Home » Army Life and Stories » JEAN SHEPHERD –tough to be

JEAN SHEPHERD –tough to be



Jean Shepherd was formed by growing up in the Midwest—Hammond, Indiana—and by his stateside Signal Corps duty during World War II, as well as by his early radio years before he arrived in New York City where he “burgeoned.”


Shepherd from time to time commented on his problems as an American male named Jean, a name many assume is  only for females. Here’s a news story of April 2004:

Matthew Jean Rouse doesn’t like his middle name and he’s letting you pick a new one.  The 31-year-old father of two is selling the naming right on eBay.  The “Buy It Now” price is $8000.  As of early Monday, there had been a total of 30 bids, with the high bid $2,175….”If he wants to walk around with ‘Fool’ as his middle name, that’s his problem,” said Rouse’s wife, Corinna Rouse.  “If someone changes his name to ‘Poophead,’ he may decide it’s a little more important than he thought.”

Although Jean Shepherd occasionally implied that it was tough to be a kid, most of the stories he told involved minor problems or near-disasters.  Very rarely did he describe any horrible incidents, but on a program of August 29, 1966, he told what happened one day while, as a teenager, he was working a summer job at Inland Steel.  A stack of exceedingly sharp sheets of tin was knocked loose and sliced three men to death.  He noted how strange the large pool of blood looked in the steel mill light.  From time to time Shepherd would insinuate some startlingly unpleasant, true-to-life detail into his stories.   As one such Army story had led to protests from listeners, one can imagine that protests would have kept Shepherd from edging into these realms as much as he may have liked.  Maybe the stark “realism” was an authentic part of Shepherd’s makeup, or maybe the starkness was a bit of a Shepherd poke in the collective ear of his listeners, who didn’t want to hear about the realities of war.


As a kid, Shep’s first call sign as a ham was W9QWN.  And he said he didn’t listen much to radio when he was a youngster.  Note that in the late 1920s and early 1930s, radios were expensive, the reception was usually poor, and only a few kid programs were on the air.  Here is a comment about it:

I have to clear up a misconception.  I was not a radio fan as a kid.  Fact, I rarely listened to the radio.  That’s right.  I was a radio equipment freak.  That’s a very different thing.  You understand that many hi-fi people can’t stand radio.  [Laughs.]  Yes, oh yes. (Syndicated, April 23, 1976)

At various times Shepherd expressed his early need to escape the Midwest.  From time to time he would comment on that “Great inverted bowl of darkness that is the Midwest.”  Recently encountered is this:

Why do you think so many great writers come out of Indiana?  You notice they come out?  Let me tell you they split out of there like big fat speckled birds, I’ll tell you.  They just don’t hang around.  They get away as far as they can about it—they go to Paris—and then write about Indiana—in Paris [laughs].  They go to New York—and do radio shows—about Indiana—in New York [laughs[.  You know there is a certain thing—but Toledo is just like swimming underwater in a gigantic bowl of lukewarm Cream of Wheat. (June 4, 1965)

Some comments in the media about Shepherd’s kid stories:

“Many of Mr. Shepherd’s creations involve vivid tales of his own childhood or ‘kidhood,’ to use his word….”

“Mostly, though, it was the incredible stories, based on his youth….”

“Many of Shep’s tales centered around a fictitious boyhood ….”

Comment about Shepherd’s kid stories by Shepherd (A. P. story):

 “I don’t know why that is,” he said.  “I’ve discovered that any time you mention anything to do with childhood on the air, that’s as powerful to people as sex.  The next thing you know, they think that’s all you ever talk about.”


Sometimes Shepherd told of playing baseball as a kid, and as one of the older boys of summer, he also played, but we don’t know much about it other than guessing that he might have exaggerated his prowess.  The only reliable information we have about Jean’s ball-playing is his coworker Barry Farber remembering Jean coming into WOR’s Manhattan studios in full baseball regalia, sweating after playing somewhere.  Jean sometimes related baseball stories about himself, but, although there is rumor that he played in the minor leagues (Shepherd said so), there is no proof of this.  However, his brother Randy said he played for the Cincinnati Reds organization, and it’s said that Jean sometimes took stories and sports-ability attributes of his brother onto himself in his own tales.  Might be true, but in defense of such “theft,” remember that–as I’ve mused over Shakespeare’s appropriation of old tales–it ain’t what you steal, it’s the way that you deal it.

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1 Comment

  1. mygingerpig says:

    Shep’s stories about the jobs he had as a teen are pretty typical; delivering mail in the steel mill, moving appliances and heavy things, a summer working for a surveyor out in the marshland. Each were woven into a story describing the difficulties, pain, struggles, discomfort and learning experience. Like most middle class kids during the depression, Shep had to earn money to support his entertainment and activities.

    He talked often about his fascination with radio technology, getting his masters license, learning morse code. I recall a story about a friend who revealed to him that he had built a television receiver in his basement. This was magical to Shep beyond belief.

    Fishing was a hobby, mainly because he could do it with his father. I suspect this was one of the few bonding experiences with him, who we know, left the family when Shep graduated from high school.

    And like all teen boys, cars were a big part of his life. He told of being an adept mechanic, replacing differentials, transmission parts and more. But it seems he developed the bug for show business early on, mainly through radio announcing jobs. He must have taken to speaking to an invisible audience in his late teens, and so began his career and a radio voice, eventually a raconteur, taking him to New York, the theater and the radio persona we know as Shep.


    Sent from my iPad


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