A Love Letter to the Ward of My Youth

WXRT, Chicago’s premier alternative rock station, does a “Saturday Morning Flashback” each week. Today they are focusing on 1976, the year I graduated from high school. Hearing Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” immediately brought my mind back to my youth growing up in DeKalb, IL. The following is a (slightly edited) memoir of what it was like for me to grow up in the branch there, later a ward, which I wrote for a Ward reunion almost a decade ago. My hope is that others will similarly share reflections of how the wards of their youth shaped them.

September 18, 1998

To the DeKalb Ward:

I will try to attend your celebration on October 10th, but, in case I don’t make it, I wanted to contribute a letter with some thoughts about my sojourn there.

My family moved to DeKalb in 1965 or so. We started out in the Hillcrest Apartments for a year, then bought a house at 240 Tilton Park Drive in DeKalb. I have a very vague recollection of my first Sunday at Church (the old one on High Street). I remember people there who I now know were the old stalwarts [of the Branch] (Belnaps, Binghams, Sarvers, Niewolds, etc.). I have an odd recollection that we were all seated at long tables for some reason, but I have no idea why….

I understand we are celebrating Sister Belnap’s birthday. (I know, I know, I’m 40 years old now and I have the right to call her “Helena,” but I have that “Sister” thing emblazoned on my brain, so I’m not going to fight it.) I’ll tell you a story about her. I was brand new in the Branch, and she was my Primary teacher. It was Easter time. At my very first Primary class with her, she gave me an Easter basket. I was termendously touched by that; here I was the new kid on the block, not known by anyone, but she knew who I was and demonstrated her thoughfulness and care in a material way that was very meaningful to a seven-year old. I’m afraid that most of the lessons I received over the years there are something of a blur in my memory, but I have never forgotten Sister Belnap welcoming me into the Branch and her class with that Easter basket. [Ed. note: though in her 90’s, she is still alive and kickin’, very sharp.]

I consider my mother to be a model of Christian love and virtue. I have never once in all my 40 years on this earth heard my mother utter a single negative thought about another human being. Not once. Ever. To Sister Belnap, the highest praise I can give you is that, when I think of my own mother’s virtues, I inevitably think of yours as well. I have never known a more loving person than you. May your birthday be a happy one, and may you have many more.

The other teacher I can remember well is Sister Bingham. She taught us the Old Testament stories class when I was in 4th grade (I think). We met in the room along the north wall just behind the Bishop’s office. I think I remember her so well because she was so different from the other teachers, I suppose because she came from a different religious tradition. She was a great teacher. She really made those stories come alive (I still have a fondness for the Old Testament to this day). She didn’t take any guff, and would thwack her cane on the table if we got out of line. I remember she got upset once because someone (perhaps me) said “geez” or “golly” or some such thing. She taught us that words like that were just softened forms of “Jesus” and “God,” and that by using them we were no less taking the name of God in vain. That made quite an impression on me, and for years I didn’t utter even such a mild oath as those. (I may have backslid a little since my youth, however. [Ed.: (grin)]) The thing that I remember most was that her testimony was like a rock, firm and immovable. Her favorite song was “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” and it really fit her.

I would like to thank all of the many teachers and leaders that worked with me over the years. I hate to say it, but at the time I was completely oblivious to the many sacrifices that were made on my behalf. Now that I am grown, I have a better appreciation for what it means to go camping in the snow, or take a week of your precious vacation and spend it at scout camp, and so forth. It is a rare youth who is properly appreciative at the time, but I am appreciative [now], and I would like to say thanks. While I am thinking of teachers, I should also thank Sister McDonald, who was my seminary teacher for three years. My first year, with Tom Erickson, I learned a great deal, but Louise’s talents were more social, and frankly that was more meaningful to me at the time. She made seminary enjoyable. I still remember the famous (infamous?) seminary trip to camp out at Nauvoo. We had a blast.

There are so many people I could tell a story about or remember fondly, too many to address individually here. While I was writing this, I thought of the fellow who wore glasses and used to conduct the singing, but was not a baptized member of the Church because he didn’t feel worthy. What a tremendous, humble man. Or there were the Budrows; when it came to scouting, Betty was hell on wheels. I always had a strong sense that our branch, and then ward, was like an extended family. That is a wonderful environment to grow up in.

When you’re young, friends are important, and when you’re a teenager, they are all-important. I had great friends growing up in DeKalb. At first there was Teag Solberg and–I want to say the Rose boys, but I may have the name wrong. But before long the Owens family moved in just a block and a half away. Barry and I had so much in common we could have been brothers. He was my best friend growing up, and we are still close and get together when we can. As luck would have it, a lot of kids roughly my age all ended up living in the same neighborhood. There was Barry on Delcy, and a half-block closer to me Al Wiggin; behind Al on Terrace was Dave Cluff; and later, a block over on Joanne, was the Turner family with Doug and Glenn. At some point the Terrys moved in not far away (on Dresser? I don’t recall exactly), and it was interesting to actually have a girl move into the neighborhood. Although Aleesa was the only girl in our neighborhood, there was always a number of girls roughly our age in the Ward. I think we boys all had our various crushes from time to time (I probably had a crush on just about every girl in the Ward at one time or another), but you didn’t dare let anyone know about it, or you would be teased relentlessly (and mercilessly). Having a lot of good friends made Church fun and interesting. And when it was time to serve a mission, although I never really even considered not going, it was easier to go when all my friends were also serving.

I loved growing up in that old Church building on High Street. When I was a teen I would gladly have traded it for a nice modern building with a basketball court, but in retrospect I’m glad I went to the old building. It had a lot of charm. Most Mormon kids don’t get to grow up gazing at beautiful stained glass windows, and I think that’s a shame. The old building had all kinds of interesting quirks and hiding places that were just made for a young boy to explore. (I remember when Joseph Anderson came and dedicated the building as a Ward building.)

[Three paragraphs of a more personal nature omitted.]

Thank you again for a great childhood. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the DeKalb Ward.

With love,

Kevin Barney


  1. Kevin, a few years after you left DeKalb my wife and I arrived in town. We came for grad school, without a place to stay. As soon as someone in the ward learned that we were there in a motel on Lincoln St., they let us live in their basement for the week or so it took to move into the apartment. That was the beginning to our 7 years in one of the best wards we could have joined. With one exception, we were welcomed with open arms. That one exception was from a man who, when he learned that we were there for graduate school, replied that he didn’t need to get to know us because we’d leave in a few years. But one “un”welcome out of a ward with a couple hundred members really isn’t bad, and it was a lovely place to be for that time. We have lots of fond memories of that time, and many of them center around the people in the ward who became family. To the names you list — Belnaps, Binghams, Sarvers, Niewolds — I’d add some others who probably came along later: Owens, Tikoo, Everett, Stapleton, Neuman, Brunette, Forney…. the list goes on.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. As just one example, we will never forget the Helena, who our young daughter called “The kissy lady” for all of the affection she showered on her each Sunday. We have similar fond memories for each of the people in DeKalb ward. That was a nice place to be.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Awesome, Michael. I know some, but not all, of the additional names you mention. And “kissy lady” is a great description for Helena, who always greets everyone with a kiss.

    It really was wonderful growing up in a small branch in the midwest. Everyone should have a chance to experience the church in that way.

  3. I grew up in 2 different branches. The first was an itty-bitty branch in Hutchinson, MN. We met in an old house. Firesides were actually held in front of the fireplace! At one point, my mom was the Primary president, chorister, and pianist. Many, many primary songs remind me of her.

    The 2nd was a slightly larger branch in Cambridge, MD. When we moved in they met in a 1st phase bldg. After a couple of years, they made a push to get attendance high enough to build a 2nd phase addition on to it. Everyone invited relatives to come visit that summer so we could have the additional numbers. My YW president was the organist and the choir director. I was called as the SS organist and she was the SS chorister. I also taught Primary during my last year as a Laurel. I’ve always felt that I gained valuable experiences and saw more of the inner workings of the church growing up in a branch.

  4. I mostly remember that we went through Sunday School teachers at a dizzying rate when we were young teens. Even the ones who loved us had trouble coping with our overwhelming defiance. They once made my mother substitute teach because no one else would agree, and she got so fed up she started chorus-girl dancing to get our attention. Her kicks were so powerful that her shoe flew off her foot and almost poked me in the eye. It absolutely amazes me what people will sacrifice for the church. (We were easier to deal with when we mellowed in our late teens, and we have all felt great affection for those people who sacrificed their emotional equilibrium for a time in hopes of keeping us within the fold.)

  5. I grew up attending a Lutheran church. In junior high, I was the only girl in my Sunday School class–even the teacher was a male. I was painfully shy and hated it. I didn’t mind at all when my family stopped attending (we moved).

  6. jab,
    Is that Cambridge, Md. on the Eastern Shore? Lovely place.

    I’m moving back to my family ward in the summer.

  7. Costanza says:

    My experiences as a teenager in the branch in Newbury, England, are among some of my favorite memories.

  8. Yes, it is on the Eastern Shore! I’m surprised you’ve heard of it. My family lived in Easton and we drove the 20 minutes to church each week. I lived on the Western Shore with my husband for several years and the Eastern Shore was just the place the gets in the way of getting to Ocean City.
    I thoroughly loved my time there, although my husband thought there were a few too many odd ducks in the branch. I think it comes with the territory in a branch. Everyone worked hard, though, and tried to take care of each other.

  9. Another memorable thing about my branch growing up was that the well was unfortunately located next to a sulphur pit. You always knew when there was a baptism scheduled that day! (probably to up the attendance at baptisms, they were often held on Sunday, after church).
    I also remember with chagrin being the know-it-all young teenager pointing out spelling mistakes made by the teacher on the board. I don’t know that I would take it as gracefully as they did.

  10. jothegrill says:

    When I was a toddler, I would go up and down the “grandma rows” (the last 2 rows in the middle section) and everyone would give me a hug, and some would even slip me candy. I remember being loved all through my childhood and teenage years by the sweet old ladies in the ward. I joined the ward choir when I was 8 or 9, and always felt welcomed there. I had some good times with the youth too, but it was the older members that really made an impression on me. Hooray for “kissy ladies!!”

  11. Sterling says:

    I will never forget the ward of my youth. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect ward. It always seemed like we were bursting at the seams. There were plenty of youth and it was easy to find friends. My teachers gave heartfelt lessons. It was so easy to feel the spirit in church. I knew people had problems, but somehow it didn’t make them any less of a role model. I was shy and looked up to a lot of people for an example of how I should act. I wouldn’t have traded in my experiences for anything. I sometimes long for those days, when virtually all the young men were going on missions and when everyone seemed to know everyone else. It seemed like I never had to find out if the church was true, because it just seemed we all knew it was true. I remember lots of chances to serve and grow. I loved all the different types of people in my ward, they all brought something different. It was amazing to me that the Lord had brought so many wonderful people together in one place, and I was allowed to be part of their community.

  12. jab,

    I grew up in Salisbury, Maryland. I knew the Little family well. Great memories!

  13. This is an awesome tribute. Thanks Kevin.

  14. Kevin,

    I think I know the Binghams in De Kalb. Very salt of the earth. One of them served as Bishop of the de Kalb ward.

    They are currently farming and own quite a bit of land outside Dekalb.

  15. Hi Chad S.! always nice to “run into” someone from the Eastern Shore.

  16. i wiil like to send me love words of the youth

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    bbell, I just now saw your comment. Yes, that is Art Bingham. Salt of the earth indeed.

  18. Doug Turner says:

    Kevin: I can attest to all you described in this piece. When our family moved into the DeKalb ward we were immediately included in everything. I think over a few years we had about 16 missionaries serving from our little ward – you, me, Barry, Al, Larry, Glen, Ken, Eddie, etc. I often think of our infamous seminary trip to Nauvoo – that is a whole article unto itself! By the way, I ran into Brother and Sister McDonald at the DC Temple recently. They are faithful workers there. What an absolute joy to see them again. I, too, miss that old building. My only regret is that we (I) never ventured up to the top of the old bell tower. Thanks for capture in the essence of the wonderful memories we all have of the perfect ward………. All the best, Doug Turner

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Hey, Doug, great to e-see you. I shared the link to this post with Sandy Wiggin, because they are planning another ward reunion (and birthday party for Helena) on July 20th. If by any chance you were able to come, that would be awesome!