By Ken Trainor
Way back in March of 1993, I wrote about my search to track down Mrs. Cannon, a legendary teacher at Ascension School back in the 1960s and early'70s. I had written a nostalgia piece about her a few weeks earlier, and it generated quite a response. Everyone wanted to tell a Mrs. Cannon story.
In honor of Ascension's centennial here's what I wrote in the March 10, 1993 issue of Wednesday Journal:
The majority of readers who responded to my recent column were, like me, more than a little sure that the reports of Mrs. Cannon's demise had not been exaggerated.
Nonetheless, I dutifully put a copy in a manila envelope and mailed it off to the address in Atlanta that Jean Ott, another legendary, longtime Ascension teacher, had given me, along with a note saying that I hoped this would find her well.
But it didn't find her at all. The envelope came back with three of the saddest words in the English language: "Return to Sender."
Undaunted, I called Jean again to see if she had any other leads. She suggested Betty Schiller, who now lives in Dundee but used to be the Ascension School secretary during that era.
Betty was a delight to talk and reminisce with, but she didn't have any hard information. Try Rev. Tom Hickey, she said. He was a good friend of Mrs. Cannon. After a call to the Archdiocesan Priest Personnel Board downtown, I found out that Tom was dean of formations at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein.
He didn't know of Mrs. Cannon's whereabouts either but thought perhaps Mary Trifone in Oak Park would know.
Mary had kept in touch the past two decades because, well, you can get pretty attached to someone who teaches all eight of your kids. She had sent Mrs. Cannon a card for her birthday on Jan. 25, but it, too, was returned. Investigating the matter, she learned that another daughter, Mary O'Leary, had moved her mother from Atlanta to a senior residence near Toledo, Ohio.
Mrs. Cannon, it turned out, was alive and, apparently, in good health (though mostly blind) at the Elizabeth Scott Center (assisted independent living) in Maumee, Ohio.
Not only that, she had her own phone, and I had the number. That was daunting. It all seemed too easy. I could push 11 buttons to cross three states and 27 years and talk to a woman who was born three years before Ernest Hemingway. Heady stuff for a Thursday afternoon.
On the other end of the line, a tiny, tremulous, almost fairy-like voice answered, and I found myself uttering the one word I never would have dreamed of saying to her a quarter-century ago:
The fact that Mrs. Cannon had a first name might be even more startling to her former students than the fact that she was still alive. It's the kind of name you never find anymore among the birth announcements — a name from another century (now two centuries). Irma. It fit her.
I explained who I was and why I was calling, and she said, "Is that so. I'm 96. Isn't that awful?" She remembered Oak Park as "a wonderful, wonderful place," and Ascension was equally wonderful.
"I used to hate to take my check," she said.
I asked if she felt appreciated as a teacher, and she said yes. Students used to stay in touch from all over the United States, though she had not heard from any recently. She corresponded with some of the Ursuline nuns, such as sisters Edna, Beatrice and Lois. The latter, who was principal during the 1960s, died a couple of years ago (not to be confused with Sr. Lois Castillon, who was principal during the 1970s, and is still very much alive).
I inquired about her use of poetry, of course. Why did she make us memorize all those poems, and why those poems in particular?
Simple. They were her favorites and she wanted us to remember them. Memorizing was the only way.
Actually, it was reciting them in front of the class. Terror leaves a permanent impression on the blank slate of the childhood mind.
I asked if she remembered calling herself "the Great White Buffalo." She laughed, as she did often during our conversation, with the kind of deep, satisfied laughter that only a 96-year-old, reflecting back on a happy time in her life, can muster. "I had lots of names," she recalled, "from Hitler on down. I got a bang out of it though I never let on."
She still gets visitors occasionally, but "you can tell when people come in to talk just because you're old." My call, on the other hand, she said, "made my day."
Irma's daughter, Mary, described her mother as "the most remarkable woman." She has blossomed since moving to the Scott Center. "She works the crowd," Mary said, "shaking hands and telling people what to do." Mary has been taping her mom's life story. "It's taking quite a bit of tape," she noted.
A most remarkable life, it turns out. She got her degree from Clark College in Iowa, but aside from a short stint at the high school level, Irma Cannon didn't really start her teaching career until she was 50. She had a family to raise first. St. Eugene on the Northwest Side of Chicago was the first beneficiary of her talents. But she got tired of the commute to Oak Park (where she lived with her daughter, Pat), so she transferred to Ascension, where she taught until she turned 75.
The following week, I called Mrs. Cannon again to ask more questions because that is what one does with a teacher. Why did she start teaching so late? She wanted something to do after the kids grew up. Did she have a favorite poem? She couldn't recall, but her granddaughter, Renee, still has a copy of "Keep A-Goin'" framed on her wall.
If you want a straightforward, no-frills answer to your questions, ask a 96-year-old.
What would she tell young teachers today? Know about life and teach things pertaining to life. "This is their job," she said firmly. "We used to stay until 6 o'clock sometimes. All these things have slipped." Why was she so successful as a teacher? "I suppose because I loved it so," she replied. "That makes a difference."
As a famous poet once said, "that has made all the difference."
What would she say to her former pupils? "I'd like to say so much," she began. "I hope they grow up … no, they're already grown. I hope they rear their children to be fine, upstanding young men and women — peace-loving, faith-loving, hope-loving people. To be a parent is to be someone who really loves their children. If you really love them, face them in the direction of the Lord. I could go on forever."
We dearly hope so, but life is a notoriously finite proposition.
As it happens, every October, I travel to New Melleray Abbey, a Trappist monastery, for a personal retreat. The monastery's mailing address is the nearby town of Peosta, Iowa, which is where Irma Cannon hails from and where she is buried. I had the privilege of visiting her grave.
I can't remember if her headstone bore an epitaph, so the following will have to do:
By Frank L. Stanton (1857-1927)
If you strike a thorn or rose,
If it hails or if it snows,
'Taint no use to sit an' whine
When the fish ain't on your line;
Bait your hook an' keep a-tryin' —
When the weather kills your crop,
Though 'tis work to reach the top,
S'pose you're out o' ev'ry dime,
Gittin' broke ain't any crime;
Tell the world you're feelin' prime —
When it looks like all is up,
Drain the sweetness from the cup,
See the wild birds on the wing,
Hear the bells that sweetly ring,
When you feel like singin', sing —