FUR-EVER FRIENDS 

Jo Ellen Adams, authenticated “Daughter of the American Revolution”, belonged to my sister Sarah who patterned herself as a kid after the petite, energetic, plucky little girl who lived in the large, elegant, brick, Civil War Era farm house on the outskirts of town.  Sarah’s pal seemed to inhabit the original Disneyland and frolicked daily with a menagerie of horses, cats, dogs, chickens, goats, donkeys, peacocks, …and cats!  I occasionally got to tag along with my older sis, crossing three “big city” streets to enjoy cake and iced tea with Mama Clarice, Jo Ellen and Lois Jeanne.  “Jimmy” seldom appeared to be available, but every time I view John Cusack in a movie I see big brother Jim exactly as I remember briefly sighting him…exact replica!

From 1986 until February of 2013, I claimed honors of feeling just as close to Jo Ellen as her ’57 classmate Sarah ever did.  When I moved back to Columbia City, a welcoming committee of singular Ms. Adams McConnell Copp — on moving day –met  me at the front door of my childhood home with an invitation to her book club, “THE Coterie” (“THE” MUST be included in any referral to the ladies’ long-lived organization!) plus an insistence that I delve whole-heartedly into the Whitley County Historical Society.  Thanks to this lady with journalism coursing through her veins, I succumbed to her request for a thorough accounting of the Blue Bell Story to be featured in “The Bulletin”.

Blue Bell Factory Revisited” (February of 1987) still exists in the bowels of the Thomas Riley Marshall home/museum…multi-copies stacked up, staples rusting onto its “research paper” pages.  I struggled in earnest to interview former local employees via phone or face to face, to search through trunks for photographs, to check facts via yellowing annual reports compiled at the Greensboro (North Carolina) headquarters, and even corresponded with the company’s president E. A. Morris…all the while moving my lifetime of material possessions into a home already filled to the brim with my parents’ plates, silverware, furniture, golf clubs, spare light bulbs, screw drivers and hammers, etc.

Thus, Jo Ellen, who served her time in a 14 year role as contributor to and editor of the “Whitley County Historical Bulletin”, occupied my thoughts this past holiday season as I searched for a particular publication upon which I had depended for a reasonable bulk of my retro-information.  Don York gently requested that a treasured newspaper, which he had loaned me during that manic phase of my life, be returned to him — 26 years later?  Lucky Jo Ellen always toted all of her precious ephemeral paper history to her hideaway across the hall from where her handsome son (and my dentist!) takes wonderful, proper care of Whitley County molars!  I, on the other hand, stuff precious newspapers, letters, and magazine articles into drawers or under beds — and cram folders into chintzy filing cabinets. I totally coveted her private office.

Jo Ellen socialized and traveled extensively.  I am a stay-at-home blend of Boo Radley, Miss Havisham (“Great Expectations”), and reclusive Emily Dickinson rather than an Auntie Mame/Truman Capote type of individual.  But the two of us local natives, an “Odd Couple”, had lots of fun following my son Roy about whenever and wherever he performed one-man concerts, starred in Wabash College, Ohio State, or Metro-Detroit theatrical productions, or delivered Wabash College valedictories!  Jo Ellen led Roy’s fan club, insisted that he matriculate at Wabash in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and cheered when he achieved Rhodes Scholar finalist status there. We hobnobbed with college presidents, chopped onions with character actress Frances Sternhagen at a Columbus, Ohio pool party, and shared drinks/coffee with Ginny Hays whose father-in-law Postmaster General (Hoosier) Will Hays served as this nation’s first ever Hollywood Censor, once deleting a lascivious bubble-bath scene of Marilyn Monroe’s in “The Seven Year Itch” — uh-huh!  Ginny — who lived next door to lyricist Ira Gershwin for years in California and who counted many movie stars among her closest chums– adored Roy and phoned me often from Crawfordsville.  At last, Jo Ellen envied ME, commenting:  “You do realize, of course, that Ginny ringing you up is comparable to Nancy Reagan chatting with you on a weekly basis!”  When Ginny’s husband and Crawfordsville’s beloved former mayor Bill Hays died, the two of us rushed — via J’s new pick-up truck — to Ginny’s side during the Hays Memorial Service at the Wabash College Chapel.

At any rate, thanks to my organizational skills required for that prior humongous 1987 assignment/challenge issued by Jo Ellen to detail the history of our local Blue Bell Factory, I finally unearthed and pored over Don York’s happily, thankfully rediscovered 1967  “Observer” (@ only ten cents per copy!).  One final time I re-visited photographs of Theral Wise checking stencils galore, “speed demon” Bob Eames slicing denim material into proper patterns, Jeanette Taylor and Mary Friend attaching  leather “W” tags — denoting  “Wrangler” trademarks — onto hip pockets, and Rosemary Palmer “surging” white pocket facings.  Yesteryears flashed before my eyes as:  Floyd Sullivan supervised carpentry projects; mechanic Bob Hiss repaired a belt loop machine; Cora Dexter and Barbara McCullough joined the front and back halves of garments together referred to in the trade as “felling”; Mary Karst loaded pre-pressed jeans from mobile racks to conveyors to be transported into the “oven”; secretaries and receptionists Phyllis Mattix, Edna Gondek, and Mary Gruesbeck smiled into the reporter’s camera;  and “Chief Cut-up” Bill Winters, phone to his ear,  got described as “never perplexed while managing the cutting rooms of all of the division branches.”

Understandably, my favorite “on the job” photo captures my dad, Roy Duncan, who “competently leads…and still finds time for many worthwhile civic endeavors” and who — according to my surrogate “big sis” (and niece of local newspaper moguls Uncle John Quincy Adams and “Aunt Hester”) Jo Ellen — impressed folks as a “gentleman ahead of his time”! 

Jo Ellen, not unlike our expert shutterbug chum Keith Kleespie, accompanied Don and me on our countless road trips (My dad referred to claustrophobic automobile adventurers as “sardines in a can”!) to keep tabs on son Roy’s singing gigs, documenting our activities with super Kodak pix!  Cruising about with this “Gal Friday” passenger in the back seat cannot be minimized since my friend of two thirds of a century offered a stream of candid comments, historical reveries, glowing compliments, hilarious community recollections/anecdotes, and especially magnificent tales extolling the animal kingdom with an emphasis, of course, upon…cats! 

Ten years following my sister Sarah’s death, Jo Ellen died last month at home, surrounded with love from her son Jim, daughter Marcia, and very special grandchildren.  Oh, how I wish I had bought her a copy of “The LOL Cat Bible” –which I happened upon recently at Barnes & Noble on a snowy-blowy evening.  Author Martin Grondin features incredible feline-photos and purr-fectly logical interpretations of Biblical lore from a kitty’s purr-spective!  Clearing my throat and beginning with “Genesis 1: Oh hai!  In the beginnin Ceiling Cat maded the skys and the Urf n stuffs, but he no eated dem” all the way through to page 124, “Awl fings brite an purtyful, all kittehs big an small, all fings wize and wunnerful, Ceiling Cat mekked dem all…”, I had switched on the car’s interior ceiling “lite” (“Genesis 3:  An Ceiling Cat sez, ‘ I can has lite’ ? An lite wuz. Srsly!”) and read aloud to husband Don alllll the way home from Fort Wayne.  Don suffered silently, but kindred soul Jo Ellen would have relished every word…although probably never admitting it!

From Jo Ellen Adams McConnell’s “Celebration of Life” Memorial Bulletin:  “…I have known many people, some good, some bad.  Many and varied have been my experiences.  But the sum total of all my observations is that there is infinitely more good in this old world than bad.” ~ Thomas R. Marshall

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