Monday, October 31, 2011

A Father Traces His Son’s Every Move

William Stevens must have gotten the call in his office, for it was on business stationary that the route was recorded. The letterhead proclaimed in block letters: The Potomac Insurance Company of the District of Columbia.

At that point, it was probably no solace to that father that the company’s slogan, imprinted on the page itself, was “Absolute protection since 1831.” For this call was to tell a father what was to become of his son, enlisted in the Navy and on his way to face the enemy.

Will probably grabbed for the slip of paper, maybe out of nervous habit wanting to write down the specific details so he could track the every move of the ships that were to carry his precious cargo. Terse bullet points on the page, the hand scribbled out the names—first in a more certain form, noting places familiar and close to home, then becoming less certain as place names receded across the ocean toward unfamiliar destinations.

Virgin Islands to Solomons Md  – Boarded ship at Boston down coast to Norfolk – There to Key West Fla – Then to Panama thru canal – up coast to San Diego – to Frisco – to Pearl Harbor – to Marshall Islands – to Marianas (Saipan) then to Iwo Jima – to Legte – Okinawa

Though Will had five sons, this one—Frank—was the first to go to war.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Memorial to Put on my To-Do List

Now that I’ve introduced you to each of the sons of AgnesTully Stevens and her husband, William Stevens, there is one more person to mention: their lone daughter in the mix of these rambunctious boys, Mary Agnes Patricia. As the only daughter, Pat was the one Agnes looked to when it came time to pass on all the papers she had so carefully preserved of the family history.

In a way, I should be grateful for that. If it weren’t for Pat, perhaps I’d never have received the many letters, photos, record books and other memorabilia of the Chicago years of the Stevens and Tully families. Yet, I never met Aunt Pat and don’t even know what she looked like. Becoming the keeper of the records, she kept herself behind the lens of the camera, beyond the scope of many of the gathered papers. While I owe her so much, and while that debt drives me to wish to honor her memory, I have little to tell about her own life.

I do know that she was born in January, 1917, in Chicago, for online resources already include digital images of that decade’s records—incredibly, as I’ve found some of those online documents which belong to those yet living, pushing the envelope on respect for individual privacy. And of course I also know about her passing just before Thanksgiving in 2005. It’s what happened in that small dash between those two dates that I know the least.

I expect the only sister to five brothers would live a life somewhat out of the ordinary. In  a letter to their mom in 1966, her oldest brother complains, “I hope Pat gets back inside at work where she belongs. Is she some kind of a nut?” No telling what this sister was up to that elicited a comment like that.

And this was the daughter that prompted Agnes’s mother-in-law to advise, “I also hope that Pat has come to the age where she makes up her mind to save a certain sum every month, so she will have a bank account. What would she do if she were sick or injured and had to go to a hospital.

Whether she could just be considered active, or ahead of her time, I don’t know. I do know that she was an independent woman who did not marry until she was thirty-two. Her obituary mentions ten years’ work for Braniff and Delta Airlines, but I’m sure she had more activities to her credit than that mere decade.

And yet, some mementos from childhood offer the glint of hopes for an inspired life. She was evidently named after a nun, Sister Mary Patricia. A handwritten note on the back of a card labeled “The Christ Child Among the Lilies” reminded her of that spiritual heritage:

To my dear little Mary Patricia Stevens whose birthday is also the Feast Day of the pure Saint and Virgin Martyr Saint Agnes of Rome – 
Lovingly your namesake
Sister Mary Patricia

An invitation in 1950 for the Golden Anniversary of the Religious Profession of Sister Mary Patricia Dawson, R.S.M., of the Sisters of Mercy, among Pat’s papers gave a clue as to who her namesake actually was. The invitation was addressed from “St. Xavier’s College,” the first Mercy college in the world and one of Chicago’s earliest institutions of higher education. 

Sister Mary Patricia’s invitation coupled with that first note to her little namesake so many years before demonstrates a longstanding relationship between Pat’s mother and a woman devoted to their mutually-held ideals of education and religion. Perhaps Pat’s brother Ed’s desire to give his financial support to another Catholic university—Lewis—was an outgrowth of their mother’s example and relationship with Sister Mary Patricia.

Whatever that relationship might have been, it evidently included some link to a place called Mercy High School. Found in Pat’s papers was a tiny gold-sheathed item labeled inside, “Senior Annual ~ at the School ~ January 19th 1934.”

On the facing page was handwritten:
Francis Fish + Pat Stevens
Went to Siegalls after dance and reserved table for 16.
John – Andy
Bud – Scotty
Marge – Crowely
Marie – Gibson
Helen – Bosch
J. Sherlock
Fran + I came home at 4 bells
Had grand time

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Don’t Know Much About Gerry

Though I don’t know much about Frank, the fourth-born son of William and Agnes Tully Stevens, I know even less about his younger brother. Like Frank, Gerald Anthony Stevens met an early death and has been long gone from family life and family memories. I don’t think I even have a photograph of him as an adult. What I’ve learned about Gerry comes mostly from the few things the family has mentioned and from such far-removed items as the newspaper report of the fiery car wreck that claimed his life.

I figured that military duty was a part of Gerald Stevens’ life story, but I didn’t even have details on that—nor was I able to find records in the usual online places. Born in Chicago in 1930, Gerry was too young to have participated in the battles of World War II, but he died just outside Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, in the same way and near the same place where his brother Frank had lost his life eleven years before.

It wasn’t until I found an entry for Gerry in the Find A Grave website that I was able to determine his military involvement to any extent. There on his gravestone was the legend: “U.S. Air Force, Korea.” What active duty on the Pacific arena battlefield of World War II had been to Frank, the next decade’s conflict in Korea had been to his younger brother. As had happened to Frank, something about that experience brought Gerry back a different man.

The only tale of his military service that I knew of was that inferred by his obituary: membership in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and service as a past commander for Disabled American Veterans in both New Jersey and New Mexico. A mention of service in the Tularosa Police reserve was a reminder of the work of both his grandparents. Other than that, I can only imagine what went into the making of the man that Gerald Stevens became.

Oddly enough, it was through genealogy that I eventually met Gerald’s widow online. She was interested in that same pursuit as I, and had found me through a posting in a genealogy forum for the Ohio county where my mother-in-law was born. We emailed back and forth for a while, but then I lost track of her. When I subsequently received the many Tully and Stevens family papers I’m now cataloging, I was told that there was another collection to pass on to Gerald’s sons, but by then I knew no way to get in touch with them.

The internet is an amazing tool, but it sometimes has quirks. People mysteriously waft into our online lives and then as mysteriously drift away. I’d like to hope the system could bestow me such a favor once again in reconnecting with these missing relatives, but I’m afraid I know better. Perhaps that is why people sometimes recall that phrase, “lost in the ether,” when talking about the nether reaches of the internet. Vanished—yet still really out there, somewhere—these are people with whom we yearn to connect.

Perhaps that is just the feeling behind the call to family research, itself, too.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Different Direction

Seventeen years of births in one family provide a timeline full of changes, and a span from 1913 through 1930 does the same for world history. From the time of William and Agnes Tully Stevens’ firstborn son’s arrival in 1913, the family—as well as the rest of us—endured World War I, the Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism, the initial pre-war power-grabs of Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy, and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that heralded the Great Depression, all before Agnes’ baby boy became the occasion of the Stevens family’s last birth announcement in 1930. Understandably, childhood for firstborn John Kelly Stevens was vastly different from the zeitgeist influencing the early years of the last two sons born into that family.

Perhaps it was war itself that set the last two boys apart. So many times, it’s been said that those serving were “never the same” when they came home from the battlefield. That may well be why the story for the youngest two Stevens boys turned out differently for them. The only two in the family to serve in conflicts, Frank and Gerry had radically different adult lives than their older brothers.

In this brief overview of Will’s sons, today would be the day to discuss the fourth-born son, Francis Xavier Stevens, which I’ll do. Tomorrow, I’ll follow with a brief sketch of the baby brother, Gerald Anthony Stevens. I had been tempted to reverse the order owing to the considerable amount of material I’ve amassed on Frank, but think it will be better to visit that collection of his letters and photos as a separate series after completing introductions to the family. So, I’ll get back to more on Frank after discussing Gerry tomorrow, and then concluding with the only daughter Will and Agnes had.

Frank, like all his brothers, was a Chicago boy, born in 1924. Congenial, outgoing, with a likeable attitude mixed with flair and a sense of humor, Frank felt the call to enter the military when his formal schooling drew to a close. Enlisting in the navy in February of 1942, Frank set off on a training path that led from Norfolk, Virginia, on the USS Ariel (AF-22) to St. Thomas of the Virgin Islands, and ultimately to the Pacific, where he served as a Pharmacist’s Mate aboard the USS LCI (L) 707. While I found documentation for these ships and locations through, I also am now transcribing letters from Frank to his mother that detail these same steps.

Once the war was over, Frank soon was serving in the newly-formed United States Air Force. Despite taking the time to find and marry a bride near the Ohio home of his aunt, Mary Monica Tully McGonagle, he found himself assigned to a post in England, where his young wife followed him, and where his first two children were born.

Upon return to the States, Frank eventually settled in the town by Holloman Air Force Base, although the family moved a few years later to Albuquerque. In civilian life, Frank followed the path of his father before him—perhaps due to that innate knack in sales—and became a regional sales representative. Whether it was the odds of spending so many hours on the road, or perhaps something inside from those war years that still drove him, Frank met an early end in a late-night single-car wreck on the side of a New Mexico highway when he was forty-one. He left four children, the youngest of whom was only five, to mourn the loss.

The long absence of someone who would have otherwise participated in the rites of grandparenthood in these last few years gives this man an aura of one belonging to a prior generation. Long separated from those closest to him, he becomes a shattered memory, pieced together by photographs or letters. As if researching a great-grandfather of our own, we come to know him only by reading between the lines on those tokens he’s left behind.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Preserving the Family Legacy

In moving through this brief tour of the sons of William Stevens and Agnes Tully, when we come to the middle, it calls for a time to pause and reflect on what it means to preserve one's family history. Family heritage is not merely something tangible that we simply pass along on paper; it is a living, breathing entity embodied and kept alive by everything that every member of the family becomes. That, I suppose, is a thought I learned from getting to know Uncle Ed.

Will and Agnes’s middle son, arriving in the family in 1921, was Edward Joseph Stevens. With two brothers older than he, and likewise two younger, Ed perhaps discovered some sort of balancing factor in being the one in the middle. Personable as were his grandfathers—both noted at times to have a flair in interpersonal relationships—and taking after both his parents in proficiency in sales, Ed became a graduate of a recently-established Lasallian university not far from his Chicago home. Lewis University later became not only his alma mater, but that of the next Stevens generation, and building the scholarship fund became part of Ed’s passion right up to the point of his passing, when the suggestion of donations was even included in his obituary.

A successful career that included the perks of travel made for many interesting stories during family gatherings, but what I remember enjoying the most was sitting at the kitchen table and absorbing his every detail about family history as he laid out notebooks, copies of letters and other memorabilia regarding generations long-past. From what I see now in the collected papers of his mother, Agnes Tully Stevens, Ed must have become the unofficial heir to Agnes’ role as family historian. Many of the details he passed along to me during visits either to his lifelong hometown of Chicago or mine in California I now find in their original form in his mother’s own notes.

It wasn’t only genealogical notes that Ed passed along. Along with the love of his life, whom he married in 1941, he passed along a strong sense of family values. Together, the couple passed along this ethic in the many activities in which they were involved, whether on the behalf of their family of six children and its extension through the next two generations, or through their church and community involvement. I’ve learned a lot over the years in the unspoken lessons taught by the thoughtful actions of this couple.

Being interested in one’s roots was not the end product of Ed’s efforts, but part of a package of caring for the people that family represented. Oh, how much I would have liked to present Ed with a well-documented report of the specific origin of his Irish surnames, but that was not to be, as I found out at the end of summer six years ago. That, however, would not really be the point. While I benefited much from his record-keeping and record-preservation, that was far outclassed by what I observed about his commitment to family and faith. He and his wife were the glue that held that family together and inspired them to go on and become the same influencers for their own family units. The whole big picture of what that heritage meant to him became the legacy he and his wife passed along to others, and I’m glad to have received a small part of that inspiration.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

About Bill

William Henry Alfred Stevens never did care for one part of his name, and when it came time to consider naming his second son after himself, he saw to it that the egregious element did not become such a burden to his namesake. Thus, Will’s second-born son became known as William Alfred Stevens. Though it originated as a name passed down in honor of his father’s brother, William Henry Stevens, the “Henry” simply would have to go.

In time, Will’s son became simply, “Bill.” Born in Chicago in 1915—almost to the day two years younger than his brother John—Bill eventually followed his older brother’s footsteps in settling in southern California. But not before marrying his bride, Maxine Esther Novy of St. Louis, on the very day of his parents' twenty-eighth wedding anniversary, did he head west to follow his career path as a newspaper reporter.

Hardworking, diligent, it is no surprise that Bill and Maxine’s three children followed in their footsteps by becoming professional and business people in their own right. One son, perhaps following a different path, eventually sought to move closer to his family’s Midwestern origin and replicated his token to his Irish roots as the founder of “Tully’s,” named in honor of his great-grandfather, John Tully, and designed as a replica of an Irish pub, set in a small Catholic town in Kansas.

Bill and Max remained in southern California for the rest of their lives, Bill finishing his course in 1980, his wife following soon after in 1985. My regret in never having had the chance to get to know them is what inspires me to pursue whatever opportunity I find to learn more about this couple.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Another John Kelly Stevens

In taking the time to do a quick overview of the sons of William and Agnes Tully Stevens, I’ll start at the logical point: the beginning.

There is certainly something to be said for the firstborn. As far back as the ancient book of Genesis, the patriarch Israel said of his own firstborn son, “you are my firstborn, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power.”

That sentiment was even codified into Jewish law: “giving [the firstborn son] a double share of all he has. That son is the first sign of his father’s strength. The right of the firstborn belongs to him.”

I don’t know what William Stevens thought of his firstborn son, but chances are pretty high that he was right proud of his boy. At the same time, Will wanted to honor his father, and his firstborn son that made Will’s father, John Kelly Stevens, a grandfather also became that grandfather’s namesake.

The younger John Kelly was born in Chicago on April 21, 1913, a respectable ten months following his parents’ marriage. What was interesting to me about this birth—and I’ll share the story in more detail in a later post—was that the doctor delivering the baby was Agnes’ own brother-in-law. The good doctor’s wife, knowing that her husband’s brother in Ohio had unexpectedly become a widower with two young children, had played matchmaker and was the inspiration behind Agnes’s sister Mary Monica Tully moving from the big city to the outback of Perry County, Ohio, to wed Dennis Austin McGonagle. That story, as we’ll see when we discuss Will’s younger son Frank, was to have repercussions that affected not one but two generations.

I don’t know much about the younger John Kelly Stevens except that, as an adult, he somehow made his way from his hometown of Chicago to an out-of-the-way town in central California called Porterville, where he worked, raised his family, retired and lived until his passing on February 25, 1997. It was only a few years before that when I had the privilege of meeting him and his family.

The man was a letter writer, judging from the letters saved by his mother, Agnes. Given the distance between his hometown and his chosen residence and considering that in that time period—even those later years—it was still more common to write than to “reach out and touch” with an expensive long-distance phone bill, this comes as no surprise.

John would tell his mom of visits with his brother, Bill, who lived not far away in southern California, or of his work at the school. Toward the later years, he would talk of the constant exhaustion he’d feel during the school year. A letter just before Christmas in 1970, when he was fifty-seven, started out:

Last day of school today and I’m bushed. We’ve had something going day and night for a couple of weeks now and the Christmas assembly this a.m. for the high school was the last program this year. The Christmas concert…last night was very good but I was too tired out to enjoy it. Hope there isn’t too much to do the next two weeks.

For all the exhaustion he felt at work when he was in his late fifties, he remained in fairly good health and lived a full life of nearly eighty-four years.

He and his wife had two sons, were active in church and community life, and despite the distance from his Chicago family, he was conscientious about keeping in touch with his mom until her passing in 1985.

Though studying family members closer to the present may not be considered genealogy, I still want to know more about Agnes’ children and how the things that were important to her were passed down to the current generation through her children. In wondering about that, I realized that I don’t even know much about these people I’ve been able to meet in this family. On the other hand, in publishing tales of our families’ roots, it requires a deft hand to negotiate the proper balance between the right of privacy and accurate representations that honor the memory of these individuals. For these reasons, I want to be careful in honoring the names of those no longer with us while omitting the names of those still living.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Will’s Boys

In their nearly thirty-four years of marriage, William Stevens and his bride, the former Agnes Tully, raised six children—five of them boys. I never met three of those sons, so it was interesting to find pictures among their mother’s and sister’s collections to share—pictures introducing me to them in the prime of their lives, and even, for the younger ones, during their childhood.

Take this informal outdoor shot, for instance, probably taken some time in the late 1930s. Lined up at the request of an elder, no doubt, most likely during a family occasion or church event, are four of the five boys. John, the eldest, is to the left, making quite a contrast to his youngest brother, Gerry, next to him. Next-to-youngest brother Frank stands alongside Gerry. The line is completed by second-born child, Bill. The only one missing from this group is their brother, Ed, the fourth-born child, third of the sons, whom you’ve already met.

Will and Agnes were married in 1912, and with the arrival of their firstborn began a stretch of seventeen years between oldest son and youngest. Having such a span of ages within one family makes for a wide spread of experiences and observations about family life (and the current events encircling them), which I’m savoring now as I read through old family letters. Each son following his own path leaves such a variety of details about choices that have turned into the heritage each of their families now hold.

With the exception of the second-born, ironically it was the two youngest of the set that I never met. Sometimes, the legacy left behind for family is bittersweet.

Every one of them, now, no longer is with us. While too close to the present to qualify as “genealogy,” I’d like to take some time to remember—and honor—each of those five sons during this week.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Happy Birthday, Will

It’s been 127 years since William Alfred Stevens was born on this day in Fort Wayne. However, since we’ve been talking about Will, his father John Kelly Stevens, and Agnes Tully Stevens and Theresa Blaising Stevens, the two women in their lives, it seemed timely to add this postscript—and to remember these four people, not as we left them at the end, but as they were in their hearts from the prime of their lives.

Will evidently had a lifetime of remembering his step-mother, Theresa. She remembered forlornly in one of her last letters to her daughter-in-law Agnes how she missed his calls in the afternoons. But even in the beginning of his adult life, Will made a point of contacting her.

Dated June 14, 1912, only two days after Will and Agnes were married, and postmarked from Rome City, Indiana, came this postcard, probably the first of many such contacts between the Stevens household in Chicago and that of his parents. While greeting both Mother and Dad, the card was actually addressed to Mrs. J. K. Stevens.

Dear Mother + Dad:

This is a delightful place for a good rest. We are the only guests at this hotel. Hope you had a nice trip home— Will see you Saturday.

Love—from Agnes and Will 

Saturday, October 22, 2011


So now the story’s told of a bit of the life of the step-mother of Will and Katie Stevens. As if they were close enough to be blood relatives, Theresa Blaising Stevens died in a Chicago hospital of the very same thing that had claimed her step-son Will a year prior: coronary thrombosis.

Theresa’s last journey started in Chicago, where she passed away at St. Bernard’s hospital, and was completed four days later when she was laid to rest next to her husband, John Kelly Stevens, in the mausoleum at the Catholic Cemetery in Fort Wayne on July 28, 1947. That simple trip reunited her with her husband, but separated her by 160 miles from the one she loved as her own son.

Ironically, while she was separated by the miles from the one child she raised, the very one who became so estranged from her—her step-daughter Catherine Louise—was buried not far from Theresa in the exact same cemetery, alongside her husband, Frederick J. Stahl. She died seven days shy of seven years after Theresa’s passing. 

Whether Catherine ever took the opportunity to resolve the hard feelings that separated her from the rest of the Stevens family, I’ll never know. That rift may have remained frozen in time, an invisible yet tangible barrier displacing what could have been, had the opportunity been taken when it was afforded them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Not Grey or Brown

On this last slip of paper enclosed with the letter from Theresa Blaising Stevens to her daughter-in-law, Agnes Tully Stevens, Theresa outlines her final wishes. She provides details of what she has already attended to for her burial plans, and gives directions for Agnes to take care of what she, at this time, cannot complete.

Undertaker is

Mungovan an Sons
Donal J. Mungovan
Harrison 2114
2114 South Calhoun St.

There is a box in the top dresser drawer in my bedroom off the dining room that has all my things in to be laid out in. Drawers, slip, stockings, and rosary and the receipt to the cript in Mausaleum which is paid for on only $20.00 will be charged for the inscription on marble slab, and I want slippers and a nice dress but I not want grey or brown. Navy blue or black.

If this last piece of paper in the package, cut from the same stationary but to a smaller size, did indeed come with the letter written on June 30, 1946, it predated Theresa’s passing by little more than a year. While she was so careful to attend to her own burial plans, there were some changes which she couldn’t possibly have anticipated. For one, Mungovan and Sons, though a well-known undertaker in Fort Wayne serving many Stevens and Kelly family members including Theresa’s own husband’s funeral in 1929, did not end up providing the services for which she had paid them. According to her obituary, the Ankenbruck-Imler Funeral Home was in charge.

That change might possibly be related to the events of her last days. Theresa, who a year prior had worried about what was to become of her after her step-son Will’s death considering the estrangement between her and the step-daughter, did indeed end up dying in a hospital—not in Fort Wayne, though, but in Chicago. I don’t know whether her four month’s visit to Agnes was planned as a vacation or as a last residence, but at some point toward the end, she was admitted to St. Bernard’s Hospital there, where she died the evening of July 24, 1947. Her body was returned to her hometown of Fort Wayne, where she was buried alongside her husband, John Kelly Stevens, in the mausoleum of the Catholic Cemetery.

A weekend issue of the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette published her obituary:

            "Funeral services will be held Monday for Mrs. Theresa Stevens, 81, lifelong resident of Fort Wayne who died at 5 p.m., Thursday at St. Bernard's Hospital in Chicago. She had gone to visit her step-daughter-in-law, Mrs. Agnes Stevens, in Chicago four months ago.
            "She formerly lived at 1519 Oakland Street. Her husband, John, died in 1929. Surviving are Mrs. Stevens; a step-daughter, Mrs. Fred Stahl, Fort Wayne; six grand-children; and seven great grand-children.
            "Services will be held at 8:30 a.m. Monday at the Ankenbruck-Imler Funeral Home and at 9 a.m. at the Most Precious Blood Church, the Rev. S. J. Kremer officiating. Burial will be in the Catholic Cemetery. Friends may call at the funeral home after 2 p.m. Sunday."

While no mention was made of any surviving Blaising siblings—and there may not have been any, as Theresa was the baby of that family—I am sure that her daughter-in-law and as many family members as possible were there to honor her in her passing. The tokens of Agnes Tully Stevens’ care for her husband’s step-mother—the high masses given in her name, and the fact that Agnes kept these mementos among her personal papers all these years—testify to her esteem for the bonds of family.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Keep This in a Safe Place

For all intents and purposes, the letter from Theresa Blaising Stevens to her Chicago daughter-in-law, Agnes Tully Stevens, must have ended with the fourth page, although the last few words seemed to indicate she had more to say. Whatever that “more” might have been is not evident from the rest of the package, though, as the remaining two pages were on a piece of the same type of paper, but cut to a different size. Something cut out? I’ll never know.

Here is what the next page shows:

Lawyers name is

Judge James O. Ballou
312 Standard building
200 block of East Berry St.

Sylvesters address is
Sylvester C. Blaising
636 West Fourth St
Ft. Wayne – Ind.
            keep this in a safe place
Sylvester, Theresa’s nephew that she discussed in the part of the letter that I posted Tuesday, was indeed at the address she gave. A copy of his World War II registration card showed that same location.

As for the judge—an unexplained entry only mentioned at this point—I had to do some additional sleuthing. At first, I wasn’t sure from the handwriting whether the last name was Ballou or Ballon. However, finding a couple entries for a lawyer by the name of James O. Ballou, entered into practice in Fort Wayne July 27, 1934, as a graduate of Indiana University law school, I presumed I found my man. And there was, indeed, a “Standard Building” on East Berry Street in Fort Wayne, although I’ve read that the name was changed from the “Elektron Building.” It appears that, even today, the building houses some attorneys’ offices.

Whatever the building might be called, its location on one of the main streets in downtown Fort Wayne with proximity to a courthouse and city hall, and its purpose of housing those employed in legal affairs, gives a hint that the end to Theresa’s somber musings on the previous page of her letter was not merely thought without action. The final page of her package, which I'll share with you tomorrow, will show more details.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Price of Butter in Fort Wayne

The war had been over for just about a year, but Agnes Tully Stevens’ son Frank was still serving his country. Perhaps that is why Theresa Blaising Stevens’ mind turns to him as she runs down the list of questions as to the family’s wellbeing in her June 1946 letter to her daughter-in-law.

Actually, I’m not even sure where Francis X. Stevens was at that point—and he was my father-in-law. I do know that he had been stationed aboard a ship in the Pacific, and if his brother John (actually another John Kelly Stevens, named after his grandfather) had moved his family to California about that time, perhaps that was a logical place for Frank to stop on his way back home. I do know that Frank made it to Chicago before 1949, for that is when a chance visit to his Tully relatives in rural Ohio occasioned the moment he met his bride-to-be—but that is a story for another time. Whether he made it home to Chicago in time for his father’s funeral is something I don’t, at this point, know.

John’s son, Larry, was just about old enough to start school, which is possibly why Theresa was so concerned about where in his new neighborhood he would enroll his son. As for great-grandmother Theresa, the choice was obvious.

I am presuming that both “Patsy” and “Pat” refer to Agnes’ only daughter, Mary Agnes Patricia Stevens—who, incidentally, became the keeper of Agnes’ personal papers up until the time of her own death, to whom I owe much gratitude for being able to access these wisps of family memories.

As far as who Virginia Guttermuth is, I have no idea; probably an acquaintance of Pat—although, considering that Pat didn’t marry until she was over thirty, I’m not sure this comment by Theresa is intended as a dig, or a mere snarky commentary on the ostentatiousness of a mutual acquaintance’s quirks. At any rate, Virginia was nowhere to be found on online resources for historical records. Come to think of it, hearing that Pat had a lawsuit in the works makes me want to research that angle further, too.

The grocery rundown in the second paragraph gives a little insight into postwar living conditions in the Midwest, swirled together with perhaps a little cultural diversity from Theresa’s youth, when the household she belonged to harkened back to a more Old World flavor. Whatever her opinion about “too fresh” bread, I loved the comment about her “margrine” too much to edit the misspelling.

I hope you have heard from Frank by this time and that he is over his cold. Do you hear from John. I don’t know why he don’t write to me. I am so glad he has a nice place and hope he will be able to keep it and prosper. I do hope he sticks to his church and will be able to send Larry to a catholic school. By the way tell Patsy that Virginia Guttermuth is engaged to be married. She is 25 years old now. She shows her ring to everybody. Has Pat ever heard from her lawsuit yet. I hope she gets a nice sum out of it.

I am wondering what you folks are cooking those days. Isn’t it awful. Do you get any meat at all. We can’t buy a bit only a little bacon now and then. I don’t care for fresh meat or for any kind in hot weather so I can get along very well, all other things are climbing up. Butter (64 cts) but I eat margrine. I like it better and can put it on as thick as I want to. I eat a lot of bread. I separate the slices on my white enameled tray and overlap each slice and put two bread papers over it, then set on the pantry shelf so it won’t get mouldy. I like it a little dry as too fresh is not so good. I do not worry about what to eat today. In fact—I haven’t anything but bacon, but it is so hot I don’t feel like I want any thing but bread and milk. Get milk every other day. I am sorry I did not buy Mrs. Batter’s frigidare. Haven’t been able to get ice yet, and my milk gets sour the next day, then have to drink coffee black. It is getting cloudy. I think will have a storm, tried to rain since last Thursday, lightning and thunder but no rain. I want to write a line to Ed x Mutzie. She sent the children’s picture. I won’t be able to take this to mail box by (3.30) p.m. So will give it to mail man Monday. Agnes when you write

And that is the end of the letter. In her characteristic way, Theresa runs her ink to the edge of the paper—no pristine margins, here—and stops only when she runs out of room. Her last words, struck out, seem to indicate a fifth page would follow. There were two more pages, which I’ll share with you in subsequent posts, but these were oddly cut, though of the same paper, and not in the same vein as the body of the letter. I have no way to know whether any specific segments were removed before the letter was saved. But with no sign-off, and such an abrupt end, it seems there should be more.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

An Old Lady Thinking of Her Future

There seems to be a missing element in this letter from Theresa Blaising Stevens that gives the writer the affect of being somewhat absent-minded—unless, of course, she is merely following the script of a letter that had been written to her. In that case, her answers here may provide clues as to what the instigation was in the missing message from her daughter-in-law, Agnes Tully Stevens of Chicago. With the exception of her angst over what will become of her in her old age, by page three of Theresa’s letter from her home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, she seems mostly to have settled down to routine replies about the welfare of her grown grandchildren.

Bill, for instance, refers to Agnes’ second-born son, who by the time of this letter had celebrated his seven-year anniversary with his bride, the former Maxine Esther Novy, and had just welcomed his own third-born—his namesake—a few weeks earlier. Edward refers to Agnes’ fourth child, Bill’s next-younger brother, five years into his own marriage and expecting his third child in a matter of weeks; I’ve already introduced him as our revered “Uncle Ed.” Pat, the lone daughter inserted in this all-boy mix between brothers Bill and Ed, though approaching thirty, herself, had yet to be married and still lived with Agnes, though she evidently provided enough action to concern her mother and, by extension, elicit some sage parental advice from her grandmother.

That’s the simplified overview for the second part of this page from Theresa’s letter to her daughter-in-law. The first half of this page, however, requires more detailed explanation, and delves into Theresa’s own roots. The pathos of her thoughts regarding what would possibly become of her in the near future is compounded by the fact that she had no children of her own. Her one step-son, who evidently cared much for her, was now gone. The one remaining step-child, unfortunately, was not on good terms with her, despite living close enough to be able to make a difference. In concern for her own future, Theresa had to reach farther out in the family circle.

Here’s how she put it. We’ll continue with the last lines of the previous page, to provide continuity, and also leave the overwritten “I” from this page’s initial word as a small “i,” as it seems clearer to continue the previous sentence with “if” as the conditional term for taking her house.

I only wish they were different towards you all, because if anything happens to me, it would make things better for all. I always wanted to have Will and you come and take possession of house if I were sick and if you went home and I was in the hospital, to see that things and doors were locked and window blinds down and all that stuff, and then give the keys to Sylvester Blaising as I don’t want Katie to have them. Of course if it were winter the water would have to be all drained and toilets drained, then I don’t know what you would do, unless Aunt Emma Kelly would take you a few days. If it is summer time then any of you can stay in the house as long as you want to stay, but don’t give her the keys. She would run every-thing and would have every-thing. If I only could sell and dispose of things and sell this house and get a small house of about four rooms near church, there was a small house right next to Sylvester’s, only ½ block from church, and only about seven years old, sold about two months ago, but I did not know it was for sale. Celia said she did not know it until it was sold for ($6.500). I did not like the appearance of outside, there was no porch, and was a south frontage, but had venetian blinds and was insulated. Celia said it was darling inside, only five rooms and basement was just swell. I am glad Bill is getting a home of his own. Is this place near you. I figure it is, when you said it was (5925) but you did not say Eggleston. I only wish Edward could find a place also, so they would not have to pay rent, and have nothing but rent receipts at the end of the year. I also hope that Pat has come to the age where she makes up her mind to save a certain sum every month, so she will have a bank account. What would she do if she were sick or injured and had to go to a hospital. Agnes you could not keep up and pay her bills. She ought to take out a big insurance and sick benefit.

Instead of being able to rely on her step-daughter in town (Katie) for help in her worsening health condition, Theresa appeals first to Agnes, her step-son’s recently bereaved wife, miles away in Chicago, and then to her in-town nephew, Sylvester. To set her own mind at ease, Theresa proposes a plan that also has a fall-back option for Agnes.

So, who is this Sylvester? Let’s take a brief historical tour through Theresa’s own family. Apparently, Theresa was the baby of a large family that emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine at about both the time of her birth and that of her father’s death. The 1870 U.S. Census showed the family, minus the father, settled in New Haven, a small town in Allen County, Indiana.

In the tradition of some religious families of French heritage, Theresa’s several brothers were all baptized with the first given name of “Jean.” In their new homeland, they quickly Americanized that name to “John” which still causes some problems in research. By 1880, the census showed Theresa in the home of one such brother John, probably that of Jean Pierre, as that was the “John” that was married to Amelia, the wife showing in that census record.

That John, however, was not the father of the Sylvester we are seeking. Sylvester’s father was evidently another John—Jean Baptiste—whose second wife, Catherine Peltier, was Sylvester’s mother. The woman mentioned in Theresa’s comment about the smaller house—Celia—was Sylvester’s wife, the former Cecelia C. Parr.

That leaves one more explanation owing about this letter: that of the referral to Aunt Emma Kelly. I’ve already mentioned that Agnes’ husband, Will, was the son of Catherine Kelly of Fort Wayne. Catherine had four siblings: one sister and three brothers. Patrick was next-to-youngest of this bunch, the first in the family born after their arrival in the United States from Ireland in 1869. Patrick, deceased by the time of this letter, had in 1900 married a young widow from Logansport, Indiana, and adopted her infant son Frederick, subsequently adding seven more children (including the not-famous Emmett Kelly I’ve already written about) to their family. As you’ve probably deduced by now, Emma was that young widow.

A chatty letter this page mostly was—with the “catty” exception as Theresa belabored the point about her step-daughter—it demonstrated once again the tightly-knit fabric of this woman’s extended family tapestry.

Monday, October 17, 2011

About “She”

Without so much as mentioning the woman’s name at first, Theresa Blaising Stevens reveals some between-the-lines family history regarding her step-daughter in her letter to her daughter-in-law in Chicago, Agnes Tully Stevens. As I’ve mentioned before, Agnes’ recently deceased husband, William Stevens, had an older half-sister. Both this half-sister and Will were raised by their stepmother, Theresa, in the family home in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Before continuing with the transcription of the second page of Theresa’s letter to Agnes, a little explanation is necessary to round out the picture on this half-sister, Catherine Louise Stevens Stahl. While you already know that Catherine’s mother died shortly after the birth of a younger sister who also passed away, there are a few more details to Catherine’s life story. Of course, I don’t know enough of them to fairly provide “the rest of the story” from this young woman’s point of view, but I’ll give you what I do know up to this point.

Following the tragic start to Catherine’s early years, home life must have stabilized somewhat for the child, as her father married Theresa when the girl was not yet seven. I have found nothing further on her young life of significance until the point of her marriage when she was nearly twenty seven.

Catherine married Frederick James Stahl, a machinist and shop foreman for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Fort Wayne. This railroad connection may have been another outgrowth of Catherine’s affinity for William’s deceased mother’s Kelly family, some of whom also worked, at one time, for the same shop. The wedding breakfast following their marriage ceremony, for instance, was hosted at the home of Mrs. P. H. Phillips—Will’s Aunt Mary Kelly Phillips, sister of his deceased mother, and wife of one of Frederick’s fellow railroad workers.

The August 21, 1907, newspaper account of the Stahl-Stevens wedding, though surely inflated with the usual hyperbole, painted the couple as “very popular” with a “wide circle of friends.” The bride, described in the article as “a young woman of great beauty and charm,” wed a man in this Cathedral ceremony “much liked on account of his genial nature.”

And yet, the Journal Gazette article mentioned that the ceremony, “in accordance with the wishes of the bride,” would be “a very quiet affair.” Perhaps this was owing to a tragedy which had only recently befallen the Stahl family: the death of Frederick’s brother, Charles Sylvester Stahl. Better known to Boston Red Sox fans as their star outfielder Chick Stahl, the man had fallen from his glory days of having hit three triples for his team in the 1903 World Series to a silent personal agony left unrevealed to the moment of his suicide five months before his brother Frederick’s wedding.

A brief newspaper mention, just after the New Year in 1910, described another less-than-jovial event: Catherine was “recovering rapidly from the effects of an operation” and “will soon be able to be removed to her home.” Though I have no idea what the nature of that surgery was, I’ve wondered if it might have been the cause of Fred and Katie’s childless home—was it by their choice or owing to medical difficulties that this was their situation?

Almost exactly a year later, it was Catherine's husband, Fred, who was home, recuperating. He had been injured at work. Considering the risk of railroad-related occupations of that time period, I have no idea how serious Fred’s injury was, but I do know, for instance, that the Mrs. P. H. Phillips who had so graciously hosted the young couple’s wedding reception suddenly met widowhood in 1912, owing to her own husband’s injuries while working for the railroad.

From that point, the narrative goes blank as to further events in their lives before the date of Theresa’s letter. Whether it was a point of contention that caused the family rift, or a long series of misunderstandings, as sometimes happens in home life, I have no further clue as to Catherine’s estrangement from the ones she could call her family.

I’ll pick up Theresa’s correspondence where we left off yesterday, at the beginning of the second page, so you may see for yourself.

Yes Agnes I feel like you. I don’t think he needs many prayers but we will continue to pray for him, in case he would need them. I feel so lonesome when I think I don’t have a line from him any more. It was nice you had eight more masses to send to Fr. Kemper. She surely was very tight and very small to only give one Mass. One dollar to her only brother. I surely can’t figure them people out. She called me up last Wednesday eve about seven o’clock and said how are you, and all in one sentence said my isn’t it hot. I said yes it was and I wanted to get out of this hot kitchen onto the porch, and she hung on and on. I can read her like a book. She thinks I will say if I heard from you folks and what you said. I used to tell her when I would hear from Will or you and always tell how Will was, but I have cut it out. She never asks me if I heard from you and how are you getting along. So I think if she can’t at least ask, it is none of her affairs about how things. I bet they have hashed things over and wondered this and that, and how much Insurance and all you got or if Will had any. I don’t tell her a thing. They are so tight mouthed about their own affairs. How often they could have taken a few eats and took an early Sunday train up to see Will, when they have a pass. Even Katie could have run up now and then, the way she did when it was too late to even say Will, I am sorry for this or that. I only wish they were different towards you all, because if anything happens to me, it would make things better for all. I always wanted to have Will and you come and take possession of house

At that, Theresa runs out of space on the page, and without punctuation here, continues on the next page, though correcting herself by capitalizing the next word as if beginning a new thought.

I am presuming “when they have a pass” may refer to something similar to the benefits enjoyed by today's airline employees, who may access free or next-to-nothing travel as part of work agreements. As Katie’s husband was a lifelong employee of a major rail carrier of the time, she evidently had such an opportunity, so it wasn’t cost of travel that held her back from visiting her ailing half-brother. Why Theresa thinks apologies might be in order has been left unexplained. But that there was a rift in the family is evident, as will be further seen as the letter continues tomorrow.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Theresa’s Letter: Just Warming Up

Knowing what you now know about John Kelly Stevens and his family woes, I’ll begin posting the rather lengthy letter from John’s widow, Theresa Blaising Stevens, which she wrote her daughter-in-law, Agnes Tully Stevens, over the course of one Sunday on June 30, 1946.

Regardless of all the information on this family that I’ve already divulged, the letter will still need some explanation. There is a lot to read between the lines, once you know the splat of the situation. I’m not only transcribing the letter, but also posting a scanned copy of the actual document, so you can get a flavor of this woman’s personality and condition as you see her handwriting for yourself.

I had to strike a balance between sensible editing and a hands-off policy when manners of speaking let her personality shine through. I tampered with some obvious misspellings, but only after my own internal struggle regarding how to present Theresa. While Theresa was most likely raised an English-speaking child, you have to consider that she was brought to America as a toddler and resided throughout her childhood in a household for which English was a second language. Perhaps that is why some of her expressions seem stilted—although I am tempted to attribute some of the other idiosyncrasies not to language barriers but to aspects of personality or condition.

There is an element of “old” and “crotchety” in her meanderings in this letter, although her occasional unusualness in self-expression may be more attributable not to the fits and starts of a now-petering-out affect of the aged, but to the shining-through of a still-enduring personality powered by pizzazz. Or perhaps it is just a jumble of all three possibilities.

Whatever it is, I’ll just let Theresa be Theresa and you can judge for yourself:

Dear Agnes and all the family,

It is now nine a.m. and it sure is hot. I went to (6:30) Mass, and was glad to get home again at 7:30. A lady brought me home in her old jalop of a car. The covers on seats are all rags, and you can hear the car coming a block away, but it is better than walking. I could hardly walk down, I feel like my breath is being choked and that my chest is growing together, I can hardly get my breath, then my feet and leg are in bad condition to walk to church, so I am glad to ride home in any old vehicle.

I do hope your knees are better this hot weather. It must be awful painful to be on them, but of course it is better to exercise them than to be sitting and no exercise at all. I am so sorry you have such a time getting the business in shape again. Poor Will, I suppose he was so sick he forgot a lot of things. It seems funny. When I stand in my pantry and say my meal prayers, (I eat in pantry) I notice my-self always looking out of window towards west to Chicago and over trees, and all at once my mind seems to see the cemetery and poor Will’s grave. It happens every day. I am glad that our dear Lord took him out of his suffering, as long as he could not get better. It would be terrible to have to lie in bed this hot weather and then also suffer all night and day. God rest his poor soul. (over)

Theresa wrote this letter, which I'll continue tomorrow, from her last residence at 1519 Oakland Street in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a comfortable though modest home on a tree-shaded street not far from the downtown area where her husband had worked for so many years. By now, you've probably figured out that "Will" refers to William Stevens, Theresa's stepson, who died in Chicago on May 10, 1946, almost two months prior to this letter and most certainly the instigation of the thoughts Theresa poured out on these pages. "Poor Will's grave" that Theresa saw in her mind's eye was located at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery near Chicago in a little town full of cemeteries known as Evergreen Park.

I have yet to obtain Will's death certificate, so I don't know what caused his passing or the suffering that Theresa mentioned. As to the unattended business details, by the time of the 1930 U.S. Census, Will had been listed as a Real Estate broker, although he had earlier sales experience in other industries, and this later business may have been in a different line of work, too. Whatever field he was involved in, his wife Agnes, herself a capable business woman and at one time a licensed insurance agent, was certainly up to the task of continuing the work.

The letter displays an overarching tone of deep empathy for Theresa's stepson's condition. Her daily thoughts of Will betray a concern well outside the realm of the stereotypical cast of stepmother, and make me wish I knew more of this different type of mother-son relationship. Theresa, after all, was the "only mother he ever knew," as I've been reminded by family members who've shared this history with me. No matter what her personality quirks or qualities, she held to a lifelong affection for this young baby once abandoned by the premature death of another young woman.
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