This week in Illinois History: Dec. 18-24
Dec. 18, 1913 - Chicago. Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Basketball Coach Ray Meyer was born. DePaul University Basketball Coach Meyer earned his Hall of Fame position through more than four decades of developing players to achieve on-the-court excellence. During his 37 winning seasons, Meyer led his teams to 13 NCAA tournaments. Between 1978 and 1984, he had consecutive 20-win seasons. Meyer trained 12 All-Americans, and coached 6-foot-10 George Mikan (aka “Mr. Basketball”), among the sport’s biggest players, according to Hoophall.com and Basketball-Reference.com.
Dec. 19, 1975 - Chicago. SCOTUS adds John Paul Stevens of Chicago to the bench. President Gerald Ford selected bowtie-wearing U.S. Court of Appeals Judge John Paul Stevens for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court upon the retirement of Judge William O. Douglas, according to the Federal Judicial Center’s website. Stevens, a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, had worked in private practice after earning his law degree from Northwestern University in 1947. In a judicial career spanning 35 years, Stevens “was an independently minded justice with a moderately liberal position,” said Biography.com. Over the years, he ruled in controversial cases, including the 2000 Bush v. Gore case where he dissented against the court’s ruling to allow a Florida recount in the presidential race. His other cases supported a woman’s right to choose abortion and a dissent in a case that found the Fourth Amendment didn’t apply to prison cells.
Dec. 20, 1918 - Joliet. 1940s box-office star Audrey Totter was born. Known for playing, as the New York Daily News put it, “tough-talking blondes,” Trotter honed her screen presence in a number of film noir classics, including “Lady in the Lake,” “The Unsuspected” and “The Set-Up.” Her post-Hollywood career saw her act on television, according to IMDB.com, in such roles as Nurse Wilcox on “Medical Center,” and the Angela Lansbury vehicle “Murder, She Wrote.”
Dec. 21, 1977 - Mattoon. President Jimmy Carter tapped Patricia Roberts Harris as the first African-American female to serve in a presidential cabinet. Harris worked with two U.S. presidents, John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, and also became dean of Howard Law School, according to the National Women’s Hall of Fame website. John F. Kennedy appointed her to co-chair the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights, and she became the first African-American woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, first as secretary of Housing and Urban Development and later as secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, both under President Carter. During her Capitol Hill confirmation hearing, the National Women’s HOF website quotes her as saying, “I didn’t start out as a member of a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to school. If you think that I have forgotten that, you are wrong.”
Dec. 22, 1917 - Christopher. Gene Rayburn, TV’s Match Game host, was born. Gene Rayburn started out as “Tonight” show host Steve Allen’s original sidekick in the ‘50s, but it was his stint as host of “Match Game” that propelled him to TV immortality. The New York Times said Rayburn had “a rich voice and nimble delivery,” allowing him to be the foil in comedic sketches on “Tonight” with Buddy Hackett and other well-known comics. That prepared him no doubt to serve as the game show’s host in later years, but he got his start as a newsman on New York radio station WNEW in the ‘40s.
Dec. 22, 1911 - Wheaton. Grote Reber, scientific inventor, was born. From the age of 16, Reber showed an interest in the then-burgeoning field of ham radio, but once he had established contact with most of the world, he set his sights on cosmic radio, according to his American Astronomical Society obituary. He saved a year’s salary to build his own, 32-foot parabolic dish to capture interstellar transmissions. Reber’s exploration led him from Illinois to Hawaii and later Tasmania, and earned him numerous accoldates in electrical engineering.
Dec. 23, 1860 - Chicago. The birth of Poetry Magazine founder Harriet Monroe. In a career spanning nearly half a century, Monroe advanced the art of poetry by helping Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and others become imminent authors. He support lives on decades after her death in the form of philanthropic gifts to the establish the Harriet Monroe Library of Poetry at the University of Chicago and a prize to recognize excellence in poetry, according to the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s website.
Dec. 24, 1932 - Moweaqua. Disaster claims the lives of 54 coal miners. The Illinois Labor History Society recognizes one of the worst mining disasters in American history, a methane gas explosion on Christmas Eve at the Moweaqua Coal Mine. Seen as a lifeline of jobs in Depression-era city in Shelby and Christian counties, the Moweaqua Coal Corp. survived the previous owners’ closure attempt thanks to efforts of local businessmen, according to the Society’s web page on Web.Archive.org. Coverage in the Moweaqua News on Jan. 11, 1933, recounts the heartbreaking story of Tom Jackson, a casualty of the accident who was slated to play Santa Claus in the town’s festivities.
Dec. 24, 1880 - Arcola. Johnny Gruelle, famed cartoonist who created Raggedy Ann dolls, was born. The link between cartoonist Gruelle and the Raggedy Ann and Andy franchise earned him the nickname “The Raggedy Ann Man,” according to Raggedy-Ann.com. After years of drafting cartoons for The New York Herald Tribune in the early 1900s, Gruelle struck gold in 1915 when he patented the “distinctive, whimsical design” for the now iconic toys. The success of the dolls, and their accompanying books and syndicated newspaper cartoons, made Gruelle, if not a household name, then certainly bestowed that honor on his creations.