Cornerstones, Time Capsules, Freemasons, and Five Cent Cigars

Thomas Riley Marshall might have good-naturedly joked that rather than a “big fish in a little pond”, he managed to become a “little fish in a big pond” in Washington, D.C., as Vice-president of the United States during two terms from 1913 until 1921.  He notably spoke humbly of himself, going on record as  the “ Woodrow Wilson administration’s spare tire to be used only in the case of an emergency!”  When Woodrow suffered a debilitating stroke, Tom ought to have ascended to top spot, but Mrs. Wilson grabbed the reins instead.  Marshall lamented, “There once were two brothers: one ran away to sea; the other was elected vice-president.  And nothing was ever heard from either of them again.”

As a high schooler, I often stopped in the alley between Line and Chauncey Streets to chat with a tall, perky, darling lady named Edith McNear.  She must have been the prototype of  a freckled-faced version of “The Strawberry Blonde” that Casey would waltz with, had he the chance.  I, and everybody else in town, adored her.

One August afternoon she invited me to step through her front door which featured leaded glass fashioned into an oval window inset, and we sat down upon a Persian rug and sorted through her sheet music from the turn-of-the-century poring over titles such as “Let me Call You Sweetheart”, “The Bird on Nellie’s Hat”, and “the Whistler and His Dog” for hours.  She suggested that I bundle up whatever songs I might favor and cherish forever, adding them to my collection of mostly contemporary show tunes and churchy type music.  Incredulous, I asked, “Really?  Are you absolutely certain?  How generous of you!”  She nodded her head, offered me a cookie or two, chatted and laughed with me awhile longer, and home I glided with my melodic supply  to last me through eternity.

My mom never ever mentioned to me that Edith had been Marshall’s secretary.  I only figured out more details as co-curator of the Whitley County Historical Museum nearly three decades  following that special summer’s day.  Talk about lack of pretentiousness.  That lady was an absolute angel.  Ask anybody who remembers her.

Cut/leap to the present.  Our son, Roy, received a message from former C.C.H.S. Agriculture teacher Bill Wilder inquiring if the current Michigan resident would consider resurrecting his often performed portrayal of our former Indiana Governor and Veep.  Having obliged the local Democratic party,  where then Governor Evan Bayh was in attendance, the local Historical Society, the C.C.H.S. high school class reunion of 1950-something-or-other, countless literary societies, and also Wabash College, Alma Mater of both Roy and Tom …as well as Larwill’s Dean Jagger, Roy only needed to re-locate his speech.

Bob Wilder, DeKalb County Commissioner and brother of Bill, set up all arrangements.  The show was primed and ready to go on the road.  Roy rushed to Columbia City the evening before, and the next afternoon emerged from upstairs entering the kitchen, no longer a teen-ager or college kid, channeling a fellow in possibly his sixties OR SEVENTIES?  No, there he stood, approaching his own middle age,  framed within our kitchen door – an apparition transformed by a seersucker MATLOCK type suit, flowing silver hair, a  bushy “Andy Gump”  moustache, round wire-rimmed spectacles — looking for all the world exactly like…THOMAS MARSHALL, only probably about a foot taller than our colorful native son was OUR son!  Optical illusion time!

Off we drove in two separate vehicles…Roy forgetting his laptop, parents following about a half-hour behind WITH the lap-top as he would head back to Ann Arbor after the program, a celebration of  the  magnificent Auburn courthouse’s centennial year and replay of its original dedication on July 27th, 1911.  VIPs in abundance, an impressive keynote address by Judge Paul R. Cherry — a magistrate judge of the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, vocal solos of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “On the Banks of the Wabash” and standards played by a live band on the courthouse lawn, lemonade, sunshine, an ever-long white tent set with tables to accommodate a dinner crowd of 300, not to mention 600 additional on-lookers seated on bleachers  on the courthouse lawn, watching the festivities?  Not what we had anticipated.  Spectacular, and a testament to evidently 150% cooperation among the townspeople to pull off such a successful endeavor.

A most atmospheric and perfectly planned slice of Americana—an utter delight in every way.  Thomas Marshall had declared his candidacy for PRESIDENT that very day 100 years past.  Roy, as the first speaker, astounded all as a happy ghost from the past strolling by to review his intriguing life with the county’s present-day citizens.  The program moved along in a jaunty yet poignant manner culminating with a bevy of  gloved, top-hatted Freemasons fully engaged in a formal ritual of  revealing sundry nostalgic items found within the corner-stone from 100 years prior—gravel and seashells (!) discovered during construction, coins of the era, an American flag, church and community bulletins, and other vintage ephemera.  Alas, due to moisture entering the not-as hermetically-sealed-as-hoped-for time capsule, few of the original memorabilia survived the journey through time.   Significant items reflective of the start of the 21st century replaced those extracted with ceremonial references to “plumbs, angles, compasses” and such.   

Never, outside of a 10th birthday visit to Holland, Michigan, at the height of tulip season, have I viewed more bountiful nor beautiful flower beds (and landscaping) than those of the groundskeeper who received a surprise “Sagamore of the Wabash” type award.  This gentleman elicited a well-deserved standing ovation, and his wife warned that there “would be no speech”, but it seemed as if not a dry eye in the house might be located as he returned to his table.  Absolutely a reward for a job well done.

How heartening to see someone like this fellow honored in real time for the love and care he had so generously bestowed upon his community—setting an example to which all should aspire.  In fact, Tom Marshall, who often employed self-deprecating humor to fend off the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (and of small-town living), offers the perfect recipe for a life well-lived in the introduction to his 1925 autobiography, A Hoosier Salad:  

To make a perfect salad

There should be a spendthrift for oil,

A miser for vinegar,

A wise man for salt,

And a mad-cap to stir it up. 

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