Inside Geneva: Every Student in Geneva Should See History Center's Roundtable on '30s and '40s

If there ever were something that fits into the category of "required" curriculum, Thursday's History Center program would be it. There are so many lessons to be learned.

As I watched Thursday night's roundtable discussion at the I couldn't help thinking how cool it would be if they could take this show on the road.

Inside Geneva schools.

The topic was Geneva during the '30s and '40s, and the four panelists simply told what it was like to live here during the Depression and war years. About 35 people attended, so it was a good-sized and rapt audience, but it's not hard to imagine a similar presentation as a school assembly at or or the .

The four panelists—Gene Jaeger, Caroline Simplson, Merritt King and Howard Smith—are all in their 80s and 90s, I would guess. And all of them have fascinating, vivid memories of Geneva and some of the most important times in American history.

The photos the History Center brought to the presentation sealed the understanding with a visual—sometimes even visceral—connection between the Geneva then and the Geneva now.

Those memories are an irreplaceable resource, more valuable than gold, and need to be shared, understood and appreciated by our generation and the next.

Gene Jaeger talked about the modes of transportation, from 13.5-cent gasoline to the rent-a-horse business in town to the "inter-urban" electric cars, some 30 and 40 feet long—"and a lot of car to get around a corner" like State and Bennett. He reviewed train transport and the Chicago & NorthWestern, which someone told him was plenty good in 1950s "but better in 1908," and the little-known airport that the electrician, Nort Averill, ran out on Averill Road.

He talked about routinely hitchhiking to school from Geneva to Aurora and the time he hitched a ride home from the East Coast, flat broke, when a generous truck driver kept him from going hungry.

Caroline Simpson remembered the Country Day School, at Western Avenue and South Street, where the Geneva Park District offices were when I was a kid and where a residence is today. It wasn't a one-room schoolhouse, but it was one school for a lot of Geneva students, regardless of grade level.

Caroline remembers her teachers' names, and legendary Geneva educator Vera Corey and, after seven or more decades, the sound of the bat connecting with the ball for the "greastest hit" in her schoolyard Field of Dreams.

Merritt King told us about the hobo camp, where Dryden Park is today. "You might think those were people you wouldn't want to associate with, but that's not true," he said. "They were distressed gentlemen, some had wives and children, and they changed my idea of hobos."

He still remembers bringing them eggs and bread he took from the ice box, and his mom serving some men food in the back yard, and the note his mother got six months later from one of the men who had made it to California, found work and thanked her for her generosity. "My mother cherished that card for the longest time," he said.

Howard Smith, a former Geneva mayor, remembers going to with cardboard in his shoes, put there by his mom to make them last a little longer in the Depression years, and sneaking into the Geneva movie theater through a coal bin because he couldn't afford the 10-cent movie price. He remembers a grown man, athletic and powerful, crying because "there's no jobs to be had" in 1937.

He brought to life images of Harry Hanson, who served either as Geneva's mayor or city attorney every year from 1927 to 1940 and helped shape the Third Street we know today.

At the end, Margaret Selakovich asked them all to answer a question similar to one many Geneva students are being asked on the 10th anniversary of 9-11. Where were you when you heard the news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

Gene Jaeger was home from college, listening to the Bears game on the radio, when play-by-play was interrupted by a tragic, world-changing news bulletin.

The phone rang at Caroline Simpson's home, and she answered it. She was still a child, and there was a get-together at their home, so she offered to take a message. The man on the phone was Jeff Wheeler. "Tell them the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor," he said. She relayed the message, not knowing what it meant.

Merritt King's outfit had won his post's basketball championship, which gave them the honor of playing the FBI's team. "We were getting beat pretty badly when they stopped the game and told us to go back to the base," he said.

Howard Smith was on a WMRO radio panel discussion, which was cut off about 20 minutes into the show. "I was mad as hell, so I got hold of the station manager ... and he was the one who told me," he said. "I wasn't mad anymore."


A final note

I know the History Center already does a lot in conjunction with Geneva schools and teaching local history to Geneva students, so I'm not suggesting they can or should do more—only that I wish more people, especially students, could see and hear and learn from the people who made the presentation come alive Thursday night.

Finally, this is a bit of a non sequitur, but it's worthy of note. Right now, Geneva is facing trying economic times, second only to the Depression era that panelists discussed Thursday—and the needs our help. It cannot survive without donations and public support.

And there is an easy way for you to do exactly that.

Stop by the History Center and pick up a Pocket Change cannister. Fill it up—with pennies, nickles, dimes, whenever you can spare the spare change—and return it in March.

With pennies, you can help to preserve Geneva memories more valuable than gold.

Geneva History Center November 04, 2011 at 06:33 PM
Thanks Rick. It was a wonderful program everyone should hear. In celebration of Geneva High School's anniversary (2001 I believe?) we did have a roundtable discussion in the high school auditorium with representatives of each decade talking about their experience at GHS and what it was like growing up in Geneva. Students from History classes came and listened and asked questions. It was such a nice connection of the generations. We need to consider doing something like that again. Also, thanks for the Pocket Change plug. We will be sending out more information in the coming months. State Bank of Geneva has agreed to be our official coin counter. When canisters are full people can bring it to the bank to be counted and deposited to a GHC account with a receipt given for tax purposes. The empty canister will be returned to the owner in hopes of a refill! All deposits will be used to rebuild the GHC Trust Fund which with tough economic times has not been able to grow along with our needs. We appreciate the community's support of keeping history alive! As our beloved Alden Odt once said, "Knowing your roots connects you to who you are. It's the best gift we can give future generations."
Rick Nagel (Editor) November 04, 2011 at 06:39 PM
This is great information! You need to blog more often, young lady!
Karen Phillips November 04, 2011 at 07:08 PM
Great story. My stepdad was a four year prisoner of WW 2 in the Philippines. The stories he could reveal were compelling. Only four survivors returned home. His stories of the strength of the human spirit to survive insurmountable odds was compelling. It helped us to put some everyday challenges into proper perspective. Yes, even political ones! Terry thanks for giving our students the opportunity to learn more about our community leaders and their invaluable memories. I intend to support the Geneva History Center today.
Geneva History Center November 04, 2011 at 09:59 PM
Karen backed up her word. She called the history center and made a donation over the phone. Thank you!!
Mary Bencini November 04, 2011 at 10:51 PM
Thanks for writing this great article, Rick. I wish I could have been there last night, but I had to be at the Geneva Academic Foundation fundraiser. I hope they repeat this program at the History Center. I also hope lots of people pick up a Pocket Change canister.
David Phyfer November 05, 2011 at 01:19 PM
The entire event was videotaped for the Geneva History Center archives and should be available for viewing next week.


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