Looking back when Latin was taught
September 27, 2013 1:26PM
Updated: October 30, 2013 6:12AM
“Diligentia maximum etiam mediocris ingeni subsidium.”
(Diligence is a very great help even to a mediocre intelligence.)
— author unknown
In 1922, Warren Harding was president, a brand-new Willys-Overland went for $695, Thom McAn began mass producing shoes at $3.99 a pair, 1,000 copies of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” were published in Paris, the Chicago Staleys played their first NFL game as the Chicago Bears, and little Maggie Rainford was born in Lake Village.
In the 1970s, I would refer to Maggie as Mrs. Merchant. She was my English teacher at North Newton High School. Our interview marked the first time we’d seen each other in nearly 40 years.
It took place at George Ade Memorial Healthcare Center in Brook. It was the day after her sister Marjorie was buried. Peanut and Marjorie Brunton were one of the most beloved couples in Lake Village. Margaret’s daughter, Judy Washburn, a math teacher, sat in on our conversation.
Mrs. Merchant, tell me about “the good old days” in Lake Village.
“We lived on Old U.S. 41 across the street from the Presbyterian Church,” she said. “My parents were Ruben and Florence Rainford, My dad worked as a laborer for the railroad. During the dust storms of the late ‘30s, my mother would wet sheets and hang them over the windows to keep the dust from coming in the house. The chinch bugs were bad in the drought years.
“My mother also was a schoolteacher. Her maiden name was Sullivan. She was an orphan from Chicago who was raised in Lake Village by her older sister and her husband. Mother was a devout Catholic.”
And Miss Sullivan eventually would be forced to quit her job.
“Yes, female schoolteachers weren’t allowed to be married. But she did teach at Conrad School way back when, and at a one-room schoolhouse near the state line.”
Do you remember the legendary hunter and trapper “Kankakee Ned” Barker?
“Barker came to school when I was in grade school at Lake Village. He would talk to us about nature and bring his pet owl. They called him ‘The Wolf Man.’ He smelled like it, too.”
“I remember when the big cheese factory in Lake Village burned. You can imagine the odor in the entire town. People came there to salvage the cheese that wasn’t totally burned. It was a godsend. The people of Lake Village weren’t starving, but that free cheese helped during the Great Depression.”
Were the cheese factory and the pickle factory next to each other?
“No. Remember Snowball Rainford? He was an albino. The cheese factory was near Snowball’s filling station.”
My dad had a math teacher who was an albino.
“That would be Alvin Stoner. The poor fellow suffered from tremors and was severely cross-eyed. He scared me because I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me. Plus, I did not like math.”
More about your days as a student?
“I graduated from Morocco High School in 1940. Back then, the Lake Village and Sumava kids were put in one section and the Morocco kids were put in another section.”
“I didn’t like that.”
“Ball State University. If it had not been for a scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college. At that time, they had quarters rather than semesters. It was $27.50 per quarter; my scholarship covered $22 of that. I worked at the movie theater while going to college. I smelled like popcorn all the time.
“During the war years, when everything was rationed, we wore leg makeup because nylon wasn’t available. We’d also make a pencil mark on the backs of our legs because some of the hose had a mark like that.”
Yankee ingenuity. How do you lean politically?
“The Rainfords from Lake Village were all Democrats. The Merchants from Morocco were not.”
As a kid, I’d hear the name Doc Merchant mentioned once in a while. A relative of your late husband?
“Yes, Raymond Merchant was my husband’s uncle. He was a doctor in Lake Village.”
It has been said that my Uncle Joe came into this world for a cord of wood. That’s what my Grandpa Vito paid Doc Merchant for delivering his son.
“Doc had a huge homemade freezer filled with butchered chickens and other types of meat. He brought a lot of babies into this world for the price of a few chickens. Hard times. We were all in the same boat. Doc was a brilliant man with a Ph.D.”
Let’s fast forward. Which class did you enjoy teaching most, English or Latin?
“Well, I like poetry. Here’s one for you: ‘Latin is a dead language, dead as it can be, first it killed the Romans, now it’s killin’ me.’”
Ha! Good one, Maggie — I mean, Mrs. Merchant. Favorite authors?
“I like Hemingway. Your style is similar to Hemingway’s.”
Short, staccato-like sentences.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of teaching?
“To see the results of these wonderful teenagers. You don’t know what they’re going to grow up to be. Some of them become highly successful in their professions. I’ll say, ‘I know that child, I had him in class.’ My husband used to say, ‘Honey, don’t say that you taught him, say you had him in class.’”
Wise man, Dale Merchant.
“Some of the kids would call me M.M. That’s how I signed everything. But they said it stood for Matchmaker. I always wanted the kids to go to the prom. You don’t have to be lovers, just go and have a good time. That’s my philosophy — enjoy.”
I signed up for your Ancient Latin course, but since I wasn’t planning on going to college, it was decided for me that I should take shop math instead. I flunked shop math. In retrospect, I know darn well that I could’ve pulled off a D-minus in Latin.
“Such a sense of humor.”
In the crossword puzzles, they oftentimes ask for a three-letter word for a Hoosier wit.
“George Ade never married. Yet, every year he had a huge Christmas party. Everything was free for the kids of this community. I believe it was Cleveland who announced that he would run for president at George’s estate here in Brook.”
You know, it seems like just the other day, I was sitting in your classroom.
“Jeff, you know what they say?”
What’s that, Mrs. Merchant?
Margaret Merchant is a gem. She might be wheelchair-bound these days, but remains as sharp as the proverbial tack. During our conversation, she recited everything from “The Raven” to various Longfellow works. And as she lovingly delivered the children’s poem “Wynken, Blynkin and Nod” by Eugene Fields, it brought her daughter to tears.
Like they say, time passes.