CHRISMAN -- A club devoted to William Shakespeare continues to meet in east central Illinois -- and has been going strong for 120 years.
The 20-plus men and women who are members of the Shakespeare Club, based in Chrisman, meet a few times a year to discuss the playwright's works and the majesty of his language. Sometimes, the meetings wander onto other topics, such as making aprons.
But still, the literature lovers are united by their interest in the man who's regarded as the greatest writer in the English language.
"Shakespeare was an interesting man," said Tom Jenkins of Danville, who has been a member five years. His wife, Norma, has been a member 31 years.
The couple has several books about Shakespeare and has seen about 35 plays at the Shakespeare festival at Illinois State University, Bloomington.
The Shakespeare Club was founded in February 1893, and is the oldest club in Edgar County. At first, membership was restricted to women. A few years ago, Jenkins asked, "Do you think they'd take a man in?" The club voted to accept him, and he became the first male member. There are two other men, including current president Floyd McWilliams, a teacher at Indiana State University.
In fact, most of the members have an education background, Jenkins said. He was principal at Daniel School, Jamaica High School and Schlarman High School, spanning 1967 to 1982, and was principal and superintendent at the Chrisman school district, 1982-92.
Norma, who is club historian, taught at Oakwood High School from 1958-82, and also taught at Westville and Catlin high schools.
The couple found out about the Shakespeare Club while Jenkins was working in Chrisman.
"I was impressed with the longevity of such a club that has lasted so long in such a small town," Jenkins said.
When Penny Cook of Chrisman was asked to join last October, she thought, "This is going to be way over my head." But, the members are very gracious and educated, and she's learned a lot just by listening.
Cook taught at St. Mary's School in Westville from 1986-99, and later taught at Chrisman Grade School, retiring last year. As a teacher, she used the Shakespeare for Kids program, and had the students perform plays.
"Shakespeare's not for everyone, but if presented in the right way, it can be for everyone," Cook said. People think his work is high brow because it's written in old English, but when translated into modern English -- as it was for the students -- it appeals to people.
She enjoys the Shakespeare Club meetings because the women -- and the three token men -- are so interesting. Not every meeting revolves around the playwright, she said, noting that last November, the members shared stories about veterans. In December, there's always a luncheon at someone's home.
Marilyn Fischer, a former teacher in Danville, has been a member at least 30 years. When she first joined, many of the members were daughters of the original club members, and they had a lot of local history to share.
"I enjoyed hearing them tell stories," she said. Years ago, members of the Thespian Club would meet with the Shakespeare Club to act out plays.
As a young member, she felt welcomed by the others. "It's a group of women you don't normally get to be with. It's just a nice group of women," she said.
Fischer said she's always enjoyed reading Shakespeare's works, but over time, she and the others have developed a new appreciation and enjoy the works more now than they did.
She taught at Daniel School for five years before it closed, and then taught at Chrisman Grade School, retiring in 2009. Her husband, George, taught band at South View and East Park, and then taught band 34 years at Chrisman High School. He now works part-time at B&J Music in Danville.
The club meets monthly June through December at various sites in Chrisman and Paris; most meetings are at the Red Brick Barn in Chrisman.
The group has officers, a constitution and bylaws, and a different program each month. While focus is on Shakespeare, sometimes other topics crop up. One time, a woman talked about how to make aprons, Jenkins said, adding with a smile, "That didn't go over well with the men."
The club also has a float in the Chrisman parade at Christmas and donates to organizations, especially those that help children, in the Paris and Chrisman area.
The club is always looking for new members; current members' ages range from 30s to 90. To join, a person has to fill out an application and be nominated by a member. Then the club will take a vote, which has to be unanimous.