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…

View original post 798 more words

Miss Roma Shively: A Short Woman in a Tall World

Photo provided by Knox College Library

Photo provided by Knox College Library

“This is the Alumni Office, Knox College.”

After some preliminaries, I asked, “What is the process for nominating someone for an alumni achievement award?”

The process was simple: fill out an application, submit a letter of support, and encourage others to do the same. “Whom do you want to nominate?” the director asked.

“Miss Roma Shively, my eighth grade English teacher.”

On the other end of the line, the director cleared his throat, “Mr. Taylor, do you realize what kinds of people receive Knox College Achievement Awards – people who have done something special? Mr. Taylor, without knowing more about Miss Shively, I don’t want to discourage you, but…”

No point in arguing her case. I just asked him to send the appropriate materials, thanked him, and hung up.

————————————-

Perhaps as early as third or fourth grade, I had heard about Miss Shively, or seen her standing at the top of the stairs at the school, peering down the stairway as the third graders marched in single file to recess. It was the late 40s. We were like little soldiers. She was like an owl, looking down from a tree, eyes blinking, and movements slow and deliberate. Her arms crossed. Everywhere we turned – in the hall, in the gymnasium, on the playground — we saw those eyes, magnified by thick lenses. Laughing and playing at recess, far from the classroom where silence was expected, students were known to have melted into silence if they saw Ms. Shively looking at them in just the right way. They would ask themselves: “What did I do wrong?” She commanded both fear and respect, not by yelling or threatening, but by looking at the students, using her silence to silence the rowdy and boisterous.

Those looks, that demeanor, created an image for Roma Shively, probably scaring some young people who did not know her, but developing a sense of respect in others. Over the years, with class after class of students, she became a kind of icon, someone people looked up to; she was not just a teacher in the Elmwood Grade School. She was THE teacher. It is difficult to figure out why Miss Shively projected that image, whether it was natural or intentionally created. Maybe it was because it reflected her personality – quiet and unassuming, bookish and religious. On the other hand, she may have done so to maintain discipline in her classroom, often filled with big farm boys in bibbed overalls who were more interested in working with hogs and cattle than memorizing spelling words or diagramming sentences. In the 1940s, children were living in an adult world; today, adults are living in a children’s world. The former was quiet and disciplined; the latter is noisy and undisciplined. She had to look tough, even if she wasn’t, and that was not easy because she was less than five feet tall. Virtually everybody was taller than she was.

————————————-

Born on June 12, 1903, in Elmwood, Illinois, twenty miles east of Galesburg, Roma Shively was the daughter of Frank Shively, a carpenter, and her mother, Edna Lawrence, a housewife and a great reader. Roma had two brothers and two sisters. She attended first through seventh grades in Elmwood while her father built some of the finest homes in the community, including most of the bungalows and a classic two-story brick Georgian on North Magnolia, now owned by Fred and Pam Paige. When Roma was in grade school, her father decided that he would fulfill a dream and become a farmer, although he had never had any experience. So he gathered up his family, Roma’s pony and horse, and headed by train to western New York where he purchased a dairy farm, sight unseen.

“We had never milked a cow,” she said softly, looking directly at her interviewer. “I suppose Dad had. We had 30 to do, so I learned, my Mother learned and my little brother learned to milk cows. My older sister had to do the feeding because we were on a good sized dairy farm and she had to bring the hay down.” Smiling, the seventy-three-year-old continued, “My little brother Eddie was only three. He would sit on the milk stool and pull the cow’s tail. The tails would keep the flies off, and he would keep the tails from swatting us, because, believe me, they hurt.”

It was not all work. Roma loved the outdoors where she rode her horse and pony in the summer and played in the snow in the winter. “One thing I always loved to do was coast. We would have deep snow and then it would melt a little but then we would get a nice thick covering of ice, and we would just scoot down the hill.” Roma’s eyes gleamed as she recalled events occurring sixty years before, but there was sadness, too. They worked very hard, but Frank Shively brought his family back to Elmwood. They had failed. He went back to building homes, and Roma finished high school, passing an examination allowing her to teach in a one-room school south of Elmwood the next fall.

Roma’s first job was at Morse School where she was the only teacher for 25 pupils, 18 boys and 7 girls. One year she had 6 pupils in first grade, 2 in eighth, and the other seventeen were spread out in six different grades. School lasted just eight months, beginning in September, after harvest, and ending in April, before planting. The pupils were needed in the fields. For her work, Roma was paid $75 a month or a total of $600 for the year. She was busy juggling a curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic for all grades and agriculture for just the upper grades. When asked if dealing with so many students in so many grades was difficult, she seemed to brush is off, more interested in talking about recess. “We’d play ball. We had two good ball teams. They let me play third base on one team. We had good times. I guess I taught them something because I had to learn a lot.”

While teaching in a one-room school might turn some teachers from education, in Miss Shively’s case the experience drove her to education. With the encouragement of her pastor, Roma enrolled at Knox College in 1925. During her four years there, she had jobs both on and off campus, including being paid $25 a semester for singing in the choir. Roma’s graduation picture in the 1929 Knox yearbook shows an attractive young woman with dainty facial features: dark, thick eyebrows, a gentle nose, and soft lips. She is wearing a simple dress with the collar lying flat on her shoulders, but her most prominent features were her glasses and hair. Her lenses were round, not oval, held in place by dark frames, and her hair style resembled that made famous by Dorothy Hamill: dark bangs, carefully trimmed, hanging close to her eye brows.

Roma looked, not like a Flapper in the 1920s but like a graduate student, serious and intent. She had taken the extraordinary step, for those days, of earning not only her bachelor’s degree at Knox, but also a master’s degree in history, an experience she enjoyed and prepared her for a life of teaching and research. She spoke with quiet enthusiasm: “We knew our professors so well. We had some outstanding ones then…I went to the University of Minnesota as a teaching fellow and the History Department of 18 [professors]. We just had a glorious time.” She paused, glancing out the window, obviously thinking of the past. “Every afternoon we would have tea. We would put so much money in the kitty, and it was usually somebody’s job, usually the secretary, to see that the water was heated. Different history professors used to come in and visit with us. It was a glorious two years.” Learning and sharing with other academics had great appeal to her.

————————————-

In the fall of 1951, when I entered Roma Shively’s eighth grade class, I was thirteen years old. She was forty-eight. With thirty years of experience behind her, she knew most of the tricks of her trade, including placing her desk at the back of the room, where she could observe the members of my class with their backs to her. Looking back over fifty years, I have trouble remembering many things, but I can’t forget how she looked. She always wore a “dressy dress,” not expensive but in good taste, conservative, in plain, dark colors. No pants. No skirts and blouses that I remember. Just dresses. Sometimes, she’d wear a flowered pattern, somewhat lighter in color, carefully chosen so it never was showy, conspicuous. Whether plain or patterned, light or dark, she wore fairly dark nylon hose and Red Cross shoes with medium, square heels. If the truth were known, I would say Miss Shively had a fetish for jewelry, nothing flashy, always attractive and in good taste. If I recall correctly, she always wore earrings, pearls and occasionally a pin. Her hair was always braided, tied back into buns on both sides of her head, and she wore fairly thick wire rimmed glasses. She was a classy lady, looking more like a college professor than an eighth grade English teacher.

Why was Roma Shively so important to me? To tell the truth, it’s hard to remember after all these years, but several things stand out. Although she did not have a warm fuzzy personality, we all knew, beneath the thick veneer, that every pupil in her class was significant. She loved every one of us. Since she never married, never had children of her own, we were her children. Teaching was not her job. It was her mission, her calling. She felt it was her responsibility to teach us everything we needed to know to have happy lives and successful careers. As a result, hundreds of children moved through her classes to become successful entrepreneurs and corporation executives, doctors and lawyers, and several PhDs. She was proud of all of them, but her love was hidden inside.

Although I did not know it at the time, Miss Shively was a researcher and writer, which was reflected in what and how she taught. For her, history was more than memorizing facts that someone else had dug up and compiled into a textbook. She did some digging of her own, and she shared that knowledge with us as well as the joy of doing basic historical research. Miss Shively loved Elmwood, the town where she was born, where she spent most of her life, and it and the surrounding area were the subjects of her research. Her master’s thesis was called Jubilee – a Pioneer College, the story of an early experiment in higher education on the prairie, supported by the Episcopalian Church. Later, she published a second short book called The Congregational Church of Elmwood, Illinois, 1854-1954. This was the history of her church, which was important in the settlement of the community and the place where Lorado Taft’s father taught in the Academy at the end of the 19th century. When she was doing the research, she was sharing her discoveries as well as the joy of historical study with us. Knowing about our roots, she believed, was just as important as knowing the states of the union or the chief crops of Mongolia. As a result, when I walk down main street today, I can remember her telling us that the first house on the block was owned by William Philips, the founder of the city, or that empty lot is the site of the first coal mine in the township, or the first paper mill in the county. Yet, I can’t remember the principal crop of Mongolia, but who cares.

Another pet project of Miss Shively was the Safety Patrol, a crossing guard program staffed by seventh and eighth graders inside and outside the school after the instructional day was over. Each year she would select a group of five or six boys to act as crossing guards at several busy intersections between the school and the surrounding neighborhoods. They watched the traffic carefully, using their out-stretched arms to block younger children from crossing in front of cars or trucks. In addition Roma selected five or six girls who served a similar function inside the three-story school building, standing near the stairs where they watched for children taking the stairs too quickly or running down the hallways. One former student, now middle-aged, says, “To this day I don’t run down stairs. Maybe it is the fear of being ‘reported’ and going to court on Friday.” The Safety Patrol was headed by a Captain, an eighth grader, generally a boy if I remember correctly, whose primary responsibility was checking all patrol posts each day, making sure all the guards were doing their jobs correctly, answering questions and making sure there was no “funny business.”

The guards and their captain were easy to identify: the boys wore white belts, in heavy canvas, with a white loop running from front to back, and the girls held metal badges in their right hands. The captain stood out because he wore a shiny silver badge on his white belt, and one of his jobs was inspecting the guards’ belts and the badges for whiteness. One former guard remembers cleaning his belt with a toothbrush and soap, much like an Army private spit-shining his black boots or polishing his metal insignia with Brasso. The guards looked as if they had some kind of authority, and in fact they did have the power “to arrest” a student who didn’t obey a crossing guard or who walked too fast down the steps or hall. All the guilty children (and there were a few) were brought to trial on Friday afternoons, and a court of peers decided on their guilt or innocence, handing out detention for those found guilty. Miss Shively was the judge. To this day, one middle-aged woman still remembers, quite vividly, being found guilty, improperly she believes. That happened more than 50 years ago!

The safety patrol served two functions. First, the parents knew that someone was watching their children very carefully when they left school. According to a member of the Elmwood Board of Education, no child was ever harmed by a vehicle when the safety patrol was in operation. Second, for a participant, the program brought out the best in them. As one former patrol boy said, to be selected, “You had to be on your best behavior, be a leader and role model, someone she could trust.’’ In turn, the position of patrol leader “gave these individuals a first taste of responsibility.” Just think of all the things that children learned from this experience: responsibility, knowledge of the jury system, ethics, pride, citizenship, and on and on.

————————————-

I can’t remember what I wrote in the letter to the nominating committee at Knox College, and I never knew who else took the time to support my nomination. I do know, however, the three recipients of the 1971 Knox College Alumni Achievement Awards: a Chicago attorney; the Chief Counsel for Gulf Oil; and an eighth grade English teacher. I can only hope that day was the high point of a special teacher’s life, a short woman in a tall world.

__________________________________________

Note: For background material on Miss Shively’s time in New York, I am indebted to an unsigned transcript of an oral history program of the Peoria County Bicentennial Commission. It is dated May 3, 1976 and found in the Peoria Public Library. I am also indebted to the Knox College Alumni Association and the Library for material on Miss Shively for the 1971 Alumni Achievement Awards. Several friends in Elmwood were helpful with details that I had forgotten, especially Richard Coon for his memories of the safety patrol.

Karl Taylor

September 2009

Helen Hart Metz

Helen Hart Metz pic 2In the fall of 1956, Helen Hart Metz was the only woman I knew who displayed her family name – Hart – conspicuously beside her married name:  Metz.  Ten years later, when women were burning their bras in the big cities and standing up for their rights, women like Betty Friedan and others encouraged women to retain their family names rather than to take their husbands’ names when they were married.  In the 1960s and 1970s, still other women, often called “women’s libers,” combined their family and married names, placing a hyphen between them like Helen Hart-Metz.

Helen was, in many ways, a “women’s liber” before Betty Friedan invented the term.  I’m sure she never burned any bras, but it was not unusual to see her in social situations in her home, wearing a man’s white t-shirt, no bra, smoking one Benson Hedges cigarette after another without inhaling, and drinking a can of beer.  In a small conservative country town in the Middle West in the 1950s, Helen was, to some people, at least daring, maybe brash and perhaps “uppity.”  Her behavior, her demeanor made a statement.  For some, she was a refreshing breeze; for others, she was too liberal, maybe even radical, for a town with one authentic tavern (not counting the VFW) and half a dozen churches filled every Sunday morning.

Fairly short and skinny, she wore dress slacks whenever possible at a time when most women didn’t own a pair.  Her hair, very gray, almost white in her late forties, was always short.  Some people said Helen reminded them of Bette Davis, the famous actress:  similar figures, the sexy eyes, the guarded smile.  Hearing that remark, she made a point of watching Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane to see, in fact, if she saw a resemblance.  I saw one.  She never said.

Helen Metz was born in Elmwood around 1908, graduating at or near the top of her class, one of the few females at the time who attended college.  She dated widely and had a reputation for being a bit wild, whatever that meant more than 75 years ago – probably keeping the hem of her skirt a little high, her lipstick a little redder than good girls were allowed, her hair bobbed when church girls wore theirs long, and the only woman in town, young or old, who smoked, at least publicly.  She dated tall men, short men, skinny men, fat men, talkative ones, and quiet ones.  She ended up marrying Raymond Metz, an average-sized quiet one, who learned to fly private planes for the fun of it (scared her to death), but became a shovel operator for Peabody Coal Company for a livelihood. He was mechanical, using what he learned in Mechanics Illustrated.  In off hours, he worked on cars, fixed TV sets, and even designed and installed radiant heating in their first apartment.  He had to keep busy; they had no children.  No one could ever figure out what they had in common, but they seemed happy.

As far as I know, Helen never read Mechanics Illustrated.  She enjoyed the classics like Chaucer and Beowulf, the great historians like Durant, Morison, and Schlesinger and was not afraid to venture into the writings of biologists and mathematicians, long before she went off to college. She was a Civil War buff, reading all the great historians and visiting the principal battlefields.  She even did editorial work for J.G. Randle and his wife, University of Illinois Lincoln scholars and for Hazel Wolf who wrote the Blue and Gray on the Nile.  A Renaissance woman?  She started at Monmouth College for a year or so which she found boring and dull and later finished her bachelors in education at Bradley University to become a teacher. Generally she didn’t like private schools because the students and faculty seemed pseudo-sophisticated; the University of Illinois, where she earned a masters degree in the summers, was her favorite. For a number of years she taught English at small country schools like Brimfield and Yates City, but her knowledge was so broad and so deep she could substitute, without hesitation, in virtually every field.

She was a good teacher, but a tough one.  She gave A’s sparingly.  An A was reserved for someone who did A work, not for the student who did the best work in the class.  That was a difficult concept to grasp for many students and parents who couldn’t understand why there wasn’t at least one A in the class.  She was a strict disciplinarian.  She warned her classes against talking during an exam.  When a future salutatorian asked a friend, innocently, for an eraser, she paid the price:  her grade was lowered from an A to a B.  Rules were rules.  Her motto:  strict standards + high expectations = high achievement. One of her students, a shy young farm boy from a high school graduating class of 20, went to Annapolis and became a nuclear submarine commander. (His earliest experience driving a vehicle was not plowing through the Atlantic but manipulating a John Deere tractor in a corn field.) Some of us grew weary hearing about him all the time and his accomplishments, but he was an inspiration to Helen.  She used his example to light the fire beneath a number of young men who became corporate executives and young women who strayed from traditional female fields into more challenging ones typically reserved for males.  She inspired students, especially those who were bright but lacked direction; she challenged them to do their best and make something of themselves.  She was an early advocate for the community college, realizing that not all students needed or should attend traditional four-year colleges and that technicians of all kinds were important in our society, filling an important niche.  No educational snob here.   For those less gifted or motivated, Helen could be a pain when she wanted more from them than what they wanted to give.  As one young woman said, “I wanted to be a nurse; she wanted me to be a doctor.  She wanted more than I wanted to give.”  Helen’s “push” encouraged many, but discouraged others who felt they were not one of her favorites.  The fact is that practically all students were her “pets,” but for some her demands could be too much. Very quietly Helen and Raymond provided financial support for many young people unable to afford a college degree.

As a pre-teen, I first became acquainted with Helen when I carried sacks to her car from my family’s grocery store. She stood out because she was one of the few who were more interested in quality, particularly of meats and produce, than in price.  She would usually ask the butcher to take a piece of round steak out of the meat case and grind it into hamburger in front of her eyes. She wanted her hamburger fresh; she wanted it lean. When she bought fresh produce, she had great respect for my father and his word, taking for granted his recommendations on peaches or apples or strawberries.  If he said they were good, in her mind they were good.  If he was uncertain, he would split an apple or cut a peach for her to taste, an offer he made to very few customers.

When I began having trouble writing in a number of college courses, my parents asked Helen if she would be willing to work with me. She agreed immediately.  Little did I know that I would learn a lot more from Helen than how to write a correct, clear sentence.  I can still remember going to her home for the first time, a 19th century two-story frame structure with a large porch running across the front. It may have been a dark color on the second floor and yellow on the bottom, nothing fancy, but carefully decorated, very comfortable. There was a large living room at the front with big down-filled davenports and chairs, some coming from as far away as Marshall-Field in Chicago. (I had difficulty understanding why anyone would go all the way to Chicago to buy a couch.)  Since Helen and Raymond were the only ones in the house, the only time the furniture was used was when friends came for parties on some week-end evening. (They included the banker, some prominent businessmen, teachers, and others who loved books and ideas.)  She had good taste; everything was color coordinated.  Further in the back of the house was a dining room with a big table, seldom used for eating but often for storage:  piles of new books, six or eight high, which she ordered regularly through the mail or checked out at the Peoria Public Library. (Who ever heard of buying books except at Christmas or having a card for a library twenty miles away?)  Since she was often far behind in her reading, the table also held the latest issues of the New York Times (Sunday Edition), The New Yorker, and the Saturday Review, but seldom The Atlantic or  Harpers.  I had seen these publications in the library, but never in an individual’s home.

In the back of the house were the two most heavily used rooms:  the kitchen which was fresh and white by 1952 standards, including a mysterious new appliance to me – an electric dishwashing machine – and a converted pantry about 11 by 12 by 5.  It was absolutely marvelous. Helen and Raymond had taken a triangular pantry and converted it into a den-library-alcove with a wonderful fireplace on the narrow wall and floor-to-ceiling bookcases on the two wider walls. Warm and comfy.  Helen had placed a daybed  in front of the book shelves, allowing her to sit there, to read, to talk to guests who sat on the ledge in front of the hearth, and to watch the fire.  The book collection was eclectic – everything from the Randle books on Lincoln to novels by Jane Austin and Charles Dickens, and to Schlesinger’s Coming of the New Deal.  The best of the best, past or present.  Perhaps what stood out most was a complete set of the Dictionary of American Biography.  It was worn.

From 1956 or 1957 until 1962, I sat in that room by the fire on many Saturday evenings or Sunday afternoons, as Helen read and critiqued a paper which I was preparing for a class.  At the beginning, the conversation ranged from comma splices to types of introductions or conclusions for essays on my last vacation or my response to Henry Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.  In short, the criticism was fairly basic:  the third sentence needed a semicolon, not a comma.  The fourth sentence was awkward.  The paper lacked a conclusion.  Her criticism covered points I should have learned or should have been taught in high school, but gradually we moved from mechanics to ideas.  Was the 20th century as bleak as Camus described in The Stranger?  What was Melville trying to say to Ahab in Moby Dick?  Gradually our discussion struck out into areas which were never discussed at my parents’ dinner table or which may have been too sensitive to discuss because the question would suggest doubts about some universal truths.  According to my background, things were simple – they were right or they were wrong.  Helen played devil’s advocate; why did I believe as I did?  What evidence could I supply to counter her argument?  We looked at issues from all points of view, and with the help of Will James’ Pragmatism, I was able to find some common ground between the left and the right.  Things were not as simple as I once believed, but there were ways to compensate for the ambiguity of indefiniteness, for dealing with 20th century issues without resorting to 19th century thinking. Helen had grown from teacher to tutor, from professional to something, but probably not a friend. There was too much distance for that to happen.

This relationship, this tutorial continued for six years – from my freshman year at Knox College to the completion of my masters degree at the University of Illinois.  I  planned to major in business and run a grocery store; I ended up majoring in English and teaching at a community college. She was acutely aware of my fascination with the life of ideas and of my weaknesses in background, so she was very careful about steering me in the wrong direction.  She didn’t try.  Did she have an impact on my life? You decide. I read; I read all the time.  I have subscribed to the New York Times since the late 50’s.  I even rented a truck to move a couch from Crate and Barrel in Chicago to my home in Metamora, Illinois.  I have written a great deal, and in retirement I’m continuing to do so.

Over the years, I saw Helen once in a while and talked to her on the phone, but our encounters were brief and occasional. We talked when I was writing a book, I brought my children for her to meet, and we had several discussions when I was working on a Ph.D. My life went on. So did hers.

A few years ago, when I learned that she, now in her eighties, was in the hospital, a voice spoke to me, saying “You’ve got to go see her.”  Raymond was gone.  No one was in the room. We talked about times past, about the papers, and the books, and conversations by the fireside.  The voice said:  “Tell her what’s on your mind.”  I did.  I told her that I owed her the world, that she was the most important academic influence on my life.  She didn’t tear up, but I suspect there was a lump in her throat.

A week later she was gone.

Karl Taylor

Elmwood’s Best Football Season

Elmwood Football Team

When he reviewed the “Hoosiers” in 1987, film critic Roger Ebert said, “There is a passion to high school sports that transcends anything that comes afterwards. Nothing in pro sports equals that intensity.”

That movie was based on the Hickory Huskers, a tiny Indiana high school team that went to the “state basketball finals in the days when schools of all sizes played in the same tournament and David could slay a Goliath.”

In the story below, the Elmwood Trojans triumphed over three Goliaths in another era and in another sport. The 1900 Elmwood (Illinois) football team (pop. 1,800) must have generated that same kind of intensity when they compiled an enviable record of 14-0 against some of the largest schools in central Illinois. In this case, the Goliaths were Peoria (56,000), Galesburg (18,000) and Bloomington (23,000).

*************************************************************

Scott Fitzgerald, the famous American novelist and short-story writer, once said, “No one is interested in last year’s football scores.”

That may be true for some people, but fans of Elmwood athletics should be different. They should want to know about Elmwood’s best football season, but no one is alive who ever saw it; only a few know anything about it. Because yearbooks did not exist in those days, we must rely on newspaper accounts for the story…for the season of 1900.

Well, who says they were any good? How many games did they win? Who were their opponents? Did they win the conference? Here are the facts. You decide whether the 1900 football season was or wasn’t Elmwood’s best.

That year EHS played twelve games, beating some familiar names like Brimfield (5-0), a school in Knoxville called St. Albans (5-0), Lewistown (18-0), and tying Princeville (0-0). But the Trojans beat some teams that would surprise fans today: Peoria High School (18-11), the Silver Streaks of Galesburg (11-0), and once again the Lions of Peoria High School, this time by the score of 20-0.

Sports writers were impressed by the Elmwood Trojans: “Goodness only knows what the Elmwood high school football team would have done to the Peoria high school team yesterday afternoon if their best man had been able to frolic on the gridiron with the rest of them…During the second half, the slaughter was something awful…They [Elmwood] went home singing their favorite war song: ‘Are we in it? We should smile, and we’ve been in it a hell of a while.’” (The Elmwood Gazette, Oct. 18, 1900, quoting from an article in the Peoria Star.)

With each victory, the team became more and more confident. “The Elmwood high school football boys have issued a challenge in the Peoria Star offering to play any high school in the state outside of Cook County,” according to the Elmwood Gazette dated Oct. 25, 1900. No one accepted the challenge! When Lewistown High School came to town in late November, the local paper remarked that the Fulton County school, “furnished amusement for the home team. Score was 18 to 0 in favor of Elmwood. Only two were hurt, and as they were among the Lewistown team, it did not count.”

Two weeks later the fans were looking forward to the last game of the season, to be played in Elmwood against Bloomington High School. According to the Peoria Star, “The Elmwood boys go into the game not over confident, but they think they stand a fair chance, although a close game is expected.”

On Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1900, the Purple Raiders, the champions of McLean County, played in Elmwood before a crowd of over 600. The Elmwood depot must have been very busy that day with train-loads of fans arriving from Bloomington, Galesburg, Peoria, and Canton. Others came by buggy over dirt roads from Farmington and Lewistown. According to the Elmwood Messenger, “In the most exciting and electrifying game of the season, Elmwood scored one touchdown in each half, beating Bloomington 10-0.”

Was the 1900 football season the most successful ever for Elmwood High School? Let’s look at the facts. Elmwood won twelve games and lost none. They scored a total of 87 points to their opponents’ 11. Only one school was able to score against them, including the largest ones in Central Illinois. The Peoria Journal (Nov. 28, 1900) said EHS, “is generally admitted to be the strongest team in the state outside Cook county,” and the game between Elmwood and Bloomington, “will decide the championship of central and southern Illinois.”

Apparently it did.

Karl K. Taylor

When Flipping the Switch, Thank Mr. Brown

electric adToday, we are spoiled by dependable electricity and have serious complaints if our power is knocked out temporarily by a storm, but have you ever thought about how electricity originally spread across rural America? In many small towns across the country, just like Elmwood, Illinois, (which had a population of 1,548 in the 1890 census) there were forward thinking entrepreneurs like E.L. Brown that turned the lights on.

***********************************************************

When you turn on the lights in Elmwood, Yates City, Brimfield or even Maquon, don’t forget to thank Mr. Brown. When you drive by Max Morse’s house in Elmwood, tip your hat to the man who built that house in the 1898. You see, Mr. Edwin L. Brown brought electricity to Elmwood in 1891, the third city in Central Illinois, just behind Peoria (1884) and Pekin (1888) to have electric lights. (Editor’s note: in the 1890 census Peoria’s population was considerably larger at 41,024 and Pekin was 6,347.) Until that year, our ancestors had been using candles and kerosene.

Who in the world was E.L. Brown? He was born in 1850 near Springfield, Mass., moving with his family to Elmwood in 1856. After graduating from the Taft Academy, Brown operated several businesses, including a book and stationery store, a dry goods store (which offered  merchandise he purchased from Marshall Field in Chicago) and eventually the Elmwood Paper Mill.

When he was running the mill, he was also thinking about electricity. While he used kerosene lamps in his home and businesses, he was a little jealous of his friends in Peoria and Pekin and decided to build a power plant just south of town on the banks of the Kickapoo Creek, believing electricity was the wave of the future. As the Peoria Transcript said in January 1891, “Our bright little sister city, Elmwood is to the front again; and is to be lighted private and corporate [homes and businesses] by electricity.”

According to the Elmwood Gazette (Feb. 1, 1905), “Service from dusk to midnight was usual but all-night service was established in Elmwood. Monthly flat rates were established… and extravagant use grew to be universal…Premises were wired without charge.” The Elmwood Electric Company did not provide electricity during the day light hours, however, an omission preventing homeowners from buying and benefiting from electric refrigerators and other appliances appearing a few years later.

In two or three years Brown discovered that more people were demanding electric service, and to make his investment work out, he needed to serve more customers. So E.L. explored the possibility of supplying current to nearby Yates City. There were skeptics. The country was in the midst of a severe economic recession, and many wondered if people could afford or would be willing to switch to electricity. Moreover, others were not convinced that Brown’s company could send power three miles away, and the materials for extending the line were quite high. Cedar posts cost 65 to 90 cents each, copper wire ran ten cents a pound, and the cost of labor was sky high — $1.25 to $2.50 a DAY.

Brown didn’t listen: he connected Elmwood and Yates City. According to a writer for the Peoria Transcript, “Thus were inaugurated the earliest town-to-town and the first rural electric lines in Illinois and perhaps in the United States or elsewhere…Brimfield, Douglas, Maquon, Princeville… were added.” Brown’s gamble was a roaring success.

Brown’s success, however, was not a secret, and in late 1912 he began quiet negotiations with a group of New York and Philadelphia banks for the sale of the Elmwood Electric Company. At that time the Central Illinois Light Company was being formed and that holding company began buying up small electric companies in the middle of the state. No one knows what the Browns received for their company, but according to the Ameren historian, such purchases ran from $150,000 to $250,000, probably a huge amount of money in 1913.

So, when you turn the lights on or off, don’t forget to thank Mr. E.L. Brown for lighting up your life.

Karl K. Taylor

July 2013