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updated: 9/11/2013 8:27 AM

Elmhurst Historical Museum exhibit lets 'Greatest Generation' tell their stories

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  • Jean Schildbach, 93, lifelong Elmhurst resident, laughs at memories the "Greatest Generation" exhibit brings back.

       Jean Schildbach, 93, lifelong Elmhurst resident, laughs at memories the "Greatest Generation" exhibit brings back.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Covering the decades from the 1930s to the 1950s, the "Our Lives, Our Stories: America's Greatest Generation" will be on display at the Elmhurst Historical Museum through Oct. 20.

       Covering the decades from the 1930s to the 1950s, the "Our Lives, Our Stories: America's Greatest Generation" will be on display at the Elmhurst Historical Museum through Oct. 20.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Lance Tawzer, curator of the Elmhurst Historical Museum and a post-Baby Boomer himself, said working on "America's Greatest Generation" exhibit gave him a new appreciation for those who lived through the Great Depression, fought World War II and rebuilt America in the 1950s.

       Lance Tawzer, curator of the Elmhurst Historical Museum and a post-Baby Boomer himself, said working on "America's Greatest Generation" exhibit gave him a new appreciation for those who lived through the Great Depression, fought World War II and rebuilt America in the 1950s.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • This poster shows how Americans supported the war effort during the 1940s by growing and canning their own food.

       This poster shows how Americans supported the war effort during the 1940s by growing and canning their own food.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Jan Hynes, niece of lifelong Elmhurst resident Jean Schildbach, views the soda fountain that is part of the exhibit.

       Jan Hynes, niece of lifelong Elmhurst resident Jean Schildbach, views the soda fountain that is part of the exhibit.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Jean Schildbach, 93, lifelong Elmhurst resident, visits the "Our Lives, Our Stories: America's Greatest Generation" exhibit at the Elmhurst Historical Museum.

       Jean Schildbach, 93, lifelong Elmhurst resident, visits the "Our Lives, Our Stories: America's Greatest Generation" exhibit at the Elmhurst Historical Museum.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 
 

They have been called the Greatest Generation, those Americans born in the 1910s and 1920s. They weathered the Great Depression, fought World War II and rebuilt America in the booming 1950s.

What they did is the stuff of history books and movies. But it's also embedded in the memories of people still alive today as depicted in the "Our Lives, Our Stories: America's Greatest Generation" exhibit up through Oct. 20 at the Elmhurst Historical Museum.

"What we hope people will see is that it is more a personal story," said museum curator Lance Tawzer. "Real people experienced these things and they still have memories about them."

Among those telling their stories are about a dozen Elmhurst residents who share their memories of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s on interactive kiosks. They're the local component to the traveling exhibit that originated with the Minnesota Historical Society and is touring 25 museums nationwide.

"The Elmhurst Historical Museum is the only stop in Illinois," said Megan Crook, program marketing manager with the Mid American Arts Alliance, which is touring the exhibit. "We believe it is a strong and important story to tell."

Tawzer expects the exhibit to be of special interest to those old enough to remember the era, as evidenced by the number of senior citizen groups booking tours, but schools have been notified as well, he said.

"Senior citizens are a big part of our clientele," he said. "It's our challenge to make younger people care about history."

The exhibit

Among the artifacts in the exhibit are what would have served as toys in the depressed 1930s, the soda fountain where customers might have heard the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and modern appliances of the 1950s when "Gunsmoke" was a popular TV show. There are photos and recorded recollections of everyday people who were children during the Great Depression, soldiers who went off to war, family members who were left behind, women who went to work to support their families and the war effort, and people who were teens during the growth of suburbia in the 1950s.

Elmhurst resident Jim Patterson's family didn't suffer much during the Great Depression because his father had a job, but he had relatives who were out of work. He recalled that one Christmas, a teacher told all the boys in his class to pick out their favorite toy to give to a classmate who was poor. Patterson gave his cast-iron policeman on a motorcycle.

"That taught me a lot about sharing," he said.

After World War II started, Patterson and a friend worked at the local A&P on Saturday morning stocking shelves. Rationing had begun and they set aside chocolate and sugar for when their mothers came to shop.

"We probably shouldn't have been doing that, but we never got caught," he said.

Drafted near the end of the war, Patterson was sent to the Pacific but never saw action. The longtime Elmhurst resident said he was glad to share his memories.

"There were so many more things I wish I had time to mention in Elmhurst," he said.

Tawzer said the museum reached out to the senior centers and VFWs to find people who lived in Elmhurst during the era. Not all wanted to tell their stories, but Anne Thoele shared her memories of World War II and the 1950s. Her recollections of the '50s included the airport at the north end of town, new subdivisions being built and three classmates killed in the Korean War, which started the month she graduated from high school.

Thoele, an Elmhurst resident since 1938 and a former 30-year employee of the Elmhurst YMCA, said Elmhurst has been a good place to live.

"A lot of kids who grew up in Elmhurst, they have a way of returning," she said.

Tawzer said the complete interviews with Elmhurst residents will be part of a digital collection the museum is building. Interviews with Elmhurst residents from other periods also will be added.

"We intend to redo the Elmhurst history exhibit in the next year and incorporate these voices to help tell our city's history," he said.

Pivotal generation

The term "The Greatest Generation" for the Americans born in the first two decades of the 20th century was coined by journalist Tom Brokaw in his 1998 book about them. Whether they were indeed the "greatest generation" may be a question of perspective, but they undoubtedly played a pivotal role in our nation's history, Tawzer said.

"They were a defining generation for the fabric of our country," said Tawzer, who at age 48 just misses being part of the post-World War II Baby Boomer generation. "I've garnered a lot of appreciation for them."

Following the war effort, they joined civic organizations and churches in record numbers, traveled the expanding federal highway system and participated in the burgeoning media-driven consumer culture. Their values would be questioned in the rebelliousness of the 1960s by youth who lacked their sense of duty and devotion to country.

"They did their part. They were true citizens," Tawzer said.

The Greatest Generation may have found the '60s unsettling, but the seeds of social change already had been sown during the 1930s and World War II. Among the programs being held in connection with the exhibit is a presentation on "The Forgotten Civil Rights Movement of the 1930s-1940s," by Roosevelt University history professor Erik Gellman at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12. Gellman discusses the interracial movement of the 1930s to beat back fascism and expand democracy to workers, and the blossoming of an artistic Renaissance in Chicago.

• Local veterans and their families also will be honored with guided tours of the exhibit during "An Afternoon for Veterans" from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25.

• The changes World War II helped bring for women will be explored by Rockford College history professor Catherine Forslund in "A College at War: Women Working for Victory in World War II" at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10.

All the programs are free. For information or reservations, contact (630) 833-1457 or elmhursthistory.org.

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