Earlier this month I wrote in this column about a road trip to my dad’s hometown of Charleston, Ill. Two of my sons came along and we explored the town where he grew up. I got a lot of wonderful feedback and thank everyone who told me they enjoyed reading it.
On the trip, I asked a lot of questions and got to know a little more about that side of my family. I remembered the story my dad had shared about how my parents ran off to Paris to get married. Paris, Ill., that is. Anytime we returned to Charleston as children, we would pass the sign for Paris along Interstate 57 and dad would repeat that’s where his parents got married. They left Coles County so they could get married secretly.
Not because their parents didn’t approve or that grandpa was running from the law or because of a scandalous pregnancy. The reason for their secret marriage is something that fascinates me, yet perplexes me. In this day and age, it is difficult to believe. The reason is simply that my grandmother wanted to keep her job.
My grandmother was one of six kids and the most educated in her family. After the trip, I did some online research and through old census reports learned while some of her siblings never went beyond eighth grade, she was the only one who not only finished high school, but went on to college.
At the time Eastern Illinois University was known as Eastern Illinois State Normal School and it was a facility for training elementary and secondary educators. It did not yet offer a four-year bachelor’s degree, but awarded a teaching certificate upon completion of training and work as a practice teacher at the campus’ model school.
Not long after she finished her studies at Eastern Illinois State Normal School, the school became the Eastern Illinois State Teacher’s College and began offering four-year degrees.
So, my grandmother was a young, new teacher when she fell in love and decided to get married. The couple wed in December, which was right in the middle of the school year. So that she could finish out the school year, the marriage was kept a secret and they lived separately so she would be able to keep her position.
In 1921 a married teacher would most definitely not be permitted. So, at the end of the school year, the secret was revealed, she said goodbye to her students and my grandparents bought a house on Lincoln Street. Although it would be over three more years before their first child was born, my grandmother was unable to work as a teacher.
My grandmother raised four kids and as time went by women obtained more rights. They had only just won the right to vote while she was in college. Married women could finally work as teachers and if the family finances required it, married mothers with children were working, too. When my grandmother returned to the work force, it wasn’t as a teacher, but as a worker in the Brown Shoe Factory, a large employer in the area where my grandfather was a foreman. By then a four-year degree was required to teach.
Rather than giving up her dream of teaching, my grandmother returned to school. She was in her late 50s when she finished up and got her bachelor’s, even having some classes with my dad who was then attending the college to earn his accounting degree. Today, it’s no big deal to see people of all ages in college classrooms, but can you imagine what a difficult task it was in the late 1950s to be nearly 40 years older than the rest of the students in the class?
She put in a few years returning to the career she loved before retiring and the whole story is something I find so inspiring. It seems so crazy to think that while she was qualified and passionate about teaching, she had to quit because she got married and then faced the obstacle of having to go back to school to return to the profession she loved. Quite a pioneer and inspiration, I’d say, and although I barely got to know her before she passed away when I was 10, I’m very proud to be her granddaughter.