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.