Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Girl Graduate, Part IV: Chance or Fate

There are those occasions in life when fate and chance intersect at the perfect moment. On such occasions it matters little which element is fate, or which is chance. The reasons why this story should have been lost are many; the fact that it survived still bewilders me.

Looking back on my own journey, I believe that discovering the yearbook of the Class of 1924 was more of a catalyst to pursue this story than was Evie's journal. Whereas the journal piqued my interest; the yearbook gave breath to characters who would otherwise have been merely names in a diary. It was through the yearbook that I was drawn into these lives lived so long ago; even more, it provided me with small threads of information which, when knitted together and then pieced with other small threads, proved to be invaluable.

Whether the resurrection of the 1924 Radiograph was fate or chance, it only narrowly made it to press. The yearbook had been abandoned by prior classes due to lack of funding. But our intrepid seniors were unwilling to yield to such historical precedent (a determination that served some of them all their lives.) By way of dances, and bridge parties, bake sales, balloon sales, and advertising they inched toward the needed goal. By mid-year, it was clear that a major money-maker was sorely needed. Not only money, but time, was about to run out. Brilliant ideas are born out of desperate times. The "wiener lunch" was conceived as the last ditch effort to "save the Radiograph." And who was at the forefront of the endeavor, you might ask? Viola, business manager for the Radiograph, rolled up her sleeves and with the precision of a field marshal sending her troops into battle, coordinated the potato peeling, the cabbage chopping, and the wienie roasting to successfully serve 200 lunches to students and faculty, returning a profit of $40.00 - enough to publish the yearbook.

Pure and simple, Viola is someone who succeeded. I believe she did so quietly, and without fanfare, but there is no doubt she succeeded. As the top student in the Class of '24, Viola was offered scholarships to six colleges, including one to my Alma Mater. She chose to pursue a two year degree at the local teachers college (which would later become Winona State University, and which would play a major role in this story). It surprised no one that she graduated with honors in academics, and in athletics. Nevertheless, I was a little disappointed to learn she set her feet in that direction, for I do not believe Viola was following her passion in doing so. It is far more likely that she took the route which was most expected of her. She most surely had already met Joseph, the boy she would eventually marry, and his course was set in a particular direction. Her compass reflected his.

Joseph was, in his own right, an excellent student who attended the local Catholic school. Viola attended the Lutheran Church, and I often wonder if this dichotomy deadened both families' enthusiasm for the union. Joseph graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Law in 1929. By 1931 he was working as a lawyer in Rochester. A small article in the Winona Republican-Herald in August of that year notes that a "miscellaneous" bridal shower was given for Viola at the home of her parents. Since the evening was spent "playing bridge at three tables" it was obviously a small gathering.

In late August 1931, Viola and Joseph were quietly married at St. John's Church in Rochester. "The couple was unattended," read the newspaper. Those four words made my heart ache. The bride wore "a brown costume with accessories in harmonizing shades." I wonder if Joseph thought to present her with a small bouquet to carry, or if she might have at least worn a flower in her hair. Not everyone has, or indeed wants, a wedding of white froth and orange blossoms. That is not what saddens me about Viola's wedding day. The fact that they seem to have embarked on married life without the warm embrace of family or friends does bother me. The distance between Rochester and Winona is a little over 50 miles; and, even in 1931 would not have been a difficult journey, especially without the challenges of winter roads. Why was there no mother, or father, or sibling present; did the marriage cause a rift? Did Viola's family still suffer from questions arising from an old suicide? Were the families opposed to the marriage on religious grounds? I have no answers. If she had not been raised a Catholic, Viola certainly continued to practice as one after her marriage.

Viola and Joseph settled in Stewartville, where Joseph practiced law. He was apparently successful and opened a second office in Rochester; Viola stayed home to raise at least four children, 3 boys and 1 daughter. There is no evidence that she pursued any of her own artistic pursuits during this period. It would have been in her character, however, to fulfill her role as wife and mother with excellence.

There is an insurmountable frustration involved in telling some one's story with only a skeleton of a life to consider. I can tell you where Viola started, where she wandered, and where she eventually settled, but the essence of a person can only be the stuff of speculation with information that sketchy. Once again, as has happened so often in my pursuit of this story, fate or chance or something else intervened. I lose track of Viola as she lived out her role of wife and mother. I do not pick up any trace of her until many years later; but, I eventually do find her. And no one was more surprised than I was.

Grad: Viola, it is no surprise to me that what comes next is really the best part of your story.

Viola: Life must be lived...all of it. But, have you discovered what you were meant to learn yet?

Grad: About you?

Viola: No. What you were meant to learn.

Grad: About chance?

Viola: Oh, I don't believe in chance.

Grad: Fate, then? Like Shakespeare once said? The answer lies not in our stars but in ourselves, or something like that?

Viola: I don't believe that things are written in the stars, either. What would be the challenge in that? Keep thinking; you'll figure it out.

Grad: Well, had I known there would be a test involved afterward, I might not have started this.

Viola: Yes, you would have. You most certainly would have.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Girl Graduate, Part III: Viola Takes The Stage

It was the evening of June 12, 1924. The weather was unsettled and cooler than usual for that time of year. Lightening buzzed and crackled far off in the southeastern sky. The threat of rain hung in the air. But tonight marked the coming of age of the Class of 1924 and nothing could dampen their spirits.

The week had been a full one. Commencement Services held on June 8 at the First Congregational Church included scripture readings (which would be unheard in a public school today), a quartet of voices performing "O, Come to My Heart, Lord Jesus", a sermon entitled "A Good Investment," by the Rev. Ostergren, several hymns and prayers and finally the Postlude (the other end of a Prelude) consisting of an unspecified work by Vincent. The Senior Class Play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, had been performed - to rave reviews - the night before. All that remained was this final step forward.

Viola: I didn't think about it at that moment, but it would be the last time we were all together in one place.

Evelyn: Didn't you allude to that in your speech that night? I seem to remember you saying something about it being "a brief and fleeting moment, held aloft by a fragile gossamer cord..."

Viola: Evelyn, I do believe you are making that up.

Evelyn: No. No, on second thought I am quite sure of it.

Viola: I cannot imagine I said anything of the sort. You perhaps have my speech confused with Lucille's. She was always so dramatic - a regular Agnes Ayres in "The Sheik".

Evelyn: With Rudolph Valentino! "Captured and Carried Away!" Isn't that how the newspaper put it?

Viola: Whatever are you talking about?

Evelyn: You know, "The Sheik...A story of stolen love that has sent a new thrill through the English speaking world."

Viola: Ah, yes. But, I was making the point that Lucille was more apt to dramatics than was I. "Fragile gossamer cord" indeed - surely attributable to her.

Grad: I appreciate getting the fine details correct. Ladies, don't be shy, just jump right in whenever you feel the urge. Now, Viola's story...where shall I start?

Viola: I've always found the beginning the most logical place.

And so I shall. It was October 19, 1906. Theodore Roosevelt announced that he would once again be a candidate for the President of the United States if it appeared that William Randolph Hearst was to win his bid for governor of New York. "If the democrats win in New York, the next democratic candidate for the presidency may be William R. Hearst." This was a prospect Roosevelt regarded as a "calamity." He would therefore yield to popular demand, "cast aside a personal preference for private life," and accept another term as president - for the good of the country, of course.

Alberta Gallatin was appearing at the Winona Opera House in the N.Y. Lyric Theatre success, "Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall" complete with the original electrical effects. Tickets were selling for $1.50, although lesser desirable seats could be had for as little as 25 cents.

Men's wool suits, promising "long and satisfactory wear" were on sale for between $8 and $25 at the Columbia Clothing Store. Why was one man not as well and fittingly dressed as another, you might ask? The owners of the Columbia Clothing Store had the answer. "It is because of carelessness in buying".

But most important to my story, Viola was born. Her father's name was Edward; and, although I know her mother's maiden name I have not as yet been able to discover her first name. As was the custom then - and often remains so now - once a woman was married, she had little identity of her own separate from that of her husband. Viola's mother - when she was referred to at all in newspaper articles - was therefore identified only as "Mrs. Edward (blank)." Edward was a very young father, being only 21 years old when Viola was born. She was followed in fairly close succession by a brother, Harold, and a sister, Cleora.

I wonder about Edward's childhood and whether it might have been blighted in some way. If so, did it seep into Viola's young life as well? Despair and unhappiness are all too often legacies passed from one generation to the next.

Edward's father, Herman, was born in Germany in 1851. I do not know when he immigrated to the United States, but by 1886 he was residing in Winona, and Edward had been born. He owned his own tailor shop, although the fact that he and his family lived above a bakery suggests it may not have been an entirely profitable enterprise.

Was darkness always skulking silently around the edges of their lives, waiting like an opportunistic thief? Or was it a bold interloper who sat at the table with them every night and loudly dominated their dinner conversation? I will never know. Whatever its relationship to Herman's family, it made its presence felt on a bright June day in 1907.

On that particular morning, Edward's father had his breakfast, as usual, with his family and went to his tailor shop. At around 10:00 a.m. a customer entered the shop, having made an appointment with the tailor to alter some clothing. Finding the shop empty, he entered the little work room where Herman often did his cutting and sewing. Herman was sitting in a chair and the customer called out to him. When there was no answer, he called out again, and yet again. Advancing closer, the customer realized that Herman was dead; a revolver was lying on the floor at his side. Herman apparently placed the revolver against his right temple, just above the ear, and pulled the trigger. He had taken the precaution of loading all six chambers; only one was needed. Whatever it was that he could not face will never be known. Herman took all the answers with him.

During the investigation that followed, it was revealed that Herman had hinted at suicide the previous week. His sons were so concerned they confiscated their father's pistol. The night before his death Herman walked into the gun shop, just before closing time, and purchased another.

When her paternal grandfather took his life, Viola was almost 8 months old. Her father was 22. One has to believe there were residuals to this tragedy. If and in what way they affected Viola's life is pure speculation. And yet, surely this event would have had a profound effect on her father, and in turn, on her. Perhaps the family never spoke of it. Nevertheless, I am certain she would have known this sad family history. Its burden on her personally, or whether it had any effect on who she became, is impossible to say.

Evelyn: Where are we, Grad?

Grad: We're at the lagoon on the street where I live.

Evelyn: It seems to be a good place to think.

Grad: At this time of day, the sun sits too low in the sky. The light hurts the eyes.

Evelyn: Maybe this is a good place in the story to pause...just for a little while.

And so it is.