Thursday, December 1, 2016

Grinnell's Famous (but in Grinnell poorly-known) Plein-air Artist...

Grinnell is fortunate to have been the home of several artists of accomplishment, but perhaps none was as successful or well-known as Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943).  At the beginning of the twentieth century and at the invitation of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railways, Hill undertook several expeditions to the startling natural worlds of the American West, dragging along the tools of the artist (as well as her four young children). Although the railroads provided her with free passage, she and her entourage had to hike into the wild, where, surrounded by the landscapes she aimed to paint, she set up her easel. At the height of her reputation, Hill was a featured artist at the 1904 World's Fair at which twenty of her paintings were displayed, and over the next several years she exhibited her work often and gathered much praise.
Abby Williams Hill, "Looking Across Lake Chelan," given to Grinnell College in 1906
(Digital Grinnell, but identified there as "Pacific Northwest Landscape")
When Hill reached this fame, however, she was no longer resident in Grinnell, as she and her husband had settled in Tacoma, Washington soon after their 1888 wedding. Nevertheless, Hill long retained a special affection for and sense of belonging to Grinnell. She returned here often, especially while her father was still alive, and then later to visit her sister's family at Strawberry Point. In 1906 and again in 1907 Hill donated to Grinnell College paintings from her wilderness expeditions, gifts that long hung on the walls of the college's Carnegie Library and which the college recognized by awarding Hill an honorary degree in 1907. Writing President John H. T. Main in the 1920s, Hill expressed the hope that the college might erect a gallery suitable to display works of art, perhaps a hint that she contemplated donating her entire collection to Grinnell. Sadly, this plan did not come to fruition, so that in 1957, fourteen years after Hill's death, her daughter-in-law donated Hill's entire collection to the University of Puget Sound, close to Tacoma where Hill had lived at the height of her artistic output. But if Hill enjoyed a considerable reputation a century ago, today she and her artistry remain poorly-known in the town where she began. With the exception of "Trailblazers: Notable Women of Grinnell," a 2012 display at Drake Community Library that identified several women of note from early Grinnell (and which was later presented as a community bucket course lecture), Hill has fallen from memory in Grinnell.  In this post, we will follow the major way stations of Abby Hill's remarkable life, and point to the ways in which her career as a plein-air artist intersected with Grinnell, Iowa.
Henry Williams, the artist's father, was born in 1829 in Vermont, but was among a group of the earliest settlers in the new community that Josiah Bushnell Grinnell helped establish in central Iowa. Identified in the 1860 census as an "engineer," Henry later claimed as his occupation "cabinet maker," "mill owner," and for a time he sold furniture in Grinnell. His first wife, the former Harriet Porter, had been born in Ohio and married Williams in 1852, a few years prior to their arrival in Iowa. A son was born to them in Ohio, but the boy's life expired before his parents went west. In Grinnell, daughter Nettie (sometimes called Jeanette) was born in 1859, followed by another daughter, Abby (sometimes called Abbie), in 1861. The family settled in a fine home on High Street, both girls growing up and receiving their educations in Grinnell.
1008 High Street, Home of H. W. Williams Family (Digital Grinnell)
Nettie completed public school in Grinnell and attended Iowa (Grinnell) College, entering with the class of 1882. Ill health forced her to interrupt her studies, which she later resumed at Chicago Musical College, from which she graduated.  In late December, 1885, Nettie married Park Buckley, whom she had met when they were both students at Iowa College. Buckley operated the family farm near Strawberry Point, and the couple settled there after the wedding, and there they welcomed their only child, daughter Harriett. Injured in a runaway-horse accident soon afterward, Nettie endured several years of poor health before she died unexpectedly in 1889.
Abby Williams, undated photograph
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Abby Williams, two years Nettie's junior, also finished public school in Grinnell, and may have attended Iowa College, at least briefly. But she certainly never completed her degree there, opting instead to pursue a career in painting. In 1880 she moved to Chicago to study with H. F. Spread, a founder of what was then called the Chicago Academy of Art where, reports had it, "amateurs can obtain the best possible advantages upon the most reasonable terms." With this preparation she began to teach, first in Grinnell, then at Bertier-en-Haut, Quebec. Some of the paintings she did while living in Canada were exhibited back in Grinnell in 1886 at the studio of the local photographer, A. L. Child. The Grinnell Herald printed an enthusiastic review of Hill's work, detailing the subjects of numerous canvases, some of which apparently depicted scenes around Grinnell.
Grinnell Herald, October 22, 1886
Hill later went to New York where she studied with William Merritt Chase, from whom she seems to have absorbed the latest techniques of the French Impressionists. In the 1890s, during a sojourn in Europe, she studied in Hamburg, Germany with the illustrator Hermann Haase. In 1888, while residing in New York, Abby married Dr. Frank Hill, another Grinnellian. Soon thereafter the couple went west, settling in Tacoma, Washington, where in November, 1889 Abby gave birth to a son, Romayne Bradford Hill, who was born partially paralyzed. Abby and Frank later adopted three more children, and for most of her career as an artist, Hill took all four children along, exposing them to both the wonders and hazards of the natural world she so beautifully depicted on canvas.
Dr. Frank Hill and Abby Williams Hill (1888)
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
For the first half-dozen years after the birth of Romayne (1889-1970), and the adoptions of Ione (1886-1984), Ina (1889-1987), and Eulalie (1891-1978), Hill did relatively little painting. Works from this period give few hints of the artistry that later paintings reveal. Nevertheless, Hill clearly had admirers, and her work attracted attention, as she was commissioned to do a copy of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington for the State of Washington's exposition at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

But in the summer of 1895, prior to departing for a two-year stay in Europe for her husband's further study of medicine, Hill had her first experience of painting in the wilds of America's West. She joined an expedition into the nearby Cascade Mountains, learning first-hand some of the skills she would later practice on trips elsewhere. Taking along her paints, brushes and easel, Hill accompanied a group, most of whose members were intent on climbing Mt. Rainier. Instead of scaling a mountain, however, she found places to set up her easel and paint. Often these perches were perilous, as her journal reports: "I sketched all the afternoon, sitting on a precipice just about a foot wide, and perhaps three hundred down" (Hill's diary, as quoted by Ronald Fields, Abby Williams Hill and the Lure of the West, p. 17), a circumstance that she duplicated numerous times on later expeditions.

Almost immediately after her return from Rainier, Hill embarked on a similar excursion to the Hood Canal at the foot of the Olympic Mountains. Yet another difficult hike presented itself, as the group made its way through virgin forests and across numerous waterways. "After the pools, came the wildest scenery and the most severe climbing, up rocky sides, over boulders and under them, across streams on logs many feet above the whistling torrent, and at last seated to sketch in a place where the roar was so great, I could not make my companion on the next rock hear my voice...It was thought no woman had ventured as far as I did today" (Fields, p. 18).

These two endeavors, shoe-horned into the brief period before the family left for Europe, gave Hill the confidence to deal with the wild, and prepared her for the major commissions that she executed after their return from Europe.
Hill's reputation as an artist depended for the most part upon the four commissions she obtained from the railroads in the first years of the twentieth century. The first, secured from the Great Northern Railway in spring, 1903, was perhaps the most important. Officers of the Great Northern wanted Hill to travel to the area around Lake Chelan in the North Cascades—very difficult to access, and since 1968 part of the North Cascades National Park Complex—and there produce some twenty canvases before autumn weather made the area impassable. The fifty-mile long Lake Chelan, one of the deepest lakes in North America, offers a startling contrast to the mountains around it, and gave Hill some wonderful material to paint. However, as Fields points out, it also constituted "some of the most rugged and inaccessible scenery of the Cascades," which Hill had to negotiate "without the benefit of established, managed camps" (p. 34). 

We know few details of the expedition since Hill documented her work only in a sparsely-worded daybook. But the railroad published some thirty thousand copies of a pamphlet of Hill's twenty paintings, all of which were displayed at the 1904 fair in St. Louis. Two paintings had Tumwater Canyon as subject, and five others represented scenes around Mount Index. The bulk of the commission, however, centered upon Lake Chelan and the mountains beyond. 
Title Page of pamphlet reproducing Hill's paintings from the Great Northern Commission
Although Hill's contract entitled her to reclaim the paintings after the World's Fair, and although she seems to have made copies of some of the works, not all the canvases of this commission survive. Hill gave two to what was then Washington State College, today's Washington State University; today only one of those works—"Spruce Trees"—is known. Hill gave two other works to a friend, and two more disappeared—one presumably kept by the railroad, and the other lost after the University of Puget Sound acquired the collection.
"Spruce Trees" (1903) from Hill's Great Northern Commission
(photo courtesy Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections,  Washington State University)
For Grinnell, however, "Looking Across Lake Chelan" represents the greatest interest, since it was this painting that in 1906 she gave to Grinnell College (see the illustration at the top of this post), and which the college displayed in what was then the newly-built (1905) Carnegie Library.
Grinnell Review vol. 1, no. 9 (June, 1906)
Interior of Carnegie Library Lobby, ca. 1910 (photo courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections)
Hill's expedition to the Northern Cascades demonstrated how plein-air artists had to struggle with the conditions in which they painted. Discussing her work at Chelan Gorge, Hill reported that "It has been the most difficult sketch I ever made owing to the heat and its being so out of the way...." When beginning her painting of Horseshoe Basin, Hill wrote: "Pitch[ed] my awning on a rock, very windy, have to sit astride" (Fields, p. 37). Then an autumn snow storm caught the artist and her children; living in a tent with no heat, they were obliged to endure the cold and live off raw foods for two days.

Happily, Hill and her children survived these trials, and her paintings from the North Cascades succeeded wonderfully, earning Hill enviable praise when they were first shown in Tacoma. Her renown even made its way to distant Grinnell, where in late December, 1903 the Grinnell Herald reprinted from the Tacoma Daily News a most favorable review of Hill's canvases, soon to shine at the St. Louis exhibition.
Headline of article in Grinnell Herald, December 29, 1903, p. 1
More important for Hill's career, her fame also made its way to the headquarters of the Northern Pacific Railway, which in 1904 issued her the first of three new painting contracts. The first called on Hill to travel to and paint Mt. Rainier and the Monte Cristo Mountains, along with sites in Idaho and Montana. The eleven canvases that resulted from this commission were exhibited at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, and included "Cliffs at Eunice Lake" and "Basaltic Rocks," both of which still hang on the walls of the First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma, Washington.
"Basaltic Rocks" (1904) (photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA)

"Cliffs at Eunice Lake" (1904) (photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA)
During this expedition Hill painted two canvases that ended up in Iowa (although the original of one remains with the Hill Collection at Puget Sound): "Yellow Pines" (done near Eddy, Montana) and "Morning in an Aisle of a Tamarack Cathedral" (also done near Eddy). In 1907 Hill donated both these paintings to the Botany Department of what was then called the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts—today's Iowa State University. Although both paintings were known to a 1941 university inventory (even if both were then in storage), today both are lost.
Personal communication from Allison Sheridan, University Museums, Iowa State University
Hill's work in 1904 evidently pleased officials of the Northern Pacific, who in the spring of 1905 extended her yet another commission, this one taking her to Yellowstone Park where, in the course of about a month, she produced three paintings—two of Yellowstone Falls and one of Yellowstone Canyon. As with her earlier expeditions, Hill found the going tough:
"The view I selected [to paint] was from a cliff extending over the canyon. It is not over three feet wide and [has] a very sharp descent to reach it. I thought to pitch my little tent on it, but after sitting there till noon, there came up such a wind we crawled off between gusts and concluded a tent with a floor in it would fill and carry us with it" (Fields, p. 66)
Identified as "Hill Children on Edge of Yellowstone Canyon" but might include Hill herself (1905)
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
When painting Yellowstone Falls, calamity very nearly did strike:
"Got out on my perch and painted a few hours...when suddenly there came a roar and without more warning, a big twister struck us, wrenching the picture from its fastening, jerking it under the poles and away down the canyon, which is at least 400 feet deep and the sides almost perpendicular..." (Fields, p. 67)
The next day volunteers descended by rope more than 100 feet along the canyon walls, retrieved the canvas, and thereby wrapped the painting in a wonderful story.
"Yellowstone Falls (From Below)" (1905)
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Over and above the excitement that pertained to Hill's 1905 visit to Yellowstone, Grinnell has special reason to be interested in this venture, because in 1907 she gave the College one of her paintings of the Falls; this work, too, went on display in Carnegie Library.
Grinnell Review, vol. 2, no. 8 (May, 1907)
Unfortunately, no one seems to know what happened to this painting, which was probably lost when the College opened a new library in 1959. But it was clear that the College appreciated her gifts as well as her fame, because at the 1907 commencement Hill received an honorary degree.
Hill's honorary degree conferred at commencement, June 12, 1907
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Hill's third and final commission from the Northern Pacific took her back to Yellowstone in 1906. The details of the contract remain unknown, but we know that before reaching the park, Hill visited both Minneapolis (where she took part in a meeting of the Congress of Mothers, antecedent to the National Parent Teacher Association), and then on to Grinnell, where in April her father had died. Besides settling details of her father's estate, Hill met with the Grinnell College class of 1882, to which she evidently had briefly belonged before setting out on her career as an artist. While in Grinnell, Hill worked out the details of the trip to Yellowstone, writing her husband to make arrangements for the entire family to meet in Montana.

The subject matter of the last railroad commission evidently centered on Yellowstone's geysers, but Hill preceded her visit to the park with a stop at the Flathead Reservation, a reminder of her interest in and defense of native Americans, causes that she pursued more vigorously later in her career. Once settled within sight of Yellowstone's remarkable geysers, Hill found herself unhappily close to the main tourist circuits of the park. Moreover, because the tent within which she normally worked proved a fright to teams of horses, she often had to do without it. Finally, there were the bears and other animals so abundant in Yellowstone. Thinking the bears in the main harmless, Hill often fed—and photographed—those that appeared at camp during daylight. Tourists she regarded as more harmful, and she did what she could to avoid them. Another damper on the experience was the unusually wet summer weather that interfered with her painting and often diminished the available natural light.

Fields deduced that Hill completed fifteen paintings that summer in Yellowstone, but only a few are known to the Puget Sound collection and none has a connection with Grinnell. In the opinion of critics, work from this last railroad commission was not as successful as the earlier paintings, perhaps a reflection of Hill's overall unhappiness with the expedition. After leaving the park, Hill remained for a time in Montana, again visiting with and painting at the Flathead Reservation where she observed regretfully the incursion of destructive outside influences. The paintings of native Americans represented a new direction in Hill's work, increasingly devoted to individual portraits and to documenting native American cultures. As a result, Hill developed strong bonds among the Salish (known to some as Flatheads), the Nez Perse, the Yakama, and others, and her paintings provided a unique and sympathetic introduction of these peoples to Hill's audience.
In the years after completing the last of her railroad commissions, Hill's painting faced some challenges. She did exhibit at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exhibition in 1907, and she won at least one gold medal (possibly two) at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition in Seattle. At about this time the Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific railroads both expressed interest in acquiring her services (Hill declined their offers). Nevertheless, over the next two decades Hill faced significant challenges that restricted the freedom to travel and paint that she had earlier so much enjoyed.

The primary challenge came from her husband's failing health. Frank suffered from melancholy, which today might be diagnosed as depression, a condition that grew so worrisome by 1909 that Frank closed his medical practice. When things got even worse, he was hospitalized in California. Hill and the children had managed a trip to Europe in 1908-9, and she had also visited Yosemite about this time, leaving behind some memorable landscapes. But once Frank was hospital-bound, Hill moved to southern California, too, and invested much of her time in these years in her husband.

When Frank rallied and was released from hospital in 1924, Hill bought a nine-passenger Hudson automobile, and with the family embarked on long automobile journeys across the American South and West, regularly wintering in Tucson, Arizona. With the idea of securing a contract from the Park Service to paint all the national parks (in effect, reproducing the idea behind her railroad commissions), she and the family visited the Grand Canyon, Bryce, the Grand Tetons, and Zion National Park, among others. Fields thinks that Hill's work from this period, which he calls her "gypsy years," was among her best: "Her palette became lighter, brighter, and richer" (Fields, p. 105). Nevertheless, Hill's painting did not attract much attention. The Park Service declined her proposal, and no new exhibitions presented her work. 

Meanwhile, Frank's health deteriorated, and in 1931 he was readmitted to Patton State Hospital (near San Bernardino), and Abby moved to be near him. Frank never left that hospital, lingering until his 1938 death. Her husband's long and difficult illness had evidently drained Hill of all her energy, and she remained bedridden the rest of her life, dying in San Diego in 1943.
1929 Letter from Grinnell College President, John H. T. Main
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Even in these last, rather disappointing years, however, Hill retained a lively commitment to Grinnell. Indeed, it appears that, just prior to Frank's re-hospitalization, she approached the college with a proposal. In a December, 1929 letter the college's president, John H. T. Main, responded to Hill, whose own letter has not survived, but which had evidently proposed that the college erect a fireproof art building with "provision...for pictures and art objects." Main promised to do his "utmost to see that a building such as you propose is provided," pledging to strive to "meet the condition you propose." Main did not articulate the "condition" to which he referred, so we cannot be certain about her intentions, but it seems likely that Hill had pledged to donate her paintings in return for the college constructing a building sufficient to display and house them. Main's effort to fund such a building was not enough, however, especially once the weight of the Great Depression landed upon the college's best supporters.  When Main died in 1931, all thought of an art gallery died with him, and no gallery appeared on campus until the very last year of the twentieth century.

Consequently, by the time of her death in 1943 Hill's painting collection remained, for the most part, in family hands, until in 1957 Ina Hill donated it to the University of Puget Sound where numerous examples of Hill's painting have regularly been on display in the years since. Recently Hill's work has also attracted attention elsewhere, with examples of her painting included in exhibitions at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, Fullerton, CA (1976), the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, MT (1982), the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC (1987), the Boise Art Museum (1990), the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles (1995; 2004-5), and the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, WA (2010), among others. Ronald Fields's book, to which I have referred several times in this post, was published to accompany a well-received 1989 solo exhibition of Hill's work at the Washington State Historical Society. Portions of Hill's oeuvre have also been exhibited at the White River Valley Museum, Auburn, WA (2007) and recently at the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, WA (2015).

Back in Grinnell, where Hill was born and began her career, the artist's legacy has been less happy. After the 1929 exchange between Hill and President Main, memory of Grinnell's famous plein-air artist waned. A Grinnell Herald article from October 15, 1929 (titled "Grinnell Had Music and Art From the Beginning") mentions Hill briefly and somewhat condescendingly, commending her "dainty pencil work." But gradually Hill and her reputation slipped from public consciousness. Hill's two landscapes that had long hung from the walls of Grinnell's Carnegie Library lost their context, so that when the college erected a new library in 1959, even these last two traces of Abby Williams Hill fell from view, carrying with them the memory of one of Grinnell's most talented daughters. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


May 13, 1950 was a big day in Grinnell—and not only because on that day Stevie Wonder was born in Saginaw, Michigan.  No, May 13, 1950 brought Grinnell happy news much closer to home: on that day triplets were born to William and Alice Evans in Grinnell's St. Francis Hospital. Because triplets were so rare, it was a very big deal when Jerilyn, Carolyn, and Marilyn Evans made their first appearance in Grinnell, Iowa.
Photograph of the Evans triplets (from left, Jerilyn, Carolyn, and Marilyn) and nurses Lucy Snodgrass, Sister Pauline, and Helen Simeral Mathis at St. Francis Hospital, May, 1950
In 2014 (the most recent US data available), the number of triplet and higher-order multiple births in the United States fell to its lowest rate in twenty years: 113.5/100,000 live births. The overwhelming majority of these multiple births were triplets—4233—whereas the number of quadruplets (246), quintuplets and higher-order multiples (47) was minuscule. Twins, on the other hand, were much more common than triplets: in 2014, for example, twins accounted for 135,336 multiple births.

But if in recent years the number of multiple births in the US has slowly declined, for the preceding several decades numbers rose dramatically, largely as a consequence of assisted reproductive technologies. As recently as 2003, for example, 7110 triplets were born in the US, a large increase over the 1990 data which counted only 2830 triplets.

Before the availability of assisted reproductive technologies, multiple births were much less common, even if the numbers are not easy to tease out. According to one massive study of more than 72 million live births in the US between 1915 and 1948, one set of triplets was born for every 9126 deliveries, whereas twins could be expected once in every 90 deliveries, making twins about one hundred times more common than triplets. Data from 1949 Iowa, as reported in the June 6, 1950 Des Moines Register, seem to confirm these numbers; the newspaper reported that in 1949 six sets of triplets had been born across the state compared to 652 sets of twins—more than 100 sets of twins for every set of triplets. Data like these undergirded the syndicated health affairs columnist—Dr. Bundesen—who wrote in the November 20, 1950 issue of the Marshalltown Times-Republican that triplets could only be expected once in more than 9400 US confinements.
St. Francis Hospital, Grinnell, Iowa (1962 Grinnell City Directory)
It is not surprising, therefore, that when the Evans triplets were born in 1950 Grinnell, much was made of their arrival. Two days after their births, the Grinnell Herald-Register reported excitedly above the fold on its front page: "Triplets Born Here!" To emphasize the singularity of the event, the newspaper added that the "Odds [of triplets are] 8000 to 1," which seems to have been at least approximately accurate. The article went on to provide name, weight and exact time of delivery of each girl: Marilyn, 3 lbs., 8.5 oz., born at 10:59 PM; Carolyn, 4 lbs., 6 oz. at 11:03 PM, and finally Jerilyn, 4 lbs., 2 oz. at 11:20 PM. No photo accompanied the report, however; a subsequent article announced the newspaper's desire to publish a photograph of the babies, but observed that "thus far [the triplets] are being handled as little as possible, and a picture has been impossible."

Meantime, local merchants lined up to donate gifts to the family, a development that the newspaper happily reported. Three drug stores, several grocery stores, a shoe store, two photographers, a flower shop, two department stores and several other merchants provided the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce with gifts to be delivered to the family. No doubt the parents were grateful, since they already had a seven-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter to whom the new threesome would be added.

Finally, on the front page of the May 25 edition of the Grinnell Herald-Register there appeared a photograph of the triplets, their mother, and Sister Pauline, a well-known nurse at St. Francis hospital.
Grinnell Herald-Register May 25, 1950, p. 1
The babies, whose birth weights were low compared to the norm, remained hospitalized for about a month, gradually gaining weight. A brief report on the June 15 issue of the Grinnell Herald-Register announced their release, remarking at the same time that each of the girls had gained about two pounds during their hospital stay. Their mother used the newspaper to thank the Grinnell merchants who had provided the family with gifts and also to thank the doctor who had delivered and cared for them, Dr. J. C. DeMeulenaere.

Leaving the hospital did not mean heading to a home in Grinnell, however. Mr. and Mrs. Evans actually made their home in Kellogg, living in the same house where (improbably) some thirty years earlier triplets had been born to Mr. and Mrs.  O. L. Mulford. But the Grinnell newspaper reported somewhat optimistically that the Evans family hoped to find a new home in Grinnell, inasmuch as Grinnell had been so generous to them when the triplets were born. Whether Mr. and Mrs. Evans sought a Grinnell address or not, a new home for the Evans family in Grinnell apparently never did eventuate. Instead, Mr. Evans, who at the time of the triplets' birth had been a salesman for the Curtis Candy Company, about a year later took a job in Des Moines with what became Martin Marietta, and the family moved to Des Moines.
Carolyn, Jerilyn and Marilyn Evans at their second birthday (Des Moines Tribune, May 13, 1952)
Perhaps precisely because the Evans family did not remain in the area, the Grinnell newspaper made no further mention of the triplets; their fame had risen and fallen in harmony with their closeness to Grinnell. Now resident elsewhere, the little girls merited no further coverage. But the Des Moines Tribune, the afternoon newspaper in the Evans family's new hometown, did take note of the triplets, publishing a photograph of the girls on their second birthday. The caption identified each of the girls and also provided characterizations offered by their mother:  "Carolyn is 'the natural leader' of the triplets," the paper reported, saying that she was somewhat independent, whereas Jerilyn and Marilyn "nearly always play together."

The Des Moines Register, however, the city's morning newspaper, never did report on the Evans triplets, even if occasionally it found space to report on triplets born elsewhere. For example, the June 24, 1951 Register reported on the Winterheimer triplets born in Evansville, Indiana, and the October 3, 1952 Register carried news from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Mrs. Irma Griser had given birth to her fifth set of twins, who were added to the triplets to whom she had given birth earlier. Later that year the Register published a photograph of the eight-month-old triplets of Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Hill of Fullerton, California, who had just gotten their social security numbers. To be sure, in late 1949 the Register did take note of the arrival of triplets in Des Moines—the Hickman triplets who were born just before Christmas that year. But the paper was just as likely to report on the birth of triplet calves, as it did in the January 9, 1952 issue.

In any event, the Evans triplets attracted little further attention from the media. The family, which had added yet another child, born about eighteen months after the triplets, moved several times within Des Moines, but the triplets seem to have prospered, regardless of where the family resided. All three girls attended Roosevelt High School, graduating in 1968. By this time each had developed her own career preferences, some of which were evident already at Roosevelt. Carolyn, for example, who went on to become a nurse after attending Broadlawns School of Nursing, at Roosevelt assisted the school nurse, and belonged to the Red Cross Committee as well as to the Future Nurses club, of which she was president her senior year. Marilyn, who later attended Drake University to acquire her teaching credentials, belonged to Roosevelt's Future Teachers club, and was as well a member of the Leaders Club. Jerilyn, who later became a successful businesswoman, belonged to the Pep Club, the Riders Club, and the Blue Cadets.

Carolyn, Jerilyn (top) and Marilyn (bottom) Evans as Roosevelt High School Seniors
(The Roundup, Roosevelt High School Yearbook, vol. 45[1968])
So far as I know, no other triplets were born in Grinnell after the Evans girls (although triplets like the Capers children, who had been born elsewhere, moved to Grinnell in the 1970s). Prior to the Evans triplets, however, Grinnell had been the birthplace of another set of triplets: in December, 1895 Dora Lucas, an African American woman, had given birth to triplets in the Lucas family home at 1517 West Street, Grinnell.  Like the Evans triplets, the Lucas babies were all girls; according to the short report in the December 3, 1895 Montezuma Democrat, the Lucas girls arrived in good health, weighing "5, 6, and 7 pounds"—rather surprising weights for triplets, especially then.

On the face of it, the 1895 report shares some of the enthusiasm of the 1950 Grinnell story. The Montezuma paper, alluding to Grinnell's pleasure at the new arrivals, asserted confidently that the little girls would be "god-children to half the city." Moreover, the newspaper predicted that, when spring arrives, "one of the finest special order baby cabs...shall be placed at their disposal." Whether the Lucas triplets ever received the promised baby carriage is not known, but the Montezuma newspaper undercut its own enthusiasm by un-selfconsciously twice describing the African American children as "pickaninnies."

In Grinnell itself, however, the arrival of the Lucas triplets seems not to have generated much attention. The 1895 Grinnell Herald printed no feature article of the sort that later greeted the Evans triplets. Only a brief note two weeks later humorously denied that the Lucas children would be named Faith, Hope and Charity (inasmuch as their father was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal church), but there was no list of merchant donations, no additional report on the babies' welfare, and of course no photograph or feature story.

As rare as triplets were in those years, it is difficult at this remove to explain the difference in reactions from the local press between 1950 and 1895. Was the relative silence of the 1895 Grinnell newspaper a function of race, as the Montezuma newspaper's report rather awkwardly indicates? Or was it a function of different perceptions of news and the technology of reporting that news? Did the editor of the Grinnell Herald, which regularly placed obituaries on page 1, think that births--even the birth of triplets—was not in fact news of the sort that usually earned readers' attention?

No obvious answer presents itself. Instead, we are left to savor the 1950 stories that excitedly welcomed to the world three baby girls, who had shared their mother's womb for the preceding nine months, and who made their appearance in Grinnell's St. Francis Hospital.

Monday, June 6, 2016

When Grinnell reached out to Vietnam...

As I've written before, I am often the beneficiary of topics suggested to me by friends. Today's post reports on an endeavor I'd never heard about, but which my good friends Dorrie Lalonde and Monique Shore put me onto. The subject is how the town of Grinnell in 1964 got together to raise money to purchase linens, washers and dryers for a hospital in what was then South Vietnam. It's a good story, one we should remember and celebrate.

It may be hard to associate the word "celebrate" with Vietnam, even all these years after that rather grim chapter in American history was written. Rereading the news of the 1960s now, I am reminded that the early public narrative of American interest in Vietnam had a more optimistic and benevolent tone than it came to have as the war dragged on and casualties multiplied. The story of Grinnell's reaching out to Vietnam, however, belongs to that youthful phase of American involvement, and even fifty years later speaks loudly of some of America's—and Grinnell's—most generous values.
Des Moines Airport, August 23, 1964 (Photo courtesy of Drake Community Library)
The story begins with an article in Look magazine in January, 1964: "Steady Hand in Vietnam's Hell Ward." Like most titles in Look, the article was brief—just three pages—and was heavy on photographs. All the same, it made for compelling reading, telling the story of a young doctor—33-year-old Robert Norton—who, after a Phi Beta Kappa graduation from Grinnell College, and after having completed Harvard Medical School and a surgical residency at Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, had opted to work in an under-equipped and under-staffed hospital in Can Tho, South Vietnam, deep in the Mekong Delta where the war frequently erupted. "I didn't go into medicine to stay in one part of the world and make money while people on the other side [of the world] bleed to death," the magazine quoted the doctor as having memorably said.
Dr. Robert Norton with patient at Can Tho Hospital (Look January 28, 1964, p. 29)
In mid-February, the Sunday Des Moines Register (like Look, part of the Cowles publishing empire) returned to the story, adding a bit more text but using many of the same photographs. Retitled "An Iowa Doctor in Viet Nam," the Register article began with the same inspirational quotation that Look had featured, but contributed detail about the circumstances that confronted Norton and another American surgeon with whom he worked, Dr. Robert Edwards. Almost all the patients at Can Tho were Vietnamese civilians whose war-related injuries accounted for eighty percent of the hospital's intake. In addition to wounds incurred during the fighting, Norton observed, "We see a lot of typhoid fever with holes in the bowel and peritonitis; diphtheria needing tracheotomies, appendicitis where the appendix has been perforated for days, trapped hernias, wombs torn during delivery...and far advanced cancer." Nearly all these patients lay on beds without sheets: "In our 30-bed post-operative ward," said Norton as reported in the Register, "we patient to a bed with sheets. [However,] in our other wards we have two or three patients to a wooden bed with a straw mat [and no sheets]."

These published stories had a powerful and immediate impact upon Grinnell, where Robert Norton had gone to school and grown up. The son of Grinnell College professor, Dr. Homer Norton, and his wife, Margaret, young Robert was born in Grinnell in 1930, shortly after his parents, both Canadians, had moved to town. Young Robert grew up in the family homes, first at 1210 Fifth Avenue, then at 823 East Street where his parents were still living at the time of the media attention. He attended local schools, and graduated from Grinnell High School in 1948. His yearbook photograph shows a smiling, confident young man who, the adjacent biographical crib reported, had been president of both the Latin and Spanish clubs, and also president of the Freshman Science club.
Robert Norton, 1948 Grinnellian
Norton's next stop was Grinnell College, where he focused study upon chemistry and zoology in anticipation of his later vocation. Unsurprisingly, he did very well, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, thereby foreshadowing admission to Harvard Medical School immediately after his 1952 graduation. After successfully completing medical school, Norton settled into a four-year surgical residency at Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, living nearby at 1016 1/2 Pleasant Street. He chose to join the Public Health Service, from whom he received in 1962 the invitation to work in South Vietnam. He and and his family set off for Can Tho, ten years after having graduated from Grinnell College.

In other words, Robert Norton was well-known in Grinnell, so it is easy to understand how townsfolk took notice when a national publication like Look magazine touted the doctor's dedication and high-mindedness. Immediately after the feature appeared in the February 16 issue of the Des Moines Register's Picture magazine, the Grinnell Herald-Register published an editorial that focused upon Norton's work and the needs at his hospital. Noting that Vietnam was situated on the far side of the globe, the paper affirmed that "Grinnellians feel a great pride in knowing that one of their number is serving there in the face of tremendous odds, and serving well." The editorial went on to encourage Grinnell service clubs to organize "a drive for funds to ship supplies to Dr. Norton in Vietnam...and [thereby] deal a blow against death and disease, and for the brotherhood of man."
Editorial in Grinnell Herald-Register February 17, 1964
Evidently the Grinnell Jaycees had anticipated this sentiment, because in a letter dated February 13—three days before the Des Moines Register feature and four days before the Herald-Register editorial—Jim Cunningham, president of the Jaycees, wrote Dr. Norton to solicit details about the supplies his hospital would need, indicating that the Jaycees had already decided that this was an effort that they wanted to undertake, intimidating though it might be.
Jim Cunningham (center) at Des Moines International Airport (Grinnell Herald-Register August 24, 1964, p. 6)
Eleven days later Norton was already typing a three-page reply that described both the general operation of the hospital in Can Tho and the specific requirements that the Jaycees might fund. Norton reported that he and his fellow American doctor had between 250 and 300 patients in hospital, and that they assisted with as many as 30 maternity deliveries a day; their Vietnamese colleagues had another 150-250 patients, and almost none of these 500 or so patients had linens of any sort. Sheets were available only for surgery and post-op; the male and female civilian wards had no linens at all, with between two to five patients per cot. The hospital had piped cold water only in the operating room and in the maternity ward, although they hoped soon to arrange for hot water. Electricity was usually available, so both washing machines and dryers—especially dryers because of the six-month rainy season—were desperately needed.
Grinnell Herald-Register March 30, 1964, p. 1
Before the town turned its calendars to March, the Jaycees had agreed with the Grinnell Ministerial Association to co-sponsor a fund drive in support of Dr. Norton's hospital. A March 30 article in the Grinnell Herald-Register announced that the drive was fully organized; the cash goal was set at $7500, having already been begun with a modest collection ($131.54) from the recently-observed Grinnell Good Friday services. Church youth planned an "Operation Vietnam Workday" for April 11, with a car wash downtown and other youth volunteering to perform odd jobs—yard work, window washing, etc.—all proceeds going to the fund. Grinnell College also joined in the effort: students collected donations at campus lunch lines in early May after an article describing the project appeared in the Scarlet and Black. 
Headline of article in Scarlet and Black May 1, 1964
A May 7 article in the Herald-Register announced that the fund had grown to more than $1000, a significant accomplishment but far short of the announced target—$7500. It was surprising, therefore, to hear that organizers expected to complete fundraising by May 15—just a week away.

Nothing more was said about the fund as summer arrived, but behind the scenes the Jaycees and friends were busy purchasing the needed linens and arranging to acquire the laundry facilities. As they reported in a late-August letter to Dr. Norton, they had purchased and packaged 720 sheets, 288 pillow cases, 300 hospital gowns, 204 towels and 192 wash cloths. More importantly, the Maytag Corporation of nearby Newton had generously contributed six washing machines and four dryers suitable to the hospital's circumstances; manuals, tools, and spare parts were added. This vital donation was not reported publicly, but seems to have made up the bulk of the fund's total cash value.

Meantime, with the assistance of the Air Force, a C-97 cargo plane of the Oklahoma National Guard was directed to the Des Moines Airport on August 22 to collect the donations, which were loaded in the view of some fifty Jaycees, ministers, and other interested Grinnellians. The plane and crew then flew the cargo to Japan; from there the donations were later shipped to Vietnam by regular Air Force transport.
Packing the donated items inside the C-97 at Des Moines Airport (Courtesy Drake Community Library)

Grinnellians watch the loading of cargo destined for Vietnam (Grinnell Herald-Register August 24, 1964)
Jim Cunningham and his group of Jaycees as well as the various clergymen were obviously very pleased at how quickly they had succeeded in collecting and sending off items that were so obviously needed at the hospital in Vietnam. Unlike the increasingly aggressive military options being pursued in Vietnam, the provision of linens and washing machines to a hospital seemed altogether altruistic and humanitarian, sidestepping the more political discussions about communism. The Sunday issue of the Des Moines Register (August 23) quoted Grinnell mayor, Floyd Beaver, to that effect: "This demonstrates man's interest in helping his fellow man," said Beaver. Jim Cunningham also appeared in Sunday's Register, confirming Beaver's sentiment: "We felt [that Dr. Norton] was getting along with so little when we have so much." The Grinnell fund drive aimed to try to even the scales ever so slightly, without worrying about the political persuasion of the patients who might benefit from the gifts. The Des Moines newspaper concluded by observing that "Grinnell is proud of its accomplishment. So is Iowa."
Wheeling a patient from the operating room at Can Tho Hospital (Saigon Daily News January 11, 1964)
The next day's Grinnell Herald-Register joined in the song. In a front-page story, the paper remarked that "a remote Asian land with which most Americans are acquainted only through the headlines seems just a bit closer to Grinnellians this week. For the hand of brotherhood, which seems to clasp the strongest during times of suffering and deprivation, now reaches out to close the gap of thousands of miles between Grinnell, Iowa and Can Tho, South Vietnam." Similar language attended a later report in the Des Moines Register (October 18, 1964): "Grinnell citizens—and all Iowa—in a way were telling Dr. Norton, 'Well done. Keep up the good work.'"
Later that year Norton was back in Iowa, visiting family and speaking about his work in Vietnam. At a meeting before the Polk County Medical Society in mid-December, Norton outlined the rough conditions under which he and others were working, and showed slides to illustrate the kinds of surgeries he performed. The next month he was in Grinnell for Dr. Robert Norton Day, providing an occasion for Norton to meet some of those who had organized the hospital donations. At meetings like these, Norton offered support for American military involvement in Vietnam, sometimes echoing the language of "domino theory" and other justifications for the war. More immediately, the surgeon confirmed that he and his family—his wife, the three children born to them and the two Vietnamese children they had adopted—would return to Vietnam the following March.
Grinnell Herald-Register January 4, 1965, p. 1
The war, however, was heating up. At almost the same time that Grinnell was packaging sheets for South Vietnam (August, 1964), the U.S. Congress had approved the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which authorized the President to exercise conventional military forces in Vietnam. One consequence of the Tonkin Gulf resolution was the large-scale bombing campaign of North Vietnam (Operation Rolling Thunder) that opened in March, 1965. The following month the number of U.S. ground troops in Vietnam rose to more than 60,000, and the pace of conflict rose accordingly; North Vietnamese troops now openly coordinated attacks in South Vietnam with the Viet Cong.

I wondered what had happened at Can Tho and how Dr. Norton had reacted to these developments. Did he and his family return as scheduled? And if they did, how long were they able to stay? Had conditions at the hospital gotten worse, despite the arrival of linens and washing machines? Had he or members of his family perhaps suffered wounds themselves?

These days Dr. Norton is enjoying a well-deserved retirement in Port Angeles, Washington, where he lives with his wife, just down the street from their daughter, a nurse. When I reached Norton by telephone, he kindly entertained my questions, but particulars of that long-ago experience proved difficult to call to mind.  Consequently, I am still not sure how his surgical experience in Vietnam played out as the war heated up.

However, I did learn that, even before the family's scheduled return to Vietnam, the U.S. State Department had ruled that American dependents would not be allowed back in South Vietnam, presumably because of the deteriorating situation. The Grinnell Herald-Register, in reporting this news (February 11, 1965), acknowledged that Norton himself had another year left on his contract, and would therefore soon return to Can Tho. However, the newspaper continued, with the family destined to survive apart, Norton planned to renegotiate his contract, perhaps shortening his stay in Can Tho to three or six months.
Grinnell Herald-Register February 11, 1965
How all this worked out, Dr. Norton did not tell me. But what is clear is that, once he left Vietnam, Norton chose to continue his surgical career not at some high-priced, private American practice, but rather at what is today called the Phoenix Indian Medical Center, part of the Indian Health Service. In opting to serve native Americans, Robert Norton reasserted the ideals that had taken him to Vietnam in the first place and that had garnered so much attention back in 1964. Today, therefore, fifty-two years after the fact, we can once again celebrate the selflessness that encouraged a very talented Grinnellian to do good rather than to do well, and the town that embraced and shared in this noble effort from afar.

Sunday, May 29, 2016


Tornado season in the US is officially underway, and parts of "tornado alley" have already confronted several of these monstrous storms. Iowa is part of the "alley," although most of the state does not usually host tornadoes.
Stereoscopic image of 1882 Grinnell tornado wreckage
(W. R. Cross Collection, Black Hills State University, via Digital Library of South Dakota)
Nevertheless, Grinnell has occasionally been the target of tornadoes, most famously in 1882 when a cyclone destroyed most of the college and the residential area north of downtown, killing 100. That storm gave rise to a mythic rebuilding that helped define the history of both college and town.

Considerably less momentous was the tornado that blew through central Iowa in September, 1978, but it merits our attention, another illustration of how the present can allow us to overlook a different past. Tornadoes are not common in the northern hemisphere in September—certainly there have been tornadoes in that month, and occasionally, as in 2004, there are many such storms across the plains. Typically, however, September is quiet. Yet it was on September 16, 1978 that an F-3 storm blew across parts of Marshall, Jasper and Poweshiek County, killing 6 and injuring more than 40 persons.
It was Saturday night and darkness had already fallen on Grinnell when, around 9 PM, a severe thunderstorm brought heavy rain to the area. Some folk had settled into their rooms at Motel Grinnell, adjacent to Iowa route 146 and US Interstate 80; about 100 guests were having late dinners at the Silhouette Restaurant nearby; some motorists had gotten off I-80 to wait out the storm, and attendants at the four gas stations nearby  were indoors, perhaps mesmerized by the blinding downpour.

There was no tornado warning—no siren, no radio alert—for the storm (at that time opening its jaws about a half-mile wide) that first touched down somewhere north of Baxter, then swept southeast, destroying property near Laurel where it killed a 34-year-old man and his 6-year-old daughter. The twister then prowled further southeast in the darkness, dropping down to earth close to the intersection of IA-146 and Interstate 80, three miles south of Grinnell. Only about 1000 feet wide at this point, the powerful currents chewed up everything in sight for about five miles.
Map of 1978 Tornado by Dave Silk (Des Moines Register Sep 18, 1978, p 9A)
Phillips 66 Service Station at its 1964 opening (Grinnell Herald-Register July 13, 1964, p. 6)
Newspaper accounts from survivors in Grinnell point out how surprising was the storm's arrival. The Des Moines Register quoted Brent Cooper, then just 17 years old and minding the store at Rick's Phillips 66 service station. "I looked outside and the rain was going around instead of down," Cooper said. "I heard a roar and then ducked behind the air compressor in the back room." David Hume, 21 and attendant at the nearby Skelly service station, had it worse: "I was standing in front of the plate glass window when it just exploded. I was knocked clear over the counter." Leon Blankenfeld, 17, was on duty at the Standard service station in the same area, and reported that, although he never saw the funnel, he knew it was a tornado when he couldn't get the door to the station closed. "I hid under a desk in the middle of the room and stayed there till it was over," he said. Marc Guthrie, another teenager (16), worked at Pester Derby. He recalled that the lights at the station first flickered, then disappeared as power lines went down. "I just remember covering my ears because it was so loud. I fell to the floor and everything blew over me." When he got up, "there was nothing left of where I had been when it struck. I couldn't believe it." Bob Cafcules, owner of the Silhouette Restaurant, told reporters that he had had the TV on, and just as "The Love Boat" came to a close, the television issued a storm warning, but there was little time to absorb this news as the tornado was already upon them. When he and his wife realized what was happening, they "screamed at patrons that a tornado was coming. 'The customers hit the deck just like tenpins,' he said." His wife saw "the windows in the restaurant 'bulge in and out' and glass flying all over."
Skelly Station at its 1964 opening (Grinnell Herald-Register May 18, 1964)

No one died at any of these establishments, which was a genuine miracle, as Dave Winters told the Des Moines Register reporter: "All there was was a very large rumble...and then I saw [the tornado] drop down on this [east] side of 146. It hit the Pester Derby station—just poof and it was gone." Cafcules seconded this assessment when he told reporters that "All that's left of the Pester Derby station is a slab of concrete."
Aerial photo of the damage: Pester Derby service station (left) and Skelly service station (right)
(Cedar Rapids Gazette Sep 18, 1978)
If no one in the motel, restaurants or service stations died, the occupants of two automobiles in the area were not so lucky. Bonnie June Thompson Maldonado, 58 years of age and a resident of nearby Newton, was found dead in her overturned station wagon on the frontage road adjacent to IA 146. The Des Moines Register reported that Maldonado was discovered "with a length of 2x4-inch lumber piercing her body."
Entry for Bonnie (Thompson) Maldonado in 1937 Newton High School Newtonian 
Another car carried the Lothar Rau family, returning to their New Hampshire home from a vacation in Vancouver, British Columbia. To escape the downpour, Rau left the interstate—and drove straight into the tornado. His wife, Rosemary Rau, 26, was found dead within the crushed automobile, and bodies of two of the couple's children—Belinda Ann, 7, and Alexander Byron, 4—were found nearby, sucked from the car and tossed by the twister. Another daughter, Melanie, 6, somehow survived, as did a friend of the children, Heather Pulminsano, 3, who was traveling with the Rau family.

Wrecked Toyota of the Rau Family (Grinnell Herald-Register Sep 21, 1978)
At first, it seemed that Lothar Rau, 28 years old, driver of the car and father to the children, was lost; many volunteers searched for the man, ranging far from the impact site both Saturday nite and for much of Sunday. Some drained a nearby lagoon, while others walked the several acres of farmland nearby. Overhead, an Iowa National Guard helicopter and an airplane of the Iowa State Patrol examined a wider area—all this without finding any trace of the missing man. For a time searchers even wondered whether Rau had been in the car when the tornado struck.
Cedar Rapids Gazette Sep 19, 1978
Then on Monday the unexpected happened: Rau was found among the hospitalized in Iowa City. Apparently when first discovered Saturday night, Rau had been incoherent, so that, when he was taken to the Grinnell hospital, officials understood him to say that his name was "Alberto Phonito," and had tagged him accordingly. Hospital records subsequently identified him by this name, so it was only on Monday when a nurse in Iowa City heard the man say—and spell—his correct name that the mistake was corrected.

As gratifying as this late development was, the many volunteers who converged on Grinnell to help clear out the flotsam of the storm confronted an eerily changed world. The motel seems to have escaped with the least damage, about half its rooms ruined when the storm pulled off portions of the roof. The Pester Derby and Skelly gas stations were both total losses, and the nearby Phillips 66 station, also home to a rental office for U-Haul, was badly damaged, and all 15 of the U-Haul trailers and 11 U-Haul trucks were lost, several twisted beyond recognition.
Aerial view of damage (Grinnell Herald-Register Sep 21, 1978)
Of course, the tornado changed more than the physical space; people's lives also changed. Families of the dead suffered the most immediate pain; those who were near and dear would never forget their encounter with the 1978 tornado and the lives that the twister stole.

The impact upon those who lived through the trauma was not so great, but neither was it trivial. The teenagers who were working at the service stations moved ahead in life, graduating from high school. Indeed, the 1979 Grinnell high school yearbook even featured the tornado on several pages, helping mark the graduates' timeline. Later these young people could pursue new dreams, although not without unknown risks. Leon Blankenfeld, for example, who had experienced the tornado from within the Standard service station, graduated from Grinnell High School in 1979, then went on to graduate from the University of Northern Iowa in 1983 before obtaining a graduate degree in engineering at the University of Iowa. Half a lifetime after surviving the Grinnell tornado, he was working for 3M in the Twin Cities, with little reason to call to mind his encounter with near death in 1978. Then, during an August, 1996 visit to a friend in northern Illinois, he fell victim to kidnap and murder, cruelly canceling out his earlier escape from the tornado.
Leon Blankenfeld, 1979 Grinnellian
Jerry Switzer, who owned and managed Motel Grinnell, rebuilt the facility and resumed business. Another ordeal awaited him, however, and cut short the story his life was writing: Jerry, just 47 years of age, died of cancer in 1984.

Reports of the tornado include frequent quotations from the operator of the Silhouette Restaurant, William Cafcules. Born in Chicago in 1915, Cafcules made a career out of operating night clubs and restaurants in the Chicago area and later in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. He and his wife had only moved to Grinnell in 1977—the year before the twister struck—to run the Silhouette. Whether because of the storm or other factors, by 1986 Cafcules had had enough—he retired and sold the business. He died in Grinnell in early December, 1997, perhaps never having had reason to recall that stormy September night that had ruined his business.

Among the injured, the future brought many different fates. Extant records indicate that some of the youngest victims quickly left the encounter with the cyclone behind them. Young Eddie Breeden, for example, just 15 years old and living with his parents on route 3 where his father ran Grinnell Feed and Grain, graduated from Grinnell High School in 1981 and stayed around Grinnell for a time. By 1994, however, the US Public Records Index places him in Woodbury, Tennessee.
Eddie Breeden, 1981 Grinnellian
Another young man among the injured was Scott Latcham, who graduated from Grinnell High School in 1982. He later lived for a time in Des Moines, but by 1999 was back in Grinnell, living on Chatterton Street. So far as the bare-bones records can tell, the '78 tornado was long forgotten.
Scott Latcham, 1982 Grinnellian
Catherine McCallum, who at the time of the tornado had only recently marked her 76th birthday, lived almost twenty more years before her death, January 6, 1997. Born in Monroe, Iowa, where she was finally put to rest, Eliza Catherine Stafford McCallum had grown up in Nebraska where she married and with her first husband farmed. The couple later moved to Iowa and in 1941 to Grinnell, where they divorced. In 1944 Catherine married again, and over the years worked at the Grinnell Shoe Factory, the Longhorn, and other Grinnell restaurants. At the time of the tornado she lived at 715 Pearl Street, and had been a widow already for twenty years. Her obituary did not mention the 1978 tornado, which seems to have caused hardly a ripple in her life story.

It was different with the Rau family that the tornado had decimated. Six-year-old Melanie lost her mother and two siblings; what did she think about this, and how did she deal with the loss? The sources mention her name only sporadically, staccato-like: in 1990 she was living in Martin, Michigan, perhaps attending college at one of the schools in the area. Later records find her living in Casselberry, Florida, just north of Orlando, but then her name drops from view.

It was evidently her father who first took Melanie to Florida, abandoning their Alstead, New Hampshire home sometime after the accident. Who could blame him? Born in Germany in 1949, Lothar Rau apparently entered the United States as a child, although I was not able to confirm his immigration or its date. Military records report that Rau did a four-year stint (1969-1973) in the Army, suffering a serious injury in Japan in 1971. According to his mother-in-law, who was interviewed at the time of the tornado, "part of [Rau's] skull had to be replaced with a plastic plate...and that was replaced [later] by a metal plate." Even before the tornado, therefore, Lothar Rau had plenty to deal with. But the deaths of his wife and two children along with the injuries that both he and his daughter sustained in Grinnell surely added a heavy load.

How did he cope? Perhaps the move to Florida was part of the recovery. Records show that he was living in Lake Park, Florida no later than 1993, and in 1995 he remarried, taking Wanda Joan Plank as his bride. But by 2009 he was dead, buried in the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth. Only 60 years old at the time of his death, Rau took to his grave several traumas, including, of course, the Grinnell tornado.
Someone driving south today from Grinnell on IA 146 toward US Interstate 80 will see a very different world from the one blown away by the 1978 tornado. The entire scene breathes a sense of normalcy that gives no hint of the devastation—physical and personal—that was visited upon this spot of land in September, 1978.