Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » Ghosts of Christmas Past

Category Archives: Ghosts of Christmas Past

The Stationary Traveler

Jamiroquai and Dune¹

Cecil Elliott, long-time chair of my department and a friend of this project despite having died three years before its beginning, often spoke of his ideal retirement habitat: as the proprietor of a hybrid bar, bookstore, and travel agency. Well, we have little need for travel agencies these days and the on-line site that dare not speak its name has virtually eliminated independent neighborhood bookstores, so if he were alive today, Cecil would be operating one of the world’s oddest drinking establishments. And that would be me on the second stool from the end.

He possessed a peculiar sort of mind, the kind that could satisfy an appetite merely reading a recipe in a cookbook or epicurean magazine. From our conversations, I know that he could also travel without moving, through evocative writing by the likes of Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, or Jan Morris. I recall one of our earliest conversations; a discussion of London — a passion we shared — and an obscure restaurant near the V&A: Daquise, a Polish restaurant with a French name. Just talking about it transported each of us back to that place and to a meal savored a second time. No thanks to British band Jamiroquai or the “Holtzman Effect” of folding space in Frank Herbert’s Dune, Cecil and I both enjoyed the benefits of traveling without moving.

I can visit Agincourt, despite its non-existence, as often and whenever I like: during those 3:00 a.m. epiphanies that punctuate my dreams, or the tedium of an especially pointless meeting. [Dr Bob has warned about packing for the move, however, and calling United Van Lines.] I wrote the death notice and obit for Maud (Mrs B. F.) Adams during one of those impromptu transmigrations. And I could “see” The Obelisk on axis with one of the entries to Asbury Methodist Church as I designed the building and imagined its context. Portions of the city are that vivid. Some are sketchy at best; others terra incognita.

All of this is overture to a current enterprise: writing about Mesopotamia, that flood-prone neighborhood in Agincourt’s southwest quadrant which seems precisely the kind of place my friend Howard would have known as a boy. Now, if my writing were only half as good as Jan Morris, I could take you with me.

¹ Sounds like a law firm, doesn’t it.

Pliny’s Purse

“Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.”

― Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

pliny's purse

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past #24: Pliny’s Purse

Alexander Pope tells us that anonymity is a donor’s wisest course. I wonder what Pope might say when the donor himself is equally ignorant of his charity.

In the year leading to Agincourt’s 150th anniversary, a wide range of topics occupied this space. And among the earliest was a piece about our Founders, the five investors who planted the seed of Agincourt in 1853. That group included the three Tennant brothers, their banker* and a brother-in-law. I repeat this historical nugget for just one reason: of the three Tennants, Numbers 1 and 3 stayed on, while Number 2 went west — swallowed by the gold fields of California. But Pliny Tennant left a larger mark on the community than he could have imagined.

Pliny’s profit from the sale of lots continued to accumulate during his absence. After three years, with no word from the frontier and every reason to believe he’d not return, the others created a fund called “Pliny’s Purse”, intended for charity and specified as anonymous.

Very few of us were even aware of the Five Founders, let alone one-hundred-and-fifty years of benefaction. I called in some favors, applied the little leverage left to me, and —well, yes — I even begged for some insight to the operation of Pliny’s Purse….and didn’t get very far. Frankly, I took all of that as a very good sign Tennant’s legacy is in good hands. Secrets are notoriously hard to keep. Here is as much as I can say.

#1) Three Tennants, Horace and Virgil and their sister Helen, were the first of a self-perpetuating “committee” evolving through recruitment of others from the community at large. There have been as few as three and as many as five at any time, all sworn to a secrecy that remains unbroken.

#2) Their mission from the outset was to follow Alexander Pope’s advice: “Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.” Help those in need. Do it in such a way that no one notices, not even the recipients.

#3) Let generosity be tempered, alone, by discretion and good stewardship.

That model seems to have functioned well in a community of our size, where invisibility is difficult and want can be more easily distinguished from need. I’m told that medical expenses, medications as well as treatments, have been covered. Foreclosures forestalled. Loved ones reunited. The hapless helped. The vulnerable reassured. All of which put me in mind of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when Arthur Dent and his fellow travelers meet the Man Who Rules the Universe:

“The Ruler of the Universe is a man living in a small shack on a world that can only be reached with a key to an unprobability field or use of an Infinite Improbability Drive. He does not want to rule the universe and tries not to whenever possible, and therefore is by far the ideal candidate for the job. He has an odd, solipsistic view of reality: he lives alone with his cat, which he has named ‘The Lord’ even though he is not certain of its existence. He has a very dim view of the past, and he only believes in what he senses with his eyes and ears (and doesn’t seem too certain of that, either): anything else is hearsay, so when executive-types visit to ask him what he thinks about certain matters, such as wars and the like, he tells them how he feels without considering consequences. As part of his refusal to accept that anything is true, or simply as another oddity, ‘…he talked to his table for a week to see how it would react.’ He does sometimes admit that some things may be more likely than others – e.g. that he might like a glass of whiskey, which the visitors leave for him.”

The keepers of Pliny’s Purse deserve your thanks as much as they warrant their invisibility.

haym salomon.jpg

* One of my favorite urban sculptures once stood on a pedestrian island in the course of Chicago’s Wacker Drive. One of the three heroic bronze figures is Haym Salomon, an obscure figure in American history who financed the Revolutionary War. Of him, Wikipedia has this to say:

 “The financier died suddenly and in poverty on January 8, 1785, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after contracting tuberculosis in prison. Due to the failure of governments and private lenders to repay the debt incurred by the war, his family was left penniless at his death at age 44. The hundreds of thousands of dollars of Continental debt Salomon bought with his own fortune were worth only about 10 cents on the dollar when he died.

“His obituary in the Independent Gazetteer read, ‘Thursday, last, expired, after a lingering illness, Mr. Haym Salomon, an eminent broker of this city, was a native of Poland, and of the Hebrew nation. He was remarkable for his skill and integrity in his profession, and for his generous and humane deportment. His remains were yesterday deposited in the burial ground of the synagogue of this city.'”

Ghosts of Christmas Past (#22): Fern Pirtle

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Fern Pirtle [1903-1978]

Growing up with an older sister as my only sibling, our dog Frank made life a little easier. Mixed breed — but mostly mutt — he came to live with us quite by accident. Explaining that will take a minute.

I was about nine or ten, growing up in a town that could have been the set for “Ozzie and Harriet”: still summer nights lit with fireflies, alive with the rhythm of cicadas; winter sledding behind passing cars; leaving my bike anywhere, with the expectation that it would be there when I come back. I was inclined to wander in those amniotic Eisenhower years.

Agincourt is a town of quadrants, each a mirror pattern of the adjacent sections but each, I was to learn, unique in its evolution. Plant the same seed in four different plots and watch the inevitable variation of organic life. The north-east quad, for example—Pill Hill—is the highest point in town, as are the salaries of its residents. The north-west, where the Tabors live, is home to the butcher, baker, candle-stick maker; the business men and women of Broad Street. South-east was the last section to populate, mostly after World War I. Later, Baby Boomers bought there because prices were low as the previous generation headed to retirement in Arizona.

South-west Agincourt, the fourth quad where Crispin Creek meets the mighty Muskrat, has always been flood prone. Our earliest industries located there—the Syndicate Mill, the Krause foundry, and a short-lived brick-making operation—and so did the folks who bore those manufacturing jobs. Remember, “manus” is the Latin word for hand and these folks worked with theirs.

The F-F-C Market at the corner of SW Fifth Street and Henry Avenue was one of my discoveries in the summer of ’54. A neighborhood institution, it served a two-block radius with a limited supply of a lot of things. When the proprietress Fern Pirtle wasn’t at the register, she was out back tending her chickens or harvesting produce from the most productive garden in town. Paving and plumbing didn’t reach that part of the city until the 1940s, so there was some speculation about “night soil” contributing to the quality of her cabbages. Best not to ask.

Mrs. Pirtle was a widow; I think her husband Sam had died in a mill accident. Mom sent me to the F-F-C one afternoon to pick up a chicken she’d ordered—freshly killed, de-feathered and still warm, the freshest fowl in town. Mrs Pirtle’s chickens had flavor, too, probably because they enjoyed free range in the yard; they’d “scratched.” The same was true for eggs. There may have been an ordinance prohibiting livestock in city limits; but if there were, everyone looked the other way.

I liked Mrs Pirtle instantly. She had a large grandmotherly frame with, as they say, “ample bosom” and a knowing smile I’d only seen on my great-grandmother, except Ms Pirtle was Black, complected like the tobacco in her ever-present corncob pipe.

During one of my regular visits to the F-F-C, I asked what those letters meant. “Full Faith and Credit,” she replied, “just like the U.S. government,” which meant, I learned, that very little cash changed hands. Bartering was common and she often waited until payday for folks to settle up. She was a living ledger, recalling accounts to the penny, and people knew better than short change her or contest her reckoning; a couple of her brawnier patrons saw to that.

In the fall of ’54, Mrs Pirtle got news that her sister Reba had taken ill somewhere in southern Missouri. She left for a week or ten days with no one in charge, yet customers came and went; shelves were stocked; accounts kept on a yellow lined pad by the till. Pearl, her dog, was pregnant at the time, so I was asked to stop in now and then and keep an eye on her. Sure enough, the day before Ms Pirtle returned on the Trailways bus, Pearl birthed five healthy pups. And the payment for my midwifery? She surprised me with one of them, who I promptly named Frank, for reasons I can’t now recall.

Fern Pirtle closed the store in 1973 but she still kept chickens. And the cabbages were bigger than ever,

Shell, a footnote

I’d like to claim this was my desk at Fred’s office but it wasn’t.

Fred Shellabarger’s architectural office was an L-shaped suite at the inner angle on an L-shaped building. A glass door and sidelight faced east, our only public exposure. Turning right past the secretary’s desk (at which someone rarely sat), a short corridor took visitors past the toilet and into the L-shaped draughting room. Is that a sufficient number of L’s for you? Fred occupied the draughting table straight ahead; I can’t recall if he had a window but if he did it faced north. Mine was just to the left and between us there was a phone answered most often by me. Now do a 180° counterclockwise turn and there were two more desks occupied by Richard Kenyon and Bill Peterson. Two west-facing windows admitted a lot of late afternoon light. I wonder what became of Bill? Richard, of course, is another story altogether. [By the way, is it an affectation to use “draughting” in lieu of “drafting”? For that matter, is it an affectation to use “in lieu”?]

This is a footnote to the story of Shell as a Ghost of my own Christmases Past. It has nothing to do with the physical office. Nor does it have much to do with the actual practice of making architecture. In fact, it has only slightly more to do with Fred himself. Fundamentally, it has to do with that phone and a few of the calls I took when Shell was out. I’ll tell you about three of them: one is rude, the other two prophetic confirmation of the “small world” phenomenon.

“Good afternoon, Fred Shellabarger’s office.”

Among our clients was a bank vice president named Jack Black — long before there was that other Jack Black of movie fame. I don’t recall Jack but his wife Claudia became an office legend, if for no other reason that her phone calls during the design of their house in the newly fashionable Norman subdivision of “Smoking Oaks.” That pretension and all other upscale suburban developments came to be known generically as Sunken Heights. We hadn’t yet encountered the McMansion; that was a phenomenon of forty years hence, but these houses were a step in that fateful direction. By today’s standard, the Blacks’ house was merely upscale and generous but hardly grandiose. Within the context of the ’60s, however, the Blacks had every reason to strut.

I recall one phone conversation during construction when much of the cabinetry was well underway; there was a lot of it. Counters in the kitchen and multiple bath-dressing rooms were in place when the Blacks returned from a vacation in Mexico, during which Claudia had become enamored of hand-made Mexican tile, whose nuanced irregularities suited the vaguely Hispanic character they’d requested for their home. Without bothering to call us from Oaxaca, Jack and Claudia bought a boatload of handmade tile for their countertops and then, when the shipment was irreversibly on its way, we spent several days revising the cabinet details to accommodate the difference between quarter-inch thick American tile (which was a pretty nice item, as I recall; Fred had taste) and the inch-and-a-half thick Mexican tile — all because the cabinets had to be cut down. Some people, as granny used to say, have more dollars than sense.

One afternoon I spent several hours trying to understand entasis, the optical correction the ancient Greeks had used on their columns to achieve visual elegance, and a proper seven-foot Tuscan column [the Roman counterpart to the Doric], three of which would define their bedroom corridor from the living room a half level below. Actually telling a wood shop in OKC how to do entasis was no picnic. It’s one of those opportunities that build character.

In this case the “phone” thing concerns Claudia Black’s voice: She had one of those nasal Texas twangs that break glass. I’d hand the phone to Fred and he’d hold the receiver six inches from his ear, her voice was that shrill. In fact, Richard, Bill and I felt privileged to be a part of their conversation: we heard all of it as if she were in the office with us.

In the “small world” category, there was a call late one afternoon when I was alone and ready to lock up. I thought briefly to let the phone ring (we had no answering machine and voice messaging didn’t exist) but decided to answer. “Good afternoon, ” I said, “Fred Shellabarger’s office.” A resonant voice at the other end asked for Fred and I replied he had gone home; could I take a message. “Tell him this is Bishop Powell” and that he’d call again in the morning. Fred and Gladys were Episcopalians and he often did pro bono work for the church, so this probably had something to do with diocesan matters. That would have been about 1968, though the other shoe wouldn’t drop for nearly twenty-five years.Let it not be said I have a short attention span.

The Rt. Rev. W. R. Chilton Powell [1912-1994] was bishop of Oklahoma for more than twenty years. His uncle Arthur Chilton Powell — his namesake — had been an Episcopal priest. What you possibly don’t know is that, in the meantime, I had taken a job teaching architectural history in North Dakota and also taken a fancy to a series of small split fieldstone Episcopal church buildings constructed here during the Territorial period. Fascinated by what I presumptuously thought didn’t belong here, I began collecting material about them, especially the names of clergy, architects, building craftsmen, and lay people connected with each church. In the case of Devils Lake, the head of the vestry had been A. M. Powell and Powell’s biography identified his family and that family included a son named W. R. Chilton Powell. Coincidence?

Recalling my conversation ten years earlier with Bishop Powell, I found him in a retirement village in Oklahoma City. I wrote, introduced myself as a student of Fred Shellabarger, recalled our ten second phone conversation, and mentioned my new interest in North Dakota architecture. “Are you, by any chance the son of A. M. Powell from Devils Lake, North Dakota?” After all, how many Chilton Powells can there possibly be at any one time! Admitting that he was, I asked if he’d be willing to write something about the significance of the Church of the Advent on his spiritual growth. A week later his four-page, single-spaced reminiscence arrived, exceeding my fondest hopes. It’s a small world.

Another afternoon in the late ’60s, the caller asked for Fred and left a message that it was Cecil Elliott from Stillwater. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Institute of Architects were publishing a small guidebook to state architectural landmarks and Professor Elliott was collaborating with Fred; they each taught architectural history. Once again I gave no thought to it, until 1975 when the Department of Architecture at N.D.S.U. had found a new chair, an N. C. State faculty member named Cecil Elliott. OMG! Was it possible my new boss had spoken with me seven years earlier for another ten second exchange? It was. He did.

I offer this miscellany as evidence that being in the right place at the proper time has happened more than it should have. For me, the proper place had been an inconspicuous, unassuming architectural office at 700 Asp Avenue in Norman, Oklahoma.

You’ll miss me when I’m gone.

[#923]

Ghosts of Christmas Past #20

A few figs from thistles…

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Shell

In the dogleg of a modest single-story office building at 700 Asp Avenue, where Duffy Street begins, just south of Asp Avenue’s own dogleg on its way to downtown Norman, Oklahoma, I worked for nearly two years in the architectural office of Fred Shellabarger. All our neighbors, in a building you might mistake for a mom-and-pop motel, were dentists, as I recall. [One was an oral surgeon who botched the removal of my wisdom teeth but he’s probably dead now. It’s curious the building is still there.] Fred — known to most of us as Shell — maintained his practice because that’s what architects do: practice, until they get it right, which, by and large, Fred had managed to do. I got $2.00 an hour.

Fred’s clientele were primarily residential — middling to large houses (but certainly not by today’s standards) for university faculty, doctors and the occasional banker. We designed a modest clinic for six doctors and the home for retiring O.U. President George Cross. I was the office go-fer, lowest on the pecking order, beneath Bill Peterson and Richard Kenyon, but because my desk was closest to the phone I was de facto receptionist and taker of messages. I was never asked to do floors or toilets but would have because Fred was a nice guy. He took me on, I think, because we had got along very well in his other occupation, professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma just down the street. A little background seems in order.

FRED DAVID SHELLABARGER [1918-2002]

Shell’s obituary will acquaint you with the outline of his life. Frankly, it says more than I knew as his student-employee. He was born in Decatur, which connects us as sons of Illinois and, besides, Decatur is the site of two iconic Prairie School houses associated with Walter and Marion Mahony Griffin. I never asked if those houses had influenced his career choice. Architecture, of course, was our primary link: he was what I thought I wanted to be. What I didn’t know then was that teaching, Fred’s “other” job, would be our ultimate connection.

During nearly two years in his office, I learned a lot about architecture: how to design and how not to do business. The nicest house of those two years was the retirement home for O.U. president George L. Cross and his wife Cleo. If you should stop by, I designed the mailbox. Fred was at his very best at the scale of the single-family residence, where his strong suits were kitchens and bath-dressing rooms, the wet places of the house. If those are gendered space, Fred was a better woman than most in my acquaintance. His kitchens were generous and efficient, without the acreage consumed by today’s McMansions. His bath-dressing rooms [the phrase “en suite” makes me gag] were equipped with fixtures and built-ins that avoided the scalar issues of ancient Rome. I learned first-hand the anthropometrics of intimacy, the calisthenics of cleanliness and cuisine. Fred was at his very best at the scale of the single-family residence. That level of detail has its downside, however: such custom cabinetry does not come cheaply. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have learned from him these and many other lessons that I’ve passed along in my own studio classes.

About 1968, the regional A.I.A. held its annual meeting at Tan-Tar-A, a resort at Lake of the Ozarks. A few of us went as student representatives but Fred also gave me a letter of introduction to some of his earlier clients in Springfield, Missouri. Mrs Shellabarger, Gladys, was from there. I remember being welcomed into two incredible mid-century modern works that were even closer to the Wrightian ideal I treasured than were the houses in Norman. Here also was the chance to meet satisfied clients who spoke warmly of their relationship with their architect; to truly understand the work, talk to the client.

As a faculty member at O.U., Fred taught in three areas: 1) fourth-year design studio, 2) a course that blended interiors and landscape, and 3) the first two of four architectural history courses — Egypt through the Gothic. [William S. Burgett, a.k.a., Billy B, covered Renaissance through Modern, largely I think because he liked saying FRAN•SWAH•PREM•EE•AY instead of Francis the First; Bill was insecure that way.] Shell was the sort of design instructor I’d like to have been: supportive, non-judgmental, prescriptive without being presumptive. Whatever success I may have had came from studio experiences with Fred, Bill and D.B.V., alias Dean Bryant Vollendorf. [More about him another time.] ARCH 273 was the finest design studio experience of my undergraduate life. Fall semester fourth year, it was eighteen weeks of eighteen week-long projects — a Gatling gun of quick intensive studies, assigned on Friday and due the following week, when the next would be assigned. I learned to live with choices made on the fly.

During a crit Shell was poetry with a pencil; ideas flowed with no effort whatsoever, a light lattice-work of lines emerging, one of which eventually became the right one. I’m shocked to realize how, even today, I’m still trying to draw like him. His treatment of architectural history, however, I frankly don’t recall; a lot of slides in a darkened room. If that experience played any role in my eventual career, it was his example that someone could be both an architect and passionate about its history.

I saw Fred briefly in the winter of 1992-1993 when I should have thanked him but didn’t.

Hizzonner

next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

— e. e. cummings

edmund-fitzgerald-flynn

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Edmund FitzGerald Flynn, Agincourt’s half-term mayor

When Ed Flynn announced his candidacy for mayor of Agincourt in late summer 1894, the country was deep in the Panic of the year before, a depression born of too much silver and too few markets for American crops. Urban unemployment was growing but the situation in rural areas (where unemployment figures are unreliable) was just as dire. Ed’s campaign took a protectionist spin — “America First” his banners proclaimed — protesting that his business acumen would reverse these trends and regain Agincourt’s greatness — though as a relatively recent arrival he would have known little about us. Ed must have found the Cliff’s Notes of Agincourt History, dropping a few strategic names into conversations and thereby gaining the trust of the business community’s Whiggish kind.

Flynn’s opponent was incumbent mayor Gordon Thursby, whose “day job” managing the Home Loan Association connected him with banking and insurance, contractors and material suppliers. Thursby’s wife Nadine taught school at Charles Darwin Elementary and the family attended Asbury Methodist Episcopal church, where Gordon superintended the Sunday school. His bases were covered — or so he thought.

Flynn’s arrival less that a year before ought to have disadvantaged his quest for public service, but he was a Mason, attended St Joe’s, and took rooms at the Hazzard House, where he and his young wife Amity Burroughs Flynn entertained in high style. Cassius Miller had to import expensive Nicaraguan cigars (which Ed passed around like business cards) and his tab at the Hazzard’s Tap Room seemed bottomless. Rumor hinted a monthly check from an unknown source kept his schooner afloat and on course.

But it was the realm of ideas which differentiated them, not so much wheat from chaff as fat from lean. Thursby saw first hand the stress and outright suffering that economic panics can bring: choices between delinquent payments or missed meals; school tuition or a second job. He proposed belt-tightening strategies, fiscal responsibility. At Asbury, Pastor Quinn had impressed on him the Social Gospel of Gladden and Rauschenbusch as something more than abstraction.

Flynn, on the other hand, appealed to the protectionists in the community by preaching trickle-down economics of a sort: we’ll all benefit, he claimed, when those nearer the top of the food chain have feasted. Ed’s schemes were painted with a wide brush (in the firm grasp of another hand), leaving details, the actual implementation, to Leona Helmsley’s “little people.”

The Saturday before Election Day, Flynn held a rally out at Gnostic Grove, an affair “for the whole family” with fried chicken, potato salad, and “pink wobbly jellies that seem to excite all the men” (a line, I think, from Beatrice Lillie). “If Ed Flynn is evidence for the efficacy of his policies,” his guests reasoned, “then he’s got my vote!” And it worked: Thursby’s belt-tightening versus Flynn’s dreamscape was no contest: Edmund FitzGerald Flynn became Agincourt’s thirteenth mayor by a margin of forty-two votes.

POSTSCRIPT: Mayor Flynn’s administration began to unravel within six months of the election, about the time his “remittence” checks arrived with less regularity from an Eastern bank. Then one evening as he held forth at the monthly meeting of the Commercial Club* — whose members were among his most fervent supporters — the good mayor rose to offer a toast, clutched his chest and died, face forward in a plate of sauerbraten. It took eight of them to carry him down three flights of stairs, and Hemphill-Folsom had to special order a roomier coffin: even in death, Ed was larger than life.

Mrs Flynn’s reaction upon hearing the news is unrecorded.

*The Commercial Club met in the banquet room on the fourth floor at Hansa House. One wonders how two dozen portly plutocrats managed all those stairs, let along getting one of their own back down.

[#921]

Ghosts of Christmas Past (#19): Seamus Tierney

Ghosts of Christmas Past #19:

James Edward (a.k.a. Seamus) Tierney

James Edward Tierney was born on his parents’ farm beyond Fahnstock in 1933, a Depression Baby who learned the hard way to do more with less. Hindsight shows us how his family’s Meatless Fridays and Coal-less Tuesdays prepared Jim for a career in theatre, which, under normal circumstances is among the last places to seek your fortune. Hindsight tells us that money was the least of Jim Tierney’s goals.

It is unlikely that Jim Tierney participated in any dramatics at the small school in Fahnstock; plays at the rural Presbyterian church — Sunday School exercises put on for the adults — are about the only exposure to theatre Jim may have had before the age of fifteen. But there is also the possibility he may have been among the last to witness some of Reinhold Kölb’s puppet performances in the Commons during the early 1940s: part therapy, part morality plays for the “clients” at his private retreat. It’s tempting to speculate.

He enrolled at the Normal School in 1951 with no declared major, dabbled in art and theatre, but left after two years for a stint in the Korean Conflict and returned for a string of retail jobs on Broad Street. During those years, Tierney took minor roles in local theatre productions; Shakespeare seems to have been his preference. Then in June 1961, he founded the Prairie Playhouse, a company that rented space in the Auditorium, and scheduled a “season” that raised the bar for small town theatrics.

Tierney's set design for Moliere's "Tartuffe"

Tierney’s set design for Moliere’s “Tartuffe”

Never afraid to stir the pot, the Prairie Playhouse staged several plays that either dealt with current events — “Advise and Consent” for example, that had just ended a successful run on Broadway — or recast an old warhorse with new relevance — Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” to which the Bishop of Sioux City took special offence. “A Thurber Carnival” was sandwiched between them to provide something non-political—a rarity for someone who believed the arts were made to poke and prod. By Christmas that year, the people of Agincourt had seen that quality entertainment was possible without a long, long drive to (but especially back from) Omaha or Des Moines.

Most of us accepted that the Prairie Playhouse existed but few knew how it survived; Paul was always paid with Peter’s Pence, we now know. If you had run into James at Cermak’s, you’d have seen a spartan selection in his shopping cart: broccoli, pears, oatmeal, butter brickle ice cream, and Dr Pepper. The Playhouse survived on discrete contributions from “silent partners” whose names never appeared in program credits. We may never know. What we do have is a litany of regional premiers, an honor roll of local talent like Marielle Leer who graduated to careers of note, a legacy of elevated expectations.