To Be Honest
The Little Postscript
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Thornburn’s days as a junior high school came to an end in 1953. Martha would vaguely say that it had been “built on quicksand,” although it did not sink away beneath the Urbana horizon but in fact was later utilized as a community activities center. At any rate the brand-new Urbana Junior High opened its doors, and one of the new teachers hired to teach English there was Annie Mlinarich of Fairmont City, Illinois, near East St. Louis. She temporarily bunked in with Martha and Sherry at their new apartment on Stoughton Street, and they hit it off so well that Annie remained for a couple of years.
That same year the Urbana Federation of Teachers was organized, electing Martha as its first executive secretary. “Who would have believed I’d ever come to this—Unions! Politics!!!” she wrote her parents. “...It seems I’m up for vice-president of the Teachers Union for next year. I said I’d accept on the one condition that I would not automatically go up for president the year after. Can you imagine me president of a labor organization? I wouldn’t know beans from buttons.”
When the year after rolled around, Martha duly took office as president.
(It might be mentioned that she loved Eve Arden’s television show Our Miss Brooks, but Joseph disliked it because it “made fun of teachers.” He much more approved of The Halls of Ivy, which starred Ronald and Benita Colman and was set at Ivy College in Ivy, U.S.A.)
Martha had made no effort to keep in touch with Murel Lewis after leaving Miami, not knowing about the letters that had been intercepted by Joseph and Mathilda. But around 1953 he managed to contact her, saying that his second marriage was not working out and he wanted to get back together with Martha. She did not take him up on it; and she did not hear from him again.
In the spring of 1954, Annie Mlinarich invited Martha to come see an old-fashioned Croatian wedding in Fairmont City. After the ceremony Annie appealed to her brother Nick to take Martha to the train station. Brother Nick retorted that this would interfere with a softball game he was to play in, but even so “he graciously dropped me off,” as Martha put it. The following autumn Nick visited Urbana on weekends, at first to see Annie and attend Illini football games, and then to call on Martha. “He liked me because I wasn’t an expensive date,” she would say.*
In appearance and approach Nick Mlinarich was cut from much the same cloth as the new senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater: dark-eyed, with prematurely white hair—“We thought he was an old man the first time we saw his picture,” Mathilda remarked—loud, blunt, never shy about letting you know what was on his mind, and (unlike Martha) gifted with the knack of going into a room full of strangers, being perfectly at ease, and striking up acquaintances left and right. He had worked as a machinist in a Milwaukee zinc plant; laid off at the age of thirty-six, he applied for a Civil Service exam but was deemed ineligible since he was over thirty-five, and his indignant letter to The Machinist about this eventually made the Congressional Record.† Nick had gone through a marriage and divorce and had two daughters, Lynne and Maureen, living with their mother in Milwaukee.
At a Halloween party in October 1954 Martha, Annie, and friend Pearl Gold parodied the Gabor sisters, appearing as the “Less” sisters—Aim, Hope, and Use. Martha came as Aim, and from then on Nick called her “Amy.”
1955 June 11. Hello my Sweet! It is a long time since I chatted with you... But today is a very important day, you are six years old. And you are such a sweet and serious little girl for your age. Everyone tells us how mature you are for a six year old. But no wonder, your Mother, your Uncle George, and all their friends are treating you like a grown up person, and talk to you that way, so you really are like a ten year old at least. You are visiting with your Grandfather and me for two weeks now and we are so glad to have you here with us. You are no trouble at all and a very nice company for Grandpa especially. Tomorrow, Sunday, we are planning a big birthday party for you...
1955 June 25. You had a lovely party for your birthday... On the 17th, your Mama, Uncle George, and Nicky came in to pick you up and take you back home. I went along too for the weekend to be at the wedding, because your Mama and Nick got married on the 18th of June, 1955. She looked so lovely and very happy on that day, but so did you Sherry. You had on a very pretty nylon dress, pale pink with roses on it, and you stood up next to Nicky and Mommy holding the ring on a small silk cushion and looked on so solemnly, listening to every word. I didn’t know whom should I look at, you or your Mother, you both looked just lovely, and I loved you both so much.
Well I am home in Chicago again with just Grandpa, and our house seems so quiet without you my darling. But we are hoping you could come again for a visit very soon, and stay for a couple of weeks before the summer is over. I am saving your sixth birthday cards for a souvenir. I guess we won’t make another [party] till you graduate from the eighth grade. I hope we all will be well, and living, to celebrate it with you. So long Sherry, my sweet and darling granddaughter. You don’t know how much your grandparents love you, and always looking forward for the day you could visit with us here in Chicago. Lovingly—Grandma.
Martha and Nick were married at the Holshousers’s house by Arnold Westwood, Phil Schug’s successor as Unitarian‡ minister in Urbana. Nick joined Martha and Sherry at the Stoughton Street apartment, taking his sister Annie's place; he was going back to college to get his industrial education degree, so as to find a job teaching high school shop.
Friends who knew both Martha and Nick predicted that their marriage would not last four weeks, and the Mlinariches’s first year together was indeed a rough one. Nick was a stickler when it came to punctuality, and once after a teachers’s meeting when Martha was ten minutes late, she and Nick went tightlippedly home without exchanging a word between them. Quarrels were not settled by being talked out, but only with the passage of time. Finally Nick forced Martha to break her bottled-up silences and clear the air. Living with him taught her the “when and how” of dealing with people; living with her taught him to give a little and take things easier. And their marriage lasted longer than four weeks.
To a great extent Sherry was forever afraid of Nick, who was loud and strict and wanted everything right-this-minute, shouting at the scared-to-death Sherry if she were late. But certainly Nick was always more open than Martha, who still tended to clam up rather than raise her voice. “If there was anything I wanted to do that was fun,” Sherry would say, “I’d ask him rather than Mother.” And in time her stepfather was to evolve from Nicky to Poppa.§
Whatever else happened, there were always Grandpa and Grandma to turn to.
1955 August. It seems my darling that each time I chat with you lately, is farther apart. I don’t know why, except probably old age creeps up on me, and I get more forgetful each day. You were with us here in Chicago almost all of August which we both or rather all three of us enjoyed it a lot. You are so grown up my dearest and don’t act like a baby anymore. Grandfather was teaching you “arithmetic” and marveled at how fast you are learning, and love it too. Soon you will start first grade in Urbana close to where you live, at Lincoln school. You are looking forward to it, and we all are very sure you will be a first class student just like your Mother and Uncle George were... So here is lots of good wishes for you too, my dearest little granddaughter, to be a happy student. We all love you, more than I can express it, but you feel it don’t you my dear?
The previous spring Joseph and Mathilda had left 1553 Devon after twenty-three years of living and working there. With $10,000 saved over the last decade they bought a house at 4505 N. Western Avenue, south of their old neighborhood, just northwest of Welles Park. The upstairs apartment was rented to a tenant and the new fur shop was downstairs, “on the main floor with more and better facilities for storing, repairing, and remodeling your furs,” as Joseph informed his customers. “We will pick up and deliver, and will do everything possible to keep your furs in the best condition.”
1956 August. My Darling Baby! You were here with us for one month during vacation... You weren’t very enthusiastic about going home, but we both tried our best to show why you have to, and in the end it was all OK. I am writing on this paper which isn’t too clean and easy to do. But I wanted to save it for you my dear. This is your very first [multiplication] studies Grandpa did with you. You will start second grade next September. You have a wonderful mind Sherry, you learned this multiplication table very quick and easy. But the best part was that you enjoyed it very much and Grandpa was real happy to do it with you...
“...He taught me so much. I learned time and letters and the continents... and math. I wonder if he was ever disappointed because I didn’t enjoy it the way he did.” Of the house on Western Avenue, Sherry was to say that “there were bars on the windows, but it was nice. Again, the store and shop were in front and they lived in back. And the big bear** stood in the corner of the store, with a piece of wood where one thumb should have been. And a basement full of fur coats and moth balls. Grandma had a garden in back. There were four-o’clocks and mint. Grandpa taught me how to play chess out there before I’d even started school. I used to help him in the shop too. I’d nail the skins down so he could spray and stretch them. And look at all the kinds of furs and patterns of lining. I used to very carefully print his name on the tags to hang on the coats. He’d let me use his lifetime-guaranteed fountain pen with the white dot on it and I’d feel so proud and important to be really helping him.”
Every evening Joseph would have a Pilsner glass of beer, offering Sherry the last few drops as he had with Martha when she was a child. One time at a big family dinner he gave Sherry a little glass of “golden something,” telling her it was wine. Not thinking she would like the taste, she drank it and did—and later found out it was apple juice. (One of the very few instances on record of Joseph consciously uttering a falsehood.) Despite such teasing, “he never laughed at me the way adults often do at children. Most people don’t realize that a child can really feel that, but he did. I used to sit on the back of his green chair and brush his hair for hours. But I always knew not to disturb him when he read the paper or watched the news with John Cameron Swayze. He always got the Chicago Tribune and when I was old enough he’d give me a nickle and stand at the doorway to watch while I ran as fast as I could to the news stand at the corner and back with the paper...”
When George visited Chicago in 1950 and encountered older relatives or his parents’s friends, they were usually curious why he was “always going to school.” Why did he not get a Real Job and “do art” on weekends? His graduate degree was a Master of Fine Arts with an art history option, and since his studies were mostly tutorials he had time to work as both a teaching assistant in sculpture class and a “reader-grader” in Art Appreciation, where he occasionally delivered lectures for Frank Roos.
By early 1951 George’s wartime savings and GI Bill money had begun to run low. “Poor George,” he captioned a photo of himself, “No money/NO job in sight/Et al.” In his field, the history of art and architecture, job prospects were less than abundant. Not much was available in museum work, and though George applied at a wide range of schools, there were very few teaching positions to be had. This was the Korean War’s effect upon higher education: the draft had begun again, with no college deferments, and universities were cutting back staffwise.
Rather as a surprise to everyone—himself not least—George was “backing into the teaching profession,” or at any rate was trying to. He received his master’s degree in June 1951, and the University of Oklahoma expressed interest in someone able to teach both sculpture and art history; but they lacked the budget to hire George. He had begun to wonder whether he had not better find work, and fast, in a craft such as carpentry, when news came of a possible opening at the University of Kansas City. George borrowed train fare from Joseph and arrived in Kansas City, Missouri, on July 5th. By mid-afternoon he had been hired as an instructor, and before the day was over he visited the grand and impressive Nelson Gallery of Art. It was actually closed that day but a compassionate guard took pity on George’s woebegone expression, and soon he was being shown some of the Gallery’s collections by Registrar Ross Taggart.
“There began one of those magical experiences which are truly unforgettable,” George was to recall. “We went through an almost totally dark building, and periodically Ross would switch on a light and wondrous things literally burst upon my vision... Cezanne, Van Gogh, Hals and Rembrandt, period rooms, and treasuries of Oriental art, which I could only guess at, paraded before me, or rather I paraded before them in the darkened museum...”
George returned to Chicago, marvelling at having “been catapulted from the edge of despair to a situation far better than I dreamed I could attain... I thought I had hit the jackpot of good fortune.” Joseph and Mathilda agreed; to have both children earning their living as bona fide teachers! And George doing so at a university! Certainly this was hitting the good-fortune jackpot.
When George went back to Urbana to prepare his move to Kansas City he found a letter informing him that, in light of the Korean War, the United States Air Force was recalling him to active service. An attempt to arrange deferment was rejected by a colonel who had been a professor at the University of Florida before himself being recalled; so George had to give up the Kansas City job. At which point the University of Oklahoma wrote to say they would be able to budget a position after all, and was George still available?
At Randolph Air Force Base in Texas it quickly became apparent that the World War Two radar operators whose surnames began with A, B, and C were not adjusting well to flight in jet interceptors. Most of the other retreads, further down the alphabet, were consequently sent into the “pipeline” that shipped them to reactivated B-29s in Korea; but there was a shortage of qualified radar instructors outside the pipeline, at its beginning at Randolph Air Force Base. There just happened to be “a small clutch of us” available—those whose surnames began with D, E, and F; and among these was George.
So for over a year he taught radar operation to airmen in Texas. Occasionally the instructors had to fly as a crew, to demonstrate their own proficiency. Tobacco smoke in the plane's close quarters gave George a constant throat inflammation that was treated with various new medications, some of them causing dreadful side effects. His military career in fact culminated in the hospital, having a double hernia attended to.
George was discharged in January 1953 and decided to return home via Kansas City so as to at least see the place a second time. He unwittingly wandered onto the KCU campus smack in the middle of what came to be known as “The Revolution,” when four deans quit over differences with the university president, five hundred students engaged in a mass boycott of classes, and finally the president himself resigned. Not till considerably later would George find out about this; at the time he simply went from office to office, being told that each person he wanted to see “wasn’t in,” with no indication why they were out or when they would return. The thoroughly annoyed George finally left Kansas City in a to-hell-with-them mood, and went back home to Urbana.††
Having put aside a year’s military pay, he was no longer desperate to find work, but neither did he want to live off his savings; so he took a job as draftsman at the University of Illinois’s digital computer lab and later discovered that, as a civil service employee, he could return to school tuition-free. “From many aspects, going back to school for a Ph.D. seems to be a very wise choice,” he wrote his parents, “since it will complete my formal schooling while I am still young... If I do stay at Illinois for the Ph.D. then I can make arrangements to work and go to school. This is ideal... And of course I am looking for a teaching job. I might not be making two chairs to sit in, Dad, but it is a long bench.”
(One of Joseph’s maxims was “You mustn’t fall between two chairs.”)
While in Jamaica during World War Two, George had bought his father an Omega pocket watch, remembering the story of how Joseph had sold his to raise money for the family’s passage to America. Joseph had been greatly moved by George’s gesture, but when his son mentioned he was now thinking of getting himself a pocket watch since wristwatches interfered with his work as a draftsman, Joseph offered him the Omega; he had never used it. George would wear the Omega for many years, keeping it on a chain that had once belonged to Jenka néni.
Illinois has no doctoral program in art history, but an unusual interdisciplinary program was set up for George in the Social Implications of Art in American History. “While technically I was pursuing a Ph.D. in history,” he would remark, “I was in fact doing something very strange in the context of that discipline.” Beginning in the Fall of 1953, George had seven years to complete all the requirements for his doctorate. He took two seminar courses that semester and another two the following spring, working forty hours a week at the same time. All in all it was an exhaustive pace, although George found his job at the digital computer lab more interesting than he had expected. In fact, as the months passed he was very tempted to switch fields and concentrate on computers.
But he continued trying to become an art historian, and in this he was aided by Allen Weller, who had replaced Frank Roos as Head of the Art Department and was very good about recommending George for jobs. In the spring of 1954 he informed George of an opening for an art history teacher at the University of Nebraska and George applied, only to be told that the position had just been filled by a Mr. Fehl. This happened to be the same Mr. Fehl who had taken the job at Kansas City that George had been obliged to give up in 1951.
“It was so tempting to bring the circle full around,” George would say, that he immediately applied for the KCU vacancy. His not knowing about The Revolution delayed matters until he was put in touch with the new dean, John Barnett, and it wasn’t till the end of August that George returned to Kansas City “so I could play out the game to its conclusion.”
Once there he had to wait an hour for the detained Dean Barnett, who that very morning had injured his eye on a shrub while putting out the trash. A hideous summer heat wave was going on, and the lightweight summer suit George wore to his interview felt like heavy tweed. The whole KCU situation seemed not only less than comfortable but definitely unpromising, and George came away from the interview wondering why he should leave his home, his friends and family, the computer world, and free tuition for his doctoral program—all to come to Kansas City, MO.
However, he was nearly thirty now and did indeed want a chance to try his hand at teaching art history. Unlike 1951, George had certain conditions he wanted met before taking a job at KCU; among them, he resolved that he should be offered no less than $3600 a year. When the University’s offer came, it was for $3700, and all of George’s other conditions were satisfied. In September 1954 he at last began teaching as an Instructor at the University of Kansas City.
He became friends with dapper Al Varnado, another ex-Air Force navigator who was the new Assistant Director of the KCU Playhouse. As Al’s pal, George not only watched tryouts at the Playhouse, but created a “dreadful expressionistic green nude” for the landlord’s painting in My Sister Eileen and a “strange wooden nonrepresentational” sculpture for a play directed by Mort Walker, who in the spring of 1955 asked George to design the set for Don Giovanni. That summer he stayed in Urbana with the newlywedded Mlinariches,‡‡ building a small balsawood model of this set while continuing work on his doctorate. Returning to Kansas City in September, he was introduced by Mort Walker to a young woman with greenish eyes and auburnish hair: “This is Mila Jean Smith, who has been abroad.”
(She had just returned from a year in Europe on a Fulbright scholarship.)
Mila Jean—whom most people called Jean but whom George was mostly to call Mila—was twenty-three, a native Kansas Citian and KCU alumnus who had worked backstage on many Playhouse productions, appeared onstage in several (most notably as Mary in Juno and the Paycock) and incidentally had participated in The Revolution’s mass class-boycott. Now doing the costuming for Don Giovanni, she and George were together a lot that autumn—first with the rest of the Playhouse crowd and then on their own. George found himself getting “clearly emotionally entangled” with this ebullient young woman, taller than he was and seven years his junior; she, as it happened, was getting entangled with him.
He went to Urbana for the Christmas holidays and invited Mila Jean to join him there to see in the New Year: “Martha (my sister) and Nick (her husband) are standing by, full of eagerness. Sherry (my niece) will be with Grandpa and Grandma in Chicago all next week. This means there are two roll-away beds available. I’m on one—Sherry’s is open. But in the event this cozy, European-type informality is too much—Don and Marion Holshouser are standing by, also full of eagerness... Everyone is eager.”
Mila Jean stayed with the Holshousers, met George’s family, and saw in 1956 with George. Who would remark, “I certainly didn’t get down on one knee,” but by January he and Mila Jean had decided to get married.
“Dearest Jean!” wrote Mathilda, “I wanted to tell you my dear, how happy we all are, to have you as a member of our family. But specially, Dad and I welcome you as a daughter with open arms. It sure took our boy a long time to find his girl. Thank Heaven he finally did find her, and that she is you.”
George and Mila Jean were married on May 26, 1956, at the All Souls Unitarian Church in Kansas City. George’s family was unable to come (“We are standing up with you in Spirit,” Mathilda wrote) but on June 16th the newlyweds were again married, this time by Arnold Westwood at the Holshousers’s in Urbana. Mathilda and the Mlinariches were present this time, and “there was a reading, ‘Marriage’ from The Prophet,” Sherry would recall, “after which they promptly shared a single glass of champagne.”
During the summer of 1956 they sublet Arnold Westwood’s house in Urbana, where they had a “thesis corner” with two separate tables; George continued work on his doctorate and Mila Jean on her master’s thesis. In August they went back home to Kansas City, moving into an apartment north of the KCU campus. George was now an assistant professor and Mila Jean discovered that she too had been promoted: the frog test’s results were positive, with the ultimate result due to arrive the following March.
It made its presence increasingly felt in various ways, earning the working name of Thumper. George and Mila Jean got a Baby’s Diary and prepared to begin chronicling; Thumper had other ideas about this and stayed put where it was. The diary’s first entry was made on March 20, 1957, when Mila Jean disgruntledly wrote: “Due, but that’s all.” Not until April Fool’s Day would labor pains commence, and on April 2 the thoroughly-overdue Thumper arrived with a full head of hair and a disgruntled expression of his own.
Three days later the KCU News announced that “the latest Production announced at the Playhouse last Wednesday was Paul Stephen Ehrlich”—the Little Postscript.
Sherry now had her “first first cousin,” and mightily resented his existence. All the treasures her longtime bachelor Uncle George owned that Grandpa’d said she would someday inherit, such as the twenty-four volume set of Mark Twain’s Complete Works, were now going to go to This Boy. Grandpa and Grandma had This Boy for a grandson, and it seemed inevitable to Sherry that she would be relegated to second place. On Memorial Day Grandpa and Grandma even went to Kansas City to see and be photographed with This Boy, and Grandpa almost never left Chicago nowadays except for the annual vacation to St. Petersburg!
But Sherry need not have worried; she had not been the Little Princess for nearly eight years for nothing. In July the Mlinariches came out to Kansas City and a picture was taken of Paul Stephen in Sherry Renée’s lap. She had on her prettiest smile and he a “what the hell’s going on now?” goggle.
So by mid-1957 Joseph and Mathilda could look about and see both their children teaching for a living, both married, and both with children of their own. The Ehrlichs’s splendid dream of achieving the all-around Good Life had apparently come true; and the future seemed very bright.
Proceed to Chapter 18 of To Be Honest
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* Though an inexpensive date,
Martha was a high-flying one: during the summer of 1954 she and nine
other Illinois schoolteachers got hands-on training how to pilot a
plane. (She knew it was time to lower the landing gear when she
could see the grass from the cockpit.)
† The Machinist for April 7, 1955 (p. 3) recaps the chain of events, leading up to the U.S. House of Representatives outlawing age limits on hiring for government jobs.
‡ George formally joined the Unitarian church in the spring of 1955 (following a car accident the previous December that wrecked his Oldsmobile).
§ Martha took the surname Mlinarich, sometimes using "Lewis" as a middle name; Sherry was not adopted and retained the surname Lewis.
** Called Muszka bácsi, “Uncle Russian (Muscovite).”
†† Initially he stayed with the Lewises, and Martha reported to her parents that “a stabilizing whirlwind in low gear has come to roost at 1010.”
‡‡ Whose household now included a dog called Mike who, when he wanted attention, would get into the car and blow the horn. After Mike died in 1956, he was succeeded by a tiny dog called Little Mike who shivered so pitifully during cold weather that he had to be dressed in Sherry's doll clothing.
Last updated August 22, 2009
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