Originally Written 06/16/2014
Elnora recently lost a great son with the death of former resident, Carrol Vertrees. His writings were loved by many, and he served as the inspiration for my futile attempts at trying to emulate his success and style.
I learned of his passing a few days ago as I was getting my daily “Facebook fix” on-line. I scrolled down the page and read the shocking headline: “Post-Tribune columnist Carrol Vertrees dead at 92.” His lengthy obituary spoke of his career as a journalist for newspapers in northern Indiana as well as the Odon Journal. He remained active to the end, having a new column published in the Journal just two days after he died. My initial reaction was one of shock, but when I started thinking about the overall tone of the last several of his “Vertrees Comments,” I feel that he may have had a premonition he would soon be moving from his earthly home to his celestial one.
In 1976, author Alex Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a novel based on his family’s history. It became a best seller and one of the most watched TV miniseries of all time. I speculate that Carrol Vertrees (CV, as he signed his e-mails to me) began sculpting stories of his Elnora roots long before Haley’s book.
Carrol Vertrees was 23 years my senior, but we had at least two things in common; we both loved our little home town, and we both moved away at an early age. History has shown that as many Elnora residents reach young adult status, they scatter hither and yon like brown, brittle leaves on a windy autumn day. CV and I were alike in that regard.
In fact, I should mention that although he knew of me as a small child, I never met Carrol Vertrees face-to-face during my adult life. I became familiar with him through his newspaper columns and later through the magic of e-mail and Facebook. He knew my family and has shared memories of my father, Emerson, and my mother, Elizabeth (he called her “Libby”), and remembered that the Johnson clan attended Mud Pike Church along with the Vertrees family all those years ago. He also extolled the culinary virtues of the food at my parents’ restaurant and raved about my mom’s excellent chili. He mentioned her recently in a Facebook entry after I had posted some pictures of her for Mothers’ Day.
When the now-defunct Elnora Post began its operation in 2008, I decided to try my hand at submitting some of my own Elnora memories and hoped I could become half the writer CV was. I have had fun trying, but I truly think what I consider my best work can’t hold the proverbial candle to anything I ever read of his. Most of my stories recount specific vignettes of my life growing up in our little hometown. CV could write about anything, but before you knew it, he’d sneak in that little Elnora reference. He was a master at that.
I have saved all of my stories that have been printed in the Post and now in the Journal. I’ve also kept several of CV’s. One of my favorites was his recollection of how Elnora celebrated Christmas during his younger days. It was a true masterpiece. One year ago this week in the June 19, 2013 edition of the Odon Journal, he wrote a letter to the “From Our Mailbag” column titled “Remembering Elnora.” In it, he compared our memories of that little piece of Daviess County Heaven that we call home. He explained that we come from different generations and that our memories are linked to three different towns, his Elnora, my Elnora, and the modern Elnora, a shell of its former self, but still a treasure of memories.
I’d like to quote a portion of that letter: “I salute folks like Jim Johnson who knew painful adversity from an early age and felt the love of people who cared. Like me, he feels that memories, even painful ones, help us understand who we are and where we have been. Little towns like Elnora that are only shells of their former vibrant lives still seem real -- a permanent part of us. Jim Johnson has reminded us of that important truth.”
On the contrary, I feel Carrol Vertrees reminded us of that better than I ever could have. One of those painful memories is now knowing that his wit, insight, and eloquence have been silenced forever. CV, I salute you and hope that one day we can sit down on the “other side” and swap a few stories. Till then, I will miss you.