Friday, May 28, 2010


Long weekend ahead . . .
Isn't it interesting to see people we haven't seen in years? We almost always do a double-take. Until we see them again, we remember people as they were the last time we saw them. 
I first heard about this phenomenon over twenty years ago when our First Sergeant ("Top") returned from a reunion of his Vietnam infantry unit.  I asked him how it went. Top said he was surprised - he'd "figured everybody'd look the same."  He said "man, those guys are getting old."
Then, Top got somber. A faraway look came into his eyes. He told us some of "our guys never got a chance to get old.”
Monday's the day when we are obliged to remember America’s young men and women who "never got a chance to get old."
The sons and daughters of rural counties and small towns have always given of themselves for our Country. Iroquois County and Watseka are not exceptions.  Young men and women from our neck of the woods have served during every conflict in which our Nation has engaged. 
This Memorial Day, please join me in remembering young people from Iroquois County who gave their lives in the service of our Country.
An email doesn't give me room to provide you a list of all the names of locals who “never got a chance to get old.”  
Accordingly, I’ll give you the names of two men from Watseka (two of many from Iroquois County) who died in Vietnam: Charles Michael Evans (age 22 when he died in 1967) and Rolland Leon Durflinger (age 21 when he died in 1969). 
Most of us will have Monday off; we'll be with family and friends. While we are relaxing, there will be young folks from Iroquois County in faraway places sweating out their day in the face of unimaginable danger. Hopefully, they'll get home safely to their loved ones.
Have a good weekend. While you do, please keep all members of our military (living and dead) and their families in your hearts this Memorial Day.
* * *

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow - this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

President Abraham Lincoln,

Gettysburg, 1863

* * *
Here lie officers and men, Negroes and whites, rich men and poor . . . together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many men of each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

Whosoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or who thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery.

Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn
Iwo Jima, 1945

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Watseka Main Street

I was involved in an interesting discussion this week. A school principal was trying to change the way his school has been run for fifty years.  A critic snidely asked the principal if the principal thought he “can change the world”. The principal politely said: “absolutely not, but I can change my part of it.”
It made me think about how much downtown Watseka has changed.  In fact, it made me think about a lot of small towns. It also made me think it about how American culture has changed. It’s a lot less personable than it used to be.
This is what it brought to mind:
In early December, the Times Republic reported on a fistful of Iroquois County folks who stole a Wal Mart truck from Bradley. They were caught and arrested. It was a funny story. The thieves were unloading the truck in view of a highway. Clearly, it was not a master heist.
For laughs, I sent the article out to about ten of our classmates. Half-joking, I asked why Wal Mart wasn’t being arrested for stealing downtown Watseka. Even the most conservative capitalists I sent it to understood what I meant. One person reminded me K-Mart was there first.
The pictures I’ve been sending you are from a booklet published in the fall of 1984. Most of the businesses were the same as they were in 1981.  I’ve attached the index of businesses so you can take a trip down memory lane (see the pdf).
 I know Watseka memories are important to many of you. You’ve told me about going with your dads to Randy’s, buying a lot of candy at Variety for less than a quarter, and washing down French fries with Cherry Cokes at the Ritz. You’ve mentioned buying clothes at Penney’s, Casualtowne or The Chicago Store. You talked about getting your athletic shoes from the Sweat Sock. Some of you scored a few underage beers at Eimo’s or Peck’s. You said you worked at family owned drug stores.
For those of you who haven’t been back, most of those places are gone. I tried to get a cup of coffee in downtown Watseka on a Saturday morning in February. I had a hard time finding one (the sole coffee shop was closed for a wedding). There wasn’t any place between second and fifth streets that looked like it could serve up bacon, eggs and hash browns; let alone fries and a Coke (with a hard time from Mr. Wagner on the side). Unfortunately, it’s because there aren’t main street businesses anymore to draw people downtown on Saturday mornings.
 It’s too bad all those places are gone. Those businesses were family owned and the owners treated customers like family. The money spent in those places was carried to one of Watseka’s local banks everyday.  It was spent at other places in our town. Customers and small businesses supported each other.  More importantly, a thriving downtown brought people to places like The Ritz/Eastburn’s and the Lamplighter (all owned by our classmates’ families).  Those were places where people gathered and honed their sense of community.  It was best to respect other people’s opinions because people saw each other all the time.
Those places went away when the big stores and chain restaurants lured customers away. I’ll never convince everybody that shopping on Main Street was better than shopping at a big store. I’m sure some of you think McDonald’s has better coffee and French fries than our classmates’ dads served. I’ll respect that. But, I have to think most of you know downtown Watseka was pretty nice in the 70s (in a Mayberry kind of way).
It’s not just Watseka. Even in bigger cities, it’s hard for local merchants and restaurant owners to make it now. Every time somebody opens a shop on a main street, or a new restaurant, that person is taking a huge risk.  He/she is counting on us.  Many of those folks are people our age, trying to bring us back to the way it used to be.
Times are tough and it’s hard not to want to save a buck.  I don’t want to completely knock the big chain stores and restaurants. They have their place and they have plenty of things that only they offer. Some of you may work for them.
But - what if, wherever we live, we looked to our local merchants before we went to the chain stores for things?  What if we took our kids and grandkids to a good local diner instead of McDonalds or Chili’s? I’m thinking, like that principal, we could change our parts of the world.  If we worked at it, we might even get back the old Watseka.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mr. Sampson, Hero

Please read this article in the on line Times Republic,

Stick with it. About half way down the screen you'll read about James H. Sampson (Nancy's dad), recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Watseka Chamber of Commerce.  What a great American story! What a great man!

How many of our children will remember us this way?

"But aside and apart from how he handled the responsibility of taking care of his family, he also took contributing to his community and his country very seriously. He has always had a selfless willingness to make sure that the people around him received his service and respect. Often his service was behind the scenes, but that didn't matter to him. I admire him very much. I think if a person's life is measured by the number of friends he has, and the lives he has touched through his service, then my dad is a very rich man in the ways that matter the most."

There really were heroes among us.