Dennis Marek: Don’t forget to look at those old books

September 30, 2018

My wife was away for a few days with friends in Florida. I had stayed behind to do some law work and join her later. I had finished my article on John McCain, answered my emails and found it was too hot to golf or work in the yard.

I am a rather voracious reader with multiple topics interesting me. As a result of that known passion, my grandfather, Vernon McBroom, of Kankakee, had willed me his collection of books.

Having read all the newest books of my favorite four or five authors, and having bogged down in the 880-page final book of the trilogy of Ken Follett, I browsed the lower three shelves of my grandfather’s collection.

There was a copy of “Les Miserable,” works by Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling and various histories, but at the end of the shelf were four Bibles. One I had received from my grandparents in 1955, but the other three were older versions from the 1800s. As I opened one, out fell a collection of documents and clippings, many from the Daily Journal 50 or more years ago. The Bible itself was copyrighted in 1897. I started to study what my grandfather and, perhaps later, my mother had slid into this old book. I was blown away.

While there were the usual death clippings and memorial cards denoting the passing of many of my relatives, there was so much more. There was a deed for a cemetery plot for a great-grandfather in Rosehill Cemetery.

After reading about this old Chicago graveyard, I thought there might just be an article there.

There was a clipping about the passing of my aunt, Margaret McBroom, who died from a brain tumor in 1940. I knew she had attended the University of Alabama, but I did not know she also went to Northwestern, my law school, and intended to be a lawyer. I had no idea I was following in any relative’s direction when I decided to choose that profession.

More shocking was a set of documents about a John Robbison, my grandmother Marek’s great-grandfather.

There was a document of his naturalization in 1888 from Cook County.

I read that document and was amazed at some of the content. It said that by taking the oath of citizenship, he agreed “to support the Constitution of the United States, and to renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to every foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereign whatever, and more particularly all allegiance which he may owe to the Queen of Great Britain of whom he was heretofore a subject.”

But the surprises were not over. Next to the certificate of citizenship was notification of a pension from the U.S. government through the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., stating he was to receive a pension of $12 per month starting in 1902.

I read on wondering why he would receive a pension and found he had served his new country in the Civil War in 1861 according to his naturalization certificate.

It seems in 1903, he had hired a pension attorney to assist him in its collection. They reverted payments to Oct. 21, 1902, and paid it to him, and later his widow, Sarah, when he died in 1905. Seems they might have gone back a bit further since his service was 40 years before.

My reading went on. There were newspaper clippings of my late aunt, Alice, in a four generation photo with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

Amazingly, I had met all but her great-grandmother.

Then, there was another clipping and photo from the Chicago Tribune of her joining a group of women ordinance workers, known as the WOW, working in defense plants.

The photo was highlighting this new group of service women.

It didn’t have the date of publication, but some research would put it around the summer of 1942.

But there was more. The most incredible family surprise still was to come.

Quite a few of the older area population know my late uncle, Andy McBroom, became an actor of some note.

He had traveled with a woman named Phylis Isley to Hollywood in the late 1930s. She later changed her name to Jennifer Jones and won an Oscar.

He, too, changed his name to David Bruce and acted in 72 movies.

Later, he was a regular on TV with roles ranging from bit parts to larger ones in “The Lone Ranger,’’ “The Cisco Kid’’ and a series that ran for a while titled “Beulah.”

Here was an undated letter from him to his mother, my grandmother, explaining how he had arrived in Los Angeles and was attending screen tests at Paramount Theater.

He wrote of other people who were auditioning and had lunch with two people of some fame themselves in Hollywood, Lynn Overman and Reginald Denny, who were shooting a scene from a movie titled, “The Return of Bulldog Drummond.’’

An interesting part to me were the prices in Hollywood, probably in 1937 or 1938.

There was an apartment for rent at $30 per month that he passed on, taking a hotel room instead at $7 per week.

He was receiving $50 per week from Paramount, but also was given the right to eat in their cafeteria. The first day he had shrimp cocktail, salad, chicken croquettes and a drink for 39 cents.

Well, while all these people are long dead, my uncle’s daughter, Amanda McBroom, still is performing as an actress and singer. She also is a songwriter who wrote the well-known song, “The Rose.’’ I think she would like the original letter from a father just trying to scratch the surface in Tinseltown.

I guess the message to me was that if it weren’t for my mother’s collecting these mementos, these stories and facts would be lost forever. Today, who can you ask about family history? We are the “older” generation. Maybe you could look through your old family Bibles if all else fails.

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