My first job

Friday, July 20, 2018

In the spring of 1956, I received a letter from Indian Foothills Park saying they would like to speak with me about hiring me as a playground supervisor at Travis Guthrey Play Area the following summer. Park Superintendent W.H. Lyon (Coach) had initiated an organized program at the playground; the first supervisor was Sarah Jane Coad of rural Marshall. Sarah Jane, or “Sadie” as we knew her, was a favorite of young and old alike; after the summer of 1956 she would be a senior at the University of Missouri. The park was looking for replacements and because she, a country girl, had done such a good job, Coach Lyon asked the County Extension Office to recommend two 4-H girls who might take over the work. Thus, Beverly Buck (Wright) and I joined the park staff. Others who worked with us were Judy Chamberlain and Gloria Gaga (Ensley.)

My recollection is three summers of fun. Travis Guthrey bequeathed $1,500 for the play area in 1940, allowing for swings, slides, a jungle gym, teeter-totters, a merry-go-round, and a climbing rope — the playground was a child’s dream. We learned from Sadie — if the kids found a turtle, we made a house for it. Spontaneous activities just arose from whatever occurred.

In the center of the playground was a big metal cart on wheels; one side held tennis racquets, croquet sets, and balls that could be checked out, and the other side held crayons, chalk, paper, games, and most important of all, colored vinyl ribbon strips from which we made lanyards.

Often, I drove the family car to work at the park; teenagers did not have their own cars. Our mothers did not need the car during the day because they were busy canning, freezing food, dressing the chickens they raised, or sewing our clothes. I remember one of those summers we purchased a window unit air conditioner which cooled the kitchen and dining room. I went home for lunch and my grandfather, who lived with us, was sure I would get sick from working outdoors all day and being in the artificial coolness for an hour at noon.

In subsequent summers, Beverly and I got more and more organized. Each week we had a theme — Circus Week, Jungle Week, etc. We planned crafts and games around the theme. During Farm Week, we took the kids to my family farm to look around and to ride the horse. We had story time, checking out children’s books from the Missouri Valley College library. Every Wednesday was hike day — the kids brought sack lunches and we walked somewhere in the park. On the way back, as we drew nearer to the play area, Osage Field baseball diamond was like the final trek across the Sahara Desert, the children wilted, needed great encouragement to get back to headquarters. We spent the hottest part of the day in the shelter house doing crafts at the wooden tables and playing quiet games. We spent many hours playing Snap.

Most days we had 12 to 20 kids. On rainy days the census might go down to four or five. No registration was necessary. The kids were just dropped off by their parents. I do not recall any kind of written check-in from parents.

On Thursdays, J.D. Nichols, the High School Cooperative Education teacher, brought a movie projector and showed movies in a room under the stadium. (COE was a work/study program in which high school students went to school in the morning and worked in the community in the afternoon.) Another person with whom we interacted regularly was Stella Giger, the secretary-bookkeeper and general manager of the park office from 1951 to 1986.

The stadium’s wooden grandstand was a sturdy structure that was used nightly for ball games. Osage field and the stadium were built in 1941 as a W.P.A. project. This stadium, which we knew so well, burned to the ground in a suspicious fire in the early 1970s.

Coach Lyon was a character who could have stepped from a Dickens’ novel. The former Marshall High School football coach was a man of stout proportions, and he did not struggle with his weight. Legend says he would go to the Burgess Station on Montague Hill, a small grocery and filling station east of Marshall, and purchase a pound of unsliced baloney, all of which he would eat for lunch.

One of his idiosyncrasies was that he added the phrase, “and the like,” to every other sentence, which amused us greatly. We could smile, but Coach Lyon was a man to be respected. He would say, “Just remember that you are paid with tax money and the like. If you finish a job, look for something else to do. No sitting down or leaning against a tree, and the like…just keep moving, you are always in the public eye.”

Coach was relentless in keeping all the summer help busy. When extreme heat caused the grass to stop growing, the boys who mowed were set to painting. On the playground was a large bell mounted on a post; I do not recall that we used the bell, but Coach decided the post and bell should receive a coat of paint. I remember one of the boys used a ladder to paint the bell silver gray, and at Coach’s insistence, a black crack was painted down the side to make it resemble the Liberty Bell.

One summer, Coach decided it would be good to have the playground supervised in the evenings because many children played while their parents watched ball games in the stadium. So, we took turns working until 10 p.m., checking out equipment and keeping an eye on everything. My parents were not happy about my working alone at the park at night. However, I felt invincible and could not imagine why they worried. And besides, I felt rich accumulating extra time at 50 cents an hour and later 75 cents an hour. The real trick was trying not to think about the cemetery across the road.

Under Coach Lyon’s direction, Indian Foothills Park had programs that would be the envy of any community today. Marshall Public School buses were used to pick up kids at each of the four neighborhood schools coming to and from the park every two hours, all day long. Almost every child could come to the swimming pool for swimming lessons and other activities without transportation problems. Gasoline was 24 cents a gallon. Of course, Marshall was locked in the grips of segregation, like every other town in the Midwest until the mid-1960s.

A group of older men played croquet every day on courts just opposite the golf course. We checked out shuffleboard discs and cues for the court behind the tennis backboard. Horseshoes were available, too.

The tennis courts were always busy. A Ban Johnson baseball league had regular games in the stadium. Red Cross swimming lessons met three times a week for six weeks. A water ballet was presented in August with synchronized swimming. One year, Coach obtained archery equipment. A target area of hay bales just south of the golf course was the site of lessons which Beverly and I taught, even though we knew next to nothing about archery. We read the instructions and plunged ahead. Coach got the idea that park activities should be publicized on KMMO, so Beverly and I had a short weekly radio program, “This Week at Indian Foothills Park.”

The man was a visionary. One day he told us that the land just to the north of the play area was going to be cleared for ball diamonds because the hillside created a natural bowl. We laughed at the idea…scrub trees and brush covered the hillside. In 1963, one year after Coach Lyon retired, the construction of the ball fields were completed and christened “The Lyon Bowl.”

Admittedly, my first job was diverse and interesting and I learned a good deal from Coach Lyon. He was a man with a mission — he foresaw many possibilities for the role of the park. Every day and every night throngs of people swam in the pool and trooped through the playground and the stadium. We felt we were at the “heartbeat” of life, and Coach Lyon instilled in us an awareness that we had an image to uphold; to work hard, be productive…to “keep moving, and the like.”

This story first appeared in the ©Marshall Writers’ Guild 2013 book, “The Late ‘50s Marshall and Elsewhere.” Carol Mallman Raynor is a member of the guild.