John Eby: Grif and I grew up a block and years apart on Michigan

Published 10:36 am Monday, August 10, 2009

When Grif Cook opened his encyclopedic mind to share history, I always made sure to listen.

He was one of the most interesting people I’ve met holding down this outpost for three decades.

Once, in the summer of 1998, Grif, who passed away Aug. 7 at 79, days after his Aug. 4 birthday, poured out stories about his old neighborhood, which also happens to be my old neighborhood.

He grew up in Dowagiac during the 1930s and ’40s.

Approaching 70 those years stuck with the lumberman as “an idyllic experience.”

It’s been about 25 years since I ran an item about his marriage to Barb. I knew of her involvement in the early years of Southwestern Michigan College, including a building named for her.

I would get to know her when she was Pokagon Township supervisor and have since collaborated on countless historical articles and “Cook books.”

Since he lived out in Sumnerville – I got a tour once – and was born in Niles, a lot of folks forget he was a Dowagiac guy, serving six years on City Council.

When I was a kid, Grif lived on Indiana Avenue and we occasionally crossed Main Street to play with assorted Cook, Dreisbach and Garritano offspring.

Grif grew up during the ’30s and ’40s in the 200 block of Michigan Avenue.
I grew up during the ’60s and ’70s in the 100 block.

Let’s let him tell his story in his own words as I heard it that July 11 summers ago:
It was a time and a world I understood – the block bordered by Main, New York, High Street and Michigan Avenue.

The home I grew up in, 209 Michigan Ave., had been in the family since before the first World War.

My grandfather, Rene Walker, was credit manager for Round Oak. He built the home next door to us four years before I was born. I enjoyed two homes, my grandparents’ and mine.

One of my earliest recollections took place during the summer when I was 4. I visited my grandfather, alone, in the Round Oak offices.

I crossed three busy streets to make my entrance into the Beckwith Building and climb that awesome staircase to the second floor.

My presence caused my grandfather to pick up his candlestick phone and call my mother:
“Katie, where’s Griffy?” he asked.

“Out in the backyard playing,” she replied.

“No, he is here in my office.”

Events moved rapidly. My next recollection was a sore arm from being dragged home and my mother plucking a switch from the mock orange to fan my bare and roaming legs.
“Mitch” Jamar lived at 303 High St. He worked at Heddon’s. During the warm summer nights he stood in the front yard, casting rod in hand, throwing a practice plug. I often stood 50 feet from him while he put the line and plug around my 8-year-old finger. He seldom missed.

The man who lived at 302 New York was Horace Laverick. He kept fighting cocks in his garage that “regularly woke up the neighborhood.”

“Horrie” was the only real communist I ever knew. His family was from England and somewhere along the line he became known in town as a labor “agitator.”

After the “sit-down strikes” in Dowagiac during the mid-’30s, I understand Horrie never held another job. He had been “blacklisted.”

But he was good to me and we talked endlessly of kid things. My great disappointment is not having talked politics with Horrie when I was an adult. He could have delivered a fountain of local history from a perspective I never heard in my house. (My father was so much a Republican that I was 14 before I knew President Roosevelt’s name was Franklin and not “goddamn.”)

My mother employed high school girls to help her with the housework. The going wage was $2 per week. One afternoon one of the girls, who will be nameless because some of the family is still in town, came crying to my mother. Her dad, who worked at the Round Oak for decades, was accused by his neighbors and fellow workers of being a Nazi sympathizer.

Everybody played softball, but there were no organized teams or overzealous parents vicariously living their failed youth to egg us on to victory.

We simply played “work up.”

The game consisted of choosing positions and “working up” to bat. You remained at bat until you were put out and expunged to the outfield, where the process repeated.

One of the places we played was the vacant lot next to Phillipson’s (307 Center St., where Councilman Bob Schuur lives today).

The boys were usually between 8 and 16. If things were really tough and there were too few boys in attendance, we might even ask a girl to play.

During the war, Maj. Gen. Irving Phillipson came home to Dowagiac to attend the premiere of the movie, “This is the Army.”

The general had been responsible for the entire production of the movie, which featured the music of Irving Berlin. It was a big deal!

Graham Schadt and I were chosen to represent the Boy Scouts. We went to the Phillipson home, dressed in proper uniform, where we interrupted the general’s lunch to deliver some appropriate message of patriotism.

He was a very gracious man and seemed to listen to us intently. We were scared! The celebration in Dowagiac lasted two or three days.

I saved my money and bought a $25 war bond. It cost me $18.75, matured in 10 years and paid face value. That purchase allowed me to ride in an Army jeep with a GI (soldier) at the wheel! It was an exciting time.

A $50 bond purchase got you a ride in the sidecar in an Army motorcycle. The soldiers and equipment were sent to Dowagiac from Fort Custer or Fort Sheridan.

My grandfather, Rene Walker, died when I was 4. My grandmother remarried Glen Overton when I was 6.

Family stories about the only grandfather I really knew are legion. Glen was a “character” in a town noted for its characters.

In his 80s, Glen was still running Overton Machine Co. in Dowagiac like a fiefdom.
The company, located on S. Front Street, made drum dryers and was largely responsible for development of powdered eggs and milk that often tasted like chalk – or worse.
Glen was forever experimenting with new products, mostly for cattle feed, such as beef blood, brewer’s yeast and the most bizarre, alewives fresh from the Great Lakes.
When I was living in Chicago during the late 1960s, I invited a man of my acquaintance to stop and meet my grandfather.

The man arrived in Dowagiac on a hot, muggy summer afternoon.

As he told it, he got out of his car in the middle of downtown to ask directions, only to be greeted by the stifling aroma of dead fish wafting heavily on the air.

To his credit, he held his nose and advanced to the scalding brick “laboratory” next to Dowagiac Creek where he met Glen, in his shirtsleeves, standing next to a boiling cauldron of fish awaiting their turn on the hot cylinders of the drying machine.

He couldn’t wait to return to Chicago to tell me. In stitches, he phoned me at my office from a phone booth in Dowagiac.

“Grif! I just met your grandfather. Guess what?”

The only racial incident I recall occurred in Niles about 1947. After ball games the Dowagiac teams always went out for dinner.

One of our good ballplayers was Rolland Ash. (The Ash family was black and lived in Cass County longer than most of us. There was no finer family in town and everybody knew it. Rolly was one of us in every way and we had been friends since kindergarten.)
As we sat down at the long table, there were perhaps 25 of us. The owner of the restaurant came out to announce that they did not serve “Negroes” in his establishment.

After a brief huddle, the team and coaches decided that if they couldn’t serve Rolly, then they couldn’t serve us, either. We left. And bought hamburgers or something someplace else to eat on the bus.

I saved my money to buy a BB gun. I was 11. At 6 a.m., as the sun came up, I was standing in front of Nibs Black’s Gambles Store at 132 S. Front St.

Of course, the store didn’t open until 7, but I thought perhaps somebody might arrive early. Nobody did.

Promptly at the appointed hour, Chick Mosher opened the store and I placed $2.75 in his hand and he brought out the shiny new Red Ryder 1,000-shot rifle with the leather carrying throng on the side.

It was copied after the classic 73 Winchester rifle. I used it on our farm until it fell apart.
My Grandmother Overton was like a sister to Florence Phillipson, Irving and Judge Herb’s mother.

As ladies, they were “lambs” and as bridge players they were often times unbeatable.
So good, in fact, they were politely asked not to enter the city bridge tournament another year. They didn’t enter and took it all as a compliment to their prowess at the game.

As a child, I often went into the Oppenheim clothing store at 202 S. Front St. The first person to greet me was always Mrs. Rae Oppenheim, Maurie’s mother. “How are you, Griffy, and how’s your mother?” she asked, looking at me through glasses thick as Coke bottles.

“Fine, Mrs. Oppenheim,” I would say as she sat on her high stool, guarding the cash register.

“What can we help you with today? You know Maurie has gone into the Army and we miss him so.” (Maurie spent a year in the Army at Fort Lee, Va., which was the farthest distance and the longest time he ever spent outside Dowagiac.)

Maurie’s dad would then come from the back of the store. Israel Oppenheim was the sharpest dresser the town ever produced. He always wore extra-fine Hart Shaffner and Marx three-piece suits and a heavy gold watch chain embellished with an elk’s tooth. He often sported two-tone spectator shoes. Oppenheim’s was the “official” place to buy Cub Scout and Boy Scout regalia. I miss Oppenheim’s – and Maurie.

Maurie, my next-door neighbor as a boy, and now Grif.

I miss them both.

John Eby is Daily News managing editor. E-mail him at john.eby