Biographies & Memoirs



ANNABEL STUMM WAS born outside Taylorville, Illinois, on the family farm. Her father, William, was of Dutch stock, had been adopted as a boy, and that is all I ever learned about his family. Her mother, Anna Gleeson, was a second-generation Irish American whose own mother immigrated to America on a sailing vessel. How the two families came to farm in Illinois I was never told. It wasn’t a closed subject, but simply never an open one. Because I was a late child and my relatives were a good deal older, it belonged to the past. William must have operated a billiard parlor in Taylorville, or perhaps the smaller town of Stonington, because someone pasted his tiny newspaper advertisement from 1901 in a family album.

After William died Anna moved her family to Urbana so two of her sons could attend the university. She opened a boardinghouse for students, and in that establishment Annabel was raised with her brothers Everett, Robert, and William, and her sisters Mary and Martha. There was another brother, Gleeson, a tow-headed playmate in old photographs, who died on the farm: “He fell down the steps carrying a bottle.”

One day in the 1970s I drove with my mother, Martha and Bill, and our cousin Bernardine Gleeson to visit the old farmhouse, which stood, abandoned by later tenants, open to the weather. They walked cautiously inside and thought maybe they remembered one patch of wallpaper. They were shocked by how small it was: “How did our whole family ever fit in here?” There was a creek at the bottom of the yard and my mother remembered they ran barefoot to it all summer long. This was almost the only time I ever heard them discuss their brother who had died there.

I read the memoirs of Europeans who trace their ancestry back for centuries. My ancestors appeared as if from nowhere in the New World, and I know so little about any relatives of the great-grandparent generation. They were Irish, Dutch, and Germans, immigrating on my mother’s side from need and on my father’s side from the demand for skilled labor in the railroad shops. I only knew one of my four grandparents, Anna, who lived on Clark Street in Urbana with her children Bob and Martha, and Martha’s lifelong friend Jean Sabo. This house was always referred to by Annabel as Home.

My parents were scarred by the Depression. My father lost his business. My mother, a decade younger and more vulnerable, remembered the hard times on the farm and the crowded boardinghouse where the boarders took precedence. I would take her on drives around town and sometimes our route would take us past the Champaign County Nursing Home. She always called it the “poor farm,” and predicted, “That’s where I’ll end up.” I told her I would not allow that, but the dread was too deeply embedded. I thought I could count on things to turn out right. She never learned to do that. For some time after I moved to Chicago, she didn’t know how to explain to her friends how I earned a living. “And does Roger still just… go to the movies?” she was asked.

Annabel and Mary were beauties. Martha, with whom I felt an instinctive sympathy, was plain. Everett, the oldest, was the vice president of a gravel quarry somewhere near Crystal Lake, Illinois. He was the only Republican in the family. His children Tom Stumm, a West Point graduate and retired colonel, and Marianne Dull, wife of a Colorado veterinarian, are my only first cousins on my mother’s side. Bill, Bob, and Martha never married. Bob, who wasn’t as smart, worked as a janitor at the University of Illinois library. He was always more of a bystander at family gatherings.

After high school, my mother attended secretarial school and then went to work for the Allied Finance Company, which had four rooms above the bank in downtown Urbana. Working outside the house was an unconventional, even dashing, decision. She was at one time president of the Urbana Business Women’s Association, and involved in some kind of infighting that inspired conspiratorial phone calls late into the night. When the owner of Allied Finance, Russell Willis, was drafted into the war, she managed the business by herself, hiring an assistant to help her repossess cars whose owners had fallen behind on their payments. Such deadbeats were known as “No Pays.” It was a term of disparagement, given meaning because she lived in lifelong fear of someday becoming a No Pay herself. The company supplied her with a car, so we had two cars in the driveway when that was rare. And there were two paychecks, so I grew up in security and comfort although I realize now my parents never really had much money.

When Walter returned to Urbana from Florida, I was told, he set eyes on Annabel and began courting her. They were a fashionable couple, both stylish dressers, he at the time with a movie star mustache, she with a knockout figure. After their marriage they lived in Tuscan Court, an Italianate apartment compound behind the Flat Iron Building in downtown Urbana. It was two blocks from Walter’s job at McClellan Electric before he got his university job, three blocks from Allied Finance. In about 1940 they bought 410 East Washington on a twenty-year mortgage.

During the war, my mother was a Gray Lady and left home two nights a week in her uniform to do wartime volunteer work. After the war, Russ Willis returned and hired his son, a nice enough man, but my mother felt hurt that he was promoted over her after she had kept the company running in the war years. Feminism was not heard of in those days, but she would have been in favor.

A great deal of Annabel’s life revolved around St. Patrick Catholic Church. It stood on Main Street, only half a block from Home. At three or four I began to think of the church as a realm apart from life, perhaps in another dimension, where the priest spoke an unknown language and moved through incense and music, vestments and processions, awesome and boring. Annabel wasn’t concerned with theology but with ritual, centering on the public display of devotion. She and some of her friends were much taken with a woman named Jean Shroyer, who lived in an apartment two doors down from the church and never missed a service, even attending every Mass on Sunday. In 1952 Jean made the Marian Year pilgrimage to Rome and returned with the papal blessing, holy water, Kodak slides, and prayer books. She began a study group devoted to the Virgin, which they all attended, and was greeted in our home as a temporal saint. My father remained detached during these occasions.

Walter and Annabel were stage parents, encouraging situations in which I might draw attention. When the Urbana Police started the Junior Police, it was my photograph that appeared in the paper, being fitted with my official hat. I remember not one thing more about the Junior Police. I heard over and over that I was “gifted,” although I never had any special gifts in school other than those, like reading and writing, that seemed to come naturally. Much was made when, in the eighth grade, I won an essay contest held by Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, north of Urbana. Again my picture was in the paper. My award, a desk pen, was presented by David Dodds Henry, president of the University of Illinois. That such a great man would officiate at an essay contest for eighth graders strikes me as peculiar.

My mother’s life revolved around our family, her family, and her job. I often visited the Allied Finance offices, where Mr. Willis supplied me with a copy of Swiss Family Robinson and allowed me the use of a typewriter on which I taught myself to hunt and peck more or less the way I do today. When we went outside for lunch at Mel Root’s or the counter at Smith Drugs, everybody knew Annabel. To be a “businesswoman” was a form of celebrity, and her friends included Frances Renner, president of Urbana Home Loan, whose husband was later to be framed in the death of my dog Blackie.

There was some kind of upheaval at Allied Finance, unclear to me, and Annabel left the company. It may have involved the promotion of a man into a job she thought should have been hers, and there were endless evening phone conversations that could be overheard but not understood. In about 1956 she went to work as the bookkeeper for Johnston’s Sport Shop in Champaign, and I got a Saturday job there at fourteen, as a salesclerk. After my father died in 1960, she supported us as a bookkeeper for a plumbing supply and two florists. She paid off the family home and sold it, and we rented a two-bedroom house a few blocks north, which is where I lived while going to the university.

In all those years there were half-understood conversations about the fact that Jean Sabo continued to live at Home with my grandmother, Martha, and Bob. She and Martha had met in nursing school; Jean became an army nurse, took an apartment after the war, and later moved in. Martha was the youngest, and always the most self-confident, and she announced that Jean would be moving in as a fact. Anna Gleeson died in 1960, attended by all of her children, and Jean and Martha continued to live together, eventually buying homes where Bill joined them after retirement. Not once was the relationship between Martha and Jean ever discussed in my hearing.

Annabel began to date a man named George Michael, who had lived with his late wife, Berenice, a few blocks down Maple Street. He was an accountant for the university’s computer division. Stable, reticent, a pipe smoker, he introduced her to the social life of the American Legion post in Urbana, and for the first time in her life she began to drink. I started drinking in college at about the same time, and gradually we both began drinking more. One night I returned early to our house and found Annabel and George in bed together. I went to my room and after half an hour George came in and told me he loved my mother and he “planned to do the right thing.” They were married in a simple ceremony in the St. Patrick rectory and there was a little reception at Home. “Now you listen to me,” Martha said, as she often did. “George Michael is a good man and he likes you. He has his work cut out for him with your mother.”

He bought a new three-bedroom house on Vawter Drive in a new subdivision and told me, “All of my life I’ve dreamed of a house like this.” There were happy times there, as I essentially lived my life on campus and moved into my fraternity for one semester. But the social life at the Legion post expanded into more drinking, more for Annabel than George, and there began to be arguments centering on Annabel’s jealousy of Berenice; let her find one thing in the house that had belonged to her, and George was “holding on to it.” This reached such a pitch that in 1964 I moved out for good and rented an attic apartment on Green Street, near campus.

George and Annabel sold the house and became managers of a nearby apartment complex, living rent free. I by now had spent a year in Cape Town and was living in Chicago, where they would visit for Cubs games. One day my mother called and said George had moved out. He disappeared without a word, reportedly went to live in California, and I never heard another word from him. “I’m not surprised,” Martha told me. Annabel went to the church to have the marriage annulled, for reasons never clarified: “It’s between me and the church.”

Although alcoholism was in my family, my parents never drank during my formative years, and my memories of life at 410 East Washington are of happiness and encouragement. I had an idyllic childhood, and no more than the usual tumultuous adolescence. I can see now that the Daddy I knew was preceded by a different young man who left to try his luck in Florida. After he stopped drinking, he retired completely into our family and his work. He had no separate social life with friends and never went to places where drinking was expected. That must have been the nature of his bargain with alcohol. He was a rock of my childhood. I wonder what he was really thinking. I know my parents were mostly happy together and in love.

My mother passed all those years in innocence of alcohol. George wasn’t responsible for her change, but only the occasion for it, and I don’t believe he was an alcoholic. He was kind to me and patient with my mother. I often saw them happy together and enjoyed being with them. But as I understand alcoholism, Annabel’s first drink filled a place in her she never knew existed, and she was not a person who could drink. I took her to an AA meeting in Chicago once, at which she told the group she was so proud of me for all I was doing to help them. She didn’t believe I was really an alcoholic, and she knew she wasn’t.

People liked Annabel. She was funny, chatty, a character. She made an impression. Whenever I return to Champaign-Urbana, I meet people who smile when they remember her. Her employers liked her. Neighbors, friends, companions, nurses. Students she met when she was working in the office at Hendrick House, the student residence owned by her friend and mine, Betsy Hendrick.

My mother continued to smoke and drink. She moved into a new two-bedroom apartment and began to employ women to look after her. The first of these was Ruby Harmon, whom we’d known since she started doing my family’s laundry in the 1950s. Ruby was her best and most loyal friend, and one day in the 1980s she called me and told me there was something I should know: My mother was drinking too much and had to be put to bed drunk every night, “although she pulls herself together when you visit.” She was being treated for emphysema and osteoporosis. I was then three or four years sober and called her doctor to tell him this news. My mother must have guessed my source of information and banished Ruby from her life. I don’t believe the doctor took me very seriously; Annabel would have never let him suspect the nature of her drinking.

What then followed were a series of enablers, some who drank with her, some who did not. Her emphysema worsened, she grew thin and frail and moved into a nursing home. Here she couldn’t drink, and our conversations grew happier. Betsy Hendrick and her daughter Becky were regular visitors, like members of the family. Karol Ann and Dwayne were always helpful. Other friends filled her room. The nurses told me with some pride that she insisted on always looking her best for her visitors.

She continued to smoke, and when she was on oxygen would remove the tube to have a cigarette: “Honey, it’s all I have left.” Her circulation began to fail, her blood pressure dropped too low, and she was moved to Mercy Hospital, where I had been born. In her last days she fell into a coma, although when asked how she was, she would faintly reply “fine.” On her last day and night, she recited the Hail Mary unceasingly, hour after hour. At four that morning she seemed to fall into a deep sleep, and I told a nurse I’d go home for a nap. She looked at me curiously but hesitated to tell me what she must have been thinking. At six that morning, I received the call that my mother had died. I fell to my knees and sobbed.

I remember her with a sense of great loss. She was a good mother during all the years that counted. After my father’s death she worked full-time to help me in school. I never felt a moment’s poverty, and after her death I found an old checkbook and was astonished to find that during some years her income was little more than $2,500. We must also have been living on the proceeds of the house my parents bought. She never asked me for money from my News-Gazette job but was happy for me to take her out for dinner.

She was smart and canny. In the 1970s I sent her on a trip to Europe and she found her way around easily and came back loaded with stories. She made friends everywhere. In Ireland, she bonded with my friend John McHugh’s family. In line at the Rome airport, the people behind her heard her name and introduced themselves as the Rotarians who’d met me when I got off the plane in Cape Town. The tension between us grew during the 1970s as we both drank more, and possibly became worse for her when I stopped drinking in 1979. But she never let down her guard or expressed a single worry about herself. She was always “fine.”

Don and Ruth Wikoff, our old neighbors, ran her funeral from the Renner-Wikoff Chapel. Martha, Bill, Jean, cousin Bernardine from Stonington, and Karol Ann and Dwayne Gaines and Jimmy and Bev Pickens, cousins from my father’s side, stood with me. Ruby Harmon came and hugged me and said, “She always loved you, Roger, and I always loved her.” I told her she had done the right thing by calling me.

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