Chesterton Tribune

Region memories: Post-WWII 'Age of Anxiety' in Gary and NWI is topic for Duneland historians

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The Duneland Historical Society wrapped up its spring season on Thursday at the Westchester Public Library Service Center welcoming guest speaker Indiana University Northwest professor emeritus James B. Lane.

Lane shared his knowledge of what life was like in Northwest Indiana in the first few years following the second World War, a time he referred to as the “Age of Anxiety.”

Lane, who is co-director of the Calumet Regional Archives at IUN in Gary, shared with the group a volume of his self-edited magazine “Steel Shavings” filled with recountings and anecdotes taken from interviews of those who lived in the Calumet Region at a time when tensions were high due to the cold war brewing between the U.S. and Russia and locally the race issues Gary had with its diverse hybrid of nationalities.

Students in Lane’s classes conducted interviews as part of their classwork, some of which are featured in the magazines.

Lane said he is particularly interested in the daily specifics of what life was like in years past, giving attention to sports, fashions, fads, and leisure.

“I consider myself to be a social historian,” he said.

A Philadelphia native, Lane taught history at IUN starting in 1970 and retired in 2006. Recently, Lane updated his 1978 work, “City of the Century: A History of Gary, Indiana.” The work now contains the history of Gary all the way up to 2006.

Historical Society members read aloud excerpts from the “Age of Anxiety” magazine highlighted by Lane. The excerpts chronicled tales of blue collar steelworkers trying to make ends meet for their families, soldiers returning home, school days at Horace Mann and Froebel, riding on streetcars through Valparaiso, rum-flavored cake at Ted’s Drive-In located at the intersection of U.S. 12 and U.S. 20 as remembered by local historian Tom Higgins, and purchasing the very first television sets, which Lane said seems to be a vivid memory for most people living back then.

A few passages were read from the diary of political prisoner and activist Katherine Hyndman who came by boat from Croatia in 1913 and moved to Gary in 1942. Hyndman helped establish the Gary Civil Liberties Committee, which aimed to improve race-relations, and was later convicted on charges that she was connected with the Communist party.

Hyndman was incarcerated in the Crown Point jail and recorded her experiences in a diary that she kept. She showed sympathy toward the prostitutes, alcoholics and drug addicts she shared her cell with. The entire diary is currently housed at the Calumet Regional Archives.

Lane encouraged the audience to share their memories of the postwar years. Lane himself recalled receiving the “Weekly Reader” magazine, listening to the music of Spike Jones, and practicing air raid drills in school during the red scare. A member of the audience mentioned he was one of the many children during that time who were given a tattoo of their blood type in case atomic bombs were deployed.

“Life went on and people enjoyed music, sports, and family,” said Lane.

Stella Markovich of Chesterton said she remembers being pressured into working in the steel mills and instead made the decision to become a teacher, even though the mill jobs would have paid more. Parents often were against sending their children to college as there was more money to be made in the steel industry, Lane said.

Markovich mentioned she attended Froebel School and recalled the pioneering efforts of William Wirt who was superintendent of Gary Public Schools from 1897 to 1938. Audience members broke into discussion about the platoon or work-study-play system developed by Wirt that gained national attention. Gary schools were composed of 85 nationalities who could not verbally communicate, but Wirt’s innovation of hands-on learning molded the students’ education.

Historical Society members shared fond memories of taking the bus and train to Gary from Chesterton to do shopping during the 1950s. One woman asked Lane if there were plans to restore the Gary Train Station which she remembered was a “beautiful building.” Lane said he thought it would be a good idea and said there certainly are “train buffs” who are interested in preserving the history.

One audience member asked Lane what he thought about Gary’s future as the city has seen its share of trouble in recent years with gang and drug activity. Lane said improvement efforts to bring in businesses have not quite measured up, but said there are Gary residents who still accomplish amazing things and listed a few sports players who claim Gary as their hometown. He mentioned that this year’s valedictorian at Notre Dame is a Gary resident.

“Good things still go on,” said Lane.

Audience members openly agreed that IUN has stood out as a beacon of light for the city.

Lane thanked everyone for coming out to the event. Markovich told Lane after the meeting she was happy to attend.

“When it’s a part of your life, it’s very important,” she said.

Copies of “Steel Shavings” are available for purchase through the university’s website, Lane said. They can also be found at the IUN bookstore.

Posted 5/21/2010