An Irvington Childhood in the 'Forties
By Lucia Walton Robinson
|The Walton family moved into 5840 Oak Avenue in 1946 and remained until 1950. Pictured: (Top) Charlotte Walton, Adelaide Reeves Walton; (Bottom) Lucia Walton, and Luke Walton in 1944 (image courtesy of Nancy Ostrander)|
When I was born at the end of 1937, my parents, Luke and Adelaide Reeves Walton, were renting a house on Johnson Avenue near the Irvington Presbyterian Church while he worked as an announcer for radio station WIRE and finished the last class he needed for his B.A. degree at Butler, which he’d left in 1931. I was six months old when he left WIRE and returned to WBOW in Terre Haute, where he’d accidentally begun his career in broadcasting, I think in 1932, the year my sister Charlotte was born. Then in 1940 he signed on to WISH in Indianapolis and moved us to what is now known as “Historic Audubon Court,” where Mother’s cousins Scott and June Ham were living and I found a playmate in their youngest daughter Priscilla. Their older daughters, Winifred and Guinevere, served often as our sitters, as did Nancy Ostrander and Eva Ruth Ham, daughter and niece of our Great-aunt Guinevere Ostrander (323 N. Audubon Rd.) After retiring from the State Department, The Honorable Nancy Ostrander returned to the wonderful house on North Audubon Road, the “mother house” of our extended family.
My memories of those first few years in Irvington are scant. I recall playing with Priscilla and a boy my age called Jerry Pickard who lived across the court (we made snowmen and played Superman with dishtowels attached for capes), tagging after my sister and the older cousins, sometimes spilling over into the alley between the court and the imposing Second Empire Layman house next door—the name Eleanor Layman sticks in my memory, though not the person attached. Guinnie had a pet worm that she kept in a tiny matchbox and held a funeral when it succumbed, most likely to absence of soil. Another occasional playmate was Cousin Fritz (Fred) Gable (5924 Lowell Ave), who lived near Aunt Guin with his parents Jane Hall and George Gable; we were born within six weeks of each other. I think we both attended the Hibben School, a pleasant preschool run by two kind sisters—but I remember only a pond and ducks. Father at that time had a sports program, possibly news, and the sort of man-on-the-street program he’d had in Terre Haute. He was likely also doing play-by-play of some sports events; I was too young to notice, though I’ve often said that the first time I ever sat up was on a bleacher.
Three weeks before my fourth birthday the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t revealed for a few months that a beloved first cousin of my mother’s, Marine Lieutenant George Ham Cannon of Detroit, died heroically in the concomitant bombing of Midway Island on December 7, 1941. Cousin “Hammy” was the first Marine awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II—posthumously. His mother, Aunt Guinevere’s sister Estelle Ham Cannon, traveled to receive it, and later to christen a small Navy ship named for him. Then, I think all the men in the family tried to enlist, but they were mostly too old and all except Father were 4-F. He was sworn into the United States Navy on his six o’clock program—his first act of public relations for the Navy—and departed for three months of officers’ training at Dartmouth College in snowy New Hampshire, where he spent his 35th birthday. Although most “ninety-day wonders” were posted to merchant ships (which German U-boats regularly sank), Father was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Station where he soon became athletic public relations officer, working with the famed Bluejackets sports teams. Some old friends from Butler were there, including Tony Hinkle who coached the football team that famously beat Notre Dame, Bob Nipper (later athletic director at Shortridge High School), and attorney Harry Ice and his wife Betty. A young Irvingtonian sailor he’d inspired, who introduced himself one day, was Howard Caldwell, Jr. (81 N. Hawthorne Lane), son of a friend of Aunt Guinevere.
Mother sublet the Audubon Court apartment and we were quartered first in the Somerset Hotel in Chicago, then at a house in Lake Bluff where I was allowed into first grade at the wonderful village school, and then a large old house on the base itself. Those were good years for us children. Father was in contact with many famous athletes while being denied the sea duty he so yearned for. Finally, he received orders to go to Pearl Harbor; Japan surrendered almost immediately, and Mother returned with Charlotte and me to Audubon Court, where Charli entered high school at Howe and I third grade at school 57.
Father returned to us in November 1945 with shell necklaces, leis, a minuscule grass skirt for me, and a coconut whose shell no implement would crack—not a hammer, axe, nor hatchet. Finally, it was dropped from a third-floor window, whereupon the sidewalk beneath was cracked but not, alas, the coconut. He returned to work at WISH and in the summer bought the house at 5840 Oak Avenue in south Irvington. It has been changed a great deal but was then a charming Dutch colonial with a screened porch looking out on the side yard with its birdbath surrounded by phlox and back-corner fish pond, which had a lovely brick back wall with copper insert and a number of large gold and speckled fish, one at least a foot long. A doghouse joined them when we retrieved our Cocker spaniel Tony (named for Hinkle) from my grandmother’s, where he stayed while we were in Audubon Court. Father was greatly annoyed every day-after-Halloween when he had to search the neighborhood for the roof of the doghouse. Behind 5840 was a paved area fronting a large brick wall with fireplace where my friends and I roasted marshmallows and hotdogs on occasion and I was tasked to burn the trash--never my favorite chore.
|5840 Oak Avenue in the winter of 1946 (photo courtesy of Lucia Walton Robinson)|
Gable, now accompanied by younger brother Bruce, with an enormous cat that was said to be 21 years old and possessed of false teeth. When the boys visited, we played outside, as Mrs. Caroline Hall (5850 University Ave.) and “Aunt TT” (Temple Tompkins) were rather formidable and averse to noise and activity.
|Emma Kuhn and her daughter, Mildred Rose, lived at 5808 Oak Avenue in 1946|
|Mrs. Kuhn and her sister were featured on their birthday in the Indianapolis Star in 1948. (Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, May 24, 1948)|
|Charlotte Walton sat upon a large boulder in front of 5840 Oak Avenue c1946. The boulder sits in the same exact spot in 2018. (image courtesy of Lucia Walton Robinson)|
|The author, Lucia Walton, with her Louisville Slugger in the side yard at 5840 Oak Avenue c1947. You will note that the home used to have an open side porch. It was later enclosed. (image courtesy of Lucia Walton Robinson)|
Our block was populated mostly by boys; thus, sports played a big part in my life outside school, and not only at home. Fortunately, there was always a girl near my age in the house that had the large side yard where we all played baseball after supper in good weather, and Jane Vogt ( 5733 Oak Ave.) lived with her brother Charles across the street; about once a month the three of us would board a bus for downtown to hear the children’s symphony at Cadle Tabernacle, scowled into silence by Maestro Fabian Sevitzky. Should anyone make a noise, the music would instantly stop and a terrifying frown search out the culprit. Afterward, we had to cross the street to catch the bus home and would visit the fascinating City Market, where I always bought a bunch of sweet peas and a bag of caramels. Next to the Vogts lived the Edward Heckers (5729 Oak Ave.). Eddie was a few years older and David I think a year younger than I; I heard years later that Eddie was with NASA but have no corroboration. Mr. Hecker was a printer, a kind man who wept at the funeral of their elderly cat. He himself died suddenly shortly before we left the neighborhood, as had the father of John Wright (5718 Oak Ave.), by several years the youngest of four who lived on our side of the street across from the Eberts (5715 Oak Ave.). Having four sons within a range of eight years or so, the Eberts gave over their back yard entirely to youthful pursuits; we even rode bikes there, pretending to be 500 drivers. I can still hear Mrs. Ebert calling “Bobby Dicky Billy DAAAveee!” Billy was the one my age. Young Davy was allowed in our confirmation class at Irvington Presbyterian Church because it was the last for Dr. John Ferguson, who had confirmed his older brothers. I remember Dr. Ferguson coming into the sanctuary when we were rehearsing, I looking up and up and up into the benevolent face of a very large man whom Dr. Ferguson introduced as his successor Dr. Howard Stone, telling us we would like him. It was not so much a remark as a command, but we found the order had been unnecessary.
|The Vogt Family resided at 5733 Oak Avenue. In this photo, Jane and Chuck Vogt posed next to a new bike in 1948. (image courtesy of Chuck and Joyce Vogt)|
|The Wright family lived at 5718 Oak Avenue.|
|The Ebert family lived at 5715 Oak Avenue.|
I was taken to the 500-mile race at age eight, to the first race after the war, and would continue to attend through my college years, so I could tell the other children whatever I could learn from a pretty low vantage point. The race took all day in those years; Father would have to get downtown quickly afterward to make his six o’clock sports program, so he’d follow the police car that was transporting the movie star brought in to kiss the winner. I can remember watching him across the track eating box lunch with Loretta Young, her large white pumps parked on the wall of the pit area, and wondering what my mother was thinking beside me in the paddock. In the late ‘40s Father conceived the idea of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network; he shared it with Wilbur Shaw, Wilbur talked Tony Hulman into it, and the 500 went on the air, with announcers stationed at various points around the track and a coordinator in the Pagoda. The broadcast went only to military bases overseas and other places at a distance because Mr. Hulman feared local coverage would lessen attendance, as he did for a long while with television. When I was at Duke in 1960 I drove halfway to Raleigh to be able to hear the race.
Father’s chosen spot for the 500 was at the start and in the front pit, and in opening the first broadcast he christened it the “greatest spectacle in racing,” a phrase reporters are still using. After Shaw was killed in 1954, Tony Hulman, a shy man, had to be persuaded to open the race, and he did so on condition that Father would rehearse him and be with him at the start. Every year they rehearsed “Gentlemen (later, “Lady and Gentlemen”), start your engines,” and after Anton Hulman died Mrs. Hulman rehearsed with Father and held his hand for support while she started the race. Father kept the start and the front pit until at some point in his late 70s he almost didn’t get over the wall in time when a car came rolling in and his colleagues insisted he give it up.
Not long after the war Father began broadcasting the Indianapolis Indians’ baseball games, and baseball became a big part of our lives from spring training until late fall. Being small, I was far from a champ in the neighborhood, usually relegated to boring left field, so Father taught me to pitch a curve ball, which I did with sufficient skill to become a real part of neighborhood games. Still, I spent many evenings and Sunday afternoons in the press box at the old Victory Field, learning to score and fetching the hot dogs that tasted better than any before or since. I remember Donie Bush and Al Lopez and a time when Johnny Mize and Billy Martin, who’d been sent down from the Yankees to beef up—was it Kansas City?--for a short time were in town; they had been on the Great Lakes team (I have a baseball Mize hit a home run with there); they all visited in Mr. Bush’s office after the games, and we drove them to Union Station when they left. Mother and I enjoyed going to Florida for spring training, when Father would tape interviews with the players.
|Luke Walton at Luke Walton Appreciation Night at Victory Field in 1952 (image courtesy of Lucia Walton Robinson)|
|WISH radio station men gathered c1949. Pictured (left to right) Unidentified, Al Lopez, the manager of the Indianapolis Indians; Frank McKinney, the owner of WISH; and Luke Walton, sports commentator (image courtesy of Lucia Walton Robinson)|
Irvington Presbyterian church, where Aunt Guin was a “lady elder” and which my parents joined when Charlotte wanted to be confirmed, began to play a significant part in our lives—mostly mine at first, as my parents were pretty much Christmas and Easter Christians then, while I attended Sunday school, church, vacation Bible school, and later Westminster Fellowship. At some point Father was drafted to narrate the Christmas Eve services, which he continued to do for decades; Mother was a star of the Irvington Dramatic Club, which met at the church. Father’s first baseball sponsor was Sterling Beer, and Dr. Ferguson went to see him about it. “Luke, you don’t drink alcohol, do you?” Father didn’t. Dr. Ferguson pointed out that large numbers of boys and young men were listening to those baseball broadcasts and asked him if beer was really what he wanted to be pitching to them. Father hadn’t thought about that; he spoke with the station managers, and subsequently his sponsor became Stokely-Van Camp, so a lot of “tall cans of corn” were hit and balls batted into “Stokely’s pea patch.”
In 1949, professional basketball came to Indianapolis in the form of the Indianapolis Olympians, with a nucleus of former Kentucky Wildcats whose exciting fast-break basketball lured me to sit behind Father as he broadcast their games in the Butler Fieldhouse. Most of them had nice wives who sat next to us, and I thought I might marry the lone bachelor when I grew up. Father wrote a book about them, Basketball’s Fabulous Five, but sadly some dishonest actions on the part of two of the players while in college came to light after a few years; Father withdrew the book, and the remarkable team was no more. I went on to Shortridge and cheered the Blue Devils in the high school tournaments with friends, no longer sitting with Father.
A few years ago my daughter and I visited our Irvington cousins at Halloween, and I was delighted to see that the old celebration, which in my childhood comprised painting pictures on storefront windows and an evening parade, has not only continued but grown to a full-scale festival. I remembered parading with John Wright as Tom Sawyer (me) and Aunt Polly (John, augmented with pillows and a wig), and reflected that that was far from the only time John wore skirts, as he was spirited away to St. Meinrad’s Seminary after eighth grade, eventually to become a Catholic priest. Finding his obituary online, I learned that he served as a Navy chaplain for thirty years and retired in San Diego with “Monsignor” before his name. Years ago I heard that three of the Ebert boys had also become ministers, another reflection of the influence of John Ferguson and Howard Stone.
Shortly before my friend John left for seminary, our family left Irvington for the north side, where Father was closer to his golf club and Charlotte to Butler, and I found lifelong friends at school 70 and Shortridge High School. I began my journey into Episcopalianism at that time though Dr. Stone persuaded Father to teach the high school class at Irvington Presbyterian, where he became a deacon and then an elder of the church and where all our family weddings, baptisms, and funerals have been held as well as Luke and Addie’s 50th wedding anniversary party. Of the extended family, Cousins Nancy Ostrander and Bruce and Carol Gable remain in Irvington, and Cousin Fred has returned. Much has changed in the nearly seventy years since we left Oak Avenue, but it is good to see that many of Irvington’s unique qualities and landmarks survive.
One change I was sad to see in Irvington was the absence of the Hilton U. Brown house (5087 East Washington St.) on what used to be Brown’s Hill. Among the first books I ever read was my sister’s copy of his daughter Jean Brown Wagoner’s Louisa May Alcott: Girl of Old Boston in Bobbs-Merrill’s Childhood of Famous Americans series, followed by her Jane Addams. When we returned to Irvington after the war, Mrs. Wagoner, another friend of Aunt Guinevere, had her Martha Washington in galleys and asked if I’d read it, see how I liked it and whether it lagged anywhere. That was my introduction to publishing. Father wrote Basketball’s Fabulous Five about the Indianapolis Olympians later, and I proofread that. I edited the literary magazine and a few professors’ books in college, decided on a career in publishing, and had my first job with Bobbs-Merrill’s incipient college division. My inscribed copies of Mrs. Wagoner’s books are now with the Irvington Historical Society.
Biographical note: Holding degrees from Butler and Duke Universities, Lucia Walton Robinson has edited books in Indianapolis and Manhattan, raised two highly literate people, and taught literature and writing in a Gulf Coast college. Now retired near the Carolina coast and her daughter, also an editor and poet, she has returned to writing and editing. Her work has appeared in The Penwood Review, The Road Not Taken: A Journal of Formal Poetry, Kakalak, Split Rock Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Spirit Fire Review, and other publications.