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August 14, 2009

Once Upon A Time...A Slice of Corporate America Dined at Club 30

Above, former Indiana Lt. Gov. Crawford Parker and long-time friend Roy Duncan share a laugh. Below, Blue Bell engineer Martin Wimbs, a southern native who lived for a time in Columbia City, was among the many interesting characters that frequently visited the Duncan home and added to the intrigue.

By Susie Duncan Sexton

"Uncle" Walter Cronkite died this summer, thus childhood memories flooded my thoughts reminding me that I also referred to that wizard named Disney as "Uncle Walt"-- Siamese twins to this mind, one of these giants quite sober and investigative, the other animated and magical. Delightful ghosts, whom I once actually could hug "hello" and "good-bye", continue to inhabit this house of mine...among them a multitude of charming gentlemen wearing straw panama Sammy Sneed hats, skinny ties, short-sleeved dress-shirts, and seer-sucker suits.

Our revolving front door, nearly deteriorated now from constant turnstile activity, positively "swung" as corporate engineers, company CEOs formerly tagged in a simpler age as "Boss-Men" and "Head Honchoes", foremen, quality control executives, OSHA representatives, textile sales reps, psychologists, consultants, chairmen of the boards--most speaking with southern drawls--passed momentarily through the portal.  Every one of these fellows played poker, told jokes, tippled a few, smoked, laughed and contributed so profoundly to our lives that routine existence seemed totally dull in the interim.  Three Scovill Manufacturing execs even square-danced with my "Margaret Anderson as portrayed by Jane Wyatt" type house-wife mom on the courthouse lawn around midnight during Old Settlers' Days circa 1960.  She "could have danced all night"; so take that, Julie Andrews; Mother never looked more beautiful through my eyes than during that fabulous evening.

Blue Bell Manufacturing Company, the "WORLD'S Largest Producer of Work and Play Clothes and Western Wear" and headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina, established its mid-western division right smack dab on the south-eastern edge of Columbia City.  In 1938, my daddy arrived to learn the ropes and eventually become the manager of four factories in C.C., Warsaw, Nappanee, and North Webster.  My eldest sister Shirley remembers, still with some trepidation, actually moving for the company 16 times within a ten year time frame, waving adieu to established friends and "lucky" stationary class-mates each time Mother started packing boxes...once again.  "Getting transferred" remains a phrase which causes Shirley to shiver.  Mother, on the other hand, dutifully followed her man, always lamenting that she hastily tossed a bottle of India ink into a parcel of precious quilts, a faux pas accompanied by predictably tragic results!

So began the arrivals and departures of a host of associates whom none of us would ever forget, most of whom thoroughly enjoyed the small town atmosphere which provided a welcome interruption in their big city lifestyles. 

Blue Bell's President E.A. Morris incredibly stayed over-night at our tiny yet cozy home, and he may have been the first V.I.P. in America to install air-conditioning in his Carolina mansion...I know 'cuz we visited "Ed!"   His wife,  heiress to the Cannon Towel empire, founded the Youth for Christ Movement.  Probably, Mr. Morris never smoked; I'm guessing?

"Robbie" and Pauline Robinson set up temporary residence in our town and commuted back and forth from Hoosierland to the Tarheel state, renting a room at Mrs. Salesman's Guest House, an early "bed and breakfast" operation on Main Street; this popular couple boarded their black Cocker Spaniel named "Inky" with Doctors Waterfall and Coble.  Sister Sarah and I shared the fun of walking that pampered canine around the block with Pauline.  Notably, Robbie attempted to ride my brother-in-law Guy's horse named Maude, while wearing his double-breasted business suit, neck-tie flapping jauntily in the sudden breeze as Maude, spooked by this unusual occurrence, transformed into a "wild thing" and took off at a frantic gallop as the saddle, including Robbie, slipped around to her left side, "port" if she were a ship...that image is forever cemented into my mind.  Robbie's spectacles pushed to the side of his head, he looked woefully back at us all standing and gaping in the farmyard as errant Maude seemed to gallivant thunderingly right off the edge of the world.  Each time I approach the intersection of highways 9 and 14, I recollect the frightening phone call my parents received when the Robinsons were injured in a traffic accident as they started their trip back home to North Carolina.  Happily, all turned out well; though shaken, they proceeded toward their native state.

Psychologist Dr. Roy Standahl, who I figured could read my mind and thought processes as he sat in our living room -- though usually he only cat-napped on our couch -- remains the most unusually patriarchal family-man I ever knew.  His wife Genevieve, tall, slender, glamorous, and a former college student of "Professor" Standahl, hailed from Minnesota and spoke with a quasi-Norwegian dialect.  Such families are the stuff of novels.  Daughter Dianna attended the University of Chicago and achieved a law degree (not that common for females in the 1950s), and our family attended her wedding at a campus chapel one hot "windy city" weekend; Jon, at 6' 6", constantly prepped for that eventual S.A.T. test; "baby" Jerry, though, claims first prize as the most comedic soul I ever had the good fortune to laugh at and with.  This happy tribe, dragging along their white Eskimo Spitz dog called "Snowball", visited us twice each summer, for a couple of decades, as they ventured to their lake cottage in Minnesota.  The good doctor always conducted a few psychological profiles of company employees so that any expense reports were decidedly legitimate.  One thrilling summer visit, Jon and Jerry brought several live turtles to us on their way back home -- I believe Mother may have located alternative "digs" for the transplanted tortoises as soon as the Standahls pulled out of the driveway?

Finally, my favorite threesome:  Charlie P., Martin and Reed -- almost sounds like the title of a familiar sixties folk-song, eh?  Charlie Perriello, as Italian as his name, horn-rimmed glasses, diminutive and soooo Woody Allen, always accompanied Reed Bertolette...those two, one from Waterbury, Connecticut and the other a Chicago native, represented Scovill Manufacturing Company and specialized in buttons, rivets, and zippers -- oh, my!  Martin Wimbs, a southern Michael Caine, bought me my first cribbage set, and we plopped down in the middle of the living room and competed for hours. I positively could not wait to grow up and marry all three of those guys, even though Martin's wife Nelle holds honors to this day as the prettiest and best cook ever ( I still pull out her recipe index card to prepare her southern chicken casserole each Thanksgiving!), and Reed's wife Martha impressed me as the top intellectual on this or any other planet.  Little "Donnie" Wimbs adored monkeys, and my dad kept him supplied with stuffed chimpanzee toys; "Skipper" Bertolette, also a typical fifties kid, I loved meeting when Martha and Reed invited the Duncans to "suburbia" a la Evanston, Illinois (home of Northwestern University) to attend MY FAIR LADY at Chicago's Shubert Theater, taxi-cab ride et al!

I swear that the disembodied voices of these fabulous fifties' and sixties' era visitors still reverberate inside my head...thought I just heard Reed the other day as he apologized, "Edna, I'm so sorry, love..how might I repay you?" while scuffling about extinguishing flames emanating from our maroon, dining room rug (earlier bequeathed to us by my South Carolinian, paternal grandmother) due to his dropped cigarette smoldering during a round of "chin-sy" poker with local Blue Bell foremen.  Or, Mr. Bertolette spouting poetry to two little girls who wore curlers and bobby pins in their hair right before bedtime, "At night their hair-dos are tight and kinky...but in daylight, do they look slinky!"  My prince charming, to be sure. Even allowed to stay up very late one Monday evening, Aprils ago, with Reed to watch Audrey Hepburn claim the 1953 Academy award for Roman Holiday as her black Maybelline or Helena Rubenstein or Hazel Bishop heavy-handedly applied eye make-up streamed down her face all mixed with tears!

If my irrepressibly good-natured mother judged that Daddy seemed to be springing "company for dinner" too inconveniently for her well-modulated house-hold and that he additionally expected impromptu suppers with corn-bread manufactured from "scratch", Club "30" happened.  Yay!  Our nationally famous, elegant dining establishment, more spectacular than Ft. Wayne's Cafe' Johnelle or English Terrace, may have previously served C.C. as a filling station and could be found situated on old Highway 30.  Dick and Sarah Stalhut, geniuses, operated the Thirty Club, replete with dessert trays, lobster newburg, swiss steak, the novelty of baked potatoes covered with sour cream, effervescent joke-telling bar-tenders (one of whom slipped my daddy a "Mickey Finn" once, much to Mother's chagrin), leopard-skin upholstery, circular booths of padded leather, bubbling fountains, individual hurricane-type lamps at each table, twinkling lights, cloth napkins (My little nephew Jimmy, during his first dining experience at the "club", squealed, "Oh, look, party hats!" as he placed an intricately folded napkin upon his head.), several rooms --i ncluding a cloak room (!), a waiting lounge stocked with hors d'oeuvres to assuage hunger, organ music, cigarette smoke, clinking ice and toothpick speared olives in pretty glasses holding liquor drinks, Shirley Temple Cocktails for Kids, shrimp cocktails, husky-throated waitresses...UPTOWN atmosphere!  Decadent?  Hmmmmm.  Fun and scrumptious?  Two thumbs up!  Since most of the Blue Bell affiliated executives headquartered in big cities, this divine dining location got botched and upgraded in translation...to these fellows, the Stalhuts orchestrated CLUB "30" !  (Side-note:  My father fully cooperated with the Thirty Club "suggestion" on Wednesday evenings especially, as he sincerely believed one of the cooks at Rotary Club was gradually attempting to poison him--thus, willfully he skipped meeting with fellow Rotarians via a justifiable excuse and was not required to make up his absence at a neighboring club.  Sarah Stalhut loved Daddy and never entertained a single homicidal thought toward him--certainly not in front of his out-of-town business associates at any rate.)

A guilty pleasure of mine: the AMC cable-confection MAD MEN, the title a take-off on the advertising kingdom of New York's Madison Avenue.  Upon garnering an Emmy award recently, a spokesman hurried onstage and waved the trophy at the audience as he exclaimed, "We earnestly wish to thank the dozen viewers who watch and appreciate our production!"  Limited viewership, but fantastic award-winning retro-depiction of businessmen of the fities-sixties era.  I adore the limited series, because fortunately I grew up in a household crawling with proto-types of just such charming individuals.  For me, MAD MEN qualifies as reality-television!

Susie Sexton is a lifetime Columbia City resident. She and her husband, councilman Don Sexton, have one son, Roy, of Detroit.


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