If you want to know which Oak Parkers fought — and died — in World War I, you can read the names on the bronze tablets of the Scoville Park War Memorial, aka Peace Triumphant (if you can get the kids who sit and crawl on them to move out of the way).
If you want to know which Oak Parkers fought and died in World War II, on the other hand, you have to walk over to the main branch of the Oak Park Public Library.
Though most patrons don’t realize it, there is a beautiful, hand-lettered, illuminated book stored in a glass case in the Special Collections Room back in the northwest corner of the third floor. The room is locked, so you have to find the librarian who oversees local history materials to open it for you, or make an appointment.
When I first wrote about this book in 1997, I talked with local history librarian Bill Jerousek, who said there has always been a “Veterans Room” at the library, going all the way back to the Scoville Institute, Oak Park’s first library, which occupied this same site from the late 1800s until the early 1960s. Funding for the room (located on the second floor of this third library incarnation) was originally provided by a long-gone entity, the Oak Park Veterans Memorial Commission, “to provide a memorial to Oak Park veterans.” The commission likely also provided funds for the World War II registry, which is titled, “Honor Roll — Dedicated to the men and women of Oak Park in the service of their country in World War II whose names we cherish and preserve for this and future generations.”
When the glass case is unlocked, a shelf slides out so the book can be opened. The second page features a prominent Gold Star on top, emblematic of those who died in the conflict. The lettering reads:
“We who gave our lives to defend your liberties; we whose names are here inscribed that our memory may live in the hearts of you the living, bid you, of your charity, to pray for us and yourselves. Pray that the good work which was begun in us may be brought to perfection, that liberty may increase and our country may be preserved through that which we gave — our lives.”
Names follow, 214 of them, beginning with Frank Charles Allen and ending with Frank L. Young. All died young.
The longer list — those who served and survived — comes after. Who knows how many of them are still alive? Any World War II vet who was 18 in 1945 when the war ended would be 88 today, and the vast majority of WWII vets are older than that.
Who knows if any of them still live in Oak Park?
We want to remember those who served, but we aren’t very meticulous about it. There is no central registry of all the Oak Parkers who served in all our country’s conflicts, dating back to the Civil War (when they would have been called Oak Ridgers). Americans have always been too mobile for that kind of careful record-keeping. After WWII, many Americans scattered. The country’s population was, in a real sense, reshuffled. I have a friend whose father came from South Dakota and whose mother hailed from South Carolina. They met during the war.
But we do have this honor roll, tucked away in the far corner of the top floor of the library. It was produced by the Veterans Commission, though no date is affixed. The chairman was O. Allen Postlewait (perhaps connected with the long-defunct Postlewait Funeral Home). Others listed are Dewey Carlson, vice chairman; Mrs. J.K. Beaty, secretary; and Timothy P. Durken, treasurer. The “Names Committee” was chaired by Beaty and Mrs. Lucius Cole.
The manuscript was “designed, lettered, illuminated and bound” by Scroll Studio in Chicago. Credit for the calligraphy goes to Edgar E. Maehler.
Requests to see the book, I’ve been told, are rare.
Next to the book in the Special Collections Room is a 1928 painting by Paul W. Austin, depicting a World War I-era soldier kneeling by a cross in a field, paying his respects. In the old library, it used to hang on the wall next to the book.
After the Veterans Day ceremony this Wednesday at the Oak Park Arms, if you’re still in the mood to pay respects, maybe someone will let you into the Special Collections Room to see our WWII registry.
And if any Boy Scout is looking for a good Eagle Scout project — or anyone with a passion for research, for that matter — it would be a boon to our historical record to compile a list of the names of Oak Parkers (and River Foresters), who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
This column ran on Nov. 3, 2010. It has been re-edited and updated. It is based on an article that first ran on Nov. 5, 1997.