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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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