Mary Ann Collins - Transcript

Transcript of Elston Elston
Interviewee: Elston Elston
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren and Howard Clauser
Place: 5555 N Sheridan Road, Chicago, IL
Date: July 21, 2014
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren, notes in brackets by Elston Elston
Time: 59:32

Copyright © 2015 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is August 29, 2014 and I’m at the home of Elston Elston. My name is Dorothy Nygren and I’m with Howard Clauser. We’re with the Edgewater Historical Society interviewing Elston Elston about her life experiences. Elston is a long time resident of Edgewater. Elston, how long have you lived in Edgewater?

EE: In Edgewater, twenty one years.

DN: And you’ve lived all that time here at the Edgewater Beach Apartments?

EE: That’s right.

DN: And you’ve seen a lot of changes over the last twenty one years?

EE: Oh my. I have a stack literally this high, a stack of these memos that we get each month way back to the time when I moved in. [1993] We had one lady in the office doing all the work. Then we were generous. We gave her two people to help her. Years later, we had somebody, a company, come in. [Note: Edgewater Beach Apartments Board of Directors made a decision to hire a management company.]

DN: I’d like to go back to your early years, your early childhood or when you first came here. You said you were a child of the Depression. And over the years you’ve seen the good and the bad, and the worst. Let’s start going back to when you were a little child. Maybe you could give us a little bit of your background. Were you born in Chicago?


EE: No. Massachusetts. Webster, Massachusetts. We moved down to Virginia when I was [a] pre-toddler. We developed a diary subsidiary, a produce farm with a garden and fruit trees.

Of course, when the Depression hit us, everything that we had was auctioned off. I can still remember my parents crying and the tractors and planters and everything one by one …. The auctioneer was going, “Da, da, da , da”….and “sold” and “sold.” Everything got sold except for one or two things. Maggie. She was my horse. She was my gift when I was three and a half years old. My daddy said, “You’ve always loved the horses. This is your horse.” Nobody wanted Maggie. Nobody. She didn’t get auctioned off because she was not a plow horse. I rode that horse from the time I was three and a half. I remember things clearly; the good things and the bad things. I remember I ended up in a ravine one time. My daddy revved up the tractor and Maggie just took off, turned around and instead of going across the bridge, she flew across the ravine, which was only about seven or eight feet wide and it was about seven feet deep. She flew. She was at home in half a minute. But I ended up in the ravine. I was up [to my waist] this deep in water. I was holding up a pack of grain, because my daddy said, “I don’t think we’ll need any more. Take it home.” So there I was down in the ravine, but I was holding the grain above my head, because I knew that it would be ruined, couldn’t be planted if it got wet. My daddy came running from his tractor. He said, “Ha, Ha.” Oh, he thought it was so funny. I didn’t think it was funny. I didn’t have that kind of sense of humor. I can still hear him laughing because he found me down in that ravine. That I remember as if it was yesterday.


EE: And of course, having lost everything, as it turned out, nobody wanted the farm anyway. So my older brother who was eighteen or maybe nineteen at the time pleaded, “I’d like to buy it. Nobody wants to bid on the farm.” So they set a price and said, “Take it or leave it.” And he said, “I’ll take it, but I’ll have to end up with two jobs at the pulp mill to start paying it off.” I remember…. He became of sorts the father. [Note: He managed the farm and took responsibility for five kids and my mother.] My daddy went off looking for work, as if he was going to find work. Everybody was looking for the same thing. He went off. Here we were. Our implements were gone. No machinery, no horses. So my brother had to round up a few dollars to buy back some of the horses a plow and a planter so he could get started again so at least we could do some of the farming. That in essence is what it amounts to what it was when I was little.

DN: So you lived on a farm until you were how old?


EE: I guess I was at least seven or eight, maybe not quite that during the time when we shipped our corn, soy, peas and beans off. There was a train at that time that came into the town and it [the crops] got hauled off to Richmond. But when it got to Richmond, there were no takers. Everything got taken back. I can still remember the corn and wheat dumped in piles like haystacks to rot.

DN: Amazing, because people in the cities were starving and there was the corn and wheat rotting.


EE: Nobody would buy it and what could we do with it? So as it turned out, the farm ended up going under and had to be auctioned as I said before. Eventually when the war came around and they were looking for guys to draft. They decided to draft my brother, my oldest brother. They said, “You can’t farm your little farm.” He went off to New York where there was a great big milk company. He ended up working for the milk company instead of going to war because he was the bread winner. You might say that was really the end of the farm. Once we had orchards; we had strawberry gardens; we had blueberries. You name it. Of course we had many many cows because we had the milk that was hauled over to the diary. That was where they processed it, because you couldn’t sell raw milk.


DN: What was your path from the farm to Chicago? How did you end up in Chicago from this little farm?

EE: I was at Yale during World War II. [Note: My sister told me that Yale was seeking women for their professional program and I applied for admission.] I ended up marrying a Yalie, who ended up taking a job in Chicago. And I loved Chicago. It has its problems but I love it. If I had to pick out one place where I would live for the rest of my days, I would live here. I love it.

HC: So when you first came to Chicago, where did you live? What was that like?


EE: Well apartments were hard to find. We found one of the smaller hotels where we ended up taking a place, right along….I guess it was actually Clark Street by the park. For us, it didn’t look very fancy. For us, we’re from New York and Connecticut, where everything seemed huge. And the trains in Chicago always looked liked toys, rather than real trains. Everything looked smallish, but we got used to it. Coming to Chicago in 1947, I can tell you what I first did.


EE: I decided I would take my portfolio and hunt for a job. I’ll go the Board of Education. Maybe I’ll start teaching, although Yale did not want me to go for teaching. They said that I should paint because my paintings would bring more joy to people than maybe my teaching would. So anyway, there I am [at the Chicago Board of Education] with my big portfolio. You name it; it was this fat. I said, “I’m looking for a job.” They said, “Oh yes, we have a …. Let’s see your credentials. You can teach at our colleges.” I said, “No, no. I don’t want to teach in colleges. I want to teach in high schools.” They looked and said, “You can’t teach in high school. You’re not qualified.” I said, “What? Look at my portfolio. I’m not qualified?” “Nope. You don’t have psychology. You have not had classroom training. You have to put in X number of months in practice teaching. You have to fulfill all the other… art history, etc.….” Well I had a lot of art history, but in particular, not teaching art history, and not teaching this and teaching that. “Just because you know how to paint doesn’t mean you know how to teach it.” So there I was at Northwestern [University] picking up the credits. I picked up all the credits. Finally, they said, “OK. Now you have to go and take the test.” So you take the English test; you take the Art History test; and you have a Teaching Art Practical Test. So one by one I did that. Ok. I’m ready.


“Now the trouble is we don’t have an opening. OK, you can sub.” So they told me I could go to Austin [High School], clean across the city from where we were living. I loved it. It was like a little college. I loved it. The only thing [was] the teacher came back. She said, “I want my job back and I’m still within the time I can take it.” Next thing I went to Hyde Park [High School], which is clean across the city, the opposite way. So I was there for awhile waiting for something to open and sure enough at Waller [High School]…. I guess it was 1949 when it opened up for me and I ended up at Waller. I loved Waller. It was a melting pot, just wonderful kids. It really was a wonderful situation. I had a very good feeling about the city.


But you know I had some extra time. During the time Korean vets were coming back, the Hines Veteran Hospital was pleading for people to come help. I said, “Sure. Where’s your art department?” “Art department?” Sure, what do these convalescing soldiers do to keep their minds off their wounds, their injuries? I’ll set up a department.” So I set up an art physiotherapy department and I had paraplegics, quadriplegics…. The people in the ward, some of them were definitely affected and they couldn’t leave the wards. So I rounded up stuff to take to the wards. And I worked with them for a couple of years. That to me brought me pleasure. I saw some of these people come alive again. They did all kinds of projects. One of them created an aquarium for the fish. He had a family in Texas. I helped him get the lumber. He actually built a chair for the little four year old child with a little armrest, sent that down. The person that was in the ward – he couldn’t leave because he was not an ambulatory – I came to him and he did sculpture and he loved it. That gives you an idea of what I spent some of my time on.

HC: At that time, where were you living? Were you still down on Clark Street?


EE: No, because I moved over to the Austin [High School] area because the school was on Pine Street. Then when I was shipped off to Hyde Park, I ended up taking a place on Dearborn; Dearborn just off of Schiller. I liked it. There was a riding stable there.

DN: I remember. There was one there.

EE: Yes, and you just went down the street half a block. You were right in the park, and guess what? This is where your next question is going to come in. I had riders, my Waller student riders. We rode along…. There’s a bridle path. Where do you think it went to? Right here. [Edgewater Beach Apartments Co-op] The turnaround was right here. I looked up at that building and thought I’d like to live there. Of course, it was a number of years before I did that. Every time we came up here, we rested our horses; we enjoyed the view [Edgewater Beach Hotel], looked at the flag pole right up there. That’s a wonderful place, I thought. The only problem was there was a notice in the newspaper that the city was going to put an expressway along the lake and it would be right between the buildings [Edgewater Beach Hotel and Edgewater Beach Apartments] and the water. And I said, “Oh my goodness: that building, that great big monumental palace. [Edgewater Beach Hotel] I’ll give it two years. You cannot have people cut off from the water. This is a resort.” Sure enough, a couple years later, the building was getting torn down. A company started to tear it down. The company went broke because the building was so strongly built. They went bankrupt pulling it down.


DN: Are you talking about the Edgewater Beach Hotel?

EE: The hotel. They took down most of, but this section, this one building. [Edgewater Beach Apartments] Originally I understand it was for people who came to Chicago, maybe honeymooners. When they honeymooned at the building, the actual hotel, they wanted another place perhaps a full hotel room or apartment. So if you look over here, where my table is in the dining room, underneath the table, there’s a little pedal. All you have to do is push down on the pedal and there’s an intercom. I would tell them what I want, and they would come in with trays.

DN: How remarkable!

EE: We had a maid…this little square (pointing west to another room) is actually a maid’s room. So everybody had a maid. But the hotel originally had….actually we still have, I believe nine maids. But at that time people had their own maid. It was a magnificent thing. Honeymooners wanted to stay here for the rest of the season, walk over, and jump in the water. When they destroyed… Once they put in the roadway, people had to cross the street. [Note: Edgewater Beach Hotel guests thought it a big deal and this factor contributed to its decline.] I don’t think it’s a big deal. Cross the street and you’re right at the lake. So I think I still live in a resort. It kind of boggles my mind when people who live here get on one of those vessels; they call them cruise ships, to do what? To go to a resort! They’re in a resort [at the Edgewater Beach apartments].


DN: The amenities in this area are remarkable. Originally the Saddle and Cycle Club was developed as an extension of city amenities and people would come. And then the Edgewater Beach Hotel was developed. When the extension of the Outer Drive came about, it really was detrimental to the hotel.

EE: Before that roadway was put in, we had water taxis. You could call for a water taxi and they would water taxi to the downtown where you worked or lived. You had sailboats. You could moor your boat here. Actually I believe this block next to us used to belong to the Edgewater Beach Hotel.


DN: Let’s go back to when you were describing about the water taxi and the other amenities of this area when the Edgewater Beach Hotel existed.

EE: Going back to when you could take the taxi? When you wanted to go downtown, the water taxi would take you by water downtown and pick you up and deliver you back here if you wanted: the people who stayed here, not in the building that was torn down, but this one [Edgewater Beach Apartments].

At one time it was not owned by a group of people. Eventually there were shares placed on the spaces, so people could buy in. You bought not pieces of property; you bought X number of shares [in the Edgewater Beach Apartments Co-op]. The way they worked it, most of the apartments were three bedrooms, two bedrooms, or one bedroom. So it was available, affordable. For the longest time, they ended up with the maid service; you could still get room service until such time as the Board of Directors decided to part with the kitchen. We had a kitchen downstairs, and all the servants and the cooks and bakers. We ended up with a smaller version of it. We ended up with a little bakery like we have right now; all the little shops for things that you needed.

But going back to the sailboats, we no longer had direct access to the actual pier. I didn’t have a boat at the time. Eventually I had a sailboat, but I moored it downtown. They had a golf course from Foster at the end of the block. We had a golf course, picnic areas, etc. you name it. And of course the Cycle Club [Saddle and Cycle Club] which is still here. I understand is not going to be there too long.

DN: I don’t know anything about that.


EE: I think they’re talking about giving it up. So anyway, I came here in 1993. When I took the place, I said I’ll just have to redo it, completely redo it. So I tore down all the plaster. I plastered it personally….it took about three months.

DN: You’re a woman of many skills.

EE: I said, “I’m in the pink palace, what color am I going to paint it? Of course, pink.” But the pink [on the exterior facades] was kind of faded; pink has a way of fading. I painted my apartment with two tones of paint. I did my own decorating.

I had a bird, a little tiny finch. It was actually my daughter’s but she was too busy and said, “I’m too busy. You better take the finch.” It was cold; I thought the little finch would die; so I ordered up new windows. I don’t know how many thousands of dollars I put into those windows. It was really warm and cozy, but in the meantime that little finch ended up dying. That little heater I had was like putting a heater in an igloo. My windows have a story. [Note: They needed to be replaced because they were not considered historic because of one small detail. So workers came in with sledgehammers and knocked them out.] I was not the only person to put in windows. It was so cozy, we were saving money. We turned off the radiators. We didn’t need them. All these amenities that you couldn’t help but notice. The place was kept immaculate; beautiful hallways. We used to have chutes where you could put trash down the chutes. They ended up welding them shut. So they decided…the insects…

DN: Invading? You had unexpected house guests!

EE: That’s right. We ended up with an arrangement where they would have pick up. It’s a marvelous pick up. Is it three hours, two hours every day with pick up where they remove everything, new barrels down the line? You couldn’t ask for anything better.


DN: When I was talking to you on the phone you were telling me about the mural that you did at Senn High School so I wanted to make sure I asked you about that.

EE: Well in 1954 I got remarried and we decided I would leave Waller [High School]. We wanted to go to New York because I loved New York. It was the place to be. As soon as I got there, sure enough I found a job teaching at one of the high schools there. Then we decided you don’t put some things off because biology doesn’t always go your way. We decided sooner than later to have a family. So I ended up teaching for awhile and then my daughter was born but I couldn’t go back to teaching. When you’re in New York your child has to be fifteen months old before you come back.

Well in the meantime the principal at Waller said, “Please come back. You’re within the year limit and I’m holding up a space for you.” “Oh, my goodness.” Here I thought I was going to be in New York. Instead I thought, “Well, why don’t we go back [ to Chicago]?” because I had to finish all my requirements [to qualify for] a full time teaching job in New York. So we came back to Chicago, but instead of Waller [High School] because I couldn’t come back the month she wanted me to come back, so I ended up taking a spot at Sullivan [High School] and I was there for five years. Then I transferred to Senn [High School]. I guess I was at Senn for thirty years.

DN: Oh my. So you’ve seen a lot of changes at Senn?


EE: Oh my. Changes from A to Z. I cannot begin to tell you. If you look at those yearbooks that I have up there next to the top shelf, the top two or three rows, all you have to do is flip through the pages and look at the faces to see what country were they from: Korea, Afghanistan, Romania, Assyria, China, Cambodia, which is not Cambodia any more, and on and on. We had Cubans. It was like a League of Nations. In fact, I have something over there in the pack behind the flowers. (Pointing to a stack of books and folders.)

DN: In that box?

EE: There’s something I’ll show you later. The principal used to put out a little, what did she call it? A facts book. She showed how many countries… We had people from fifty nine countries. In fact, each time we had this big influx of new people… We had a China corridor; we had an Assyrian corridor; we had a Cuban corridor; we had a Latino corridor.

DN: Do you mean in the neighborhood or at Senn?

EE: At Senn.


DN: Now this is really very interesting to me because I’m working on an exhibit that deals with immigration in Edgewater and you experienced that at Senn with all the immigrants that came through your classroom.

EE: Oh I see what you’re saying. At Senn at the time that I came in… it was basically, my guess would be, about ninety five percent Jewish. The rest was Russian, Polish, a little bit of everything. But basically it was Jewish. The interesting thing about it is, I have a picture when the Senn kids… Come Christmas time, we actually made Christmas ornaments. I had them cutting up tin cans. They made these sparkly tin can ornaments. They put jewels on it. Senn had this great big tall tree probably thirty foot high. And these Jewish kids had ladders that surrounded the tree, and these kids decorated the tree until it was just aglow with ornaments. That part I remember because we had very studious kids. When I presented a lesson it would be like a college course and they just didn’t settle for just okay. They really didn’t. I still have some of the ornaments, believe it or not.


DN: I believe it. But what is impressing me about his is you’re talking all different…like a U.N. at Senn – a United Nation at Senn – and you’re talking about how people from one culture would contribute to another culture or religion; that that diversity within the school came about to produce something that was collective, and that where other areas there might have been discord between the different groups. Did you see that at Senn or did you see it coming together within the diversity that was there.

EE: It [Sullivan] was not the melting pot that Senn was; it [Sullivan] was basically Jewish, but Senn was integrated. They were all kids. I loved them. At Senn I set up a club, which I called The Aristocrats. We ended up going to opera. Sometimes I had fifty kids going to the operas. We went to the wrestling matches. We went to the different tours in Chicago. You name it. These people were anxious to get involved. I have two or three volumes just full of these Senn kids. Some of them were posing by the lion at the Art Institute. And everywhere we went I have pictures of these kids.

DN: When you said Sullivan kids [being Jewish], I do not understand. Did they come from a grammar school to Sullivan, or was this just …

EE: They were in the [Sullivan] area.

DN: Oh in the area. So was it just the Jewish kids or was it other groups, other ethnic groups, too?

EE: I can’t tell you for sure. I think at that time you could say all of them were from the same area. At that time, kids couldn’t go to just any school. So if you lived in a particular area, you went to the school in the area. So if they lived in the Sullivan or Senn area, that’s where they went.

DN: So the area you were teaching at Sullivan was predominately Jewish, but you said you saw changes over time where you saw the Korean corridor….

EE: No that was not when I was teaching [at Sullivan]. That was later at Senn.

DN: Oh that was later.

EE: I did not see any big changes because I was there only five years. Then I went to Senn.

DN: Was that the time you were doing the mural?


EE: Yes. I did the mural in 1987. I did a twelve foot high sculpture first, which is in the lunchroom. After that I did the mural. The way it happened: the kids wanted to give the school a gift, because they usually give the school a gift each year. They said, “Elston, here we are standing on this ramp waiting to get into the lunchroom and we’re looking at that big ugly wall. Why don’t you paint a mural there so we can look at something pretty while we’re waiting to get into the lunchroom?” So that’s why I did the mural.

DN: Did you do that during the school day, or after school?

EE: After school. [Note: Often I worked on the mural until ten o’clock at night.]

DN: Where did the funding come from, Elston?

EE: My little pocket.

DN: Oh, really? That was your gift to Senn then, wasn’t it?


EE: Well the kids gave a hundred dollars to the school. But yeah, well actually, teachers are not very rich, and art teachers in particular because they bring everything in. [Note: Elston supplemented with her own funds.] So rather than use artists’ oils, which you squeeze out of a little tube, I used household paint. Look; that’s a forty six long foot wall. It’s fifteen foot high. I painted a lot of walls before. So I went over to Ace Hardware and bought my gallons of paint, portioned it into little puddles, and I got up on a ladder and painted away. I came upon a design that is indisputable; not controversial but lovable. What might that be? It would be a landscape. So I proceeded to sketch it and paint it, I didn’t have anyone else helping me because I kind of designed as I went along. The east end of the mural is daytime, sunny and daytime. As you proceed westward down the ramp it begins to be afternoon. You go a little farther and it becomes twilight and you come to the end of the forty six foot end and it’s nighttime. You have the sun at the beginning and the changing of the light and you get to the moon at night and the clouds that covered the moon.

DN: It’s both a physical passage while you‘re walking down the corridor and a time passage as well. Lovely. Could you talk a little bit about how you got involved in the bricolage project too?


EE: There was talk about an invitation to the community to be involved in the decorating of the underpasses. I said, “Oh wow, that’s good.” So the invitation went to all levels of people; kids, adults, and artists - anybody who wanted to come in. What we had to do…. There would be several evenings where we could come in with ideas and sketches which we could submit. A couple of evenings later they said “Come again. Now do your design.” Among other things, we would put out little disks of fired clay, ready to be decorated. So everybody who came got one of those little disks.


EE: We’re talking about the bricolage?

HC: Yes, the bricolage.

EE: The sketches had to be drawn first and then you were given a bisque tile to decorate with ceramic glazes because you couldn’t use ordinary paint. We would sketch our designs and then paint them in with the glazes. Then they had to be fired. When all these barrels full of designs came in, we had to then arrange them on the wall. So what we did…. I submitted a whole pack of ideas that were scanned. Some of the ideas were used; some of them weren’t of course. And then we got together and decided how big to make this [mural]. We picked a very dark night and we set up a projector and projected the design. Then the design was sketched onto the wall.

DN: On the actual underpass you projected it?

EE: Yeah, we blocked off the traffic of course. We sketched it all in and then came a time to affix these butterflies, etc. to the walls. We cemented them on and when it was all done, we had to grout them. So between each of those butterflies, there had to be grouted area. So everybody got involved. I was there three years: Bryn Mawr, Foster and Belmont. We had approximately twenty so called ‘at risk’ kids that worked with us. There was one other artist, his assistant and I. That was about it.

DN: Are you referring to Tracy? [Tracy van Duinen]

EE: Yes. He led the whole thing.

DN: Why did you feel it was important to get involved in this type of thing?


EE: Because I love the community. And the underpass is so drab. Every time you go by, you find someone sprawled out with a bottle or garbage, etc. I thought this is a nice mural wall, why don’t we do something there? I think this Bryn Mawr wall is just as heavenly. It expressed the things we enjoy about the area. You have the birds and flowers – everything – the bicycles, roller skaters, etc. It was a perfect couple of walls to do that on. I think it’s like a gateway.

DN: A gateway to Edgewater.

EE: Right.


DN: What do you think about the role of art in society and in the community? I mean, here you’ve taken two drab walls, one at Senn and one on the underpass. You’ve placed art on the walls for people to enjoy. You’ve worked with ‘at risk children’ to do that. Why do you think that was important to you?

EE: One of the reasons I didn’t become a strictly profession artist is that I love people, particularly teenagers. I enjoyed working with those twenty kids; it was a hoot. I enjoyed it. I think I have a way with that age level and we got along famously. I thought, what else could you ask for? You’ve got kids involved. They had to report on time. It was a job. The kids did get paid, and then we got them thinking. They had to round up the tiles they had to work on. We specified, for example, this area is going to be blue; this is going to be red, etc. So they had to go pick out the pieces that fit in the areas. Then we broke these mirrors, really thick mirrors that we used basically as outlines. The one at Bryn Mawr Ave. really dazzles. That’s why when you go by Bryn Mawr at night, it dazzles. It’s almost a distraction. So these kids were doing more there than they ever did in art classes. It was just great to see. There were cement mixers; there were grout mixers; there were people banging on the mirrors to break them. It was like a factory and when it all got done. Mayor Daley came to see it.

DN: I think it’s really special. I think it is. Do you think Edgewater is any different than other communities in any way?


EE: Do you mean murals, bricolage –wise or the community?

DN: As a community?

EE: I don’t think…. Let’s put it this way, when I came here, Edgewater was different, very different. It was more of a melting pot of countries. You had Russians, Italians, Polish, Greeks, and Assyrians.

Sometimes the Assyrians, and I’m talking about fairly recently, came here still fighting the Armenians. They brought the wars with them. I remember one kid, a really good student. I saw him in the hall. I said, “You cut my class today. Explain it. An A+ student cutting my class!” He said, “I had a contract on me.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” “The Assyrians had a contact on me.” And so they literally confronted each other in the hallways and he wasn’t allowed to come to class.

DN: What year was that, would you say, in the ‘80s, ‘90s?

EE: Oh no, wait a moment. I’d have to be guessing - probably ‘70s and ‘80s. When we had that influx of Cubans that came in, I remember, in the yearbooks, when you look at them, everyone looked dark. And then other ones, they obviously looked oriental. So just like when they moved into the area, obviously whenever they came into the area, they happened to be here; this is where they had to go to school. So the school changed. It’s like now when you have all these people coming over the border, you can guess what next year, two, three will be [in terms of the population at Senn].


DN: So Edgewater had these larger groups of immigration that are passing through and supplanting each other and that are what you saw at Senn. You had these waves of immigration, waves of different ethnic groups of people. Is that what you mean when you say the area has changed?

EE: The smaller area can change within the [larger metropolitan] area. For example, in my Waller class I probably had two black kids, maybe three. At Sullivan, frankly I don’t remember having any black kids. At Senn, some of my classes were 100% black kids. Where did they come from – Africa? Kenya? Nairobi? Where did they live? Right in the [Senn] area. When they came, the school got changed because the area got changed.

It was always fascinating because there were so many things that we as teachers had to learn from the kids. I had this one kid; the kid was high school age, maybe a junior, but had never…. Assyrians or Armenians were never in a school [in their country of origin]. Their school got burned done. So when you had to deal with them, you had to learn something about them. We had Chinese kids. I said, “Look, we’re working with acid. We’re working on jewelry and we clean with acid. I want you to look at me. I point to something; I want you to look at me.” And they wouldn’t; the Chinese kids wouldn’t. [Note: because it is considered rude to look a teacher in the face in Chinese culture.]

DN: That wasn’t part of their culture.


EE: We had to learn from them and we had to persuade them that if you’re going to participate you better look at what you are doing. Other manners, for example, kids from India. We had a lot of kids from India. I remember the students would line up when they were going to get their grades in their course books. They’d line up but these little Indian kids would squeeze right between a couple of girls. I would say, “Move over. You know what? The end of the line is over there. So kindly get your body at the end of the line like everybody else.” That was funny; I don’t know where they got that. [Note: Apparently squeezing between girls was okay, but not between boys – a cultural difference?]

DN: Maybe lining up wasn’t part of their cultural tradition. Howard, are there any questions that you would like to ask Elston because I think our time is getting short now?

HC: Any other stories you have about Senn High School would be very interesting?


EE: We had clubs, marvelous clubs; the Aristocrats took us to everything. We went to Springfield to look at the architecture. I’d tell them. “This is a corbel; this is a pediment; this is a frieze. Where else do you see a frieze? Look at your dollar bills. You’ve got the money.” We went places. We went to a Bicycle Built for Two in Madison. We went camping to a place in Michigan. We did it; you name it. We went on a cross country on our horses. Eventually the principal said, “The Board of Education now says you can’t cross state lines because you can be held for statuary rape, I think they called it.” “OK, you know what? I’ll pull my kids, the clubs out of the school.” [Note: In this manner the school would not have liability.] We went. We went. I got [personal] permission from the parents. We chartered buses. We went. We fished on the ice in Wisconsin.

DN: So your school day did not end at three o’clock in the afternoon.


EE: Oh my my. We were night owls sometimes. We went to the opera. After the operas, we went to a place downtown called Around the Clock. Banana Splits; two or three scoops of ice cream on top, more on top of that. That was one o’clock at night. The kids were great. You could trust them. They were so disciplined. Not one of them would look at me cross eyed, because they knew what I would do. “Out you go.”

Teaching became different as time went on. With this influx of people, you had to change your way of teaching in a manner of speaking. I went to Mexico after two evenings of Spanish…. I went to Mexico, spent the summer there. I could speak Spanish like everyone else, went painting…. I brought that back and eventually we had all those Latinos that came in and I could converse with them. Sometimes I was on a horse, and I would say, “Daisy Padron. Sit up higher, sit up straighter!” in Spanish. So yeah, anything to make it easier was a lot more fun.

DN: I think we’re running out of time. You’ve had a very full life and a life you’ve shared with other people… and shared your love of art and horsemanship and adventure and culture with many people students, and other people. It’s a gift you gave them of the things you’ve loved. Looking back at them, what advice would you give the next generation that comes up?


EE: I would drag out a statement from my sister. My sister is a multi millionaire. She designed a home with an architect. I don’t know how many millions she paid for it. “Elston, you are as poor as a church mouse. What have you got?” “Oh wait a minute Tony. I’ve got what you don’t have.” “What have you got?” “If you looked in that maid’s room you would see year upon year of greeting cards and letters. I still meet with my 1950 students. The alumni, we round up funds, because Waller used to be Waller but now it’s Lincoln Park [High School]. Every year we give four scholarships or five. I meet with those kids. I meet with them every year that you can name. We had a picnic last year – July – we had a picnic and I meet with the kids. They all know me. I can’t recognize them. My face is pretty much like it used to be, but their faces have changed. One little guy, he’s six foot three. …. I still write to them. I think I send out…. I’ve dropped down to about four thousand cards a year.


DN: You’ve touched the lives of many children’s lives, many children’s lives.

EE: I have a list two pages long of people who’ve succeeded. One of my horse riders…. Do you know what Lipizzaner horse are, fancy horses? She has a place in Gray’s Lake, strictly Lipizzaner. She buys the horses in Austria, Spain and Brazil, trains them. She trains the horse and she trains the rider. Last year she charged an entrance fee of $100 to see the show. One of my guys is a jeweler in Florida. One of my Chinese girls has a place on Wabash Ave has that jeweler’s mall. But now there’s another building where the professional jewelers are. She had a place there. What does she sell? Diamonds. I took her to a course where she had to cut diamonds out of stones. I have people… really I thrill at the thought they’ve succeeded. I’ve learned from them. They know things I don’t know. On the other hand, wherever I went, for instance, I went to Brazil. I took a course there because they have emeralds, etc. I went there to learn about the cutting of the stones. I brought it back and shared it with that little Chinese girl. I go to Florida. I go to Fort Lauderdale Beach and I go and pick up cones, different cones from different trees. I bring it to them to do their ornaments and decorations. I came back with loads of shells for shell jewelry. Everywhere I went I have them on my mind.

DN: What would be your advice to those children; to share your skills with others because that’s what you’ve done?

EE: There’s a girl named Charlene Levy. I talked to her about two weeks ago. For me it’s a pleasure to see the successes of my former students. Be it …it could be the Lipizzaner stables, be it the jewelry shop or cutting stones out of rocks, diamonds in particular. I enjoy seeing them succeed. Like Charlene; she took the pains to find out what procedure I used to get these people involved. For me to know that she’s doing just that. She’s doing what I did, and I’m sure when she’s working with geriatrics, they must love her. I love my kids; my kids love me. We still get together. That’s the world to me. And I said to my sister, “I may be as poor as a church mouse, but you don’t have what I have.”