Jeff Manes: Morocco man, 76, a fountain of information
January 11, 2013 3:48PM
Gerald Born, a former librarian in downstate Columbus and at the Illinois State Library in Springfield, is considered by many the historian of northern Newton County. | Photo provided
Updated: February 14, 2013 6:13AM
“Once upon a time, in Spain, there was a little bull, and his name was Ferdinand. All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand. He liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers.”
— Munro Leaf
Gerald Born is to Morocco what the late historian Richard Schmal was to Lowell.
Anything you want to know about northern Newton County — ask Born.
To me, he has the voice and suave mannerisms of the British character actor George Sanders, who often was cast as a sophisticated and sometimes villainous chap. Then again, I see striking similarities between Eve Arden and Vincent Price.
Think about it.
Born’s mother attended school in Conrad, a once- bustling little burg between Lake Village and Morocco. His maternal grandfather ran the depot for the town’s founder, Jennie Milk Conrad. Born’s maternal grandmother managed the 18-room hotel there.
Today, the ghost town of Conrad is part of The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands project. There is a beautiful nature trail in the section called Conrad Savanna. Deep into the woods, along the trail and beside a crumbling foundation, is a large placard protected by thick plastic. It is entitled “The Saga of Jennie Conrad.” Born wrote it.
Born, 76, is a lifelong bachelor who has worn many hats.
“I was born in Hammond, lived in Lake Village as an infant, then, my parents moved to Morocco,” Born began.
What did you do for a living?
“What didn’t I do? I liked insects at a young age and went to the state fair in 4-H with my bug collection. I actually studied entomology at Purdue University for a while, but decided I didn’t want to do that.
“Then, I went to Butler (University), thinking I’d become a minister. While I was doing that, I earned my master’s degree in library science at Indiana University.”
You gave up preaching?
“Yes, what decided that was when I had to do the eulogy and service for five kids from the same family who were killed in a school bus accident. Seeing those five little coffins just emotionally drained me. I decided to become a librarian.”
“Columbus, Ind. When it came time for us to build the new library, we were told by Columbus native J. Irwin Miller that we would receive architectural fees if we hired a world-class architect.”
From what I’ve read, Miller was quite a guy — instrumental in the rise of the Cummins Engine Co.
“Yes, he also was a civil rights activist, a Yale graduate, a very religious man and quite the philanthropist.”
Did you hook up with a famous architect?
“Yes, we got I. M. Pei. I was only 25 at the time. This was one of the high points of my life. I. M. Pei was one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met ... . His design was just fascinating.
“I wrote the building program for the new library, and only had a week to do it in.”
How did that go?
“He told me it was one the best programs he’d ever worked with. High praise from someone like I. M. Pei.”
How long were you in Columbus?
“About five years, then I went to the Illinois State Library in Springfield. That was quite an interesting experience, too, because Paul Powell was not only the secretary of state at the time, he also was the state librarian. He was the one who had all the shoe boxes filled with large bills when he died. His girlfriend at the time got on a plane to Switzerland, where Powell also had lots of money.”
Gerald, space does not permit delving into all that. My goodness, there’s library science, entomology, theology, genealogy, astrology, antiques, history, your writing and you publish your own newspaper. The list goes on and on.
I know you sold antiques in Chesterton for more than 20 years and you still have several booths at antique malls in Rensselaer. Let’s touch on that — antiques.
“Been doing that all my life. Bought my first antique when I was 10.”
What was it?
“A bowl that I purchased at an auction sale in Morocco; it was Carnival glass and had three feet on it. I paid a quarter for it and sold it for $250.”
How long did you keep the piece before you parted ways with it?
“Almost 30 years. More recently, I bought a pair of oil paintings for $125.”
“I sold one for $125, so I got my money back.”
What about the other?
“It’s been estimated at about $50,000. I used to go to England every other year in search of antiques. I also was doing my genealogy at that time. The ancestral home of the Stowell part of my family is called Cothelstone Manor. The Stowells lived there until the 1820s. It was built by a Saxon king and queen in A.D. 890.
“The people currently living there were wonderful; I told them I wanted to see the place and they welcomed me with open arms.”
What other family finds have you discovered in your genealogical research?
“My great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Jacob Gundy, took his case for getting his Revolutionary War pension to a young lawyer from Illinois by the name of Abraham Lincoln in 1835.
“One of my ancestors was a troubadour in 12th-century France; his name was Bertrand d’Born. That line goes back all the way to Charlemagne. I also have an ancestor, Thomas Trowbridge, who was knighted by King Henry VIII. His title was one of the few that were brought to the U.S. in the 1600s.”
Fascinating. Gerald, bear with me; sometimes, I jump all over — the Morocco Times?
“That’s all right, I jump, too. I’m a Gemini. I write the Morocco Times, publish it, distribute it, keep the books for subscriptions, and I own it.”
You also sweep out the place at night.
“That’s right. Half of my readership is out of state.”
Former Morocco citizens?
You’ve contributed countless articles to various historical volumes and newsletters. Tell me about one of your books.
“Well, I wrote a book about Chinese jade. It’s an annotated bibliography which took 10 years to compile. It originally sold for $35; I was in a rare book store the other day and saw a copy of it for $175.”
You’re quite the bibliophile.
“Books have played an important part of my life from the start. There were two in particular that really had an impact on me. The first was entitled “The Little Engine that Could.” It was a gift from my great-aunt for my fourth birthday. I still believe that I can accomplish just about anything if I try hard enough.”
What was the other book that had an early impact on you?
“The Story of Ferdinand,” who spent his time smelling the flowers rather than ranting and raving as most bulls do. I still spend time planting flowers and watching them grow.
“Jeff, I’ve lived an interesting life, but it has not been traditional by any means.”
Gerald Born, a gentleman who has marched to the beat of a different drummer, also has taken time to smell the flowers.