“Not Mawkish But with Deep Sentiment”

Steve Charles—Last week we received word that Doris Strawn—long-time assistant at the Crawfordsville Public Library, and wife of Professor Emeritus of French Dick Strawn for more than 66 years—had died on Friday, January 7.  She had worked at the public library between 1958 and 1986, and she and her good friend Marion Powell had established at Hoover Elementary School the first of the modern elementary school libraries in Crawfordsville.

I did not know Doris well, so when I heard of her death, I asked Professor Strawn to tell me more about her. I found out that he and Doris were married on a Christmas Day. The more I read about Doris in the three pieces he sent me, the more fitting that seems.

The first piece is both Wabash history and a story of the Strawns, the Powells, the Salters, and other faculty and student families during one of the most interesting and endearing eras of the College. Doris had written a section in These Fleeting Years about Mud Hollow, the College’s post-World War II housing for married faculty and students in what is today the Wabash soccer field:

The walls were indeed thin, but in addition to being able to knock for baby-sitting service or other assistance we were able to hear Elvena Barnes yelling at her husband, “Oh, Chuck, there’s another one! Smash it!” This let us know that they had “them” too, so we could broach (no pun intended) the subject of collaborating on arranging a visit from the exterminator.

Outdoor acoustics were interesting, too. While hanging clothes outside the neighbors’ kitchen window one warm day, I heard Mrs. Neighbor say to her husband, quite forcefully, “Why don’t you use your head for something besides a hat rack once in awhile!” It enriched our family language.

We would never have made so many good friends in such a short time under any other circumstances. We all had a lot in common, including a meager economic base; young children, in most cases; husbands working on term papers, themes, or dissertations till all hours while wives tried to keep the kids and the dishes quiet; co-ordinating wash-days for maximum use of the clothesline, and showers for best use of water pressure, and naps and play-time for mutual baby-sitting; and a general sharing of nearly everything, of which few families had enough, to provide for a stray guest or two.

There was little distinction between faculty and student. We were all in the same boat, and most were quite close in age, since many of the student residents were on the G.I. Bill, at least as mature as most of us assistant instructor types. And what a fine bunch those men and families were!

There’s more to the entry, and Doris’s love of and skill with language shine throughout. Not to mention her sense of humor, even more abundant in the second piece Dick sent me, labeled “Doris Strawn’s ‘bons mots’ in later years:”

March 27, 1990, after failing several times to get an AT & T long-distance call formula to work: “Even the recorded voice was beginning to sound impatient.”

June 12, 1995: “I’m too old to get old.”

July 24, 1995:  “We should privatize politics.”

June 19, 1996:, of goofiness like Whitewater and Travel Office shenanigans and misapplied FBI files in the Clinton White House:  “backwoods Chicago.”

December 9, of Rod McKuen:  “Tie-dyed poetry.”

February 5, 1998: a good name for a nursing home:  “Rest Assured.”

The final bit of writing is a set of notes Dick wrote about Doris for Karen Moehling, a local artist, so that she could give a Lafayette jewelry-maker an idea of the person he was to design a piece for:

Doris Strawn, age 72, height 5’ 4”, weight 125 pounds

Fond of the painter Mondrian; prefers symmetry to dispersal, finished to rough, simple to ornate, delicate-with-strength to forceful.

Not mawkish but with deep sentiment; ironic and wry, reserved but no push-over; her jokes are pungent but unhurtful.

A reader.

She wears a plain, thinnish gold wedding ring and with it a small daisy-like setting of six opals (her grandmother’s).

The piece of jewelry to be designed: a golden-wedding-anniversary piece: wearable.

Suggestion: a gold pendant, or gold pin if not heavy.  Non-representational or, at best, stylized.

Up to $500; anything more and she’d be afraid to wear it.

Last Saturday, a group of old friends and Wabash folks from Kansas (Doris was born in El Dorado, Kansas and was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Kansas) gathered to read two of these three pieces, to offer a toast and a traditional Kansas cheer in Doris’s honor.

Among those friends were Becky and Bill Degitz ’42 and Marion and Professor Emeritus Vic Powell H’55. When he turned 90 last year, Vic attributed his long life, in part, to the “network of friendships that is so important” and “a sense of well-being you have with people whose companionship you enjoy.”

“Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving at our house if Dick and Doris didn’t come by,” he said.

In her story about those days in Mud Hollow, Doris recalls watching her student- neighbors graduate: “We swelled with pride and a tear when Ken Lee and Harry Nimmo, among others, received their degrees. They were family.”

You can almost see her smile as she wrote the conclusion to her description of those Mud Hollow Days: “Ah, nostalgia! We did a good deal of complaining about it all at the time, but if we had it to do over again, we would.”

You can reach Professor Strawn at: strawnd@accelplus.net

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