Week 34: Character

My Dad, Jim McDearmid, was a bit of a character. He also had character. I’d like to take this time to recall as much as I can about my Dad. He died on July 4, 1959 when I was 15. Now at 82 my memories of him have faded but pictures and family stories help me recall what he was like.

Jim was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1915. His father, Gardner Clark, died in 1921 so at age 6 Jim and his sister were placed in the Dorcas Home for children because his mother, Louise, could not care for them. After a few years, Louise was able to make a home for Jim and Arlene with her parents, the Juhrends. At around age 10 (1931) Jim was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. Insulin was discovered/ invented in 1921 so by this time Jim may have been treated with insulin.

I don’t know much about my Dad until his late high school years when he was expelled from school near the end of his senior year, along with his two buddies Chuck and Leo, for smoking in a shed across the street from Warren Township High School. Fortunately, his shop teacher, Mr. Gilbert Clem, who thought very highly of Jim, stood up for the boys and got them back in school. Jim was also a member of the drama club and loved to sing.

Jim McDearmid at High School Graduation

While he surely could have qualified for college the family (his mother had remarried to Henry Numsen) probably could not afford it. Jim got a job at the Ferry Hardware store and also had a paper route. On that paper route he delivered to the Connelly house across the street where Anne Quist, 17, was the nanny/maid. Jim courted her with long motorcycle rides and hill climbing races! In June of 1938 they were married in the backyard of the Numsen house on the corner of Grand Ave and Route 21 in Gurnee, Il.

Jim continued working at the hardware store while the newlyweds lived in a little house on Grand Ave where they cared for an elderly man (I’ve forgotten his name). He helped the young couple out and soon they were able to buy 5 acres of land adjacent to the old guy’s house. Jim also was responsible for erecting/building the wrought iron fence around the Cole Ferry house which was also adjacent to their new homestead.

My Dad, Jim McDearmid, and me at age 3

I was born in 1939. I’m told that my Dad took up sewing and made me several baby nightgowns. I remember him singing to me, playing piggy back and then teaching me how to ride my two wheeler bike. I always felt loved by my Dad.

Jim and Anne built a small one bedroom house on their 5 acres. I think they got plans from Sears Roebuck. It was a labor of love that lasted for many years. I lived there for 19 years and it was never “done”. There was always some remodel or expansion going on. The house had a full basement with a root cellar. Going downstairs was a creepy experience…I can see it all in my head. I was always impressed with Dad’s storage system for nuts and bolts. He saved up Velveeta wooden cheese boxes (about 2″ x 2″ x 10″), put a screw on the front, stacked them up and had an excellent storage unit. I guess that came from his hardware experience.

The house where I grew up on Orchard Avenue in Gurnee, Il.

I remember people saying my Dad was a “happy-go-lucky” guy. He was always tinkering, building, whistling, having fun. One day when he thought things were too boring he said we needed to have a birthday party and bake a cake but it wasn’t anyone’s birthday. He looked in the paper to see whose birthday we could celebrate and came up with Elihu Thompson, an electrical engineer who founded General Electric. So he baked and decorated a cake and we sang to Elihu!

The beautiful Anne McDearmid…look at that long (red) hair!

He was also an amateur photographer who loved to get his hands on new equipment. He would set up “studios” in the living room for parties and take glam shots of all the girls in the family. Then he would set up the dark room with the red lights in the bath room and develop the pictures. Many’s the night we would make our way through the drying pictures while getting ready for bed.

Jim was well thought of by all the hardware store customers and locals. (This is where his good character comes in to play.) So well thought of that one customer, who worked at Abbott Laboratories, went into the HR department at Abbott and told them that if Jim McDearmid came in for a job he should be hired immediately. Jim did apply for a job and within the year was supervising the blood plasma line at Abbott. (This was in 1942 in critical war time.) Soon Jim had hired several of Anne’s family to work on the assembly lines at Abbott.

Jim holding the newborn triplets.

Over the years Jim and Anne built up their “5 acres and independence” based on a book by the same name. We had a huge garden, fruit trees, berry bushes and all kinds of farm animals except pigs. (too smelly) Jim could build or fix anything so we had many outbuildings including a small barn for Dolly, our brown cow. One day Jim and Dolly had a confrontation during milking and Jim kicked the cow and broke his toe. Not a good thing for a diabetic. I remember my Dad as being a very mellow person, everyone loved him. But now and then he had a fierce temper. Later I learned that the temper was a result of a sugar high or low.

When I was about 6 years old, Mom and Dad started caring for babies from the Illinois Children’s Home and Aid Society. Illinois law at the time didn’t allow babies to be adopted until around one year old so they could be evaluated and declared fit for adoption. We would receive newborn babies right from the hospital or older babies that were moved around foster homes until they were adopted. Over the years we had 17 babies! Mom and Dad loved and cared for them like they were our own. The final baby became my sister, Roberta. She was declared blind at birth and we were asked if we’d take on the challenge of a blind child. Well after a few months with us my Dad discovered she was not blind! She reached out on the table and picked the red lid off of the peanut butter jar…over and over! Visually impaired, yes…blind, NO!

Somewhere around 1950 Dad suddenly had vision problems that worsened to the point of blindness, a complication of diabetes. He took a leave of absence from Abbott because he didn’t know if this would improve or be permanent. (Would you believe Abbott paid him full salary while on leave). I don’t remember him being distressed or depressed although surely he was. But what he did was buy a huge loom so that he could weave rugs and make some money. I remember the loom being set up in our living room! Thankfully, this was not a permanent condition, just long enough for him to make rugs for everyone in the family. He was able to return to work and the loom went away.

My family loved music so when an old player piano became available my Dad swooped it up. He tinkered with it, got it working and our family and friends had many wonderful hours singing around the piano. On a whim he decided to see if he could automate the piano by using the vacuum cleaner to pump the pedals. Yes, that worked but we couldn’t hear the piano or voices because the vacuum was too loud! Lots of laughs on that one.

Jim McDearmid, just a few months before he died at age 39, 1954.

Some of Dad’s relatives lived in Milwaukee so on occasion we would drive to see them. One spring Sunday we discovered Leon’s Frozen Custard stand along the way to Uncle Charlies. Oh yum! That became a standard spring trip for my family (still to this day)! On another spring Sunday Dad made a stop along Sheridan Road as we headed home to cut some sprigs from the weeping willow trees on the roadside. When we got home he went down to the creek on our property and stuck the twigs in the mud beside the creek. Those trees still grow along that little creek, 70 years later!

In 1954 Dad’s health seriously declined. In late June he was hospitalized with kidney disease. Since I was 15 I was not old enough to visit so my sister and I would stand outside his window and wave. That is the last memory I have of him.

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