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By Ken Trainor
The world is a lot more interconnected than we think. Just ask the Meister family of Oak Park.
Where to begin?
Every house has a history — Oak Park and River Forest houses more than most. And some of those houses occasionally cough up a historical surprise. That's what happened to 12-year-old Julia Meister last April as she rummaged through one of those classic window-seat storage benches you find in so many Oak Park homes. She had just moved upstairs to the attic bedroom (another common feature of old Oak Park houses) and decided to explore a little.
Under an old game board box, she found a smaller box containing WWII vintage military photos, some postcards, a handwritten copy of the "Airman's Psalm," based on Psalm 23 (see sidebar), and some newspaper clippings, one of them inside an envelope addressed to Mrs. Annie Perkins of Flint, Mich., postmarked Aug. 5, 1944.
Julia showed the items to her parents. Her dad, Chris, thought the Flint address was an interesting coincidence. He had grown up in Flint. But when he looked at the clipping inside the envelope, he really did a double-take. There he found an article about Lt. Harold E. Perkins, a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator, who had completed his 50th combat mission — just barely — following an emergency landing in Italy.
"Lt. Perkins' golden mission, one to aircraft factories and railroad yards at Vienna," the article relates, "was his most dangerous flight. His plane was subjected to an anti-aircraft barrage which almost blasted it out of the skies. The co-pilot was mortally wounded, the pilot received an arm wound and the nose gunner was blasted completely out of his turret.
"Two engines were shot up and hits were scored on the left tire, the hydraulic and gasoline lines and the flaps. After the 'bombs away' signal and the turn for home, the crew busied itself with emergency repairs and kept the big plane aloft. It was impossible to bail out because of the low altitude, and the pilot was forced to land the craft at the first available strip on the Italian mainland, miraculously averting further damage and injuries in getting the groaning and shell-riddled plane on the ground.
"'It was the roughest ride I ever had," said the Flint flier, 'and the boys are still thanking their lucky stars that we were able to get back whole.'"
While he recuperated in Italy, he was awarded "the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters."
Chris couldn't believe it and neither could Dick and Joan Meister, his parents. Harold Perkins had been their next door neighbor in Flint from 1970 to 1981 (when the family moved to Oak Park). Dick was a history professor at the University of Michigan-Flint (who eventually retired from DePaul University).
Harold and Martha were the kindly couple next door, parents of four daughters. Harold, a banker, busied himself with his hobbies — stained glass, beer- and wine-making, and fishing — and he and Dick played poker once a month with other men from the neighborhood. He rarely mentioned his military service.
So how did this material end up in her son's home at 735 S. Lombard?
"Enter the history detectives," says Joan, a history buff herself and longtime researcher with such organizations as the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago.
Encouraged by Maze branch librarian Susan Ruffolo, and guided by an informational brochure put out by the Village of Oak Park, Joan decided to do a history of both her sons' Oak Park homes (the Meisters also have a daughter, who lives out of town).
They discovered that Chris' yellow brick bungalow at 735 S. Lombard had been built in 1926 by Dr. Harry and Libushka (Bartusek) Brown, the only previous owners.
He was a dentist and a musician who died in 1960 at the age of 74. His wife, Libushka, is a story unto herself. The daughter of Czech immigrants, she danced professionally and landed a role in a movie before retiring to raise her two children, Harry John and Marian. But she continued to teach dance and music and hold recitals in her basement studio. She served six years on the Oak Park elementary school board, was the editor of the Oak Parker newspaper during World War II, conducted the Longfellow School Mothersingers, and, with her daughter, created six miniature dioramas of "Oak Park's Historic Women," which the Maze branch library resurrected and put on display several years back.
She was also a published author of some note. In her memoirs, Everything But Circus and Burlesque, she mentioned that "it had never occurred to me to write a book until Adele Maze, head of our South Branch Library in Oak Park suggested it."
She penned a children's book about life in Czechoslovakia and one of her dance students drew the illustrations. He also managed to bring the book to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who mentioned it in her syndicated newspaper column, "My Day," and who eventually wrote the forward for the book, Happy Times in Czechoslovakia.
Libushka's son, Harry John, meanwhile, grew into a prolific and proficient musician, who played piano, violin, clarinet, and the oboe. But his favorite instrument was the organ and he also loved to conduct. He formed his own orchestra, the Oak Park Junior Symphony, which held rehearsals in the basement of the family home every Saturday and performed at the old Lowell School Children's Theater.
After graduating from Oak Park and River Forest High School, Harry entered the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York in 1941, just as the U.S. entered the war. Without telling his parents, he enlisted. The next time they heard from him, he was in boot camp in Texas. On his preferences sheet, he listed "bandmaster school." Joan thinks the induction people weren't paying close attention — or maybe had a sense of humor — and sent him to bombardier school instead.
Based on a couple of clippings from the Big Spring Herald in Big Spring, Texas, Joan and Dick deducted that Harry John Brown and Harold Perkins were part of the first class of bombardier cadets trained at the Big Spring Army Air Forces Advanced Flying School. They must have become friends and continued to correspond.
Which means that this amazing coincidence between Flint, Mich. and Oak Park, Ill. became even more outlandish since the connection occurred in, of all places, Texas.
Harold, then 24, was sent to Europe to fly combat missions. Harry John, because of his language skills (he learned Czech at home), was sent to language school to pick up Russian. He ended up at Ft. Benning, Ga., where he played the organ during religious services. One of his fans, Colonel Regnier, his commanding officer, used to sit in the chapel and listen to him practice. He wanted Brown to accompany him to Europe, but the base chaplain protested, writing, "Where would I find another who can play the organ divinely, drive a jeep, and speak Russian fluently, all in good nature?"
The Colonel eventually won out, but not until the end of the war, when Brown was ordered to select and train 100 soldiers to sing at a Russian garden party to celebrate VE Day. The 66th Gleemen toured the European continent for seven months, sang on radio broadcasts of the Armed Forces Network and performed for General Patton.
After the war, Harry John became the director of music at Elmhurst College; worked with the Miama Philharmonic, the Boston Pops and the Milwaukee Symphony; then joined the music faculty of the State University of New York at Fredonia.
Libushka Brown, meanwhile, lived to the ripe old age of 103, still in the house on Lombard, cared for by her daughter Marian, who died in 1994, two years before her mother.
Marian was accomplished in her own right. She appeared on the radio show Quiz Kids while she was still a student at Longfellow School. In 1953, she was named the All Star Queen for the annual pre-season College All Star football game in Chicago. She became an actress, appearing in numerous Goodman Theater productions and several movies and TV shows. She never married.
Neither did Harry John, whom the Meisters met when they bought the house in 1997. He died in Fredonia, N.Y., in 2000 at the age of 76. Harold Perkins died in 1987 at the age of 69.
Joan says the episode underscores the marvelous interconnectedness of modern life. World War II was the first great "scrambler" of the national population. People from all over the country were thrown together. Our natural parochialism and isolationism dissolved. We became a more mobile society.
But not everyone. Harold Perkins came from Flint and stayed in Flint. But now his legacy lives on in Oak Park, Ill.
Thanks to the History Detectives.
Joan, by the way, says this isn't the first experience she's had with extraordinary synchronicity. One day a few years back, she was at a restaurant in Hinsdale and the woman at the table next to her, whom she didn't know, was taking something out of her purse, and a dislodged piece of paper fluttered over to where she was sitting. When she picked it up, she noticed her name, address and phone number were written on it.
But that's a story for another time.