As I have previously mentioned, I contracted polio in June, 1948 just three months shy of my 4th birthday. After coming home from Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis following a stay of nine months and two days, out of necessity I became a unique little kid in many ways. As an only child, my parents and grandparents doted on me constantly. I don’t know if it was because they felt responsible for or guilty because of my illness, but they didn’t let me out of their sight for a long time.
As a result, I had very few friends my own age for the next few years. My family sheltered me to such an extent that the neighbor kids didn’t know how to act when they were around me, and for many years I felt like the gorilla in the room that nobody wanted to talk about. I was much more comfortable around adults than other children.
My wonderful grandmother, Alice Rench, read to me constantly after I came home from the hospital. She even taught me to read before I started the first grade. By the time I was six years old, I was reading books like Treasure Island and The Five Little Peppers. In fact, for my seventh birthday, I received a complete, 20-volume set of the World Book Encyclopedia which I read cover to cover over the next few years, including the annual supplements. We didn’t have a television in those days, so while other kids were out playing, I would usually be sitting at home reading.
As Bill Edwards so eloquently phrased it in last week’s Elnora Post, Elnora High School (which housed all twelve grades) was a majestic 3-story building (including the basement) with grand staircases at each end of the long hallways. Since I had to learn to walk all over again with the aid of leg braces and crutches, I was unable to negotiate those (or any other) steps and needed to be home-schooled through the first six grades.
My first tutor was a dedicated lady named Mrs. Rodocker who was provided and paid for by the state of Indiana. In those days, school started just after Labor Day. My 6th birthday was on September 28, 1950 and I still didn’t have a teacher until early October when I was finally able to start first grade, a full month behind my classmates. Since I was my teacher’s only student, she accelerated my studies and I finished all of the first grade material the first semester and actually began and completed the second grade after Christmas that school year.
When the next Labor Day rolled around, I was still only six when I started third grade. My original classmates were beginning second grade, so I had a new bunch of names to learn even though they were at school and I was being taught at home. Realizing that I was now younger than all of my new classmates, my parents wisely told Mrs. Rodocker to put on the brakes and make the third grade last all year so I wouldn’t get even further ahead. I should also mention that my teacher was only at my grandparents’ house one hour each day. After she taught me, she went to her next assignment elsewhere in the county, and I would complete my homework and have the rest of the day to play or to read. I had made some friends by now, but they would still be in school until later in the day, so I’d play by myself, read, or hang out with my grandfather in his barn or slaughter house and watch him butcher hogs.
Then, just before starting the sixth grade in September, 1954, the unthinkable happened. Mrs. Rodocker and her family moved to Illinois and I was once again without a teacher. I got lucky, however, because local resident Neva Eubanks agreed to teach me for one year only. Mrs. Eubanks had spent some time teaching in the public school system, but she had planned to stay home that year. She and her husband, Sheldon (who owned Elnora’s barber shop), had two daughters, Jana and Cheryl, who were both near my age, so she was able to teach me and be back home before her girls arrived from school.
By this time, I was starting to get stronger and was also getting around much better. I very much enjoyed my year with Mrs. Eubanks, but after I completed the sixth grade, my parents agreed that the time was right for me to leave the safety of my grandparent’s “classroom” where my tutors had laid the foundation for the rest of my life.
This decision became even more binding with the sudden death of my grandfather in August, 1955. Less than one month later and just a few weeks shy of my 11th birthday, I headed out into that great unknown to begin the seventh grade at the gigantic (to me) Elnora school building, totally unaware of the many challenges ahead.