Family Stories

Anyone Can Learn to Fly (Part One)

When I was about twelve or thirteen years old, my father took flying lessons from his brother-in-law, Kenneth Cross, at the airport in Mt. Vernon, Illinois. My Uncle Kenneth was a science teacher at Mt. Vernon High School, but he was also a certified flight instructor at the local airport. I’m not sure if my father ever soloed. He never became a pilot, but the idea was planted in the back of my mind…anyone can learn to fly.

Of course, I had teenaged things to worry about in the next few years. Would those freckles on my face ever fade? (Lemon juice was suggested by teen magazines.) Would I grow any taller? (Not much.) Would I ever have a boyfriend? (And if I did, what then?) But as I grew older and went off to college at the University of Illinois, those concerns were left behind and a whole new world of possibilities opened up. My first year was in a very tight curriculum with little choice, but when I transferred to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as a sophomore, there was time for electives. One that pulled at me was learning to fly. The University had a College of Aviation and its own airport. I was sorely tempted. But Willard Airport was located five miles south in Savoy, Illinois, and flight lessons would take up both time and credit hours. I couldn’t fit it in.

The next twenty years sped along in a rush of responsibilities, marriage, graduation, six children in rapid succession, gradually turning from freelance writing in the few minutes I could spare to full time work in my husband, Chuck’s, insurance agency. All of it was outwardly focused–taking care of family, the business, the community we lived in. Nothing was for me. I hung my Phi Beta Kappa certificate in a frame over the washing machine to help me remember I was a person of value apart from all this.
One day, when we were forty-one years old and our children were teenagers, some in college, Chuck came home to announce that he had met a new friend, Ed Stewart. Ed was a former professional football player with the Chicago Cardinals and currently the principal of a local elementary school, but the most fascinating fact about him was that he was learning to fly. According to Ed, there was a Civil Air Patrol Squadron that had its own airfield in Park Forest, Illinois, a few miles south. Members could take flying lessons at very reasonable rates. “I’m going to sign up,” Chuck said.
“Not without me you aren’t.”

The CAP squadron at Haedler Field was a close knit and fascinating group. There was the president of a small insurance company who really preferred his role as an FAA certified aircraft mechanic to being a company executive. There were flight instructors who had flown in World War II and the Korean War, an auditor for CNA Insurance Company, housewives, salesmen and women, office managers, a wide variety of people, all of whom loved airplanes and flying. Many of them owned their own planes, some of which could be rented. Because its main mission was search and rescue for the U.S. Air Force, it was organized with military ranks for the leaders of the twenty to twenty-five volunteer members. Meetings were held one evening a week, followed by gyros at a strip mall restaurant not far away from the field. Weekends were active with many people taking lessons or just flying to keep up their proficiency or taking off in a group for “$50 hamburgers” at some airport restaurant. (This at a time when hamburgers cost about $3.00.) Everyone took turns as Duty Officer on the weekends, being responsible for operation of the office. If you flew, you had to sign the roster so we knew where you were going and when you expected to return.

Chuck and I were welcomed by the group and immediately signed up for lessons. Getting a pilot’s license meant passing a written test given by the FAA, passing a physical exam to get a medical certificate and taking actual flying lessons from a Certified Flight Instructor. Of the three flight instructors on the field, we chose Colonel Kenneth Soderland, whose real job was as a librarian at the University of Chicago. Ken Soderland’s slight build and quiet demeanor were deceptive. He never talked about his past, but his legend was fascinating. As a teenager, he had lied about his age to join the Army Air Corp during World War II. He became a pilot who ferried B-17s across the Pacific and became known for his unerring seat-of-the-pants navigation. Flying above the clouds in the Pacific where there were no navigational aids, he’d say “I think it’s about here,” descend through the clouds and find the remote island he was heading for. As an instructor he was strict and confident, and he made his students feel confident, too.

Haedler Field was unusual in that it was owned, maintained and run by the local Civil Air Patrol Squadron. Located in farm fields just south of Park Forest, IL, on Illinois Highway 51, it had two runways. The paved east/west runway was short, and the most used 270° approach was over power lines that ran along the Illinois Central tracks just east of the highway. Every pilot who flew there was an expert on short field takeoffs and landings and, even landing on long runways at other airports, we tended to land at the edge of the runway and taxi forever to get to the terminal. There was also a grass north/south runway that was mostly used for flying gliders. The squadron had a glider school for teenage and adult members. On Saturdays and Sundays, planes would take off with gliders in tow, haul them to 2000 feet and release them for silent flights over the corn fields before returning for precision landings on the grass. There was no better way to learn and understand aerodynamics. In later years, several members formed a company to fly banners over the Cubs and White Sox ball parks, using the grass runway. After the tow plane took off, a ground crew would attach the banner to a rope suspended across the runway. The plane would circle around, fly low over the runway with a suspended hook that would catch the banner and off they’d be to the ball game. Something interesting was always happening at Haedler Field.

I took my first lesson on February 2, 1976, in a rented Cessna 150, N45155, passed my written test on May 12, 1976, and had my Private Pilot License issued on August 13, 1976, my father’s birthday. Both Chuck and I soloed on May 9, 1976. What is it like to fly an airplane all by yourself for the first time? Not scary, but there is a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach as your instructor gets out of the plane, the door goes thunk and you taxi to the end of the runway, all alone. Then you tell yourself, “Settle down. You’ve already done what seems like hundreds of landings at this airport before.” You take off to the west, turn left 90°, then left again and you are in the familiar landing pattern. Two more left turns and you are on final approach, lowering flaps, pulling back on the throttle as you keep your eyes on those big red balls on the electric lines along the railroad tracks. Your wheels gently touch the runway and you quickly shove the throttle all the way forward to take off again, chuckling to yourself, “I’m doing it!” When you land the final time twenty minutes later and taxi to the tie down, your friends are there to congratulate you. It’s a good day and the exhilaration lasts.

Even after you soloed, you still had many more hours flying with an instructor, practicing takeoffs and landings at Haedler and unfamiliar airports, crosswind landings, short field and soft field landings, stalls, spins, s-turns, navigation, both visual and by instrument. You had to know how to operate the radio, how to talk to air traffic controllers in the tower or at the FAA’s Air Route Traffic Control Centers. You had to know how to plan your flight, check the weather, and file a flight plan with the FAA. You learn how to do a pre-flight check before you even open the door, making sure that there has been no damage to the plane since it was last flown, climbing a ladder to check the gas level, making sure there is no water in the gas tank and that the pitot tube isn’t clogged. To pass your written exam, you had to learn some basic aerodynamics and meteorology, but to be a safe pilot you had to develop practical application of that knowledge. There is no better way to grasp basic aerodynamics than to practice a stall, where you pull back on the wheel into a steep climb until the plane can no longer fly and the engine stops. It is very quiet when the engine stops. To recover, you put the nose down and dive until the engine starts again. Your instructor directs you higher and higher, then puts the airplane into a spin. You learn how to recover by concentrating on the instruments and not on the disorienting landscape out the window.

We were hooked. Even before we had our private pilot’s licenses, Chuck and I bought our first airplane, N7503X, a Cessna 172B, manufactured in 1960. I recently looked it up on the FAA’s website. It is still flying. Because of mandatory maintenance, private airplanes can fly safely for years and years.

Search and Rescue

The primary purpose of the Civil Air Patrol was search and rescue. There was also an emphasis on education, particularly of young people who had the urge to fly, but no opportunity, and many squadrons concentrated on that. But, because the Park Forest Squadron had its own airport with many airplanes and a well-trained membership, we got more calls than most. Remember, this was the 1970s. There were no artificial satellites orbiting the earth, no GPS to guide you. After 1972, Congress passed a law requiring all U.S aircraft to have an ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter) installed in the tail of the aircraft. This was the result of a crash in Alaska of a plane carrying U.S. Representative Hale Boggs which was never found. The problem was that those early ELTs were prone to false alarms due to hard landings. The radio signals at 121.5 MHZ were not audible to human ears. Pilots banged their planes down, taxied to the hanger, closed the doors and went home to bed. Meanwhile, the crash warning was picked up by the Air Force at Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois and the call went out to the Civil Air Patrol to search for the aircraft.

Our early experiences with search and rescue were ELT alarms. If there were no reports of missing flights or accident sightings, our Squadron leader would know the ELT alarm would likely come from an airplane on the tarmac at some airport, so he would call two or three members to get into the air to investigate. By homing in on the ELT signal, it usually took only an hour or so to find the aircraft, locate the owner and get the alarm turned off. While we might grumble about getting out of bed in the middle of the night because of a rough landing, these calls were excellent training for more serious alarms and sharpened out navigation skills. Our first big search came in September 1976, when a plane was lost in the deep woods of the upper peninsula of Michigan. The Michigan Wing of the CAP had been searching those miles of green, gold and brown trees for a week and they were exhausted. We were called to take over so they could rest. This type of mission called for a visual search with the pilot navigating the search pattern and the passengers looking out the window for any break in the trees or any airplane debris. We searched until we were exhausted, too, but never found the plane. It was finally located the next winter by hunters.

We did have our saves, however. One day there was an ELT alarm in the farm country not far from our airport. Chuck was on the plane that spotted an aircraft upside down in a corn field and was with the ground search team that found the pilot and passenger, who had been hanging from their shoulder and seat belts for more than a day. The pilot was dead, but his female passenger survived and was rushed to the hospital. That save made up for a lot of middle of the night false alarms. Another time, we were called to search for a plane that had disappeared after takeoff from DuPage Airport. One of our members was a helicopter pilot whose boss let him use the company craft for search and rescue. He started the engine and two other pilots and I jumped in as spotters. It didn’t take long to find the crash a mile or so from the runway. We landed and jumped out ready to rescue, but we were too late. Both the pilot and passenger had been killed in the crash.

Because we saw what could happen when things went wrong, I think most of us were safer pilots than most. Our instructors pounded into us, “You can handle one thing going wrong, probably you can handle the second thing, but you can’t handle the third. Pay attention and don’t take chances.” You’d be flying along with your instructor on a perfectly serene flight and he’d reach over and pull the throttle and the engine would stop. “You’ve lost your engine,” he’d say. “Now what are you going to do?” There was emphasis on proficiency and experience. CAP required every pilot to be evaluated by a flight instructor twice a year and failure meant you could no longer use the airport. We all felt that you had to log at least 50 flight hours per year, or you were not safe to fly. We learned to evaluate any pilot we flew with. As student pilots we assumed that anyone with a license knew what they were doing. Chuck learned the hard way that wasn’t true. He took a ride with a pilot he didn’t know well for a short trip to South Bend, Indiana one day, but on the way back, the pilot got disoriented and froze up, afraid to land. It took several scary minutes for him to get control of himself and land at the nearest airport where he decided to stay until the next day. Chuck called me to come get him and drive him home. Lesson learned. Be careful who you ride with.

Fun, Fun and More Fun

Despite our serious purpose, most of our flying was just for fun. Chuck and I did use our plane for business, visiting clients, attending insurance company meetings as far away as Acapulco, Mexico, and Napa Valley in California, but mostly we poked holes in the sky with our pilot friends. One Saturday in the late 70s a bright yellow Piper Arrow landed at Haedler. A group of angry officers marched out to find out who this interloper was, landing without permission on our CAP only airfield. Out climbed an attractive woman with red hair and a big smile. She was from northern Indiana and had always wondered about this little airport and decided to land and see what was going on. By the time they had tied down her plane and walked her to the office, she had charmed the anger right out of them. Nancy Hagans became an active qualified member of CAP. Nancy loved flying. She was an active member of the Ninety-Nines, a women’s pilot organization. She admired the early female pilots who proved that gender had nothing to do with flying skills. Shortly after becoming a part of the Squadron she proposed that she and I race in the Powder Puff Derby, which the year before had been renamed the Air Race Classic. We would use her plane, which was faster than mine. This was more complicated than it sounds. The winner wasn’t the first plane that landed because all the planes were different. Some had bigger faster engines, some had better aerodynamics. The race was handicapped according to the average speeds of the make and model of airplane each team was flying. The test was not who had the fastest plane. It was who were the best pilots. By taking advantage of the winds aloft and good navigation skills, a team might land last and still be the winner. The race was about 2500 miles long and took four days. It began in Las Vegas, NV and ended in Destin, FL, following a circuitous route as far north as Casper, WY. We had to hire our own weatherman to advise us on wind speed and direction at various altitudes and along different routes. We had to pay for gas, hotel rooms, food and other necessities. We needed money.

No Go-Fund-Me accounts in those days. This required brochures, telephone calls and shoe leather. Our brochure had our picture in our uniforms, explained the race and estimated we’d need $2,000. The national and state Civil Air Patrol each pitched in. We hit up our local bank president, all our members and all our friends and came up with the cash. I took a few lessons in the Piper Arrow and we were off. Race headquarters was in a Las Vegas casino that had essentially been taken over by a bunch of women pilots of all ages. Some with lots of flying hours, some experienced racers and some inexperienced like us. We didn’t care. We were thrilled to be among them. The route was all over the middle part of the country, from Las Vegas, to Grand Junction, CO, Casper, WY, North Platte, NB, Olathe, KS, Burns Flat, OK, Hot Springs AR, Gulfport, MS and finally Destin, FL. The race was a four-day blur, talking to our weatherman, deciding the best time to take off, when to hold back for better winds, falling into bed at night exhausted. In other words, more fun than we’d had in a long time. Once we were the second to land, but in the end, we were nowhere near winning, not that it mattered to us. The Air Race Classic had made arrangements for us to stay at Pinnacle Port, a new condominium development in Panama City, FL, not far from Destin, and many of our Squadron members were there waiting for us. Big party! We were heroes.
Because we had such a good time there after the race, Chuck and I eventually bought a condo at Pinnacle Port in Panama City and that became the destination for many of our CAP friends for long weekends laying on the beach, making our first stop after landing at oyster bars selling raw oysters for $2.50 a dozen. We felt we’d worn a sky highway between Haedler Field and Panama City airport, and we’d race to see which plane got there first. Those were heady days with good friends, good deeds and adventures in the skies, many of which I’ll recount in my next family history story. During that time two of my sons, Brian and David, got their private pilot licenses and joined the sojourn to Pinnacle Port. Both my daughters, Jennifer and Susan Elizabeth, took glider lessons and Susan Elizabeth was featured in the local newspaper when she got her glider license at age 14.

And so, we proved it was still so. Anyone can learn to fly.

Donna Mae Glenn Hruska Hunt
November 1, 2019

Audio Files Family Stories

Rose & Charles Hruska – Naturalization Talk

Rose and Charles Hruska visited their grandson Grant’s classroom in 1982, and Grant recorded their presentation. This provides fantastic visibility into their lives in America in the early parts of the 1900s. Enjoy!

Family Stories

Hope Springs Eternal

by Rose Hruska

[dropcap style=”font-size: 70px; color: #9b9b9b;”] I [/dropcap]t was in the very early l940’s that the State of Illinois passed a law requiring all motorists to have a driver’s license. I sent in my application, but to my dismay was informed that I would have to take a driving test. I had not driven enough miles.

I wonder about that “honestly is the best policy” bit. I unhappily greeted my husband Charlie when he came home from work.

“What’s the matter”, he asked. “Did Chuck (our eight year old baseball enthusiast) “break another window?”

“Worse than that” I answered, “I have to take a driving test in order to get my license. It is not fair ! Aunt Mary never drove a car in her life and she got her license without taking a test. Do you know why? On her application, she stated that she driven l0,000 miles.

“Well now, you weren’t entirely honest either by stating that you had driven 1,000 miles” chided by dear one. I wanted sympathy not reproach and instantly regretted preparing his favorite dinner of lamb stew and dumplings.

I took the test in our seven year old Chevvy and smilingly informed the young man giving the test that I wasn’t responsible for all the dented fenders. He didn’t seem impressed. I was very nervous and got off to a rather jerky start. I got my license but was advised not to drive in heavy traffic until I had a little more driving experience.

Very soon after I got my license Charlie had to use the car for work every day and I very seldom had a chance to drive.
When we got our new Buick, it was definitely “hands off” for me. I dutifully renewed my license whenever necessary, even though I wasn’t driving.

In l961, we moved to Southern California. I soon learned that every one of our neighbors could drive. I very much regretted not having kept up my driving. Before long, I obtained a temporary driving permit and Charlie begrudgingly agreed to teach me to drive our fairly new Buick.

“I really don’t know why you insist on driving”, Charlie argued. “I take you wherever you want to go.” “Well, I defended, “suppose you become ill in the middle of the night and had to be rushed to a hospital.” “Please! I would rather wait for a cab”, he ungratefully answered.

The days were passing by very quickly. There never seemed to be a good time for a driving lesson. Charlie just had to finish painting the house before the gnats came. Then too, our daughter gave birth prematurely to twin girls and Grandma was needed to help out.

Finally about a week before my permit expired, my beloved grated me a few hours of coaching and said I should so all right.

The written test was a snap. I missed only two questions. Charlie had missed four on his test. My heart sank, however, when I discovered that I drew the so-called grouch for my testing. I had spent very little time in practicing parallel parking because Charlie insisted that it wasn’t important.

I wasn’t giving up that easily and made up my mind to try again. This time, my daughter took me in hand. She agreed that husbands do not make good instructors.

On my second try, I was familiar with the test run and got off to a beautiful start. My composure was brutally shattered when I was asked to make a right turn. On my first try, I was instructed to make a left turn. That is why I made sure to get into the left lane.

The traffic was very heavy. I signaled for a right turn. I looked over my right shoulder to make sure the coast was clear, and in so doing I must have unconsciously turned the wheel a little to the left into oncoming traffic. My tester immediately grabbed the wheel amidst the screeching of brakes and blasting of horns. Evidentially he realized his mistake and let me go ahead with a left turn, muttering something about a lethal weapon.

I didn’t get my license. Didn’t even get a chance to show my skill at parallel parking, on which I practiced so much. I don’t think it was sporting of the tester to tell Charlie that I almost caused an accident. I should think that would be privileged information.

A number of years have passed and I’ve learned to accept Charlie’s edict of “leave the driving to me.” Since moving to a retirement community, I see so many gray haired ladies driving, many of whom are older than I, I am sure. That old driving fever is getting me again.

Hope springs eternal.


Family Stories

The Dish Disease

[dropcap style=”font-size: 70px; color: #9b9b9b;”] R [/dropcap]ecently, we had the interior of our house painted.  This, of course, meant all the furniture would be moved, including the three china cabinets.  The china, crystal, silver, vases and other decorative objects had to be wrapped in paper and packed in boxes.  Worse, when it was all finished they had to be unpacked, washed and polished.  As I stood at the kitchen sink, up to my elbows in soapy water, with the smell of the rinse water vinegar clearing my head, my thoughts turned to my sister, Judith.  So I took a break and called her.

“Judith, I’m washing all the crystal and china, so, of course, I thought of you. You wash dishes more than anyone I know.”

“That’s true,” she answered.  “I have an advanced case of the dish disease.”

Judith has sets of dinnerware for every season.  At least four times a year, she hauls out the appropriate set from the pantry, washes them and puts them in the kitchen cabinets.  Then she packs the old set away until next year.

“I realized recently that over half of my pantry is filled with dishes,” she confessed.  “And I don’t even cook.  I have three lists of missing pieces of china in my purse at all times, just in case I come across one when I’m out shopping.  For years I refused to buy any newly manufactured pieces of Desert Rose, because they are now made in the Philippines and no longer are hand painted.   Finally, I slapped myself and realized nobody knew that but me.  I’ve become obsessive.”

My sister Betty is equally afflicted.  She admits to at least seven sets of china and dishes, plus Waterford crystal stemware, sterling silver flatware and numerous odd pieces of crystal vases and barware.  Once, in St. Petersburg, Russia, she almost missed the second half of the Bolshoi Ballet, because she discovered a woman selling distinctive blue and white Russian china at intermission.

We agreed, all three of us are obsessive, and it’s our mother’s fault.

This is an example of colonnades. In my grandmother’s house, the cabinets were shorter and wider. Colonnades were common in houses in southern Illinois in the early and mid 20th century.

We’re not sure if it started with her, but she had an advanced case.  Maybe she was infected by her mother.  I remember going to my Grandmother Chapman’s house as a child.  My grandmother had a small house in Tamaroa, a town in southern Illinois.  Looking back now, I don’t know what she lived on.  Social security, I guess.  But then she owned her house, raised chickens and had a vegetable garden.  But in spite of what would be classified as poverty now, in the dining room she had an oak china cabinet with glass doors on the left side and a fold out secretary desk on the right.  Her best china pieces were in that cabinet.  Her house also had colonnades, something you don’t see any more,  separating the dining room from the living room.  These were built-in cabinets with glass doors.  I remember pressing my nose against the glass doors, (I wasn’t allowed to open them) staring at the hand painted bowls and plates. Sometimes, for family dinners when we’d all sit at her round oak table, a few of those pieces would come out, but they were treated carefully.  So, maybe my mother came about her china passion honestly, at her mother’s knee.

My mother’s china, Regent by Empress (Japan). There is much duplication in names of patterns and companies that have made china, crystal and silverware over the years. For example, there are several companies named Empress and several patterns names Regent. The best way to be sure is to send a photo to matching service. This is my favorite set to use for holidays.

My mother had very little money to indulge her china passion in the early days of her marriage.  My parents were married in 1929, when they were still in college, in Carbondale, Illinois.  By the time they graduated in 1933, there were very few jobs.  My father managed to be hired as the principal of the combined elementary/high school in Oakdale, Illinois.  That sounds grand until you find out that the population of Oakdale was only about 250.  The elementary school had two rooms, one for grades 1-4 and the other for grades 5-8.  The high school probably had less than 30 to 40 students.  My father was able to supplement his income by showing movies in the school assembly hall occasionally and charging five or ten cents for admission.  At some point in that period, my mother was able to buy a complete set of pre-war Japanese china.  The pattern was Regent by Empress Japan and it is still my favorite of all.  She probably bought the set at the Famous Barr Department Store in St. Louis, the only store where you could buy something as fine as this.

That was the end of her china collecting for a number of years.  My father was a serial entrepreneur.  Before he got the principal’s job, he had been editor of a local newspaper in Flora, Illinois.  Apparently, I slept in a cardboard box at the paper while they tried to make a go of it. He also had made and sold vanilla and lemon extract.  For years, we had a large supply of tall bottles of extract for baking and cooking.  Showing movies in the high school seemed a good idea, but didn’t provide much income.  He tried it on a larger scale by taking the movies to somewhat larger small towns.  There were very few theaters in rural Illinois at that time. He bought an enclosed trailer that he pulled behind his car.  It was loaded with folding chairs, a screen, a projector and tent sidewalls.  In the summer, he would pull the trailer to a small town where he had rented a lot. He’d pay a local boy to help him put up the tent and set the chairs.  He sold tickets, ran the projector and after it was over, packed it all up again and drove home.  The next night he’d go to a vacant lot in another small town.  Gradually, he found buildings to rent and set up a regular schedule.  Some towns had movies on Tuesday night, some on Fridays or other nights of the week.  He began to make enough money to quit teaching, but it was not providing a munificent living.  Then came World War II, with gas and tire rationing.  It looked like he would be drafted, even though he was 35 years old with three children.  Just before he was to report for his physical, Congress lowered the draft age and he didn’t have to go.  Even so, to do his part, for a time he drove to the munitions plant outside of Carbondale to work a late night shift after a show.

My mother helped by selling tickets, eventually managing some theaters herself.  She also took care of the money.  When my father expected to be drafted, he moved us to Tamaroa so we would be near my mother’s family while he was gone, but he kept banking in the little home town bank in Oakdale.  It had not gone under during the Great Depression like many other banks.  My parents felt it was worth the 22 mile drive to trust their money to a safe bank.  My sisters and I had many wild afternoon rides, as my mother sped to put the money in the bank.

Finally, the war was over and life began to return to normal.  At one point, my father went to Washington, D.C. on a business trip.  Driving through Ohio on his return, he saw something that was to change his life:  a drive in theater.  I remember how excited he was when he returned as he sat at the kitchen table, explaining the idea to my mother.  He wanted to build a drive in theater on highway 51, outside of town. He even wanted to call it the Melody like the one he had seen in Ohio. My mother was skeptical.  After all, she had been through a number of his big ideas and, at last, while not rich, they were secure.  Of course, he talked her into it.  He acquired the land, hired a carpenter and began building.  I don’t know how much it cost, but I suspect it was everything they had and a lot of promises besides.  As the opening approached my mother became more and more anxious.  My father assured her, “It’s either going to be successful or it’s not.  If it’s not, we’ve been broke before.  We can do it again.”  That wasn’t exactly what she needed to hear.  On opening night I’m sure her stomach was in a knot as we all piled in the car to get to the theater in time to open the box office.  To our surprise, cars were lined up down the highway and the state police were there directing traffic.

My mother’s crystal, Etched Candlewick. My sister Judith has most of this collection. She has managed to add additional pieces throughout the years. This is the only item I have from the original set.

Finally, they were a financial success.  More drive-ins followed and there was money to spare.  My father used to tease my mother by telling people how she had cried on her 40th birthday because they still were not a success and now it was probably too late.  I noticed, though, that he only told that story years later, after success had finally come.  With money no longer a problem, she could indulge herself, and she started to buy the crystal stemware she had always wanted.  Her chosen pattern was Etched Candlewick. After she died, my sisters and I searched everywhere. We discovered that several companies used that name, and Judith, ever persistent, was able to find pieces to fill in.  For holiday dinners, our mother always set the table with her china, crystal and silver, washing every piece by hand afterward, and getting very nervous if we tried to help.  Even after we were grown women with houses of our own, she was sure we would break something.  And, of course, occasionally, we did.

She liked hand painted stoneware for everyday use, often buying colored water glasses to match.  My father used to tease that there were boxes of dishes under every bed.  That was true.  Her dream was to leave each of her daughters a set of everyday dishes, and she did.

My wedding china, Lace by Castleton. Choosing a pattern in southern Illinois gave me limited choices. The only store that carried fine china was Higgins Jewelry store in DuQuoin, IL. In spite of that, I’m still very happy with the delicacy of this pattern. The color is gray with white and pink flowers and the trim is platinum.

Like most brides in the 1950s, I registered my china, crystal and sterling silver patterns before my wedding.  Family and friends were generous and I had a complete setting for eight right away.  Over the years I filled in missing pieces.  My husband, Chuck, was a proud Bohemian and knew that Bohemian lead crystal was the finest in the world, but it was hard to come by in the United States.  Bohemia was part of Czechoslovakia, captured first by Nazi Germany, then “liberated” by the Russians to become part of the Eastern Communist Block.  In the early 1980s, we joined Chuck’s parents and met our son, David, in Vienna, Austria, where he was studying, and ventured into Czechoslovakia.  That in itself was an adventure because we had to cross a mile wide no-man’s land with barbed wire fences and soldiers patrolling with Uzis and German shepherd dogs.  Once inside the country, Chuck’s mother’s relatives were happy to show us around and the first place we wanted to go was the state store that sold Moser crystal.  A Czech citizen couldn’t buy anything in that store, one, because it was expensive for them and, two, because most everything sold for western currency only.  We were stunned by the beauty and artistry of the glass, hand etched and trimmed with gold.  The most elegant was stemware in the Paula pattern and we managed to buy eight water goblets at a bargain.  To understand the bargain, you need to know that the Czech government, like all communist countries, set an artificially high value on their currency, the crown.  Everyone knew that it wasn’t worth that much in exchange for western currency, so every time Chuck walked down the sidewalk in Prague, a dark figure would fall into step behind him and whisper, “Psst, want to buy crowns?  Very low price.”  By the time we got to the Moser store, he had a pocket full of black-market crowns.  By buying other items with U.S. dollars, we talked them into letting us pay for the water goblets in crowns that worked out to $50.00 a glass.  When we got back to the west we found the same glasses, when you could find them, were selling for over $300.00 each.  Today, if you can locate them, the price is $350.00.  That was it for Chuck.  He now had the dish disease, and every time he went back to Czechoslovakia, he bought more, until we had a stunning collection.  On that first trip, we also took back Moser crystal as a gift for our son, Chuck, in appreciation for his manning the insurance agency while we were gone.  Boom! Another victim.  Now he started collecting Moser wine and cordial glasses.  Some years later, son David and his wife, Helen, went to Prague on their honeymoon, and what did they buy?  You’ve got it…Moser crystal.  You see how this happens.  It’s just like a virus.

Our Bohemian crystal, Paula by Moser.Buying six water goblets for illegal crowns in the State Moser Store in 1983 started a lifelong love affair with Moser crystal. You can see why if you visit the Moser web site at

Many years after Chuck’s death, when I remarried and moved to California, all the china and crystal moved with me.  That was when I discovered that my new husband, Arlon, had a complete set of his mother’s china, a delicate Havilland china pattern from Limoges, France, and a silver flatware service for twelve packed away and unused.  This Thanksgiving, we used it to serve a holiday dinner for his children.  They didn’t remember ever seeing it before.  I offered to buy a few extra pieces to finish it off.  Perhaps, more converts?

After my conversation with Judith, I forgot just which patterns she had, so I sent her an e-mail.  She replied,

“I have Desert Rose, Old Country Rose and Christmas Tree by Spode and the Ivy pattern plus the Etched Candlewick.  I haven’t checked under the beds but that is pretty much it.  I do have a set of everyday dishes which are international stoneware and a set of Chinese dishes plus a set of Lenox Winter Carnival everyday dishes and a partial set of Easter dishes for Easter.  Finally I have a Tea service of Royal Albert pots and 10 assorted tea cups from the 1930’s, 40’s,50’s, and 60’s.

I was feeling pretty good when I started to answer this question but as I list what I have,  I realize I have either inherited a gene out of control or I may be out of control in the dish department.  I believe the best course for me to take is to deny any knowledge of this question or the answer especially if Bill Leonard (her husband) is in the room.”

Our telephone conversation concluded on an interesting note.

“Remember when the three of us were dividing up mother’s things?” I asked Judith.  “When the time comes for my children to divide the spoils, what do you think they’ll choose first?  The jewelry or the china and crystal.”

“No question,” she replied.  “The china, of course. They’re in this family, aren’t they?”



Postscript:  After writing this account, Betty and I, with husbands, went to Judith’s for Christmas.  Snooping around, Betty and I discovered that Judith had lied (or more charitably, miscounted).  We found a set of the blue Russian dishes and at least two more pottery sets, with matching colored glasses.  We weren’t able to look under her bed, but we have our suspicions.  Apparently, the dish disease affects your moral character, or at least, your ability to count. 

I must run now.  I’m filling out a Replacements, Inc.  Internet order for a Gorham Wedding Ring crystal wine glass and a sterling silver sugar spoon.  Just filling in, you understand.


How to Care for Your China, Crystal & Silver

My mother was right.  You have to do it by hand.  Never use the dishwasher.  Most fine china is decorated with precious metals, mostly gold or platinum.  Harsh dishwasher detergents will damage that trim and etch your crystals in patterns you won’t appreciate.  I have never found it a chore to wash by hand, even after a big dinner party.  It gives you time to reflect and relive the evening.

Washing China and Crystal

Rinse food and drink as soon as you can after the meal.  Food, particularly acidic foods can cause stains that are impossible to remove.  Fill a plastic tub with warm water, or, if you don’t have a tub, line the bottom of your sink with a soft towel.  Add mild dishwasher detergent.  I like to add a couple of tablespoons of vinegar to both the wash water and rinse water to be sure everything sparkles when I’m done.  Move the faucet out of the way if you can, and slip a few pieces at a time into the water.  Don’t crowd, or you risk scratching or chipping.  Remove jewelry or wear rubber gloves. Rinse each piece as you wash it in a basin of warm vinegar water and set on a soft towel to drain.  Dry with a lint free dish towel and hold each piece against the light to make sure you didn’t miss a spot (and to admire the sparkle).

Washing and Polishing Silver

Once again, rinse as soon as you can after the meal.  Some foods tarnish silver.  Use the same washing process explained above, paying particular attention to drying.  Count each piece as you put it away in the silver box.  Heaven only knows how many silver spoons are lost in our landfills, after careless cleaners scraped them off with the food scraps.  Store your silver in a silver box or in tarnish proof cloth holders.  Hagerty makes paper protection strips that really work.  Just slip one in box with the silver and it will still be shiny the next time you want to use it.  These also work in china cabinets where you store silver serving pieces.

If your silver does become tarnished, wash and dry it first, then use a polish that is specifically designed for silver, not a general metal polish.  Wash again and dry with a soft cloth.  Years ago I found a metal plate from Quicksilver International that works with very hot water and Arm and Hammer Washing Powder to take the tarnish off of silver with hardly any rubbing.  It makes the job very easy.

The Most Important Rule

The most important thing to remember is:  Use it.  Don’t pack your fine things away in a box.  Don’t hide them under the bed. Don’t “save it for good.”  As my brother-in-law Ron Haxton says, “Good is here!”  As a matter of fact, your sterling silver looks more beautiful the more it is used.  The little scratches that accumulate are called “patina,” and over the years they add a soft glow that show that this set belongs to a family who loves fine things.  If you break something, there are wonderful companies like Replacements, Inc., that can find matching pieces to fill in for the casualties.  My mother would be proud of you.

Family Stories

Sex, Lies, and a Great Deal of Agitation in the Family Tree

[dropcap style=”font-size: 70px; color: #9b9b9b;”] Y [/dropcap]oung people always believe that they have invented love, romance and sex.  Yes, well, their parents must have had sex once or twice in order to conceive them, but after that, ick!, it is awful to contemplate.    But love and romance, and all the attendant emotions, both good and bad, have been rampant in every generation, including the lives of your ancestors.   I have often thought that if I were ever going to write a romance novel, I’d start with the story of my Grandmother Glenn.

Claudia Johnson was born September 30, 1885, the youngest of six siblings. It was said she was spoiled, as youngest daughters often are. It may or may not have been true, but certainly she was high-strung, as the saying went in those days.  The family lived on a farm, not far from Dahlgren, Illinois, a small town in Hamilton County, Illinois.  She had a brother, Charles, and four sisters, Nancy, Della, Allie, and Lottie.  Nancy and Lottie married, but Della and Allie did not, and Claudia was determined that she would not be an old maid like them. She was tall and attractive and probably quite elegant in appearance.  Luck appeared to be with her when she became engaged to a promising young man from Dahlgren.  He aspired to be a doctor and took the train daily to Mt. Vernon, IL, to study medicine.  Whether it was the doctor with whom he was studying or someone he met on the train, a well-to-do man offered to help with his education and/or set him up in practice if he would consent to marry his daughter.  The offer must have been too good to resist.  The engagement was broken and Claudia was jilted.   She was devastated.  In a small town of less than 200 people, the prospects were limited.

There was one eligible widower, however, Charles H. Glenn, only four years older than her, with a young son. He was the proprietor, along with his half-brother, of the local dry goods store, certainly a good match for a girl from the country.  She marched herself into the store and made sure he noticed her and soon she was his bride.  The census of 1910 shows that their household included Charles, 28, Claudia, 24, Paul, the step-son, aged 8, Frank J. (my father) and Thelma, 6 months.  Three years later, another daughter, Mildred, was born.  She now had what she wanted, a successful husband, a nice house, three children of her own and a step-son that she loved.  She wasn’t too much for housework, according to her daughter Thelma.  Thelma remembered  that the children were often put on the lookout to watch for  their father returning from work in the late afternoon.  As soon as he was sighted, they had instructions to run in and set the table so that it looked like dinner preparations were at hand.

The first tragedy struck sometime around 1914.  Paul had been sent to a boarding school in Missouri.  Word came that he had died suddenly of illness (perhaps meningitis).  This was a blow to the family, but the other children were healthy and happy.  There were no more children, due to Claudia’s decision that she was not going to take a chance of being pregnant again.  There was a close bond between Charles and his son, my father Frank.  When I was growing up, my father often told the story of running away when he was a teenager.  He and a friend decided one summer that it would be fun to “ride the rails.”  They hopped a freight train looking for adventure.  The friend soon lost his courage and returned home, but my father kept going until, some weeks later, in Texas and out of money, he telegraphed his father, asking for money to come home.  The money was sent.  When he arrived home, his father came to pick him up at the train station.  “On the way home I waited for him to say something. I felt guilty and was ready for any punishment he wanted to give me,” he told us many years later, “but he never mentioned it, then or any time later.  I guess he figured I had learned my lesson.”

Claudia was happy with her life and her children.  Probably unknown to her, however, there was trouble in the marriage.  Maybe it was a result of her decision to leave the marital bed, or maybe it would have happened anyway, but Charles became involved with another woman.  The story goes that the woman eventually became disenchanted and moved away to St. Louis to put an end to the affair.  Charles, using the excuse of a buying trip to St. Louis, found her and went to her apartment, demanding that she open the door.  When she refused, he pounded on the door and made so much noise that the police were called and he was arrested.  Somehow, he managed to be released, probably on bail, and returned home.  By this time, Frank and Thelma were in college at Southern Illinois Normal School in Carbondale, IL (now known as Southern Illinois University.)  Thelma was engaged to Hubert Gibbs and the whole family was scheduled to attend Hubert’s graduation the next day after Charles’ return from St. Louis.   While they were in Carbondale at the graduation, the story of Charles’ arrest broke in the newspapers.  Claudia’s half-brother, also named Charles, arrived on the train to tell him he was in the news and the papers had reach Dahlgren.

Already distraught by the rejection of his mistress, embarrassed by the scandal and what it would do to his family, Charles somehow acquired some strychnine and swallowed it on the train ride home.  Strychnine is a terrible, lethal poison, usually fatal within two to three hours, but perhaps he did not take enough.  He was violently ill and the family took him to the hospital in Mt. Vernon as soon as the train arrived.  He lingered for several days before dying.  During that time he apologized to his family and assured them that they would be provided for.  The store was doing well and there was a life insurance policy.  Claudia was beside herself, with grief, embarrassment, fear of the future.  But it wasn’t over.  The family returned to Dahlgren.  When they went to the store they found it ransacked and unmanned.  Charles’ half brother and co-owner of the store had taken everything he could, including all the money, and had run off to Florida.  The business was destroyed.  At this point, it appears that Claudia collapsed.  Whether she had a nervous breakdown, or not, she was totally unable to cope.  My father, at age 19, had to take charge.  Then, to make matters worse, the insurance company refused to pay the death benefit, citing the suicide clause.  It was necessary to go to court to fight for the insurance and the children had to testify, their mother being unable to appear.  Eventually, they got a small settlement and were able to sell their house and pay off their debts.  Claudia was totally without a way to make a living, much less pay college expenses.  The solution they found was to buy a house in Carbondale where she could take in student boarders.  My father went back to school but had to work as a janitor to pay his way.

This wasn’t a romance novel where everyone lived happily ever after. This tragedy had a long lasting effect on everyone in the family.  Claudia, who had never been emotionally strong, now began to exhibit more signs of instability.  Today, she would have been diagnosed as bi-polar and would have easily been treated with medication.  Then, she was just disparaged as being either “too high” or “too low” emotionally.  Her mood swings were hard for her family to adjust to.  My father went from being a college student financially supported by his family to being the head of a wounded family and had to find a way to support himself and finish school while handling his mother’s affairs.  After his death, I found a packet of love letters he had written to my mother, who was his college girlfriend at the time.  In them, he offered to release her from any promises she had made to him, saying that he understood that she would not want to be associated with someone like him with such a scandal in his family.

Claudia maintained the rooming house in Carbondale for a number of years.  I remember going there as a little girl and playing in the back yard with my cousin, Barbara, Thelma and Hubert’s daughter.  There are snapshots of us in the back yard, showing a large two story house with a basement.  At some point, she sold the house and took a job at MacMurry College in Jacksonville, IL.  She probably found the job through her sister, Lottie and her husband, Joe, who lived in Jacksonville.  Later, she moved to The School for the Deaf, also in Jacksonville. Both jobs included room and board, a single room in a dormitory for workers.  I think she worked in the kitchen in both places, quite a comedown for the well-to-do wife who never liked to cook. She supplemented her income by sewing dolls and selling them.  The most popular were Raggedy Anne and Andy and monkey dolls made from socks.  I never see those dolls without thinking of her. Sometimes she came to visit us and stayed for a week or two at a time.  Eventually, she died in a nursing home in 1978.

My father never told me anything about his father’s death.  I found out from my Aunt Mildred when I was 15 years old.  I had my driver’s license and drove my little Nash Rambler around southern Illinois, burning up the roads.  One day, I went to Mt. Vernon and visited my Aunt Mildred.  In the course of our conversation, she dropped the bomb that my grandfather had committed suicide.  I was astounded.  She gave me no details and I raced home to confront my father.  Of course, I was 15 and everything was all about me.  It never occurred to me that it was an emotional subject for him.  As soon as he walked in, I laced into him.  “Why hadn’t he told me that his father had committed suicide?  I had a right to know about something like that in my family background, etc., etc, etc.”  For the first and only time in my life, except for a couple of gentle spankings when I was very little where he suffered more than I, he hit me.  He slapped me so hard that he knocked me into the refrigerator. That woke me up.  At that moment, I knew I deserved it.  For the first time it occurred to me that my father had feelings, too.  To this day, I can visualize every minute of that encounter.  I see every detail of that kitchen.  I know where I was standing and how he looked at me. I think it was day I began to grow up.

Years later, I found out the details of my grandmother’s life from my cousin Barbara.  Her mother, my Aunt Thelma, had not been so reticent in talking about her father’s suicide as my father had been.  Having reached an age where it was no longer difficult to think about sex and scandal in the lives of our parents and grandparents, we instead felt only sadness for our grandmother and the dreams she had realized and lost.


Family Stories


[dropcap style=”font-size: 70px; color: #9b9b9b;”] W[/dropcap]hy don’t we listen to our mothers? They are nearly always right. They are as near selfless as it is possible for a human being to be. And yet, we seem to have a built-in contrary instinct to believe they don’t know what they are talking about. Our family is no different, starting as far back as I have data.

p_7faa01wat106When I was a child, one of my mother’s constant admonitions was, “Don’t run with scissors.” I thought it was a pretty silly admonition because why would you run with scissors anyway, and besides I wasn’t going to fall down. But she had good reason to worry. When she was child, she ignored her mother’s warnings and did run with scissors and fell, putting the scissors through her cheek. She made a point of showing me the scar, every time my play was getting a little too rambunctious. The scar story slowed me down for, oh, about thirty seconds before I went back to what I had been doing. I was, like all pre-schoolers, fearless and immortal. One afternoon, she and I went to the grocery store in our little town of Oakdale. The owner, whose name I have forgotten, wanted to show her the progress on the rathskeller1 he was building in the basement. The place was under construction with lumber lying across saw horses and in piles against the wall. I thought it was a wonderful place to chase and duck under the saw horses. My mother told me to settle down and be careful. The inevitable happened. I ran headlong into a two by four, knocking a hole in my forehead and providing me with a scar to be used in admonishing my own children.

With my own children, it was the girls that were most blatant about ignoring parental warnings. Not that the boys were any better. They just waitied until they were out of our sight before they got into trouble. On a warm sunny day when Susan, the youngest, was about three, I was trying to get the six of them dressed and into the car for a routine trip to pediatrician. My last words were, “We’re going to be late. Get into the car, but don’t run!” Susan took off running at full speed and put her arm right through the glass panel in the storm door, slitting her forearm open from wrist to elbow. We wrapped a towel around it, put her in her oldest brother, Chuck’s charge, who kept it wrapped tight and raced to the doctor’s office, where seven pairs of round eyes, including mine, watched as the doctor put in 14 stitches. Now she had her scar with which to admonish her future children.

 1 A rathskeller is a name in German-speaking countries for a bar below street level.  I doubt this was a was a bar as we think of it because the town was settled by German Presbyterians whose idea of a wild time was an oyster supper in the church basement.
Family Stories

Learning to Like Bohemian Food

[dropcap style=”font-size: 70px; color: #9b9b9b;”] G [/dropcap]rowing up in southern Illinois with a father who was a picky eater, I hadn’t had a lot of culinary adventures when I went off to college. My mother, like everyone in her family, was an excellent cook. Her grandchildren swear that no one could compete with her fried chicken. She made wonderful beef pot roasts with potatoes, carrots and onions, baked fabulous pies and her homemade hot rolls are still the standard to which her granddaughters-in-law aspire. She and her mother and sisters canned peaches and green beans and helped the church ladies make homemade apple butter* when I was a child. She would probably have liked to vary the menu, were it not for my father, who knew what he liked and didn’t care to change. He was a creature of habit when it came to eating. He would get stuck on something and want it every other meal for six months to a year. Then he would be tired of it and didn’t want to see it any more. Not much chance to be an adventurous cook there. I loved my mother’s cooking, but I was always eager to try new things. My culinary explorations met a new test, however, when I encountered Bohemian cooking.

When we first met, Chuck told me he was a Bohemian. I figured he didn’t mean bohemian with a small b, which was the only way I’d heard the word used. (Dictionary definition: “a person, as an artist or writer, who lives and acts free of regard for conventional rules and practices.) In fact, I didn’t know there had been a country called Bohemia, but he was eager to explain that his ancestors came from a portion of what had become Czechoslovakia in 1918. In fact, his mother had emigrated from Bohemia to Chicago, along with her family, when she was eight years old. His father was born in Massachusetts to parents who had come from Bohemia before he was born. Being Bohemian was a point of great pride to Chuck and everyone in his family. Most everyone in Berwyn, IL (and neighboring suburb Cicero), where he lived, was either Bohemian or Slovakian, Slovakia being the other country that was made part of the Czech Republic.

Chuck’s Grandfather Hons, had emigrated from Bohemia in the first decade of the 20th century because the Germans had taken over Bohemia, also called the Sudetenland, and had decreed that all children were to go to German schools. He refused, wanting his oldest daughter, Rose (Chuck’s mother), to go to Bohemian schools, and because of this, he was blacklisted. He could no longer find work as a cabinetmaker. He left for Chicago, promising to send for his family as soon as he found work and saved the money. Rosie told me one time that she and her mother faced a certain amount of ridicule from people who doubted that her father would ever send for them. Apparently, that happened often. But John Hons was a skilled cabinetmaker and soon found work making the beautiful hand carved bars and back bars needed in Chicago hotels and saloons. In 1910, Rose, her mother and brothers, boarded a ship, steerage class, to sail to Nova Scotia. They were seasick every day of the long trip. Once in Canada, they boarded a train for Chicago. One of Rose’s memories was of pestering her mother to spend some of her limited money on bananas being sold on the train platform. The children, who had never seen bananas before, took one bite and refused to eat them. I suspect they didn’t know to peel them.

Bohemians are known for being frugal, but growing up in a Chicago tenement in the early 1900s, Rose learned to be even more so. I remember opening the pantry door once in her kitchen and being amazed that there didn’t seem to be one thing in it that didn’t have a red SALE sticker on it. I doubt there were any steaks served in that first tenement apartment. Instead, they learned to use less expensive ingredients and turned them into traditional dishes.

By the time I met Chuck in college, Rose had met and married Charlie (the first Charles Joseph Hruska). They had good jobs, he as a supervisor in a linen supply service and she as a secretary at Western Electric, and owned a brick bungalow in Berwyn. Chuck’s oldest sister Glory was married and lived nearby. His second sister, Carol, still lived at home and worked as a secretary at the Hotpoint plant. Those traditional foods were still being prepared in the Berwyn kitchen and, of course, that was what Chuck craved when he came home from college. He couldn’t wait for me to try them. That first Friday night when we arrived at his house, his mother had prepared his favorite, roast pork with sauerkraut and bread dumplings, all of it covered with gravy. It was indeed delicious, but it was rich. It was very rich. In fact, I lay in bed that night with my stomach roiling and complaining, gas pains shooting from one side to the other in my belly. “I’m not sure I’m up to this,” I thought. But by morning, after several trips to the bathroom, I was feeling better and ready to try new things. Over time I was introduced to liver dumpling soup, spaetzle, and fruit dumplings. None of this was what you would call diet food. For instance, fruit dumplings are served with copious amounts of cottage cheese, covered with melted butter and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. I drew the line at some of the most frugal dishes, pickled pig’s feet, headcheese and homemade “smelly cheese,” that had to be kept on the attic stairs because it would stink up the whole refrigerator. Never mind that when you opened the attic door it almost knocked you out. (There is only so much one is required to do for love.)

Rosie could bake, too. One of the favorites was kolaches, similar to small round cookies topped with fruit paste. It was easy to load up on two, three, four or six of these after a big meal. Always at Christmas, but also at other times during the year, she would bake houska, a braided bread filled with candied fruits and nuts. It was delicious at any time, but it made a wonderful breakfast with coffee.

Of course, once we were married, I had to learn to make some of these dishes myself. They became our family favorites, too. Last week, David e-mailed to ask for the recipe for fruit dumplings and I pulled out the tattered, handwritten instructions. Like most recipes from mothers, it contained phrases like, “cream to moisten.” My mother’s favorite was “add flour to the consistency of cake batter.” After all, they learned from their mothers and nothing was ever written down. I’ve included a few favorites for you to try and I’ve filled in a few instructions to make them more clear for those of us who are used to written recipes.
Happy cooking and think of Grandma Hruska (Rosie) when you enjoy the fruits of your efforts.


Family Stories

Chuck’s First Job

[dropcap style=”font-size: 70px; color: #9b9b9b;”] C [/dropcap]huck and I met in the fall of our freshman year at the University of Illinois. It was at an exchange between my sorority, Chi Omega, and his fraternity, Sigma Pi. I suppose exchanges are still a part of college life, but for those of you who aren’t familiar, an exchange was a social occasion, held at one of the houses in the afternoon. It was a way to meet new people in an acceptable way. Remember that in the 1950s, there were rules meant to protect girls and their reputation. There was no internet dating and nice girls didn’t go to the bars by themselves…only in a group or with a date. You could meet someone to date in your classes, though that didn’t work too well when you were in Home Economics, as I was my freshman year. Or a friend could “fix you up” with a friend of her boyfriend. Exchanges were a good thing, then. You talked to someone for a while, and, if nothing clicked, you moved on to someone else. In our case, in October of 1953, the Sigma Pi’s came to our sorority house on Wright Street in Champaign. I was sitting in a chair in the living room. Chuck came up and sat on the floor at my feet. Other brothers came and sat with us for a while, talked to me for a while and moved on, but he never left. I remember that he was wearing a pale pink shirt, which made me a little uneasy, since he was from Berwyn/Cicero, near Chicago. Cicero was well known as the home of the Mafia and no one I had ever met wore a pink shirt. Certainly, no self respecting male from southern Illinois would be caught dead in one. Also, he was too tall. He was so handsome, though, and polite and well behaved, that I couldn’t resist. We started dating soon after and soon became an established couple.

p_7faa01wat012We were pinned the next spring. To be pinned means that the girl wears the guy’s fraternity pin every day next to her sorority pin. It is an outward sign that you are going steady. Getting pinned required a ceremony. The sororities and girl’s dorms had hours that were strictly enforced. The doors were locked at 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 1:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11:00 p.m. Sunday. Violating curfew could get you thrown out of the University and could get a house in trouble, so it was strictly enforced. There was an exception for a pinning ceremony, however. Just after curfew, all the members of the Sigma Pi house showed up on our driveway, serenading us. We all went out and stood on the porch. The man who was giving his pin to his girl had to step forward and sing a particular solo. For Sig Pi, it was “My Sigma Pi Girl.” What made our pinning ceremony particularly touching was that Chuck could not carry a tune no matter how hard he tried. He was so bad, that when the fraternity would have choir practice, the choir master had asked him to just mouth the words so he wouldn’t throw everyone else off. But there he was, gamely singing to me, totally off-key, before he stepped up and attached his pin to my shoulder. My sorority sisters thought it was the sweetest pinning ceremony they had ever seen.

We dated exclusively through the rest of that year and into the next, going out every weekend and talking on the phone for hours when we couldn’t be together. But halfway through our sophomore year I began to wonder if I had tied myself down too soon. I hadn’t dated that many other guys in college. How did I know this was the right one? I think he had similar misgivings and we agreed to break up for a while and test whether we were really meant to be together. We did date other people and it hurt every time I heard he’d been out with someone else, but we persevered, giving it a good try. Then, just before Mother’s Day, he showed up on my doorstep with a Mother’s Day card, that began “To my Wife on Mother’s Day…” and that was how he proposed. The next fall, in our junior year, we were formally engaged.

Kids today will find it hard to believe, but in 1955, all the rules still applied when it came to unmarried couples. It was very hard to be young and in love and still have to wait to be together, abiding by those curfew rules. Self respecting unmarried couples did not live together. The prospect of waiting two years until we got out of school was too hard to contemplate. We decided we wanted to get married at the end of our junior year. This was a problem, however. We could not support ourselves and go to school as well. Chuck’s father was against it. He was sure Chuck would drop out of school, and since Chuck would only be the second one in his extended family to attend, much less graduate from college, he saw all his dreams for his son crumbling. My parents were willing to continue to support me. Finally, after many promises, his parents agreed to continue contributing the same amount as before to his college costs, and we began to plan our wedding for the week after finals.

p_7faa01wat186And now we get to the job. Chuck felt that a married man should support his wife, so he started looking for something he could do while still in school to make some money. He was in the School of Business, with a double major in Economics and Finance. Of course, like every other member of his class, his dream job was to be a salesman for IBM. IBM was the symbol of success in the 1950s. Unfortunately, they didn’t hire part-timers, so he had to look elsewhere. The local office for Prudential was always looking for salesmen and they hired him immediately to sell life insurance. They gave him training and he was an immediate success. His supervisor was Denny Bing, who became a lifelong friend, and later, when he was Champaign County Clerk, hired C3, David and Jennifer to work for him in the Clerk’s office while they were in school. By the time we were in our senior year, and Chuck was taking interviews for a full time job, he was making more money part-time with Prudential than any other company was offering to full-time beginners. Even IBM came up short. There was one problem, however. His mother cried when she heard he was staying with Prudential. At that time, Prudential sold only life and health insurance and had two divisions. The largest and most prestigious was the Ordinary Division, where Chuck worked. The other was the Debit Division, a holdover from an older time, where salesmen went around weekly to collect cash premiums each week. That was what his mother remembered…the insurance man who came by tenement apartments each week to collect 50¢ for the breadwinner’s life insurance. She felt she had sacrificed all those years to put him through school and he was taking a job that didn’t need a college education. It took a lot of cajoling and showing her his paychecks to assure her it wasn’t the case.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Laying low after raising a large family, Donna is the original ‘Family Business Maker’, involved in a multitude of start ups, small business consulting and so much more.[/author_info] [/author]