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Joe and Madeleine Wildermuth
In the upstairs back bedroom of the family's farm house in Pulaski County, Indiana, Joe Henry Wildermuth was born on July 6, 1897. Named for his two grandfathers, Henry Wildermuth and Joseph Herrick, he was the fourth--and last--son of Elias and Olive Wildermuth. In 1907 he moved with his parents to the fledgling town of Gary, Indiana. Ten-year-old Joe became Gary's first newsboy, selling Chicago papers like hot cakes to the construction workers returning home from work on the steel mill. He also had the only agency in Gary for the Saturday Evening Post and sold the first Gary Tribune. When his father hired an architect to design a commercial building he planned to have built, Joe was intrigued. It was the beginning of Joe's commitment to a career as an architect.
When only thirteen, he worked for a summer in an architect's office and, while a student at Emerson High School, he prepared plans for a schoolhouse addition for the Board of Education. In 1920 he graduated from the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois and returned to Gary to become its first hometown graduate architect. During these years, he enjoyed summer sports. He became the tennis champion of Gary at one time and had a golf trophy for his efforts on the links. About this time Madeleine Havens moved to Gary with her parents, Lola and Daniel (known as "Doc") Havens. After graduating from Emerson High School, Madeleine entered Northwestern University. Her mother died in the spring of 1922 and the following fall, Madeleine did not return to college. On January 10, 1923, she married Joe Wildermuth at the home of her aunt and uncle, Gertrude and Frank O. Hodson. The young couple moved to 755 Arthur St. It was a friendly neighborhood with Fourth of July block parties, and with baseball games in the middle of the street. Their two children, Richard and Dorothy attended nearby Horace Mann School. Madeleine became active in the social life of Gary and was a member of the Beta Gamma sorority.
Their home was frequently the scene of social gatherings as well as always serving as a focal place for their children and the neighborhood. The children were allowed to use the living room for their self-produced plays which included rigging up sheets for the stage curtains, arranging chairs for the audience and selling homemade candy at the door. By the time Joe arrived home in the evening, however, everything was back in place. Joe became Gary's school architect. In addition to schools, he designed for Gary many libraries, several churches, the Court House and Jail and, when only thirty years old, he was the architect for Gary's Memorial Auditorium. The Auditorium's cornerstone was laid at an exciting time in Gary's history. The headlines of the Gary Post-Tribune screamed "VISITORS MARVEL AS STEEL CITY MARKS ADVANCE WITH CEREMONIES." The brand new Gary Hotel housed the out-of-town dignitaries who had come to witness Gary's "Discovery Days." It was a tight schedule with an inspection of the new Post-Tribune building at 2:30, the laying of the cornerstone for the City Hall at 3, the ceremony for the Memorial Auditorium at 4 and the formal opening of the Commercial Club at 5. Because the auditorium was designed to be used for many school activities, the ceremony at that site featured students with Joe the only adult speaker. Wanting to make the proper impression, 30-year-old Joe had rehearsed his speech at home. When the city fathers saw the series of events falling behind schedule, they asked Joe to shorten his speech, which, of course, he did. Family members were all present, but their memories of the events were overshadowed by a small boy.
As Joe delivered the abridged version of the speech his three-year-old son, sitting on his uncle's shoulders to witness the ceremonies, shouted, "Daddy, you forgot something!" Joe and Madeleine's world was shaken, when Dick, barely six, was hit by a car and suffered a fractured skull. The following year, while coming home from school, he was seriously injured when struck by a speeding truck. He seemed to be recovering from these injuries when a serious infection left him with an illness that required bedside teachers for a good part of each school year. This was reversed after 1937 when Madeleine took the children to Florida for an entire winter. During the depression, Joe's architectural office stood empty while Joe worked as Assistant Manager and Chief Appraiser for the United States Home Owners Loan Corporation for Northern Indiana. Because the architectural work had required frequent evening meetings with school boards, etc., Joe's evenings had been frequently interrupted. Madeleine commented that the depression was the only period when the household was on a predictable schedule. Joe authored a treatise, "Real Estate Valuation" in 1934 and the following year one on schoolhouse design. For a brief period, Joe took an interest in politics, and at one time was elected as a representative to the Democratic state convention. When the economy improved and Joe returned to his architectural career, he resumed his work with Gary schools and libraries. He also designed buildings throughout Indiana including the Indiana State Board of Health Building, a hospital at the Soldiers and Sailors Children's home in Knightstown, and many buildings at Indiana University. Joe was on the Indiana State Architects Board for thirteen years serving as Chairman for several of those years. In 1935 Joe helped organize the Gary Federal Savings and Loan Association and he served on its board from the beginning. For a time, after retiring from his architectural work, he served the bank as Vice President, then President, retiring in 1962.
In 1939 the family moved to 8605 Lake Shore Dr., which immediately became the summer gathering spot for the Horace Mann High School friends of their children. Even in the winter, when the tennis court in front of the house was flooded for ice skating or there was snow for tobogganing at Marquette Park, their home would fill with young people. During World War II Dick served in the Army Air Corps; but summertime continued to find the girls--and any boys home on furlough--at the Wildermuth's beach home. Madeleine helped out at the Gary Service Men's Center, and regularly invited sailors from the Great Lakes Station to join the young people in the fun at her home. Back when the children were young, a regular Sunday afternoon activity for the Wildermuths was to drive out into the countryside and look at farm land. Although Joe's family moved off the farm when he was quite young, he always insisted that he was a farm boy at heart. Eventually, he purchased some land southeast of Crown Point near Leroy. With little architectural work available during the war, Joe determined to learn everything about modern farming, He was in contact with the Agricultural School at Purdue and all but haunted the Lake County Farm Agent. Under Joe's direction, the farm transformed from a place of questionable buildings and land production, to a thriving, profitable farm with showplace barns and home. Joe personally went to Texas to purchase cattle and was perhaps his happiest when checking the conditions on his farm astride his Texas cow pony.
Shortly after the war, they sold the lake house and moved to the farm. They also maintained an apartment in Gary at the Vesta Court apartment building (1619 W. 5th Avenue), which Joe had designed early in his career and later owned. Joe tended to become totally engrossed in what he was doing and cared little for conforming to convention. This combination often caused his actions to appear bizarre to others and the family had a whole repertoire of what they called "Joe Stories." One such time, Joe happened by a farm auction and stopped in. He soon began to participate and ended up the high bidder on a large sow. To transport his purchase, he just put down the top of his convertible, placed the hog in the passenger's seat and drove down the highway--unconcerned about the astonished stares. Throughout the years the Wildermuths held membership in City Methodist Church where Madeleine participated in the West Side Division, where their teenage children were active in the Epworth League, and where their daughter was married. In 1947--within two weeks of each other--each of their children was married. Richard married Helen Cole, daughter of Amos N. and Lillian (MacAdoo) Cole. A graduate of the University of Michigan Architectural School, Dick practiced architecture in northern Indiana for most of his career and is responsible for many of its public buildings.
After rearing their two children, Helen began a movement to clean up Gary's appearance garnering help from industry yet keeping a grass roots appeal. She served as Gary's commissioner for beautification under Mayor Richard Hatcher. In 1972, they moved to New England. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Dorothy married Michael E. Vekasi, son of Michael and Elizabeth (Bazin) Vekasi. They moved to Michigan where they reared their three sons. By 1953 Joe had retired from his architectural business in Indiana and built a home in the Florida Keys, where he practiced architecture on a limited basis. Each summer, however, they returned to their Indiana farm residence. Their children and five grandchildren were frequent visitors to their homes on the farm and in Florida. In later years they summered with their daughter in Kent County, Michigan and, when Joe died at the close of 1972, he was buried there. Madeleine survived him by six years.
Source:Sumbitted by: Dorothy Wildermuth Vekasi - dvekasi@aol.com