Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Widow’s Letter

Only five weeks after losing her husband, on March 12, 1966, Frank Stevenswidow writes a long letter to her mother-in-law Agnes Tully Stevens in Chicago. As far as calendars go, five weeks can be a substantial chunk of time. When talking about a loss as sudden and significant this, it is as if the unendurable becomes immovable.

And yet, life goes on. News gets out, spreading ever farther as friends mention to acquaintances about the horrible wreck back in New Mexico. The love keeps pouring in, hoping—somehow—to make a difference.

Dear Mom, Pat + Mike,
            Received your letter today Mom, also Pat’s package with all the wonderful letters and cards, also Mutz sent theirs. Am so glad so many masses are being said for Steve…. 

Am sending a small picture, this was made 2 yrs ago last Dec. He looked younger, but the best picture he ever had made, the same photo hangs in the K. C. Hall in Alamogordo. I chose this one, at the time as it’s just like him. I have a large one for us Mom, as soon as I get the Ins. I’ll have a big one made for you.

Agnes Tully Stevens, a working widow herself, may be mentoring her recently-bereaved daughter-in-law regarding the stark financial realities of life in an era when Dad was the only bread-winner. The letter is full of numbers stacked this way and that, trying to stretch too few dollars into too many slots.

            Yes Mom I’ll always have to work, by the time I pay taxes, Ins., utility, food, clothing and school the V.A. and S. Security just wouldn’t do with four kids to clothe and give a very small allowance.

I thought I’d have enough to work part time but afraid not, also I feel I must save a little each mo. in case I would get ill or something.

The choices reflect personal priorities and respect for the dreams the couple had for their children’s futures. Sometimes, those choices look quite different in the cast of a harsher light.

I did get a new car, imagine Ed told you the good deal my friend gave me, but I just couldn’t see putting $300 in the V. W. and it being too small. Everett said this car will do me 5 yrs, what a laugh it’ll do 12 yrs. but I don’t mind just so I can raise our kids right and give them a good Catholic education.

But it’s not the money that weighs most heavily in this household—it’s the absence of Frank’s presence….

Sometimes I think I can’t stand being so alone, but I always pray and God helps me over the bad days. The Priests are always checking to be sure I’m doing alright, am so lucky Fr. Baca, and Fr. Bean are here, only wish you could meet them.

…or the reminders that, in some way, he is still there, shining through a child’s face…
I’m so glad I have him, he’s his Daddy all over again.
Understandably, for those four children, the difficult times continue to impact them. With a total range of ten years difference in their ages, each one has a different response to the loss. Though family and friends each give what comfort they can, this is a loss that will shape who they become.

The other children are doing fair…fallen down in their grades but their teachers say this is to be expected at a time like this. They’re good kids and breaks my heart to see them have these sad spells but only natural over for them to grieve over their Daddy. We try to remember the good times, as much as we can, we had with Steve.
            We’ve received over 400 card letters etc., from all over U.S. and overseas. Also a beautiful certificate from the president honoring Steve’s memory, this I’ll frame.
            I hope you’re feeling better Pat, I’ve remember you at mass ever day. Also all the family am so glad I have all my family, John’s been so good writing. Only wish some were here but realize that’s impossible.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Solidarity of Community

Alongside the pain of sudden loss come many friends and neighbors, each in his or her own way seeking to somehow make things better. Frank Stevens’ neighbors in Albuquerque were just that way—showering the Stevens family with love and support once the news got out about the horrible wreck.

Frank’s oldest brother, John Kelly, shared some of that scene in his letter home to their mother in Chicago. Writing to Agnes Tully Stevens only days after the funeral, he recounted several acts of generosity that impressed him.

Frank + Norma have the best friends + neighbors that any one any where could ever have. 

Even neighbors that didn’t know them except by sight were helping or offering help. One man who knew the kids but not Norma told Norma that if she needed any money to come to him; another neighbor who manages a Ford agency loaned us a new, nine passenger station wagon + fixed the brakes on Norma’s VW + wouldn’t take a penny. I don’t know what we would have done without his car for transportation.
It was a beautiful funeral – two priests on altar, children + nuns from school + the church was full. Frank had more friends than I ever thought possible – Spanish, Italian, you name it.

It seems almost an afterthought when John Kelly added the details of his brother’s burial. Perhaps it was owing to the sixty-mile-long drive from the church in Albuquerque to the National Cemetery in Santa Fe. He got it wrong about Santa Fe, though—the nation’s highest state capital is 7,199 feet above sea level, quite a change from John Kelly’s accustomed elevation in California of barely over 400 feet. No wonder it seemed like bitter cold.

Oh yes –
The grave side services were impressive – military funeral with a rifle salute + taps by the honor guard. Norma has a plot reserved right beside him.
They folded the flag + presented it to her.
It was bitterly cold, snow on the ground and a strong, raw wind blowing. Everyone shivered. Santa Fe is up around 3000 ft. I believe. There were very few flowers but lots of mass cards.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Solidarity of Family

Once the news was out about the unexpected loss of Frank Stevens—husband, father, brother—family started heading from all points to Albuquerque. Funerals are always painful times, but somehow in the misery of the loss, there is a sweetness in the supportive camaraderie of family and close friends. We often think of funerals as unwanted events, something to avoid—and yet, it is at those specific bittersweet moments that family members minister to each other. The therapy of memories is so powerful a healer to those who are grieving, and yet, those remembrances cannot work their wonder if we don’t allow the memories to be coaxed out into the open. Funerals are times when those needed memories can breathe life back into our sorrowing souls.

Frank’s brothers from the west coast were there at his funeral to lend their support, as was his youngest brother, and his brother Ed, still in Chicago. Only a few days later, already returned home to California, Frank’s oldest brother John Kelly was writing to his mom, sending Agnes news of the week she had missed. The visit with the bereaved family had done its good, but there was so much more needed for the future.

                                                                  Feb. 10, 1966
Dear Ma, Pat + Mike—
Bill + I arrived home safely.
Max fixed chop suey for dinner (very good) and I left immediately after dinner 5:35 P. M. and was home at 8 P.M.
Norma + the kids seemed pretty cheerful when Bill + I left but she will have some bad moments at times – especially after she is alone.

How much like many funeral visits in so many families was John’s observation in his letter that certain members of this family “took it very hard.” The report that “Sunday night when the family and close friends were allowed to see Frank’s remains was the hardest time” is so similar an experience to that which so many have had to endure. John told his mother about the children crying “so heart brokenly,” but it wasn’t just the young ones who were struggling with this loss. The “baby” of the previous generation, Frank’s youngest brother Gerald, struggled, too. John mentioned to his mom

Chip came in Monday night to the mortuary (his plane was late) when the Rosary was almost over. He was in a bad, emotional state—didn’t make a scene of course but cried like a little kid.

There is nothing so difficult to absorb as the sudden, irrevocable loss of someone you love.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

News Travels Home

Back home in Chicago, Agnes Tully Stevens—the mom whose lifelong habit of saving family documents provided me with the material to start recording these stories—received the news of Frank’s passing as only a heart-broken mother could. I have heard mothers assert that it is harder to lose a child than it is to lose even a spouse. At this point, Frank’s mother was approaching seventy-eight years of age, but that would hardly dull the impact of this loss.

Yet, with dutiful precision, Agnes clipped and saved the local news article mentioning the loss of this hometown boy. A handwritten note at the top of the clipping noted the publication name and date, most likely the Chicago-area Southtown Economist. Another note at the side mentioned, “Pat wasn’t there,” an ever-present reminder that newspapers sometimes don’t get things right. Indeed, this one February 13th article failed to fully represent the facts with everything from a typo in the New Mexico city of Frank’s last moments, to the mistaken February 18 date given for the funeral.

Details like these seem important in retrospect to those of us researching family history, but for those undergoing those days, deep in the midst of suffering the loss itself, these things matter not one bit. The only change anyone would wish in that case would be to erase the very fact that this tragedy had occurred in the first place.

And there is only one Editor who could accomplish that.

            Francis X. Stevens, 41, of Albuquerque, N. M., a native Southwest Side resident and retired Air Force master sergeant, was killed Feb. 4 in an auto accident at Almogordo [sic], N. M.
            Requiem Mass was offered Feb. 18 in Queen of Heaven church, Albuquerque, and interment was in the National Cemetery in Santa Fe. Attending the rites were his brother, Edward, 8034 S. Paulina st., and his sister, Mrs. Patricia Kelly, 8620 S. Parkside ave., Stickney.
            Stevens had lived in Albuquerque since his retirement from the Air Force two years ago. He also had served in the Navy in World War II. The Stevens family home was at 507 W. Garfield blvd. He was a graduate of St. Rita High school.
            He leaves his widow, Norma, and four children; his mother, Mrs. William (Agnes) Stevens, Stickney; four brothers and one sister including John, William, Gerald, Edward, and Mrs. Kelly.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

All That’s Left Are Questions

That Friday night in early February, Frank Stevens stopped on the long drive home after work to put in a call to his wife, Norma. He was on his way, he told her. It was just a matter of that three hour stretch of highway. But he’d be there. Another week was over.

How the next call came in at the Stevens household in Albuquerque, I don’t know, but it was from a stranger somewhere near Alamogordo, where the family used to live—not anywhere near the neighborhood they now called home. The announcement, so unexpected, must have left more questions than answers. And so that long first evening began unraveling.

Of course, by the next morning, the local papers had carried the awful news. Somehow, neighbors got the word, as well as the church. Everyone was so supportive, so sorry to hear, so wishing they could do something to make things better, to make things…just go away. But it wouldn’t go away, this fact that someone was never coming home again.

By the following day, the two Albuquerque newspapers carried the obituary announcement:
Francis X. Stevens, 41, of 2800 Cuervo Dr. NE, died Friday night north of Tularosa as a result of an auto accident. He is survived by….
There was a mention of his wife, his four children still at home, his four brothers—two in California, and two still in the Stevens home town of Chicago along with their mother and sister.

That too-brief rehearsal of his pertinent associations followed:
He was a member of the Queen of Heaven Catholic Church, and was a past Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus in Alamogordo. He came to Albuquerque three years ago. He had been the manager of El Paso Sonotone. He also was a retired senior master sergeant in the USAF.
In the blur, the routines of custom and liturgy provided structure to support mourning hearts.

STEVENS--Rosary for Francis X. Stevens will be recited this evening at 7:30 in Fern Chapel of Strong-Thorne Mortuary. Funeral Mass will be celebrated Tuesday morning at 9 at the Queen of Heaven Church. Interment in National Cemetery at Santa Fe at 11:30 a.m. with Father Paul M. Baca officiating. Pallbearers: Members of the Knights of Columbus Lodge.

Friday, February 24, 2012

No News Is Good News

It was a typical newspaper article, the kind you’d likely see any day of the week, glance at, then move on to more compelling headlines. Following after yet another Friday night, it was all the more mundane. Besides, the state had had a rash of highway collisions, and this only added more statistics to an already-unaddressed pile of government data.

But there was someone out there who wouldn’t want to see this headline.

The Associated Press story read, “City Man Among Three Road Fatalities.” Despite the AP credit, it was a local story that ran on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal on February 5, 1966.

After a long week at work, making the long trip home on a Friday night along that monotonous U.S. Route 54, someone’s dad missed a curve in the road.

            Three more victims, one of them a former Otero County sheriff and another an Albuquerque resident, have been added to the state's 1966 highway fatality toll.
            Latest victim was Francis X. Stevens, 41, of 2800 Cuervo Dr. NE, Albuquerque, who died in a one-car accident Friday night, 7 miles north of Tularosa on US-54, State Policemen Felix Work and Neal Curran reported.
            Stevens, a salesman, was driving a late-model station-wagon when he failed to negotiate a curve. His vehicle left the roadway on the right hand side and then skidded across the highway to the left side.
            Officers said the car crashed down a 12 foot embankment, rolled 2 1/2 times and came to rest on its top. Stevens died of head and internal injuries and was dead on arrival at an Alamogordo hospital, officers said.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Adventure of Having No Adventure At All

Twenty one years signifies coming of age, at least as far as birthdays go. Perhaps it is the same with careers. Frank Stevens’ military career began with the World War II training that led up to “entrance upon active duty” on February 24, 1942. By the twenty-one-year mark in February of 1963, that career must have borne the feeling of coming of age, for it was a bare four months afterwards when Frank made things official and left his Air Force home for civilian life. He was now on his own.

Frank still seems to have no idea what he can do with his life upon that momentous shift. With all his training in the medical field during his years in the Navy, he had once commented that the only thing he could see himself doing was not hospital duty, but sales work. By the time he actually signed his DD-214, making effective his official “out” date on June 30, 1963, it looks like the only career possibility he can find, once again, is sales.

Some time in the next few years, he settles on a position as manager for a place called El Paso Sonotone. While the title might have been manager, the actual job entailed being a traveling sales representative for a company known for its hearing aids.

If “El Paso” refers to the city wedged into the Texas border between New Mexico and the country of Mexico, it is not far from Alamogordo, the town where Frank’s last Air Force assignment had been. A drive on U.S. Route 54 from Alamogordo to El Paso, while nearly ninety miles’ distance, would be no longer a commute than some of my neighbors here do on a daily basis—an annoying necessity of life in the daily grind.

It seems counter-intuitive to find that, at about the time of Frank’s retirement from Air Force life, he and Norma move their family from Alamogordo in the totally opposite direction. The new Stevens home is soon established, not in the Texas city of El Paso, but in Albuquerque.

With that move, life is going to be very different for all of them.

Photograph, lower right: U. S. Route 54 in New Mexico, courtesy Wikipedia; photograph in the public domain.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

And Baby Makes Four

Having completed the last transfer of his Air Force career, Frank Stevens arrives at his new post in time for the arrival of his and Norma’s fourth child. The hospital at Holloman Air Force Base serves as scenery for this occasion—the very place of Frank’s current duty assignment.

Coming up on twenty years of combined service, Navy and Air Force, shortly after this point, Frank is thinking about his next step. Perhaps twenty years of adventure and travel—once his younger heart’s yearning—have been enough for him. Or perhaps it’s the desert heat and isolation that prompt him to look elsewhere for life’s fulfillment.

Whatever the inspiration, it won’t be long until Frank will be seeking a new direction.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Right Man For This Signature

Bit by bit, those mystery men from my father-in-law’s Navy training company photograph are taking on clearer identities. Of course, this may be the most tenuous link to date, as the veteran I’m seeking now is one whose signature was not so clear. Reading it first as “Fred Q. LaNorci,” I’ve since reconsidered and wondered if it might be “Fred R. LaForce.”

If this World War II vet from Winter Park, Florida, was indeed Fred LaForce, then after his service in the Navy, he returned, ultimately, to his home state of Florida—but not until after an extensive career detour. That is, of course, if this is the right man for this signature.

According to, there was a Fred LaForce living in Florida, but when posting on my favorite genealogy forums, requesting a look-up for his obituary from 1987, it turns out there was nothing available from any Florida newspaper. However, Fred LaForce may have returned from another location to Florida as a retiree. As a helpful genealogy forum volunteer discovered, there was an obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer matching that date and name.
“Fred R. LaForce, 73, a consultant for a Philadelphia safety-equipment company, died Tuesday in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. He had lived in Ardmore. Mr. LaForce was president of the Guardian Safety Equipment Co. from 1950 until its sale in 1980, after which he continued as a consultant to the firm. The company offered everything from flameproof firefighting suits to helmets and eye shields. He was educated at the University of Hawaii and Northwestern University. He played the drums with Tommy Dorsey's band in the days before World War II. A Navy veteran of the war, he served as a navigator in the Pacific. Mr. LaForce was a member of the Veterans of Safety, the American Society of Safety Engineers and the Industrial Hygiene Society. An avid golfer, he was a member of the Pine Valley Golf Club and other country clubs.”
If this is the true identity of the signer of Frank Stevens’ boot camp photograph, this man joins the few of his World War II friends whose memory was kept by family and coworkers. His January 18, 1987, obituary went on to say that he left a wife, three children and grandchildren, as well as ties to his former workplace.

While the obituary mentions Fred LaForce’s ties to the Navy as a navigator in World War II, I have not been able to locate any Navy muster rolls to identify the ship in which he served, leaving this entry still in mystery status on two counts: the name issue and service history. And yet, whether this is our man or not, he deserves honor as one of the many who served, against all odds in the Pacific, on behalf of his country.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Could This Be the One?

I’ve always loved getting mail, and that enthusiasm is in no way diminished by the fact that, some days, that loveable mail shows up in digital form.

My faith in those Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness still lives: a greatly-appreciated volunteer responded to one of my forum queries about our initials-only mystery man, D. R. Rickard of Rockford, Illinois, who was part of the boot camp company photo from my father-in-law’s Navy days.

Of course, all this is beholden to the proviso that “D. R.” actually stands for “Donald Ray” and that we have the right World War II veteran that hails from the Rickard family in Rockford, Illinois. Otherwise, our search will be rocketed back to the proverbial square one.

In response to my forum request, here’s the gist of the obituary that this volunteer posted, found in the Rockford Register Star, published on December 28, 1991:
“Scottsdale, Ariz.—Funeral services for former Rockford resident Donald R. Rickard, 67, who died at his Scottsdale home Wednesday, will be at 2 p.m. PST today at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, Tempe, Ariz. The World War II Navy veteran and aerospace engineer left Rockford for Arizona 22 years ago. He was employed with Garrett Auxiliary Power Division. He was a member of Roscoe Masonic Lodge 75 A.F. & A.M., Freeport Consistory and Tin Can Sailors.”
The obituary went on to list the surviving children and sibling living in the Rockford area, and to mention that burial would be at Green Acres Cemetery in Scottsdale.

The heartening thing about receiving this obituary is that, of the twelve men listed on the back of my father-in-law’s photo, this appears to be one of the few we've found who didn’t seem to have left life forgotten or alone. If this is indeed the D. R. Rickard we’re looking for, he had a successful career as well as family.

The interesting thing about the listing of Donald Ray Rickard’s memberships is the mention of the Tin Can Sailors. That very online entity was my means of finding a Donald Rickard listing—for the USS Ault, if you remember—and yet, the family member originally posting there on behalf of that Donald Rickard has contacted me to say that that Donald Rickard had a different middle name. When I look up the ship’s mates’ entries for the USS Mayrant on the Tin Can Sailors website, there is no listing for our D. R. Rickard. I am not surprised, though—while the Tin Can Sailors (officially The National Association of Destroyer Veterans) was founded in 1976, I imagine their web presence followed subsequent to Mr. Rickard’s passing.

I’m still awaiting any emails (or maybe blog comments) from Rickard family members who might be able to pick our D. R. Rickard out of the Company 162 photograph. Until then, I won’t be able to rest my case that this D. R. Rickard is the Donald Rickard of Scottsdale, Arizona. But at least I know the Scottsdale Rickard was a World War II Navy vet, too. And for that service, I’d like to say he has my gratitude—whoever he turns out to be.

Photograph, top left: USS Mayrant (DD 402) at anchor, prior to 1942; courtesy Wikipedia; photograph in the public domain.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

When It Seems Like a Good Idea at the Time

People in the past were not any less intelligent than people today. In 300 years, schoolchildren everywhere will laugh at the stupidity and ignorance of the inhabitants of 2012. You cannot judge people of the past by modern standards, values or ideas, you can only try to understand them through the lens of the time period in which they lived.                                      ~in "There's a Word for That: Presentism" from World Turn'd Upside Down
As we roll onward through the never-ending cycle of annual events and remind ourselves of historic mile markers—perhaps through such commemoratives as National African American History Month (this month) or National Women’s History Month (coming up in March)—we may find ourselves looking back at what was the norm a century ago or more, and thinking:
          “I would never do that.”
And yet, if we were living in those times, surrounded by those contingencies, we most certainly would find ourselves operating from an entirely different mindset than the one to which we have become accustomed in our “modern” times.

“Modern,” it turns out, is one of the most old-fashioned terms in our up-to-date lexicon. It is nearly laughable to think that this word, defined as “of or pertaining to present and recent time; not ancient or remote,” is actually a relic of late fifteenth century French.

Just as tenuous as our terminology is our conceptualization of those hundred- or two-hundred-year-old “modern” times. We insist on carrying the framework of our “modern” spectacles to the noses we look down to examine those olden times. This, it turns out, is a slippery slope for those family history researchers trying to get a grasp of what it was like for our ancestors. What is our response when, say, we discover that they were shameless slaveholders? Or involved in violence? Withholding natural affections for their children or spouse? Harboring grudges or indulging in corrupt business practices? All these less-than-praiseworthy actions and tendencies have been part of the human condition since the beginning of time—but it is how these behaviors have been viewed by each time period’s society that has changed. We need to enlarge our scope of inquiry to include the context of the culture in which these relatives were immersed.

I like what Stephanie Ann, college history major and historic re-enactor, observes in her blog, World Turn'd Upside Down. Introducing the word, “presentism,” she examines that “tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.”

Just as horrified as I would be looking back now from the comfort of my current position at what I might consider the barbarities of those times, if, instead, I were ensconced within the insouciance of those times’ sensibilities, I’d likely take a different attitude.

Take this scenario and flip it: what if someone in the future were looking back at us and our enlightened “modern” practices? Might we not wish they looked upon us with a perspective of enlightenment?

World Turn'd Upside Down: There's a Word for That: Presentism

Photograph, top left, courtesy Wikipedia (in the public domain): Actress Elaine Hammerstein, 1921.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Meanwhile, Back in Chicago

While Frank Stevens and his family jet from one side of the world to another in pursuit of the next military career assignment, back in Chicago, Frank’s mother is still steadily plodding away at life. No longer getting the flood of letters from her homesick boy in the Navy, Agnes Tully Stevens is nonetheless still saving every paper scrap of significance.

And to my benefit, I might add. This woman whom I never met has left me with a paper trail of glimpses into her family’s life, for which I’m grateful.

While Frank, Norma and their three children spend their years in Japan, Agnes continues her work as an insurance broker. Her license issued in 1958 shows her still at the South Sangamon Street address where she had moved in Chicago after losing her husband, Will, so many years prior. The license from the Chicago City Clerk could be had at that time for the price of $25.

By this time, Agnes was turning seventy years of age. Whether she kept up the work because she needed the financial boost, or because she was just too much of a people person to remain idle at home, I don’t know. It might have been a bit of both reasons, but I imagine she favored the latter—which I would, as well.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Another Move

Runways from around the world seem to feature prominently now in the lives of the Francis X. Stevens family. Last we heard from them, Frank and Norma and their three children were headed to Japan while Frank attended to his official duties with the United States Air Force there.

Now, they are coming home again.

Well, not nearly as “home” as they would hope. This time, they are headed to a town near the opposite border from the one near Frank’s childhood home in Chicago. Their destination is a little-known town called Alamogordo in New Mexico.

In 1942, just four months after Frank had begun his military career in the Navy, Alamogordo Army Air Field was established six miles west of town. Little did that sailor dream that he would someday serve in such arid surroundings. But now, sometime before 1960, achieving the level of a hospital administrator with the Air Force, Frank is headed for that Army Air Field that is now renamed Holloman Air Force Base.

Of course, I don’t have any official documents to, well, document that move. And the National Personnel Records Center’s promised three- to four-week delivery date for the real details still looms off in the future. But I can guess by virtue of the tale told by a certain nuclear family constellation.

Yes, Norma Flowers Stevens is due with another baby. And this one will be born at Holloman Air Force Base.

Though Alamogordo seems to be located in the middle of nowhere, at that time, it was a happening place in the aerospace world. Holloman Air Force Base was home to the world’s longest rocket sled track, and that was not a ride that Frank was going to miss! Somewhere, in all those boxes of family-history-related stuff, we have a picture or two of Frank, strapped into one contraption or another, serving as human guinea pig in the name of science—research and development being a major aspect of this military site.

When I do stumble upon that missing photograph, it will make for a fun post here—as will the impatiently-anticipated personnel files from the Saint Louis branch of the National Archives. As the promised delivery date of the latter will not occur for at least two more weeks, though, we’ll need to satisfy ourselves in the meantime with other family-history-related diversions.

Photograph, top right: Alamogordo Army Air Field, New Mexico, in 1944; in the public domain; courtesy Wikipedia.
Photograph, lower left: Holloman Air Force Base rocket sled track, Alamogordo, New Mexico; in the public domain; courtesy Wikipedia

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Four More

The Internet is sometimes an amazing place. It seems that, with just the right terms and a compatible search engine, you can find almost anything.

Almost, I say, because there are still large swaths of this world that have yet to be digitized. Everything from older obituaries to military records is among those huge stacks of information yet to be transformed to a publicly-accessible form online.

And so, in this project to remember such a small number of World War II veterans—those who signed their name, stating that they endured boot camp in the Navy with my father-in-law, Frank Stevens of Chicago—the last four of Frank’s twelve friends will have to remain unsung heroes.

Whether it is owing to common names (I didn’t think so) or indistinguishable handwriting (I thought I got it right!) or the talent of remaining invisible, these four men will remain a mystery until someone from their families stumbles upon the chance to leave a comment here to guide us further.

I did find one shred of evidence for one of the men—a possible 1930 US Census record for Stewart MacIntyre of Chicago. As for fellow Chicago residents Raymond R. Schultz and Harold Hinz, I found nothing online. With a couple afternoon’s time spent posting queries to several genealogy forums, I’ll have to leave the search at that.

As for the last man on the list, it was a handwriting issue that kept me stumped. Yet, today, in taking one last close look at the original signatures, I wondered if the name wasn’t Fred La Norce as I had once supposed, but actually Fred La Force. On the back of that 1942 Navy photograph, he had given his hometown as Winter Park, Florida, and there did happen to be a Fred LaForce living in Florida in the 1990s. Perhaps the change from that initially-mistaken spelling will yield some results in this search.

Or, perhaps they won’t.

Whether we ever end up knowing much more about these twelve men—and especially those un-findable last four—one thing is certain: they have our gratitude for their years of service on behalf of our country in World War II.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Never Enough Information

While I can sit here and write complaint after complaint about the difficulties of researching the history of a man who gives merely his initials in a signature, you would think, once receiving a fully complete name, I’d be satisfied.

But, no. I am, once again, going to regale you with grumblings.

Take Robert James Stafford of Janesville,Wisconsin, one of the twelve friends of my father-in-law, Frank Stevens, who together went through the initial training at the Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois, in 1942.

Not only was Mr. Stafford careful enough to sign his complete name and hometown on the back of Frank’s copy of the company photograph, but he also inserted his assignment for his upcoming duty: hospital corps.

 And yet, though I can find Navy records on for a James Robert Stafford (enlisting from the New England region), I find nary a trace for a reversal of those two given names.

It’s been several days now since beginning this project—as I’ve already explained—seeking information on what became of these fellow World War II veterans. With an enormous boost in the research department from online friend “Iggy,” and several volleys of emails with possible relatives as well as volunteers from my usual genealogical haunts, I’d like to say I’ve found plenty to recognize the service of these men. But, so far, there has been little unearthed to say what has become of them.

Today, I’ll post what we’ve found on a possible candidate for Navy hospital corpsman Robert James Stafford.

If this is our man, Robert James Stafford was the son of England-born Chicago resident, Edward Stringer Stafford, and his wife, the former Alma Kapke of Janesville, Wisconsin. Robert was born into the Stafford household in Chicago on January 24, 1916, according to his State of Illinois certificate of birth. That household included a daughter from Edward’s previous marriage, two children from Alma’s previous marriage to Thomas Cruse, and Robert’s older brother, Edward. By the time of the 1930 census, younger siblings Frank, Dorothy, Loraine and William had joined the family at that same residence on West Lake Street in Chicago.

While I couldn’t find any confirmable Naval records for Robert’s service during World War II, he apparently had some post-war duties—whether of a military nature or in his civilian capacity, I can’t tell—requiring international travel, as evidenced by some passenger lists found on for a Chicago resident by that same name and age.

It was hard to determine anything further on this man’s life—in the military or out of it. Whatever became of his plans to serve as a hospital corpsman, I’ve not been able to discover. It was even a challenge to determine which Robert J. Stafford was the accurate choice when scrolling through what seemed like endless listings on the Social Security Death Index. Only through discovering an obituary for Robert’s youngest brother, William, did I narrow the range for his date of death. I gleaned the name of a possible cemetery to check through a publicly-posted Family Tree on Checking the name of the cemetery on the search box at Find-A-Grave, I found this Robert J. Stafford buried next to his brother Frank at Concordia Cemetery near Chicago in Forest Park, Illinois.

The headstone for Robert was inscribed, “Nubs.” At least that gives me some hope that this veteran—if this entry is for the veteran we’re seeking—did not leave life a forgotten man.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Initial Impressions

Tackling initials can be difficult. I cut my genealogical teeth on that hopeless task years ago, when I opened my grandmother’s “little black book” and tried to glean more family facts on her married female relatives. That southern lady was quite taken with the de rigueur format of addressing a woman by the initials of her husband’s given names in combination with the anonymous “Mrs.” One day, I attempted to figure out what was meant by the address book entry for my mother’s cousin: “Mrs. C. J. McKinnon.” What did “C. J.” stand for? It took ages to unearth the possibility: Cyril John. Who would have guessed?!

So now, I’m faced, in this current photography project, with deciphering the names of two fellow companions of my father-in-law, Frank Stevens, during his training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 1942. I can only begin to guess. And I have no way to know if my assumptions will be correct.

On the other hand, if I don’t take a stab at guessing—and, more importantly, document my dead-end trails as I guess my way through this maze—I’ll end up repeating the same circles of endless internet searches.

With that said, I’m taking notes on my progress as I try to figure out who the rest of these Naval trainees are.

Today, we continue to tackle the two men who signed, giving only their surnames plus initials. I’m looking for more information on C. F. Soucy of Des Moines, Iowa, and D. R. Rickard from Rockford, Illinois. With Iggy’s help, and thanks to websites like and, here’s what we’ve found so far.

 “C. F.” may possibly stand for Carl Frederick Soucy, found in the military records, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post. The fact that I couldn’t find any further information on him disturbed me. I turned to fellow volunteers at the two genealogy forums and received a note with an abbreviated obituary attached. Published in the Des Moines Register, it read, basically,
“Fred, 79, died March 11, 2003, at Veterans Medical Center in Knoxville. He had been a deputy bailiff at the Polk County courthouse and is survived by nieces, nephews, and cousins. He was preceded in death by a sister, Audrey Bento. No services are planned.”
A small picture was attached to the obituary. No mention of service in World War II, other than the assumed connection via services provided at the Veterans facility. If I hadn’t already found his Social Security Death Index record linking that date of death with the right date of birth, I’d have no clue that this obituary had anything to do with the man I’m seeking.

The genealogy forum volunteer offered to send me his parents’ obituaries, also. So I now have the rudimentary tendrils of a family tree with the July 25, 1982, obituary for Carl’s father, Fredrick, and the December 28, 1997, article for Carl’s mother, Isabelle. That allowed me, by reason of his parents' and sister's names, to locate his family in a 1925 Iowa State census, just after he was born. The fact that the surname was handwritten so that it looked more like "Saucy" than "Soucy" may be part of the problem in my attempts to locate further information.

The obituaries led me to the Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines for the parents, although I have yet to find any burial information for Carl, himself. Unfortunately, Find-A-Grave does not include any listings for this Soucy family—suggesting an additional task for me in helping others remember this (possible) World War II Navy family.

My other excursion into initial possibilities is the hunt for “D. R. Rickard.” He signed as one of Frank’s friends, claiming to be from Rockford, Illinois. Iggy found a 1930 census mention for a Rockford Rickard family including a son named Donald. And yes, the middle initial is just right.

Could it be that our D. R. Rickard was the son of Ray and Bessie Crill Rickard? An online transcription of Winnebago County birth records shows Donald Ray’s arrival on November 17, 1924. A Social Security Death Index report agrees with that date, and reveals that his passing was on Christmas Day of 1991. I’m now awaiting a response from Some Kind Soul on one of my favorite genealogy forums to send me the wording of his obituary, published, according to a handy little search engine, two days later in the Phoenix Gazette. I am hoping that the wording of his printed memorial will contain detail sufficient to recognize him for his duty to his country. In the case of this man, though, chances that he will be remembered through the venue of a complete newspaper obituary are increased by the fact that he evidently has a now-adult child seeking information on his father’s military service, as I found on a post in a Navy-related online forum.

There is one problem with this last lead, though. The ship mentioned in that forum entry is the USS Ault.

The military records I found at for Donald Ray Rickard show him serving on the USS Mayrant, having enlisted in Chicago, Illinois, not far from Rockford. If he was indeed the D. K. Rickard I’m seeking, it looks like duty in the Navy took him to points across the Atlantic, for one muster roll shows him sailing from Casablanca in “French Morocco.”

But if this online post by the relative of Donald Rickard of the USS Ault represents the Donald Ray Rickard of my father-in-law’s acquaintance, then either there are more military records to be found via, or I’ve got to choose between two men with the same name.

Or maybe “D. R.” stands for something entirely different, and the search will have to start all over again.

That’s the trouble with guessing about initials.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Famous Guy in the Family Photo Album

Anyone remember seeing this photograph? 

It’s been nearly five months since I blogged about the mysterious subject of a Cabinet card on loan to me at that time. This photo came to me via the Minnesota family of my husband’s grandmother’s cousin, Edna Tully McCaughey. Since we were heading back east to visit family at the time this photo collection came to me, the hope was that someone in our family would recognize that face and identify a long-lost relative.

The trip, itself, yielded no hints as to this gentleman’s identity. Although I also posted queries to my two oft-used genealogy forums, I received no leads other than deductions based generally on the details of the man’s uniform. Though the September 15th post, itself, generated more hits than any other I've written for this blog, the additional traffic failed to generate any substantive answers.

I hardly dreamed this picture would be of anyone significant. After all, it was amidst a collection of family portraits, this one with the imprint of Chicago photographer Jarmuth. Never mind that the history of the Cabinet card’s predecessor, the Carte de Visite, was popularized by such luminaries as Napoleon III—or that those same techniques became the vehicle for widespread distribution of the likenesses of well-known leaders and celebrities in our own culture in the mid to late 1800s.

This photograph from Edna Tully McCaughey’s collection, evidently, was no exception.

Just the other day, a reader—“Steamboater”—found my blog post from last September and entered a brief comment: 
“This is US Admiral George Dewey, who was credited for winning of the battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War.”
Though always wishing to be gracious to my visitors, I confess I did slip off and plug that name into my Google Images device. To my amazement, it was indeed so. Despite being thrown off by the insignia of the Chicago photographer on the face of the card, and even though Edna Tully McCaughey’s collection included several pictures of well-known actresses of the time, I totally had not entertained the possibility that this would be the likeness of a non-family member.

And yet, it was.

The Google Images search yielded several copies of that same photograph. One sourced it to a book published in 1899, providing a tighter time frame for when the picture was taken.

So, first, to Steamboater: a thank you for solving the mystery of this man’s identity. Thanks, also, to those volunteers who frequent the genealogy forums and took the time to help me figure out anything—anything—about this subject.

Which leads me to say: thank you to all of you who take the time to become part of the continuing online conversation, each helping one another other out in our quest to further research in so many lines of inquiry. That “crowdsourcing” mindset has become the mode for sharing so much more information and knowledge than any one of us could ever amass on our own.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

When Destiny Became History

When I first told you about finding my father-in-law’s 1942 photograph of his company at boot camp, I mentioned starting to research the men who signed the back of his copy of that picture. The first signature on Frank Stevens’ photograph was that of a Rockford, Illinois, man named Sherwood J. Hanford.

With a name like that, surely I’d find quite a bit of information online. That would be easy to search!

It didn’t take me long, though, to find an entry for him at a website featuring the vessel in which he served during World War II. I even found his picture—bright eyes, great smile, really personable, full of life and potential—and then found out why he was being featured in this site.

The site was for the USS Trout. The first one.

Receiving a Purple Heart for his service, memorialized along with so many others at the monument at National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, duly noted in the State Summary of War Casualties from the Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Sherwood didn’t leave much of a digital trail of lifelong activities on the Web. The only thing he left behind was the memories of a very short life. And speculation over when, exactly, that short life met its end.

When news of the Trout’s demise hit the papers back home in Rockford, Illinois, I suppose it threw the Hanford family and neighborhood into that moody gray waiting period—that interminable limbo of not being sure in the face of such loss. I’d like to search through the local papers at some time and see what the headlines were for the hometown of the Hanfords. I’m sure the town shared their grief, waited along with them for further news, hoped for the best but knew, deep down, that it probably was not to be, in their case, anything but grim.

From the 1930 US Census and elsewhere, I found Sherwood’s parents names to be Zolmon Duerwood and Marguerite Henen Hanford. Somewhere online, I found a mention that Sherwood had a brother sharing his December 18, 1920 birthday. The pain of that separation must have been near unendurable—though not to minimize the loss his other, older siblings also sustained.

I sometimes wonder how closely my father-in-law, Frank, kept in touch with those comrades from his training days at the beginning of his Navy career. He often mentioned trying to find some of these friends in his wartime letters home to his folks in Chicago. I wonder what thoughts each of the trainees had about their future during those years of such turmoil. I wonder if Frank ever knew about what became of the USS Trout and its entire crew or if news like this was kept from those others deep in the midst of that war.

Whether their friendship was a passing time of camaraderie, never to be picked up again once they parted ways with each heading to his own assignment, his own destiny, their acquaintance has bestowed me with the opportunity to discover Sherwood Hanford’s—and each of these men’s—story and accomplishments, and thus to learn to appreciate their sacrifice that has benefited untouched future generations like mine.

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