Friday, September 19, 2014


We pick up the story of Ailzia McElroy ("Babe") in the spring of 1929.  She is living in Reno, Nevada, having just been granted a divorce from Phillip Francis Harper.  She has her five year old daughter Florence living with her.

Babe was perfectly content to stay in Reno after her divorce.  She had had to establish residence there to be eligible for a quickie Reno divorce, and during that period she made a lot of friends.  She had no desire to return to Chicago to the "I told you so"s of her family.  For the first time in her twenty eight years she was not under anyone's watchful eye, and she loved it.  She had no interest in getting involved again with anyone romantically - at least not right away.  But she did enjoy being taken out on the town by young men, especially a particular dentist she had been spending some time with.

As I mentioned before, Babe was very athletic and especially enjoyed golf, tennis and swimming.  She used to play doubles tennis with the dentist and another couple on his free days.  One day they were missing a fourth for doubles and happened to spy young Terah Herschel ("Dukie") Drake (1904-1998) by himself along the sidelines.  "Will you join our game?" they asked, and when he said "Yes" it started a chain of events that would change his life, as well as those of Babe and Florence, forever.  Here's a photo of Dukie around the time he met Babe:

T.H. Drake - c1929

Terah Herschel Drake was born October 5, 1904 in Goodlettsville, Tennessee to Wesley Terah Drake (1879-1964) and Sudie, nee Galbreath (1884-1953).  Dukie was the oldest of seven children.  His parents went right to the Bible when they deciding what he should be named.  When he was a teenager he left home because his family was very poor and he felt they would be better off with one less mouth to feed.  After wandering around the west for a while he taught himself Morse Code and got a job as a telegrapher for the Southern Pacific Railroad in Reno/Truckee, Nevada.   On his day off he used to play tennis, and he was immediately taken with the athletic divorcee and her young daughter.  Babe used to bring Florence to the tennis courts in her stroller and put her on the sidelines so she could watch the games.

Dukie got his nickname because there was no way a railroad man was going to use a name like "Terah".  His family called him "Herschel" but the railroad men started calling him "Drake" and then "Duck" which evolved to "Ducky" and eventually to "Dukie".  Babe was pretty taken with the handsome young telegrapher. 

An aside about Dukie - he had very little formal education but was one of the most intelligent men I ever knew.  He was a voracious reader and could converse (and debate) on a myriad of subjects from history to politics to religion to economics.  He was also gifted with a strong dose of common sense.  Intellectually he was a good match for the classically-educated Babe.

Dukie was taken with Babe right away.  She was very pretty, had a killer figure from all her athletics and could match Dukie drink-for-drink whenever they went out on the town.

Babe was attracted to Dukie because he was handsome, but also intelligent, athletic, and level-headed.  But most of all, Dukie was not the least bit impressed with Babe's family money or her fancy education.

Babe and I were talking about it once, many years later, and Babe admitted she was attracted to Dukie at first because he was so unlike Phil Harper, or any of the other boys she had dated.  So after the tennis match when Dukie asked her out, she accepted.

Dukie told me years later that he knew that if he wanted to win Babe he had to woo Florence.  He knew that Babe would never stay with a man that Florence didn't like, so he set out to win the affections of a little six year old girl.  It worked.  Within a short time both Babe and Florence were in love with Dukie.

I mentioned before that even after her divorce, Babe stayed friendly with Phil's sister Helen Harper Graf.  In the 1970s Phil asked Helen to ask Babe if he could get in touch with Florence.  Neither Babe nor Florence had any contact with Phil since the divorce.  Phil said that he was getting older and wanted to restart his relationship with his daughter, as well as get to know his grandchildren.  Babe said that she would ask Florence, although Babe had an idea of what Florence's answer was going to be.

Florence said to tell Phil that "Dukie is my father, and that's that."  She said that since Phil had no time for her when he was young, that she had no time for him now that he was old.  

So, Babe and Dukie (and Florence) started dating.  As things began to get serious Babe told her parents about the dashing telegrapher and they told her (without ever meeting him) that Dukie was only after Babe's money.  Babe's father said to tell Dukie that he would not be supporting them financially if they went through with the marriage.

Babe felt she had a "keeper" this time so they traveled back to Chicago to give her parents a chance to get to know Dukie, as well as see their granddaughter Florence.  Although Babe's parents liked Dukie they were still against the marriage because they still felt that Dukie was after Babe's money.  This was a legitimate concern, because by this time, Robert McElroy was a Vice President and member of the Board of Directors of the Standard Oil Company.  The McElroys were very well-to-do.

Babe again asserted her independence and she and Dukie were married in downtown Chicago by a judge on January 20, 1930.  (When Dukie died on January 14, 1998, he and Babe had been happily married for just short of sixty-eight years!).  Here's their marriage license:

They returned to Nevada where they took up residence in a small house at 543 Humbolt in Reno:

543 Humbolt, Reno, Nevada

Strangely, the 1930 US Census (taken on May 9, 1930) reports Ailzia "Drake" as living with her parents in Wilmette.  They listed her marital status as "Divorced" and no sign of Florence.  Just goes to show that you can't always believe what shows up on the census.

Time passed and the Great Depression hit.  Dukie was still working for the Southern Pacific Railroad as a telegrapher but was finally laid off in 1933.  He was the youngest man in the Reno operation and he had the least seniority, so he was the first to go.  Job prospects were very grim in Reno, so he and Babe had to get creative to be able to earn enough money to live on.

Babe had always been an excellent bridge player, having played from an early age. She had an excellent memory and used to say that after everyone bid she could almost tell you exactly what cards they held. So, whenever funds were getting low, Dukie would put Babe on the train and she would travel back and forth across the country hustling bridge for 1/4 of a cent per point.  Dukie still had a lot of friends on the railroad, so Babe could ride for free.  She would ask if anyone was interested in a bridge game and pick out her mark - and off they would go.  She said that it was her bridge hustling that paid their bills after Dukie lost his job.

But even that tapered off after a while, so finally Dukie, Babe and Florence packed up and returned to Chicago.  Babe had decided to swallow her pride and ask her family for help.  They took what little savings they had and rented an apartment at 1636 W. Juneway Terrace in Chicago:

1636 W. Juneway Terrace, Chicago

After getting settled in, they went to see the McElroys to ask for help.  Robert McElroy let them know that financial help would not be forthcoming from him.  He reminded Babe that he and her mother were against this marriage, as they had been against her first marriage.  He also reminded her that he had said previously that he would not support them, so he did not understand why she was asking.  This was a real blow to Babe.  She had always been very close to her father, and she could not understand why he was unwilling to help.  After all, there was a nationwide depression, and that certainly was not her or Dukie's fault.  Reminiscent of Mr. Harper's refusal to help so long before ("You made your bed, now you can lie in it.") Robert McElroy's advise was just as pithy: "Ailzia, live fish go upstream and dead fish go downstream.  Now go out there and find a job."  Rough advice when the national unemployment rate was 24.75%.

Babe and Dukie talked it over and decided that they had the best chance of finding work where there was the highest concentration of jobs:  in downtown Chicago - the Loop.  So every day after breakfast they took the El (elevated train) downtown.  Each day they picked a new street - Babe took one side and Dukie too the other and they went into every single business on that street asking for work.  They went into every ground level store and every high rise office building.  Day after day they "swam upstream" as hard as they could.  Finally, a break.  Babe got a job in a doctor's office because she had taken some nurses training long ago after she left St. Mary's.

Dukie had always been adept at working on cars, and he finally got a job at a Standard Oil gas station at 6601 N. Sheridan Road in Chicago.  There is a parking lot on that site today.   

And so, by the end of 1933 both Babe and Dukie were working in Chicago.

Life went relatively smoothly for Babe and Dukie until about 1937.  Robert McElroy, Babe's father had always enjoyed good health.  He was a big man - about 6'-4" and had a robust constitution.   But starting about 1937 people began to remark that he was losing weight, and he seemed to have lost all his energy.  When the diagnosis finally came it was a shock - cancer.  Babe took her father's illness especially hard.

Babe and Dukie were happily married, and there had been a reconciliation of sorts with Babe's family.  They could not help but like Dukie, and once they saw that he was not a fortune hunter, and that he was taking good care of their daughter and granddaughter they relented. 

By the beginning of 1938 Babe realized that her father was dying.  When Robert McElroy checked into Henrotin Hospital for a long stay, Babe and her mother dealt with the crisis in exactly opposite ways.  Florence McElroy stayed away from the hospital, going about her life as if nothing at all was wrong.  Babe, on the other hand, stayed by her father's bedside morning and night - some nights even sleeping in her father's room at the hospital.  To pass the time, Babe took up knitting, and after awhile she said she had knitted blankets for almost the entire hospital staff.

But Robert McElroy was terminal, and he died at Evanston Hospital on June 25, 1938 at the age of sixty-one.     

Here's his obituary from the Chicago Daily Tribune of June 27, 1938:

Florence McElroy bought ten graves in Section S of Rosehill Cemetery.  Why ten graves?  She said she did not want to be near anyone else.  Robert McElroy is buried in front of a beautiful monument of Vermont marble:
The Grave of Robert H. McElroy

Babe took her father's death very hard.  After the funeral she took to her bed where she stayed day after day.  She wasn't interested in eating or anything else.  All she did was stay in her darkened bedroom and cry.  Dukie and Florence tried everything to get Babe to start living again with no success.  Finally Dukie called their family physician, who had also been the doctor for Babe's father.  After checking Babe over he sat down on the bed and gave her a good talking-to.

The doctor told Babe that her father would be horrified at her behavior, had he known.  The doctor reminded Babe that her father was dead, and nothing would change that - but that she had a husband and a daughter who were alive, and she owed it to them to get out of bed and get on with her life.  He told her he wasn't leaving until she got up and got dressed and went out into the living room.  Babe told me later that she was so overwhelmed with her grief that she didn't realize what it was doing to those around her, so she took the doctor's advise and got out of bed, got dressed, and started living again.

Here's a photo of Babe and Dukie from about 1940:

The years passed - Florence entered Northwestern University in 1939 at the age of sixteen, but soon became bored with the structure and discipline, so she pulled a stunt that even topped her mother - she ran away from home and started following Frank Sinatra around the country.

Eventually the excitement of being a Sinatra "groupie" wore off and Florence returned home.  She wasn't interested in returning to school, so she shocked everyone when she enlisted in the US Marines Corps. While serving in the Marines, Florence met her future husband, George F. Wurster (1923-2007) of Shamokin, Pennsylvania.  George was a devout Catholic so Florence took Instructions and became a Catholic before their marriage in 1945 in Philadelphia.

So now Babe and Dukie were "empty-nesters."  By the early 1950s they decided that their apartment was too big for just the two of them and decided to start looking around for a small house.  Babe had inherited some money from her father, and always lived frugally - a habit she acquired during all those years with Phil Harper.

Babe and Dukie were on very good terms with Babe's mother. Although Florence McElroy was fiercely independent - she stayed in that big house on Sheridan Road all by herself until the 1960s - as the years passed she began to rely more and more on both Babe and Dukie.

Babe's brother, Robert McElroy, Jr. had married and had a family of his own and was available to his mother, but was busy with family and career responsibilities.  A success story in his own right, Robert McElroy Jr worked his way up to Vice President of the Pure Oil Company.  He was not interested in riding his father's coattails, and when he started his career even used an assumed name so no one would know of the connection.

When Babe and Dukie told Florence McElroy that they were looking at houses, she picked out one for them and offered to pay for it as a gift to Babe and Dukie.  The home Florence picked out for them was a magnificent home on Lunt Avenue in Chicago overlooking Indian Boundary Park.  They refused her offer.  Dukie told me years later that he felt if they accepted the house as a gift, that they would feel they were beholden to Babe's mother, and that was a situation he did not want to be in.

Instead they found a cute little two bedroom bungalow at 1020 Harvard Terrace in Evanston, that they bought with $20,000.00 of their own money:

1020 Harvard Terrace, Evanston

Hey - what about me?  I thought this was a story about the most unforgettable woman I ever met.  So far I have covered 50+ years of the story and I am still not in the picture.  Well, my friendship with Babe and Dukie didn't really blossom until about 1971, so we'll just say that I came along "in the last act."  So to find out "the rest of the story", as they say, come back next Friday and I'll tell you all about it.

You didn't really expect me to cover 102 years of living in just two installments, did you??? 

1 comment:

  1. I just love this story. Can't wait for the next installment!