over-drank, over-bought or overed anything. He was slow and steady. Many people around here remember the bumper sticker on his car, "I may be slow, but I'm ahead of you."

Back to Uncle Bill in a minute. I watched an episode of PBS's Frontline last week about how teen-agers are wooed by Madison Avenue. In fact, it appears that teenagers are the prime determinants of what we see, eat, and drink nowadays. Some experts went so far as to say that the quality of the American life style is being lowered by this preponderance on teenagers whims and desires.

Madison Avenue researchers regularly hold seminars with teenagers that they think are 'cool' and quiz them on what is the latest cool. Of course, once Madison Avenue mass produces whatever is cool it no longer is cool. It is a never-ending cycle that seems to result in more tasteless and bizarre styles such as wearing your cap backwards or wearing baggy pants. Unfortunately, mid-life crisis persons will copy the teenagers' styles in the quest to regain their youth and the whole population becomes infected.

As you can see, "Uncle Billyism" is antithetical to Madison Avenue's philosophy. Would Uncle Bill have been different if he had been exposed as a young person to television and its preying hucksters? Would he have been more inclined to immediate gratification?

I wondered what Uncle Bill's life was like as a teenager in the early 1900's as compared to today's teenager. What a contrast! Uncle Bill in the early 1900's was too busy trying to do the farm chores to worry about whether he was cool. Is it the opposite with todays teenagers?

Then I compared what Minonk was like back then to now. Again, what a contrast. Minonk in 1910 was a bustling town with elegant victorian brick buildings built with fine craftmanship and care. Today, a new building in Minonk will be thrown up in one day and be made out of metal with no hint of craftmanship whatsoever. Have our standards of taste and style deteriorated in things other than buildings and clothes as well? I think so.

In Uncle Bill's time, one had to develop interpersonal skills in order to have entertainment. Aside from reading a book, this meant going out and doing something with other people such as playing a pickup game of baseball or just visiting with some one. Today it is too easy to just sit in front of the television or the computer and be entertained by something in which the main purpose is to sell you something. Today's parents have to compete with television to control their children. The PBS Frontline program said that many kids have more loyalty to MTV than they do to their parents. And now the Internet.

I am not offering any answers to the questions I raised. I merely would like parents to realize that they may have to go that extra step to get the attention of their children. We do not have the luxury of a simpler time when Uncle Bill was young and wants were fewer.

Uncle Bill's life style was pretty boring according to today's standards. His entertainment was visiting with people or family. Yet, he outlived those who were more consumed by material needs. His main source of joy was people and events, not things. Is that the secret of a long life?

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