One of my earliest lessons in the pitfalls of profiling came from my old next-door neighbor, John Gotwald.
As a young man in my late 20s, I couldn’t grasp that an older man with a gravelly voice and thinning hair who regularly wore a business suit might, underneath all that, actually be a goof.
John was more than a goof. He was a dear, caring man who doted on my children, planted real geraniums each spring among the artificial ones he kept in his flower box all year long, and knew Springfield like the back of his hand, even if he sometimes seemed to lose track of where that hand was.
All this came to mind when John’s old buddy Dick Link was telling me a story over coffee about John’s involvement in a scene that sounds straight out of “I Love Lucy.”
With a group of friends traveling somewhere on a train, John (played by William Frawley) gets up in the middle of the night, uses the common bathroom down the car, then loses his sense of direction and climbs in to bed, mistakenly, with someone else’s wife.
At 95, Link is one of the few remaining links to the Springfield of John’s time.
Link’s father was largely out of the real estate business when Dick and Andrew Helmuth, about 10 years his senior, got into the real estate business after both returned from the service in World War II.
Back then the city’s Core Block wasn’t anchored by City Hall or a building that brings to mind Darth Vader.
Along Limestone Street stood Woolworth’s, the Majestic Theater, McCrory’s Five and Dime, Muir’s Drugstore, Lord’s ladies store and Mary Lee’s Candy. On Main Street there was Thom McCann’s, the Ideal Jewelry Store, Hoffman and Green Jewelers, S.S. Kresge Five and Dime.
Fountain Avenue featured the Vogue Shop, Lord Lansdowne’s (named for the professional wrestler) and Charters and Patterson’s men’s store. And along High Street stood the early opening Mecca Cafe, the Liberty Theater, the Ohio Meat Market and the Arcade.
The city also had a different set of upstanding citizens.
“Wes Harrison was, outside of being well respected, probably was one of the leading businessmen of the city. He was head of Security Bank and head of Credit Life (Insurance Co.), a fine man,” Link said.
“The (other) big boys in town were Bob Groff …. He owned James Leffel Co. Harris Miller was another,” Link said, “He was the vice president of Ohio Edison.”
Running the then most profitable division of Ohio Edison, Miller didn’t always keep current with the home office’s demands on pesky matters like new procedures.
Link retells the story of Harris being called by the home office, asking how things were going with the new procedures, then asking his secretary what ever happened to copies of them before prompting her to mention loudly enough to be heard on the phone that they’d been tossed in the trash.
“That was the way he ran the company,” Link said.
Back when there was such a thing, Mr. Nisely of Nisely shoes in the Arcade was “a helluva shoe man,” and Link can still remember Mr. Hanaway, whose inability to read or write didn’t stop him from running a successful business.
“One time I saw him when they were unloading furniture, and he spotted a nick. He said ‘I don’t think I can take that.’ He’d haggle for an hour and get the price down. He was a nice man, had a nice family.”
As nice was a musician friend of Link’s and whose estate he involved settling. It’s the only way he discovered most of the money was gone because he’d gambled it away at a place just over the Ohio River in Kentucky.
In those days, Judges Ben Goldman and Golden Davis would close down the courts for a time in the summer “and got everything done anyhow” Link said.
As we talked, he recalled others.
“The Shouvlin family, they were big. The old man, P.J., owned National Supply Co. And you know when he sold it, he would never go past it. Joe Shouvlin owned Bauer Brothers.
“And don’t forget Harry Kissell. You can’t give him enough credit for the North End. He’s the one that started it and, unfortunately, got caught in the depression like everyone else. But he was a fine man.”
Likewise, Joe McAdams owned Steel Products Engineering, the Baldenhofers ran Thompson Grinder, and Margaret Baker, who had the Metallic Casket Co., “sold it on an auction block to Henry Green.”
Bankers like Harry Freeman and Reese Edgar Tulloss, also president of Wittenberg University, ran the community.
“When they needed money, one banker would call the rest of the bankers and say, ‘this is your share.’ A marvelous way to do business. And they were all generous.”
“And, of course Paul Deer (of Bonded Oil, then Emro Marketing, which is now Speedway), he was big in Springfield.”
Link remembers the old divisions, too: The Dutch (Germans) at St. Bernard’s, the Irish lived at St. Joseph. And those days, thank God, have passed.”
Some things haven’t.
Link isn’t any more persuaded for the need of a parking garage downtown now than he was when he told a miffed Wes Harrison it wasn’t necessary way back then.
“I’m not against it,” Link said.
He just looks at all the spaces in private lots all over the downtown and wonders whether there just isn’t a parking ignorance problem.
Still, he remains positive about Springfield.
“Sure, some mistakes have been made along the way. But there’s a lot of good things going,” he said. “In the overall picture,” today’s leaders “are trying to do the right thing.”
Just like others did back in the days when he talked over such things with a friend who knew Springfield like the back of his sometimes difficult-to-locate hand.