Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Steel Magnolias

“My parents were a good balance for each other.  Keep in mind, he was much older than she.  I asked my mother once, ‘How could you marry somebody that you didn’t know?’  She said, ‘It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t work.’”  Anatasia Tsoutsouris Polite

Several dozen seniors signed up for Steve McShane’s Calumet Region seminar.  Steve made a witty and informative presentation on the Archives, starting with the riddle, “Where did Noah store the bees?”  Answer: in the Ark Hives.   I learned that a small desk near the entrance to the Archives once belonged to Senator Paul Douglas, whose efforts a half-century ago helped create Indiana Dunes National Park.  After describing the various types of holdings, he called on me to discuss family history collections.  After passing out free copies of “Froebel Daughters of Penelope: Family Life in the Calumet Region” (Steel Shavings, volume 27, 1998), I mentioned how I came into possession of Greek-American Constance Pannos Bikos Girasin’s impressive autobiography and decided to publish it along with oral histories of her and four other midcentury graduates of Froebel, known as Gary’s “Immigrant School.”  IUN administrative assistant Helen Kremizes Southwell told me about her life and put me in touch with frequent lunch companions Anatasia “Tasia” Tsoutsouris Polite and Jean Chirila (swapping anecdotes, we laughed until tears came to our eyes, Helen exclaimed).  Peggy Kougoufas Terzes was close friends with bowling buddy Bill Batalas.  Daughters of Penelope was a sorority named for the wife of Ithaca King Odysseus, known for her faithfulness and resourcefulness.
 Tasia with parents

above, Tasia modeling; below, Tasia wife wife and family

All five, in their sixties when I interviewed them, were quite candid about family pressures and peer influences.  One’s father, a jeweler, survived the Great Depression on sales to prostitutes.  Another’s husband ran a bar where B-girls worked the tables, their perfumed, pliant bodies providing a veneer of intimacy.  Tasia’s father discouraged her from marrying, believing that women of her generation should be independent.  Regarding his wife, Tasia’s father said: “She’s a good woman, she Greek, she cook, she have babies.”  Tasia added: “He was very practical.  If he heard people were in love, he’d just about throw up.  In his mind, there was no such thing as love.”  My five subjects emerged as strong, resilient “steel magnolias,” as Jean Chirila put it.

The 1989 movie “Steel Magnolias,” set in a samll Louisiana town, is about the bond among close friends who have shared similar experiences.  Its all-star cast included Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, and Julie Roberts.  My favorite line, by Roberts as Shelby: “Remember what Daddy always says – an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.”  Like the Southern belles portrayed in the film, the “Daughters of Penelope” were no pushovers - quite the opposite – and abhorred pretension.
 Sen. Paul Douglas (waving) with George Chacharis

During the 1950s and early 1960s Greek-born George Chacharis was Gary’s benign political boss but went to jail after making powerful enemies, including the corporate heads of U.S. Steel, the Gary Post-Tribune, and Gary-Hobart Water Company.  Helen Southwell recalled: “Chacharis gave a lot of jobs to kids through Club SAR.  He was a nice man and was loved in our community; he took a fall for a lot of people.”  Forty years ago, I interviewed “Cha-Cha” at his Miller apartment lined with stocked bookcases and was so impressed with his intelligence that I had him speak to my Urban History class.  Had he and Richard hatcher not been deadly rivals, they could have made beautiful music together.  Hatcher needed a foil, however, and Chacharis’ constituents regarded America’s first black mayor as an interloper.

A nice crowd showed up for IUN’s “Thrill of the Grill” cookout.  I sat with staff members Delores Crawford (Sociology), Jackie Cheairs (library), Sharon Gardner (bursar’s office), and Mary Lee (student services).  All told, their combined service to the university probably totals a hundred years.  What valuable and largely unapped resources they are.  Mary and I fondly recalled old-timers Ernest Smith, Bill Lee, John Black, Lloyd Rowe, Mary Bertolucci, and Terry Lukas.  Mary is still in touch with those still alive.

I started and ended Tuesday gaming with Tom Wade.  In the morning we played Amun Re, St. Petersburg, and Acquire with Dave, each winning a game.  In the evening he and I finished third out of 12 couples in duplicate bridge.  Whenever we are short a person, as was the case last night, the director calls Janice Custer, who lives just minutes away (as do I) and is our condo neighbor.
above, Ta-Nehisi Coates; below, Samori Toure

New York Times nonfiction bestseller “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates has become all the rage.  Like James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” written for his nephew, Coates addresses questions of race and identity in the form of a letter to son Samori, named for nineteenth-century nationalist Samori Touré, who fought French rule in West Africa.  The title is identical to a Richard Wright poem about a lynching, which I’d read to upper division students assigned Wright’s “Native Son.”  Like his two literary heroes, Coates will live for a year in Paris. Asked about Charleston, South Carolina, residents who forgave racist Dylann Roof for killing their loved ones, Coates told Rolling Stone’s Simon Vozick-Levinson:

Northwest Indiana Historian James B Lane · Post

            I think it would be good if the country was as forgiving of the folks who were upset down in Ferguson . . . and Baltimore; if the country was as forgiving of the millions of people who find themselves incarcerated in this country because of some mistake they made when they were young.

Paul Kern wrote:
            I have done something I never thought I would do: buy a Kindle. I love the feel, craftsmanship, and aesthetics of books. Like a miser counting his gold coins, I like to be surrounded by my books. They are old friends, full of warm memories that I don't want to forget. But we are planning a long trip to California next year and I thought a Kindle would be handier than lugging a bunch of books. To save my soul, I bought a book with the same order for the Kindle. They arrived in the same package.
sagging bridge over Wildcat Creek

James Madison, author of “Hoosiers: A new History of Indiana,” interviewed me in the Archives for a three-hour documentary for the 2016 Indiana Bicentennial.  Indiana’s preeminent historian, Madison has long recognized the historic importance of the Calumet Region.  His trip from Bloomington took over seven hours because I-65 was closed due to a sagging bridge over Wildcat Creek in Tippecanoe County.  The Bicentennial film crew took nearly an hour to set up, reminding me of Dave’s band Voodoo Chili’s preparations before a gig. 

In the interview I talked about early Gary’s “Red Light” district known as the Patch, working conditions at the mill, the 1919 Steel Strike, Mexican Repatriation, the many immigrant groups that settled in Northwest Indiana, and Richard Hatcher’s 20-year tenure as mayor.  Madison’s last question was whether I considered myself a Hoosier.  Absolutely, I replied, then joked that some would quibble since I have never been to “The Race,” the Indianapolis 500.  Hatcher, accompanied by State Representative Charlie Brown, arrived to be interviewed as we were winding up.  His daughter Renee, now an attorney, was a student of Madison’s.  Ron Cohen was also on campus to speak to Steve McShane’s class about “Moonlight in Duneland: The Illustrated Story of the Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad.”

Jim Madison, who read in my blog about my vacationing in South Haven, Michigan, is spending next week there with historian Walter Nugent (author of “Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion”) and their wives.  I put him and Indiana Bicentennial documentarian Kimberly Jacobs in touch with former judge Lorenzo Arredondo, the youngest son of Maria and Miguel Arredondo, and helped schedule an interview at the Lorenzo Arredondo Justice Center in East Chicago.  I gave them a copy of “Maria’s Journey,” which I edited and Madison claimed would be his evening reading material.  In the Foreword I wrote:
  Though unique, Maria’s life story exemplifies the resilience strangers in a new land needed to confront successfully life’s vicissitudes.  Indeed, she represented women in all stations and situations in life who have provided the determination, courage, and persistence needed to hold families together.  Maria emerged strong as the steel forged in the mills that provided employment for husband Miguel and several of their children.

In an introductory essay IU History professor John Bodnar wrote:
  “Maria’s Journey” is more than an immigrant tale; it is a woman’s story that peels back layers of legend, revealing a life marked by a fervent desire to sustain her family in a world and a nation that was intent upon treating her callously. . . .  It is the mix of the tragic and heroic elements that makes her story so compelling.  Maria’s life was a series of forward and backward steps.  Slowly her children moved into the mainstream of American life – into schools, the military, and jobs.  Perhaps Maria felt their adjustment to a new country justified all the sacrifices and struggles she made.  Her story makes it clear that Maria’s life in her adopted country was not simply a happy one.  For her, as for many immigrants, America is not merely a land of opportunity – it is a place of mixed blessings and of unpredictable twists and turns.

Kylie Mikus wrote about summer activities in Crown Point while taking Steve McShane’s class:
Kylie Mikus with mother (Joyelle) and sister Chloe at Lucretia's
June 4: My mom, dad, boyfriend (Trey) and I attended a 45-minute kettlebell workout class at Crown Point YMCA, followed by an hour of spin cycling.  From there we all went home, showered, and got ready for the day.  I rushed to pick up the photo card that I ordered for my mom’s fortieth birthday and put it in with the gifts my boyfriend and I got for her (bowling shoes and her favorite candy, Swedish fish). We enjoyed a lovely lunch at Lucrezia’s in Crown Point; I had a bowl of their phenomenal minestrone soup.  After I made stir-fry for dinner and cleaned up the dinner dishes and house, we heard a knock at the door.  It was my parents’ friends, who had bought 40 18-packs of Miller Lite, my mom’s favorite beer, for her fortieth birthday. We helped them stack the beer in the garage and then babysit two neighbor boys, watching the new SpongeBob Square pants movie while awaiting my mother’s arrival.  We tracked her trip home by I-Phone.  When she got close, a group of us hid inside the garage and had our phones out ready to record. When she opened the garage and saw the pile of beer, she was extremely surprised and overwhelmed.
June 6: After a workout and lunch at Tequila Si in Crown Point, we realized we only had three hours to prepare for mom’s party at Crown Point Court House ballroom.  The main food and appetizers were catered from Fahrenheit 212, but I was in charge of desserts. Luckily I had made mine the night before. The party started at 6:30, and game two of the Stanley Cup Finals was also going on, so most guests spent the first part of the party in the bar. Once the game ended, the dancing began.   The DJ did an incredible job of getting people out on the dance floor. The party ended around 11:30, and the clean-up took about an hour.  Arriving home, we stayed up till 2:30 talking, looking at pictures, and reminiscing.
June 11: For over a month friends and family have been searching for Michael Hernandez, who went missing after he left the Safe House Bar & Grill on the Crown Point square.  He had called to let his mother know he was heading home in his blue 2008, but he never arrived.  Around 5:30 this afternoon my mom and I were taking my brother to his friend’s baseball game when we found the road closed off.  On our left by a pond were dozens of police cars, ambulances, divers, and a crowd of onlookers. We actually witnessed Michael Hernandez’s Scion XD being pulled out of the pond. The divers and police did a good job of covering the car windows so we could not see inside.  By nightfall Lake County Sheriff John Buncich confirmed that the body recovered in the retention pond was indeed the missing Michael Hernandez. This was a very sad day in Crown Point.  I could not imagine what his family was going through. Finally the mystery of what had happened to Michael Hernandez was solved.
June 12: I drove the boys I babysit to basketball camp at Crown Point High School, took them out for lunch, and then we spent the rest of our time together playing Monopoly. Then my boyfriend and I went to the Crown Point Corn Roast, where we met three years ago.  Upon stepping out of my car, I was hit with an array of sounds, smells, and, most importantly, the sight of sweet corn. Afterwards we drove to Monticello, Indiana, to spend the weekend at my parents’ friends’ cabin on Lake Freeman.  It rained almost our entire way down to Monticello, but upon arrival the sun was back on. My brother and his friend, Mason, ran out of the car to ask Luke, the owner of the lake house, if they could take the jet-skis out for a run.
June 19: For the Crown Point Food & Arts Festival (previously known as the Taste of Crown Point) over 80 artists and crafts persons took over the lawn and street surrounding the Courthouse while restaurants and street venders sold food on the surrounding streets. There was a kid’s area, live music, and a beer garden.  Upon arriving at the festival with my friend Hanna, we went straight to the tents in the “arts” section. For sale was everything from stained glass butterflies to beanbag games in adult and kids sizes.  On the lookout for a Father’s Day gift, I found Chicago Blackhawks themed beanbags.
June 21: Within the past year I have geared my diet towards organic and wholesome foods. The closest thing Crown Point has to a health food store is Herb Thyme Market. In its refrigerated section I noticed, “Green is Good by Kate.”  I opened the door to find shelves filled with an abundance of salads, wraps, fruit bowls, cookies, pasta dishes, and the like.  I was thrilled to find a place where I could get quick, healthful meals.  The owner told me that the meals are always changing and that a nearby cooler contained other “Green is Good by Kate” entries such as soups, pies, and pasta dishes. “Green is Good by Kate” was started in 2013 by Chef Katlyn Rather; her items are exclusively available at Herb Thyme Market.  Katlyn also caters events and offers cooking classes.
          June 24: Both grandparents on my mother’s side are Polish, whereas my father’s side of the family includes Cherokee, Croatian, and Irish ancestors. Grandma Mikus, my father’s mother, was born in North Carolina, the tenth of 12 children. My great grandfather Mikus was born in Croatia.  Both sets of my grandparents ended up residing in Crete, Illinois.  Although they attended the same high school, my father was two years older than my mom and did not know her. They met one summer while playing beach volleyball. I was born on September 1, 1994, and my parents married the following May. We lived in a trailer until until my parents could afford to build a new house in Steger, Illinois. My sister, Chloe, was born on December 3, 1997. My brother, Ryan, was born on May 5, 2000.  When I was in fifth grade, we moved to Crown Point. 
Kylie with Kulma grandparents; below, Mikus grandparents

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