Robert Lloyd Prideaux (1918-1993) operated a sheet metal company, sold cars, and served as an alderman for Madison’s 16th ward. During the Depression he dropped out of school and worked in a drugstore and for Western Union. After World War II he started his own sheet metal business. As an alderman in the early 1970s he helped solve major issues with airport noise and low-flying planes. After he retired he operated a food pantry. In an oral history recorded by Historic Madison, he recounted his experiences in the Depression and during the riots on State Street.
I can remember back in the Depression years, when I first went to work after I dropped out of school, I can remember neighbor kids going to garbage cans and pulling the stuff out of there to eat and live on. I can remember people coming to our door when I was a child. My mother fed extra people on the back porch every day. In our hometown we lived close to the depot and they would come off the train. But when resident relief came into effect, they all had to go home. They couldn’t wander around much. We lived about a half a block from the railroad tracks and the trains did a lot of switching near us, so we always had that kind of a problem. We knew what it was, because we would see these people all the time coming to our house for a handout. They knew how to mark them so that the next guy could come to your place and get something to eat. We always took care of them. We felt that the man that’s really lonely, or a woman - basically in those days it was men that were on the road - we always had a soft spot for them in our life.
When I was on the City Council, the riots were on State Street. I’d be down there. I went down there every day. And every night I was down there. I did not want to see any violence if I could help it. And I wanted the police to know that I was there. I was an alderman and I felt my obligation to make sure that we could try to keep the peace, regardless of what you did. Sometimes I got in a mess where I’d be gassed. I’d get a nice dose of teargas because I was in a particular spot. But then by eleven o’clock or twelve o’clock, I’d be on my way home. I’d get out on the east side and it just seemed like it was going from the war area. I would say, “What the heck? These people don’t know what’s going on out here.” You can’t realize it unless you’re there. It just seemed like you were living in two different cities within a city.
That’s one of our problems. The city is so large now and so spread out that you don’t know what the other guy’s problems are. You know, I used to talk with those students by the hour. I’d listen to them. And how right they were! We wouldn’t listen to them. We were so stubborn that we could not understand, didn’t want to hear what the students had to tell us. I’ll never forget those days if I live to be a hundred. I felt that that was the most trying time that I ever had in my life, watching those students being pushed around down on State. It was unbelievable how society could not try to handle the problem better than they did in those days. That was, and probably still is, one of our biggest problems: it’s too easy to grab for weapons to solve problems.