|Paperback: 176 pages|
Published: September 16, 2019
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This is how I remember my years at Lincoln College. There may be a few places where I inadvertently stray from exactly what happened, but looking back, that’s not so important; this is my memory.
I could have returned to Lincoln, Illinois, and interviewed the victims, the relatives, the college personnel, and the police. I could have asked them to tear open whatever emotional bandages time has given them. Then I would have been certain of every detail, but the cost would be too high. Anyway, it’s the memories and the scars that live on.
Except for Mike Mansfield and Russ Smrekar, I have changed the names of the students. They’ve had enough.
To all those involved, let me quote the late William Maxwell’s wish in his novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow:
“… whether all that finally began to seem less real, more like something they dreamed, so that instead of being stuck there, they could go on and by the grace of God lead their own lives, undestroyed by what was not their doing.”
• • •
The best way to summarize the Lincoln, Illinois, we discovered in 1972 is to talk about Gem Lunch, a modest little restaurant run by a second-generation Greek immigrant, Pete Andrews. The Gem was a gathering place where jovial, busy waitresses walked down narrow aisles to serve enormous meals to Pete’s friends.
Pete cooked as if his food could cure heartache. His basic breakfast—for about two and a half dollars—was two eggs, numerous strips of bacon, hash browns, one pancake, a pineapple slice, and a red grape. Often he would look from the kitchen to see who had placed the order. If it was a friend, he’d cook a third egg.
The luncheon specials always included great mashed potatoes and gravy with every main course, whether it was roast beef, roast pork, chop suey, or spaghetti.
Pete cooked for everyone, including those who couldn’t pay, and served many a free meal during the Depression. The Gem was the first restaurant in town to serve African Americans, long before most white Americans ever thought about desegregation.
Seventeen thousand people lived in Lincoln, which was founded more than 150 years earlier in the middle of some of the richest farmland in the world.
Lincoln was just far enough away from bigger towns that it developed its own friendly character; it wasn’t a suburb. No matter where they worked—thirty miles away in Bloomington, Springfield, or Decatur, or sixty miles away in Champaign or Peoria—residents felt living in Lincoln was worth the drive.
Because small-town stereotypes were true.
There was perhaps a murder once every half decade, so most people never thought to lock their doors. The newspaper published stinging editorials on the burning of leaves, and the high school basketball coach had his own show on the local radio station. Mama Sorrento at Sorrento’s Pizzeria always put free anchovies on my pizza because, she claimed, she and I were the only ones in town who liked them.
People drove like they’d reach their local destination in five minutes, and they would, too.
As some townsfolk described it a while back, a slick Springfield lawyer named Abe Lincoln helped pull a fast one on the folks at neighboring Mt. Pulaski and had the county seat moved to Lincoln. “And don’t think those folks have forgotten it, either,” they’d add with a smile.
If a neighbor became sick in Lincoln, folks would drop in with enough food to last until the illness was just a memory. Folks didn’t talk to each other; however, they would visit with each other.
Lincoln was a revelation to my wife Barbara and me, both twenty-six when we arrived in June of 1972. Raised in Chicago and educated at the sprawling University of Illinois, we were unaccustomed to the subtle pleasures of small-town living. We eventually bought a home that had once belonged to a long-deceased political leader. When we needed a washing machine delivered to the house from the local Sears store, we gave the salesman our address: 104 N. Union.
“Where’s that,” he asked.
“Well, it’s just a few blocks away, at the corner of Union and Eighth.” I thought it strange that he would have to ask.
“Oh, you mean the old Madigan house,” he said with a smile.
From then on, we never gave townspeople our address. We’d just say, “the old Madigan house,” and everyone knew.
Perhaps if we had grown up in Lincoln, we wouldn’t have appreciated it as much. We would have taken for granted the wonderful old homes, the evening walks down the tree-lined streets, the relaxed pace, and the peace.
Besides the county fair and the rail-splitting festival with its cow-chip-throwing event, there wasn’t much night life. That was all right. We had more pleasure gathering with good friends for dinner than we ever did in a Chicago night club. And it was so easy to make good friends in Lincoln.
We did wonder, though, how long it would take before our home became “the old Hartnett house.”
• • •
At the northeast edge of Lincoln sat the reason we came to town: Lincoln College—a small, private junior college founded as a Presbyterian school for ministerial students shortly after the Civil War. The only college named for Abraham Lincoln before his assassination, the college had dropped its religious affiliation and become a two-year school in the 1940s. Five dorms housed about four-hundred students who attended classes with about one-hundred or so townsfolk. The curriculum was liberal arts, and most students enrolled with the goal of eventually transferring to a four-year college.
If Gem Lunch epitomized the best of the town, then the college’s “Prayer Meetings” personified the best of the small college. Most Friday afternoons after four, anyone from the college who was thirsty for beer or conversation would drop into a local bar named Bachelors III. (This was when the drinking age had been lowered to nineteen, and before it was raised again.)
A typical Friday afternoon would see a dorm director sitting with three of his residents berating the Chicago Bears, a faculty member telling students about his alma mater, Barbara explaining to a would-be psychology major what can and can’t be done with a psych degree, the student senate president pressing a dean for changes in quiet hours rules in the dorms, and a basketball player telling me he should be in the starting lineup. It was a far cry from our experience at the huge University of Illinois campus.
If a particular “Prayer Meeting” lasted beyond the closing of the nearby college dining hall, Barbara and I would often invite whoever was left to the old Madigan house for hamburgers. The students who came to our home were the typical Lincoln College stereotype—frightened teenagers who enrolled because other schools wouldn’t accept them. They attended class for two years, matured, earned better grades than ever before, and transferred to four-year colleges.
The problems they caused, and had, were minor. They used the college as it was intended to be used, and they moved on.
Many of the white students seemed to be the runt of the litter. Did they all have older brothers and sisters who were brilliant doctors or lawyers, or did it just seem that way?
Many of the African American students, away from city ghettos and living near cornfields for the first time, suffered from culture shock.
Lincoln wasn’t what we expected, but after we overcame our own culture shock, Barbara and I found it was easy to like these kids.
Sometimes, though, we thought the school was too small, too informal. Most graduates would transfer to a large state university (after two years at Lincoln, some couldn’t afford a private school anymore) and some had trouble adjusting to large lecture classes, huge dormitories, and using their ID numbers instead of names.
Lincoln’s teachers were almost too good. Some students would become so excited about a field that they’d decide to major in it. A couple of years later, after being taught by university professors who weren’t so caring, so personal, so charismatic, they’d conclude that earth science wasn’t so interesting after all.
Barbara and I arrived, fresh with our master’s degrees. I was hired as the college’s only full-time counselor, and Barbara was a counselor and dormitory director.
We were nervous at first, remembering the full staff of Ph.D.’s and psychiatrists in the campus counseling center at the University of Illinois. But looking at the peaceful little campus before the students arrived, we wondered, “How serious could any student’s problems be in a school like this? In a town like this?”
We soon learned the answer.