The city of DeKalb, named after John DeKalb, a German military officer who served in the American Revolutionary Army, was once known as Barb City, because it was there that Joe Glidden invented barbed wire. It was also the home of Isaac Ellwood and Jacob Haish, who became wealthy in promoting the use of barbed wire, which played an important part in opening the Western states. For many years, the American Steel and Wire Company had a plant there making, of all things, barbed wire. The city also, for a long time had a piano factory. The Wurlitzer Company was the last owner.
But, alas, both plants have long since closed their doors. We now buy our wire and our pianos mostly from the Japanese.
DeKalb is also well known as the home of DeKalb Hi-Bred Corn, which out produces Mother Nature by a country mile. Without it, the world would have real food problems.
DeKalb is better known today as the home of the Northern Illinois University, which got its start around 1895 as a Normal School. It was located in DeKalb by the State, chiefly because of the influence and generosity of Glidden, Ellwood and Haish. It was originally, and for many years thereafter, a school preparing teachers for the public schools. (The enrollment was between 200 and 400). After a two-year course, the graduates could look forward to employment as a teacher earning about $1,200 per year. If you were a Protestant and could teach Sunday school as well, you were in a preferred class. Catholics were hired only as a very, very last resort.
An additional claim for fame for DeKalb was the appearance in 1922 of the world-famous opera and concert singer of her time, Madame Ernestine Schumann Heinck. She was born in Austria in 1861, and had sung in many European operas, appearing on the concert stage throughout the world.
During World War I, she had been active in rallies selling Liberty Bonds (it was said to make the world safe for democracy). By her patriotic acts, she had offset the antagonism which prevailed in the US during World War I against persons with German names. It was indeed a great distinction for DeKalb (at that time a population of about 10,000) to have Madame Schumann Heinck, a world-famous contralto, appear in the city.
The auditorium of the Normal School was filled to capacity—about 800 people. The head of the music Department of the Normal School had asked a number of boys at the DeKalb High School to usher for this grand occasion. I was one of the lucky ones selected to usher. At the conclusion of one of Madame Schumann Heinck’s numbers, the music department head suddenly handed me a large bouquet of flowers, and, after some hesitation, finally told me to walk to the stage and presented it to her.
I started up the aisle, and suddenly Madame Schumann Heinck turned her back to sing to those seated on the stage. It was too late for me to turn back, as I had started up the steps on the side of the stage carrying the bouquet in full view of everyone. The accompanist had already started to play on the Concert Grand, looked at me in dismay, and shook his head. Time for a decision! There was a vacant chair in the first row of chairs on the stage, and there was nothing for me to do except to sit down, firmly holding the bouquet. I have never forgotten Madame Schumann Heinck’s selection. It was “Mon Fils.” When she concluded the number, I presented the bouquet to her. She kissed me on the cheek and said, “You came up too soon.” (I wished I had not come up at all.)
She started to walk to the side of the stage, and whom I thought she had gone a reasonable distance from me, I proceeded to walk towards the steps, hoping to get back to the rear of the auditorium from where I originally started some time ago. I did not, however, realize the Madame was wearing a train, which, in my haste, I proceeded to step on. After a slight stop and hesitation, she proceeded into the wings. With a very red-face, I got off the stage to loud applause and laughter of the crowd.
I made quite an impression on those present, as later one of the Normal School professors wrote in my Year Book, “I shall always remember you and Schumann Heinck—a singular juxtaposition.” I thought I knew what was meant by the word “juxtaposition” but used the dictionary to confirm my recollection of an embarrassing moment.
For years, The Chicago Tribune carried a department called “My Most Embarrassing Moment.” For those who wrote to the paper telling of their most embarrassing moment, worthy of publication, a check for five dollars was sent to them. I wrote such a letter, and receive five dollars for my effort, which was gratefully received. When you are young, a little embarrassment is soon forgotten. At any rate, I blamed it on the music director, who either started me too early or too late.
It’s hard to find anyone these days who ever saw a fine lady wearing a train, let alone someone who actually stepped on one worn by a world-famous contralto on the concert stage before capacity audience.