Hudson’s Special Guest

hudson1Boca Grande, a quaint village located on Gasparilla Island on the west coast of Florida, is a remote place where a small group of Canadians and Americans spend their winters. Almost unknown to the general tourist crowd, the quiet town attracts people who are trying to relax and who are not interested in doing much else, except eating fresh shrimp at Miller’s Marina or walking barefoot on the soft white beaches. No day is complete, however, without picking up the New York Times at Fugate’s, the local drugstore, or filling a sack of groceries at Hudson’s – the blue and white Colonial bread sign about the door, the solitary gas pump out in front, and the brown cocker spaniel waiting silently for his master who has gone inside.

On one such daily trip to town, I parked my car across from Hudson’s and asked my wife for the grocery list, which included bread, milk and some Kraft cheese slices. My son, David, leaned over my shoulder and asked, “How about some chips?”

“Yeah, I want some M & M’s,” demanded his fourteen-year-old sister Amy.

Shutting the door of the car behind me, I walked slowly across the road, rounding a black Mercedes with Ontario plates.

As I walked down the narrow aisle with Campbell soups on the left and a large Pepsi display on the right, I came up behind a woman in her seventies, pausing to look at the display and at her list. She wore dark slacks, a bright flowing blouse, and her red hair, now streaked with silver, was held back loosely in a bun. With her back to me, she looked remotely familiar. That’s strange. How can someone’s back look familiar? That’s dumb. I don’t know anyone on this island. I’m just a visitor. But her head – it’s shaking slightly, as if she has palsy. I’ll go around the aisle and see if I can catch a glimpse of her face. Soon after I reached the next aisle, she turned the corner and faced me.

Slightly round shouldered and somewhat fragile-looking, she stood still, peering through her dark glasses at the grocery list. Her face was somewhat leathery and wrinkled, and a close look revealed a brown age spot or two on her cheek and jaw.

I’m not good at names, but this woman is famous. I think her name is Audrey Hepburn. Is that right? Impatient with my poor memory, I turned around, pushed open the door, and jogged quickly to my family sitting patiently in the car.

“Come’n Hudson’s. You can’t imagine who I saw in there! I think it’s Audrey Hepburn,” I said, the words falling quickly from my lips.

“Ah, come on, Audrey Hepburn is not in Hudson’s,” my wife expressed her typical skepticism.

“Come on. Go look for yourself,” I prodded.

Quickly the car emptied its occupants – my wife, my son, my two daughters and my mother. Scoffing me, the skeptics wandered aimlessly across the street, assuming this was another of my practical jokes.

As soon as they opened the door, their eyes were drawn to the checkout lane where a small crowd of people formed a circle around the red haired lady. As I walked up to her, a stranger asked, “Are you…,” but she never had a chance to complete the question. The red head answered, “Yes, I’m Katherine Hepburn.”

Whether it was Audrey or Katherine, this wasn’t Hollywood and she was the last person I expected to see at Hudson’s.

Karl K. Taylor, 1985

Special thanks to the Boca Beacon for the photo of Hudson’s.

 

Taylor Johnson: Budding Catcher, Would-Be Writer

tay rotatedOn the field and off, it’s been a good week. On Tuesday, two base hits and one run – one hit between second and third; the other, just inches over the second base man’s green cap. On Thursday, with even more confidence – three base hits, three for three, but no runs. Who cares?

My nine-year-old grandson may never play in the major leagues, but don’t be surprised to see him star in Kevin Costner’s next movie about a handsome, All-American boy, who plays catcher for the Red Sox, not in Boston, but in Morton, Illinois. He looks the part, the way you would expect: short, a little stocky, bright red cheeks, a butch hair cut, and brown hair. What really draws attention to him are those bright red socks, up to his knees, matching his cheeks. Cool or hot, though, Taylor’s forehead is covered with perspiration. Everybody sweats, but he sweats more than most folks, maybe because he just tries a little harder than most kids, maybe because he has juvenile diabetes. Baseball, for him, is serious business, requiring great concentration. He’s expressionless, whether he hits a triple or throws someone out at third. No sign of emotion; everything is inside.

When Taylor’s team takes the field at the bottom of the sixth inning, he buckles the guards for his shins, pulls the padding for his stomach over his head, and brings his mask over his face. Except for putting on his cap, he’s ready to catch the next pitch. Besides improving his hitting, he is also improving his throwing. When the season began, his throws from home to third, or from home to left field, were more like mortar shells – looping up high and coming down close to the target. Now the throws are more like bullets – straight from the catcher to the third base man or to the left fielder. The inning is over quickly: three up and three down.

After the game, after he ate a popsicle at the refreshment stand, we’re sitting in the living room: mom and dad on comfortable chairs, grandma and grandpa on the davenport, Haley on the floor and Taylor standing beside dad’s chair. Haley, the second- grader-to-be, is sitting on the floor, playing with dolls, talking to an imaginary audience – could be Pam, the day care provider, or could be Sophie or Kayla, friends from first grade. Mom asks: “Haley, are you in another world?” She responds, almost in a trance. “Yes.” She continues talking, scolding an imaginary playmate.

Taylor, still sweating, sucking, this time, on a yellow popsicle, stands near his dad. Someone asks “Tay” about his class that morning at Bradley University, a week-long summer course for kids centered on writing. Obviously excited to have a male teacher, the nine-year-old bubbles over with enthusiasm about what he is learning: “Today, we had to write a story about something funny, and we talked about different ways of telling it.” Taylor had obviously listened; he was beginning to understand that writing requires planning and structure. “You can’t just begin with once upon a time.”

He continued to describe things he was learning in class, but his father began, very unobtrusively, to direct the conversation from Taylor’s writing, to writing, and finally to my writing. The nine-year-old was just as eager to hear about my work as I was about his. It was if Taylor had already done a lot of thinking, had mentally written down a list of really good questions, curiously mature for a young man who had just finished third grade. “Why did you decide to write about Dean Jay?” “Did you write about him because he was from your hometown?” “How are you telling the story?” After my response, he offered another approach, “Did you ever consider starting with the scene in …?”

I looked at grandma. She looked at me. We were shocked. The word “precocious” came to mind.

You see, on the field and off, it’s been a good week.

 

Karl K. Taylor

June 21, 2009

Now That’s a Salesman

IMG_1478 resizedI like nice clothes that I can’t find in department stores like Macy’s or JC Penney: button-down pinpoint oxfords, camel hair sport coats and herringbone suits that will be in fashion for years. Clothes like these are hard to find except in fairly large cities. Often they are sold by self-employed haberdashers who choose their merchandise very carefully for a select clientele who come back year after year. These merchants take their occupation seriously, trying to find the exact merchandise to satisfy not just customers, but their “clientele.”

A few of these small shops are still found tucked between banks and brokerage houses in century-old business districts, while others are located in suburban strip malls near upscale wine shops, boutiques, and jewelry stores. Inside, the atmosphere is a bit formal, decorated tastefully with carefully selected paintings of sail boats and fox hunts, and a touch of freshly arranged flowers carefully placed on an exquisite cherry table. In the background one can hear a piano playing softly, Beethoven or perhaps jazz. The atmosphere makes a client feel as if he has been invited to someone’s home, not just a store, where shopping is a leisurely experience, not a chore. It brings to mind how the JP Morgan Banking Co. must have made its high net worth customers feel one hundred years ago when they had a private banker.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I discovered the Gentry Shop in a deteriorating Iowa river town, surrounded by empty store fronts, grimy restaurants and tattoo parlors. I was puzzled. How could a merchant attract customers to an area filled with such urban decay? How could he sell upscale brands like Ralph Lauren, Pendleton, Corbin, and Southampton to people who might question the safety of parking out in front? I was to find out very quickly.

Although housed in part of the first floor of what was once a large arcade, the facility was so dated that customers had to take a key and climb up a back stairway to use the restroom. Nevertheless, the men’s shop was filled with piles of attractive shirts and sweaters and racks of suits and sports jackets, all priced competitively. Apparently, despite the location, the shop seemed to be doing quite a business because six or eight clerks were assisting at least an equal number of customers, not just checking them out. Handsome young college students, the sales people, were well trained to point out new products, note favorite colors, or emphasize special sales. They seemed to know their customers and exactly what they were doing. As I came through the door, the short, sandy-haired owner, who looked as if he had just come off the golf course, extended his hand in welcome: “Hi, I’m Greg Kautz. How may I help you?”

I headed for the coats and suits as he grilled me about my interests – sizes, colors, fabrics, brands, and the like. He probably asked, “Do you play golf?” Within minutes as I began trying on articles of clothing, he was probing me for more information he needed if I were to become a loyal, ongoing customer: “Where do you live? What do you do? How often do you come to the Quad Cities?”

Meanwhile, I settled on a brown Ralph Lauren suit. He suggested a couple of paisley ties that would blend well with the herringbone. Watching my pennies, I chose just one. Since I had to have an alteration, Greg said that he would mail the garment free of charge to my home in Illinois. I paid Greg, and we parted with a handshake. I was pleased with the transaction – I found what I wanted at a reasonable price, and I was treated with the utmost attention. I just might come back again.

A few days later, I opened a package from the mail, the suit carefully hanging from a smart mahogany hanger emblazoned in gold: “The Gentry Shop.” Attached to the garment was the tie that I had picked out as well as a handwritten note: “Karl, thanks so much for your business. I included the second tie which I think you will enjoy, too. No extra charge. Come see us when you’re back in town. Greg.” I will go back.

Six months later, when the Gentry Shop had a sale on summer wear, I drove over to Davenport, even though it was over one hundred miles one-way from my home. Just as it was in January, the shop was packed with customers, but this time so many prevented me from talking with Greg. I left empty handed simply because I didn’t need anything. As I headed out the front door, Greg went out of his way to wave goodbye.

Later that evening, when I was watching the news at home in Illinois, the telephone rang. “Karl, this is Greg at the Gentry Shop. I saw you in the store today, but we were unable to talk. I noticed that you didn’t buy anything, but I hope you were helped by someone and you didn’t have any problems.” I was not annoyed by his call, but I was shocked to know that I had found a genuine salesman who was more interested in my satisfaction than my check. “No Greg, there was no problem. I just couldn’t find anything I needed.”

For several decades, I made my semi-annual trips from Illinois to Davenport, Iowa, not just to buy clothes but to see, not just a clothing salesmen, but to visit my friend, Greg. Even if months or years passed between the time when we met, Greg NEVER forgot my name. Over the years, things have changed, including the Gentry Shop. No longer located in an abandoned arcade where you needed to ask for a key to unlock the restroom, Greg built a beautiful new complex in a strip mall, where he sells both men’s and women’s wear to people who like nice clothes – button-down pin-point oxfords, camel hair sport coats, and herringbone suits that will be in fashion for years to come. And, you can well imagine Greg’s customers are still not just customers, but friends, whom he never forgets: “Hi, Karl, good to see you again. How’s everything in Peoria? Have you taken up golf yet?”

Karl K. Taylor

February 2016

David H. Morton: When the Seats Were Empty

Dr. Morton 001 resizedAlthough I was only seven years old at the time, I still remember Christmas 1945 quite well. When I woke up on December 25, I raced to the living room, hoping that Santa had found room for one more bicycle in his sleigh. For those too young to know or too old to remember, electric trains and bicycles were at the top of the list of desirable Christmas gifts for young boys seventy years ago. Apparently I had behaved well enough because in front of the tree was a red Schwinn two-wheeler.

Since the weather was unseasonably mild that day, I left the rest of my presents unopened for a time, while Dad helped me take my new gift down the front steps to the street. From there, I took off on my bike and rode around the block, not once, but dozens of times that morning, until Mom came out on the porch and waved me down. “It’s time to leave for Galesburg…” When we returned from Christmas dinner with relatives, it was too dark to ride so I jumped on my bike the next day. I loved that Schwinn and rode it after school for several weeks; so much that I had to strap a little pillow on the seat for the obvious reason.

During the course of the next week, with the temperature becoming more seasonable, I developed a cough which became progressively worse. Mom gave me some Smith Brothers cough drops and discouraged me from riding for a while. On the following Sunday, however, I made just one trip around the block. I was out of breath, which was not unusual, but I continued to gasp for air, which was unusual. As I climbed the front stairs, I used the hand rail to pull myself up as best I could, finally opening the door and yelling for help. I was scared.

Both Mom and Dad came running. Someone tried verifying where our family doctor was that Sunday afternoon – at his home or office. Silly question. “Yes,” his nurse answered, “he has office hours this afternoon.” It took Dad less than five minutes to reach the physician’s waiting room which, as I recall, was so busy every seat was taken with people waiting to see the doctor even on a Sunday afternoon. He had no appointments: patients waited in his office until he could see them; he left, not at 5 or 6 pm, but when there was no one to see.

Since the nurse was aware that we were coming, the doctor cleared his examining room of a couple of patients so he could see me. He listened to my lungs, took my temperature and my blood pressure, and kept looking at me for clues. Dr. David Morton was a man of few words: “I’m not sure, but I think we have a case of pneumonia.” Whistling softly through his teeth, the bald-headed man reached over to his black leather bag containing 50 or so drugs then available to deal with most illnesses of the human body. He chose one of the glass vials and brought the label with small print closer to his eyes to insure that he had chosen the correct medicine. After he had pulled out the cork, he dropped eight or ten pills into a little envelope, sealing one end with a lick to the adhesive. “Edna, these capsules will help with the temperature. Take him home and put him to bed. As soon as I finish at the office, I’ll be over again tonight to check on him.”

Almost all afternoon, I lay in bed, my temperature rising slowly but steadily from just a little over 100 to 101 degrees. “Mom, I’m roasting. I need a glass of cold water.” Later, she put a thermometer under my tongue, but waited a moment before checking whether the red line had gone up or down. 103 degrees. “I’m still hot.” After she opened some windows, the room cooled down rather quickly because the temperature outside was well below zero.

I dozed off.

When I felt someone putting a thermometer under my tongue, I began to wake up. Dr. Morton was sitting beside me in my bedroom, looking at the thermometer. He glanced first at Mom and then at Dad. “It’s 105. I’m going to try a couple of drugs developed during the war for our soldiers. Sulfa comes only in pill form, but penicillin can be administered by a shot in your arm or a spray in your throat.” As a seven-year-old, I was capable of taking pills, but I was scared to death of shots. I chose the spray.

“I think that these new drugs and bed rest will do the trick.” He closed his case. “I’ll have my nurse call you tomorrow morning and see how you’re getting along. Edna, check his temperature at midnight. If it doesn’t go below 105, call me at home.” Picking up his case, he headed out the door.

On Monday night, after making early morning hospital calls thirty minutes away in Peoria and seeing office patients in the afternoon, Dr. Morton returned to my home. Without saying much, he looked down my throat and checked my temperature, hoping that it had dropped two or three degrees. He looked at me, “It’s better but not what I was expecting.” On the way out of the house, he stepped into the kitchen where Mom was washing dishes. “Edna, call my office tomorrow morning first thing and let me know his temperature.” That night, I woke up in a cold sweat. The next morning, Mom reported the results, “slightly over 100.” Less concerned, Dr. Morton did not call that night, but he was pleased to hear the good news the next morning from his nurse, “Edna said his temp broke 99.”

Four weeks later, after catching chicken pox and pink eye, I returned to fourth grade where I was glad to see my teacher, Mrs. Hubble, and my friends. I felt as if I had been gone a year.

———————

Contrary to what the reader may think, I’m not the hero of this story. It’s Dr. David H. Morton. This is the story about a country physician and his sacrifices to bring a young boy back to health in the middle of the twentieth century. Dr. Morton’s work was his life. He began almost every day of the week making calls in the early morning on his surgical patients in one of the three Peoria hospitals. After “making rounds,” he headed back home to his office in Elmwood where he generally saw patients for the remainder of the day. You see, Dr. Morton’s life was only complete when the seats were empty.

 

Karl K. Taylor

March 2016

Trying to Find Don Gronewold

Picture_for_GrandpaThis profile was originally written for the Washington, Illinois Historical Society. The occasion was the organization’s annual dinner in 2011, and my purpose was to recognize someone who had served his community with distinction, as a businessman and mayor. Across the country, hundreds of men and women work endlessly for their communities without a note of thanks or a hearty handshake for their efforts. Because no one takes the time to tell their stories, they are quickly forgotten after they are gone. This 2016 profile has been changed to make it more meaningful for readers who never knew the subject or visited Washington, Illinois. Don Gronewold died in the fall of 2015 at the age of 83. He has not been forgotten.

Karl K. Taylor, March 2016

————–

Have you ever tried finding Waldo, the small figure in children’s books? He is an imaginary elf-like character who can be found leaning against a tree, peeking from behind a bush, or squatting under the table. It’s almost like trying to find Don Gronewold, the retired pharmacist and former mayor of Washington, a city of 15,000 located in the central part of Illinois. Like Waldo, one has to know where to find Don.

One might begin by calling him at his home. His number is in the book, just as it has been for over forty years, even when he was involved in local politics. He has never hidden behind an unlisted number, avoiding people who disagreed with his progressive ideas for the future of the city. And there were those who were against spending their tax dollars for a better community or preserving the best from the past like a century-old town square.

Sometimes, if one tries to call and the line is busy, Don is talking to someone at the Tazewell County Republican Central Committee or encouraging someone to run for public office. “We have a devil of a time, finding good people. If they won’t run for office, who’s going to serve on our school or county boards?” he asks.

If Don isn’t talking to county Republicans, he might be on the phone to his old friend, Ray LaHood, the former Congressman and Secretary of Transportation in the first Obama administration. The former mayor knows that friendships with people in high places are more productive than casual acquaintances with leaders at any level. The friendship with the Secretary is so strong that he has been known to find time in his schedule, even without an appointment, to talk to Don when he is in Washington D.C. He is also well known in the governor’s office, where he succeeded in bringing better roads to the city or helping independent pharmacists locally or in the U.S. He’s a leader, respected at the local, state and national levels.

Don’t misunderstand. Don is just as concerned with the “little people” as the “big ones.” If there is a need, Don’s the first one to offer to help. Five years ago, he learned that a small town pharmacist was having problems trying to serve her customers. A tornado had demolished the Elmwood Pharmacy in a tornado, and the state of Illinois wouldn’t allow her to sell prescriptions from the wreckage of her building. When he learned of her dilemma, Don called the state and convinced them that she should be allowed to move her operations to the basement of a bank building located next door. Don’s approach is simple: “don’t shout,” “don’t lose your temper,” “just explain the problem as clearly as possible.” The Elmwood pharmacist was dispensing medicine to her customers two days later in an area resembling a war zone.

Here’s another example. More than twenty years ago, Don was instrumental in establishing a nursing scholarship at the local community college, Illinois Central. In the late 1950s his Rotary Club started a campaign to vaccinate all the citizens in town against polio. At the time everyone paid a token amount for the expected expenses, but someone covered the cost of the vaccine and all the local physicians provided their services without charge. Since there were virtually no expenses, Don dropped the proceeds in a savings account, and eventually creating a $20,000 endowment to support a student nurse.

Considering how much he had done for the community, one might assume that Don is a native of Washington. He’s not. Born on August 7, 1932, he grew up on a grain and livestock farm near Trivoli, Illinois. Although he lived in the country, he never road a school bus until reaching high school. As a young boy, he walked a half mile on a gravel road every day from the farm to one-room Cottonwood School which served a total of 18 students in eight grades. In 1950 he graduated from Farmington High School where he was drawn to his science classes. Standing 5’5” and weighing only120 pounds, Don did not play center of the basketball team or fullback on the football team. The truth is that he was more of a student than an athlete.

After graduation, he decided to become a pharmacist. Although most druggists complete four years of undergraduate study before attending a professional school, the farm boy went directly from high school to the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy. When asked about being accepted without a bachelor’s degree, he smiled broadly, proud of his accomplishment. “There were 425 applicants for positions in my class. Only 125 were accepted.” Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how many applicants skipped their undergraduate degree?

After finishing school, Don served in the U.S. Army before returning to Central Illinois in 1957 and working for several pharmacies. Two years later he bought a store from a retiring pharmacist and married Shirley whom he met while working in Peoria. After ten years in business, Don joined several local investors by enhancing the historic Washington square, building a new pharmacy, a large modern supermarket, a new bank and a Ben Franklin while providing additional parking to support increased business. While other small towns have abandoned the centuries old squares and headed for the outskirts, Don and others enhanced the downtown without destroying the original flavor.

With the development work completed, Don became interested in local government, serving first as an alderman, county board member and finally as mayor of the city. In the middle of his forty-year career in politics, the citizens recognized his accomplishments and named him Washingtonian of the year in 1981. No wonder Don was so easily elected mayor for three consecutive terms. During that time period (1989-2001) his administration pushed for growth, expanding city services which attracted more subdivisions, new schools to meet the increased population, and of course, higher taxes.

Not all were pleased to have their taxes increased, but his arguments for growth convinced most people in the community. When the city council was asked to raise sewer and water by fifty percent, he explained the reasoning behind his request. “Folks, I grew up on a farm, drinking well water from a tin cup attached to a hand pump. The cup was never washed. The well was located close to the cattle barn. I’m not sure how pure that water was. We can’t go back to those days. We need plenty of water for the citizens of Washington. We want you to approve our request to raise the rates.” The motion carried.

If you’re looking for Gronewold today, he’s not at home, talking on the phone, or politicking. He’s hunched over a cup of coffee in the café overlooking the BP gasoline station, watching traffic leaving town. He listens for the next question: “Looking back over the last fifty years, who were the people most responsible for what this city has become?” His response sounds as if he had anticipated the question and planned his answer carefully: “At the top of the list, I put Herman Essig, then Fred Joos Sr., and Mel….” But he never mentions the farm boy from Farmington who put Washington on the map.

Mickey McGuire: A Small Town Cobbler

Mickey was just like a grandpa to me. Our families have been close for three generations.  Trips to Mickey’s shoe store were adventures for a little girl who he called his “little Rosie” because he thought I so closely resembled my grandma. Even though I was not raised in as small of a town as Elmwood, to me it was a magical place to visit.. This was the kind of town everyone knew everyone and no one felt the need to lock their doors. I’m pretty sure it’s the same today. I hope you enjoy dad’s tribute to a very special man.  – Amy Jo

Mickey McGuire cropped

 

“Who was Wilbert McGuire?”

“I’ve never heard of him.” After a pause, the old-timer continued, “I once knew a guy named McGuire who ran a shoe store in Elmwood, Illinois, but I don’t think his name was Wilbert. Everybody called him ‘Mickey.’”

“Yes, that’s who I mean – Mickey McGuire, whose store was across from Central Park.”

————————-

Although Wilbert McGuire was in business over 40 years, no one ever called him “Wilbert,” as far as I know. I doubt whether his own mother called him “Wilbert,” unless he did something to upset her. And I suspect that might have happened once in a while, because he was a prankster – nothing illegal, nothing dangerous, just good fun. In his youth he may have tied tin cans to a cat’s tail, dumped an out house or two on Halloween, or told tall tales about the preacher’s wife. Genuinely good natured, Mickey would do anything for a laugh.

Tall, about six feet. Skinny, really gaunt. You could see the top of his collar bone sticking out of his open-necked shirt. Mickey’s most distinguishing features, however, were a long narrow nose and a large Adam’s apple. Even with a normal swallow, he looked as if he were trying to digest a golf ball lodged in his throat. His hair was long and black and seldom parted because it was so coarse, so unruly. Instead, as I recall, he used his polish-stained fingers to arrange his hair like a comb with wide teeth. He had big, bony cheeks, dimples on both sides and caramel-colored teeth – too many Camels. And that smile, that laugh.

Hundreds of times, when I visited his store, Mickey was facing the back wall, holding a shoe over a grinder or buffing the toe of a wing-tip to a high gloss. The noise could be deafening. From time to time, he would shut the machinery down, turn around facing the front of the store, and apply glue from a tin container to soles with a little brush. The smell was strong but not unpleasant. When customers took seats in one of the three or four chrome-handled chairs to try on some new shoes, Mickey took off his apron and came from behind the counter to wait on them. His two different jobs were almost incompatible: repairing shoes and selling them.

He wanted to look presentable as a salesman and so he wore a dress shirt, always open at the neck, but to repair shoes – to grind soles and polish the “uppers” as he called them – he had to wear a dark-colored apron. He never won. He always looked more like a cobbler than a shoe salesman. To be more presentable, he removed his apron to sell shoes, but his shirt and pants were usually spotted with polish above and below the apron. To tell the truth, no one cared. In the 1940s and 50s, there was less pretense. Mickey was Mickey. Our expectations were lower; our values were different. Whether he wore an apron, whether it was covered by polish, it wasn’t important. Everybody was glad to see him, to listen to one or more of his million stories, some corny, some really funny, sometimes for the first time, sometimes for the tenth.

I don’t think it was possible for Mickey to sell or repair shoes for a stranger. If he didn’t know customers when they came into the store, Mickey knew them when they left. “Where are you from?” he asked. “What does your husband do?” (Women didn’t work outside the home in those days, so it was a waste of time to ask most of them what they did.) “How many kids do you have?” When he got to know someone, especially a young woman, he’d greet her at the door and put his arm around her. “How’s my Susie Q?” he asked. Many times, I saw him put his right hand around my mother’s waist, grasp her right hand and take a dance step or two. “How’s my little Rosie?” She would smile and laugh. His behavior was innocent because, more than likely Helen, his wife, would be standing there purring, like a little kitten. She’d smile and greet customers, but otherwise, unless forced to do so, she limited her involvement in most conversations to listening and to watching. Talking was an effort.

They were a pair: he loved to talk; she listened.

On busy days like Saturdays, he’d fix shoes; she sold them. They worked long hours– from 8 am to 6 pm during the week and from 8 am to 10 pm, or until the last customer left on Saturday night. At ten o’clock, if someone looked inside the front windows, Mickey wouldn’t think of turning out the lights or telling them to leave because it was ten o’clock. Ten o’clock was a guideline, not a deadline. The customer came first. Remember, at that time no one was in a hurry. During the day, Mickey and Helen would take a break now and then. They would have long conversations with customers after a transaction, and they would break for lunch, upstairs in their living quarters. The big meal was served at noon: pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, lots of coffee made on the gas stove and maybe a piece of homemade cherry pie. The view from their kitchen windows reminded me of a flat in France, looking over the tar paper roof of the Penny Grocery below, the Elmwood Elevator in the distance. Then he’d take the winding stairs to the store below, pick up his dark blue apron, flip the switch on the machinery and go back to work.

During the war years, when shoes were rationed and new ones hard to find, old ones needed new soles and heels. Mickey would often return after supper, sometimes working behind a locked door until 10 or 12 pm. He could hardly keep up. Sometimes the floor behind his counter was covered with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of leather-soled shoes for workers in Building LL at Caterpillar Tractor Company, mud-covered Red Wing boots for farmers like Rolla Shaffer, or high top work shoes for miners like Raymond Metz or Stanley Winn. Despite the number to choose from, Mickey could always pick out the right pair for a customer without checking the sole where the name was embossed in chalk. What a memory!

Mickey was a hard worker, but he never worked hard. He paced himself carefully, to the extent possible, so that work was never really work. He loved his mid-afternoon walks to the post office about a block away where he’d pick up a few envelopes (one cent stamps for local delivery, three-cent stamps for out-of-town). Generally he was less interested in the envelopes than in latest issue of the Wall Street Journal.

Leaving the post office, he’d stick his head in next door at the Elmwood Café, where he’d greet some friends, like Charlie Hicks, a grocer, or Mayme Moody, the carpenter’s wife. They were sitting at tables by the window or on the round stools in front of the counter.

Mickey would take his seat on a stool, order a cup of coffee, stir it with a tin spoon and tease the teenage waitress. “Aren’t you cute today, Susie Q.” The blonde grinned. Then he’d open up the last page or two of the paper, and take his index finger down the columns of stock quotations: General Motors was 38. International Shoe was 16. CILCO was 27. And General Telephone was 33. They were all safe. They all paid a dividend. Mickey’s philosophy was simple: buy what you know. He followed his own advice: he drove a Buick four door (“shit-brindle brown,” according to my Dad), sold Rand shoes made by International Shoe, used his General Telephone dividends to pay his phone bill, and paid his monthly electric bill to CILCO. When a lineman like Richard Schrimp or Wayne Slone who worked for the power and light company came into the store, he would remind them that he was a stockholder. “Make sure you put in a good day’s work and take care of the truck we stockholders bought you.” They’d laugh, but Mickey was half serious. He worked hard; he expected others to follow his example.

As much as he enjoyed the craft he learned from his father, Mickey felt cooped up inside the four walls of his store. So when he could – in the evening or in the summer — he sprang from his cage. Sometimes by himself, with Helen or with his kids and grandkids. By himself, after dinner, he found a place to play cards with guys like Gene Bourgoin, the local monument maker; “Rasty” McKinty, the mayor; or Ralph Kilpatrick, the only accountant in town. They began a friendly game of poker – mostly for quarters and half dollars, sometimes for dollar bills. When he was lucky, he accumulated a stack of chips; when he wasn’t, he took the game for its intended purpose – a way to pass time with a few friends, and escape from the confines of the four walls.

On other evenings, Mickey and Helen would finish their supper and take long, long walks around town. Sometimes they went for miles, but they always ended up circling Central Park—under the large overhanging elms, beside Lorado Taft’s statue, “To the Pioneers.” On occasion, late on a hot summer night, they sat on a bench, watched the semis turning the corner in front of Edison Smith and Sons Hardware, talked to Harry Taylor who had just left the Penny Grocery or visited with Arno “Slim” Dauma, the one-man Elmwood Police Department. They were trying to catch a few cool breezes before they went home – upstairs above the store – to rest for another day of fixing and selling shoes. No air conditioning. Just a window fan which drew in the hot night air.

When they had more time, when their kids and grand kids were out of school, Mickey and Helen took them to the Colorado Rockies or the Gulf Coast of Florida, staying for three or four weeks.. Years passed. Mickey retired. He’d work a little now and then, to help his son and daughter-in-law, who had taken over the store, but essentially he and Helen were retired.

—————-

On January 3, 1979, my mother lost her husband. Without warning, without a clue, I lost a father. It was too cold, too snowy for a funeral: four-foot snow drifts; winds howling across the Knox County prairie; temperatures, even in the sun, ten degrees below zero. Mickey and the other pallbearers placed Dad’s coffin on the snow before us. The minister, in a hat, gloves, wool scarf and heavy overcoat, said just a few words and closed his book. Everyone left quickly.

—————-

In the spring of 1979, when the snow had been gone for several weeks, but when a light sweater felt good, I drove back to Elmwood to see my mother – to talk, to run some errands, to write some checks. When we were done and I had given her a hug, I decided to visit McGuire’s Shoe Store. Mickey was there, but no one else. He greeted me warmly, placing his left hand on my back, looking closely into my eyes. He knew I was still hurting. We had never talked after Dad’s passing; we had never talked about religion. I had seen him once or twice at church in his double breasted suit, but he never talked about God, about an afterlife. If he was religious, he kept it to himself. Out of nowhere, he began, “I went to the cemetery last week. I sat on a tomb stone and talked to Harry Taylor. I brought him up to date…” Somehow his remarks made me feel better. Don’t know why. Can’t explain it.

Nine years later, around the end of June, I remember standing outside Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Illinois, beside Mickey’s daughter, who was in tears. She said, “He’s not good. I think we’re going to lose him. I will miss him a lot.” I responded, holding back the tears, “We’ll all miss him.”

Several days later, I was at the Patterson Funeral Home, along with the other pallbearers facing the clergy who took part in the services – Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, even Roman Catholic. I think Mickey was a Presbyterian, but that’s not important. Denominations are irrelevant at a time like that. They seem silly. Father Horne, the Catholic priest, a tiny little man of great humility and warmth, peered over the lectern and began with these words. “In the last ten years we have lost many good people, but for me two stand out – Harry Taylor, our grocer, and now Mickey McGuire, our cobbler.”

I was stunned. Father Horne continued, but I paid little attention to the rest of his words; I was thinking about a cold day in January 1979. The last words were said; the last songs were sung; everyone walked outside in the bright sunlight. Drivers in the long motorcade started their engines, “funeral” flags waving in the breeze, and we began the journey from Patterson Funeral Home to the cemetery. On the way we passed some familiar sights: Morrison and Mary Wiley Library, Jordon’s Mobil, the Palace Theater, McGuire’s Shoe Store, Armstrong’s Clothing and the Farmers State Bank. Then the motorcade rounded Central Park, not once but twice, in memory of a couple who had walked that walk, time and time again. Then we proceeded west to the cemetery.

Twenty years later, if you drove past Central Park in Elmwood and turned at Edson Smiths & Sons Hardware (now called Hometown Hardware), you’d still see “McGuire’s Shoes” painted on the building which now houses a beauty shop. If you walked up to the post office and the Café, you might find someone who remembers when shoes were sold and repaired in Elmwood. They might still be arguing whether the cobbler’s name was Wilbert or just plain “Mickey McGuire.”

Karl K. Taylor

Sept. 1, 2008

A Small Town Grocer

We are at an exciting time for Dad’s blog. With just 50 new visitors he will surpass 2,000 unique readers! We have a new story coming very soon, but since this story about the small town grocer was posted in the blog’s infancy, we are hoping more folks will take a minute to read it and comment and share. Please use the social media buttons at the bottom of the story. Thanks everyone!! We are thankful for your interest and enthusiasm!

storiesfromsmalltownillinois

Dad and HarryHarry Taylor looked the part of an old-fashioned grocer.  About five feet ten, he was bald except for a tuft of hair hanging over his forehead. He wore the same kinds of clothes every day:  a gray or white long-sleeved dress shirt, a butcher’s apron embossed with “America’s Cup Coffee,” and a black leather bow tie.  In the corner of his mouth, he clinched a King Edward cigar, seldom smoked but often chewed.

Harry looked comfortable, standing behind the meat counter grinding lean beef or greeting customers in the produce department, whether they were rich or poor, young or old.   With some, he passed the time of day; with others, he’d share a story. It was an era, long gone, when everyone knew his grocer, and he knew his customers.   As they talked, he maintained eye contact with them while arranging bright red tomatoes in perfect rows or removing bruised…

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