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posted: 3/25/2014 1:09 PM

A history lesson of little-known Naperville facts

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  • Shirley Baumann

    Shirley Baumann


When I was in Mrs. Heichelbeck's fourth-grade class at Emerson Elementary School in Muncie, Ind., we learned to write poetry.

I recall her telling us if we wanted to be poets, write poems. I adored Mrs. Heichelbeck, so I wrote many poems simply to her.

She also said if we wanted to be writers, we had to write.

With that logic, I wanted to be an actress. According to Barbra Streisand's lyrics, "actresses play all night," and that's all I wanted. My folks let me take acting classes. They didn't take. The more I acted, the more I acquired stage fright.

And so it goes or, perhaps, went. I'm continually in awe of individuals whose words flow fluently and eloquently in front of me where I sit.

I think of Mrs. Heichelbeck often, mindful of her inspiration all those years ago. And I think of Irene Belcher's Children's Playhouse whenever I'm asked to speak to a group.

Late last year, Carol Showalter, treasurer of the Naperville Woman's Club, invited me to address her club with information about Naperville that members of the philanthropic organization chartered in 1897 might not know.

Mindful of my fears to speak, I still agreed, and a March date was set. For months, during my morning dog walks, I "tested" tidbits of information to present to the group reputed to host the longest-running fine arts fair in Illinois.

Meanwhile, a news release arrived from their art fair chairwoman, Roxanne Lang, soliciting artists for this year's event on July 12-13 on the grounds of Naper Settlement, 523 S. Webster St.

I flashed back to the days when I worked in the PR department at the 19th-century outdoor history museum shortly after our move here in 1993. And suddenly I had a theme for my talk. I began jotting down notes.

Naper Settlement is where I met NWC member Shirley Baumann, who had volunteered on the Plough Shares newsletter committee under my watch. Shirley also was the champion of the NWC Art Fair, an event she chaired for many of her 40 active years with the Woman's Club.

During my first spring in Naperville, Shirley hosted a luncheon for the newsletter committee.

"My chef will be preparing lunch," she said while we labeled newsletters for mailing.

I recall being quite impressed that Shirley had her own chef.

When the day arrived and lunch was served, talk turned to the delicious choices by My Chef Catering. I realized I'd jumped to conclusions.

Still new in town, I asked the whereabouts of My Chef and Shirley said, "It's next to your neighbors."

I knew of no catering company on our block. I must've looked puzzled because Shirley's quick reply was something like, "Your Neighbors is a neighborhood pub in Hobson West. My Chef is next to Your Neighbors."

Another noteworthy tribute to the NWC was its involvement to help establish the downtown Nichols Library.

The library's benefactor, James Nichols, a German immigrant orphaned at age 8, was described by Naperville Sun columnist Genevieve Towsley as having "invincible spirit." He came to Naperville in 1876 where he'd taught public school, then business for eight years at North Western College, now North Central. The professor and writer started a publishing company in 1891.

I have a tattered copy of his first effort, "The Business Guide." In fact, "The Business Guide" sold more than 4 million copies, thanks to college students who went door-to-door selling subscriptions at the time.

With book in hand, I read a passage from "How to close a Letter" that states, "Never write a letter without signing it," contrasting it to today's anonymous emails.

I reminded the women about the trials of Nichols' youth that had left him with health challenges; yet, he died a wealthy self-made man at the age of 44 in 1895.

Thanks to a $10,000 bequest from Nichols, the city established its first library at 110 S. Washington St. The Women's Club provided the first 500-volume collection and residents provided another 200 books. Nichols' dream for all children to have access to books had begun.

Coincidentally, a Century Walk mural titled "The Way We Were" graces the alley across Washington from the former library. The mural features the stained-class window from the landmark Old Stone Church, owned by the Naperville Woman's Club.

Funded, in part, by then Woman's Club member Joan Hennessy, the mural depicts members Shirley Baumann and Dorcas Toenniges Pearcy.

I'd written more to say. Time ran out -- just as the space on this page.

As spring blossoms, I wonder with words from "All That I Want," a Streisand song: "If I should sneeze, it's a sign all that I want will be mine."

One of my desires is always to remember the remarkable men and women who came here before me.

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