The Simpson College Seal
By James E. McEldowney
Every child should know about his or her grandparents and other ancestors. This story is about my father, Benjamin Wade Butler McEldowney, and I have added a few words about his father.
Tradition has it that my father's father, John McEldowney had been a postmaster at the stage stop at La Grange. John was born in Omagh, Ireland and had three families, one after the other. My father was the youngest child. John was born either in 1782 or 1792, we can't be sure which. That meant that he was born in the 18th century, my father was born in the 19th century, and I was born in the 20th century. John died in 1870 when my father was only two years old.
That left his mother a widow. A year or so later she married a man by the name of James Scott. They lived in Fayette, Iowa in the northern part of the state.
James Scott was not a good father. He did not want his boys to have an education. He kept my father from school to tend the sheep. Father often told me how lonely it was as he sat on the hill watching the sheep day after day. A few weeks in the winter he could attend school but he did not have shoes so when the ground was frozen, he said he could see his trail across the snow by little red marks. He bound gunny sack cloth on his feet but when he stepped on a sharp frozen bit of earth it would cut through the cloth and cut his feet. Nor did his stepfather want him to learn to play a musical instrument. My father had gotten a violin somehow, but he had to practice in the barn where his stepfather wouldn't hear him. One night his stepfather heard him and came into the barn, grabbed the violin and smashed it against the side of the barn.
When my father was in his early twenties he attended a Methodist revival service and became a Christian. Within a short time he felt called of God to became a preacher to share the Good News of the Gospel. He saved what money he could and in 1894, when he was 26, he walked most of the way to Indianola, Iowa, to Simpson College. He told them he wanted a college education, He was shocked when they said he would have to attend their Academy four year before he could enter college. It would take him eight years to get a college education.
In the meantime his stepfather died and he had to take care of his mother. She came and lived with him. To earn money he bought a cow, named Daisy, and sold milk to students and to homes. He always said that cow put him through college. He was 32 years old when he graduated with a B. A. degree in 1900.
He applied to the Methodist Church and became a minister. He wanted to be a home missionary. One of his first churches was at White Rock, S. D. in the far northeast corner of the state. One of his churches was in South Dakota, one in Minnesota, and one in Iowa. White Rock, too, has largely disappeared as a town.
A couple of years later he began preaching at Henry, S. D. He was a very sincere preacher so very soon he held revival services out in the country. One night when he was driving home after service, the team of horses got lost and he ended up in what had been a lake bed. It was pitch dark. He used his powerful preacher voice and called out for help. Finally he saw a light far off on the bank of the dry lake bed. He drove to it, and from there he was able to get home.
For those revival services he needed someone to play the organ. His very good friends, Rev. and Mrs. Hyde, knew of a person who would be just right. They wrote her. She lived in Chariton, Iowa. She came and in time the two were married. Her name was Elizabeth Louise Clark. I was the third boy born to them. Robert was the first, Morris the second, and I came on March 11, 1907. My little sister, Clara Jeannette, was born almost two year later, after we had moved to Esmond, S. D.
All this is just background to what I want to say. He always was what you might call a country preacher. He was full of energy and was a fine preacher, but in the Methodist Church, there are road blocks to keep a certain number of preachers serving small churches while people who are self important and try to do whatever the Bishop wants are given big churches. My father had as his one ambition to serve God without counting the cost. So as a family we never had much money, but that didn't seem to make any difference. We children were never made aware of that. We had lovely children's books and best of all we had music.
My mother had been a seamstress before they were married and had saved up some money. When we moved to Geddes, S. D. there waiting for us was a brand new Cable piano she had bought. My father had never been able to play, but he wanted to give us children the chance to play music. Mother taught us at first until we could play simple things. One time when the pianist didn't come to a prayer meeting my father asked me to play the hymns. You can't imagine what a thrill that was to be able to play for him. Then somewhere he found a piece of music called the Pall Mell Trio. All three of us boys played together and during the following years we were somewhat a sensation as we played trios at social gatherings.
My father became our scout master and what fun it was to go to scout camps. Morris was always making things. One summer he made a canoe, using barrel stays nailed to a central board and canvas for the outside. My father almost drowned when he insisted on trying it out in a bayou a mile outside town. His feet got stuck in the wood braces inside the canoe when it turned over and he was head down in the water until we rescued him. He wanted us to have all the fun we could with it so he found some old buggy wheels and an axle, put the canoe on it, and pulled the thing over to scout camp behind a car filled with boys. The only trouble was that going that far and that fast, the axles got hot, so we had to stop and grease them.
Then it was time for college. My father had always been so grateful for his education at Simpson he wanted all of us to go there. How could this country preacher send three boys and a girl to college?
My brother Bob was two years ahead of Morris and me in school. Bob got scholarships and began studying music. When it came time to send Morris and me, Dad called us together. We knew he had no money for us but all of us boys had had jobs and had saved a little, hardly more than enough to buy college clothes. Then my father told us of the struggle he had had. It looked pretty dim, but not to my father. He was all enthusiastic and said, with God's help and if all of us did all we could to help out, we could go to college. He told us his motto had always been,"Go as far as you can with God's help, then if you have to stop, stop." He filled us with hope and said, go, and if we have to stop, we will.
Well, we went to Simpson. We found an upper room apartment a half mile from college, in the home of a family by the name of Keane. A friend of our cousin, Olan Ruble, was wanting a place to stay, and he helped pay the rent. He didn't have much money either. There was an electric stove in the apartment and we scheduled our time so each of the three of us took turns making the meals. My father brought what things he could from the garden. Before long one or two boys who were having a hard time financially heard what we were doing and wanted to be included. They paid a little more than the food cost us and ate our simple meals. My father kept encouraging us when our cupboard was almost bare. We kept trying, and together we made it one year, then the second, then the third. In all we had three different wonderful fellows rooming with us, and as many as five coming for meals regularly. The three of us would find work in the community for weekends and we never had to stop.
Robert had changed majors during his third year so he was in college five years. He finished a year earlier than Morris and I. He got a teaching job and almost at once bought a Ford roadster. My father had an idea. He asked Morris and me to join him and the three of us were then assigned to preach at four churches on the North Indianola Circuit. He moved the family to Indianola and convinced Bob that he should let Morris and me use his Ford so we could get to our churches. Bob was good to let us have it. Morris would drop me off at North River Church and he went on to Spring Hill for Sunday morning services. My father had Carlyle and Palmyra. We were kept busy preparing sermons and keeping up with college classes, but the best of it was that during that senior year we also had in our home Anicito Cabildo, from the Philippines, Chang Wook Moon, from Korea and Myron Muller from St. Charles, Iowa. Our father never hesitated if he could help someone get a college education.
During my senior year my father offered his car so that Morris and I could go to a State Historical Conference in Iowa City. That was the farthest east I had ever been. Then at Christmas time there was to be a Student Volunteer meeting in Detroit. Father urged us to go. We raised some money to help on the trip, then we took Cabildo and two girls, Wilena Barker and Helen Richards. Mrs. Weeks went along as chaperon. Father's unusual contribution was that on Friday night before we were to leave, Morris and I went to a picture show in Des Moines. Coming out of the theatre we discovered that the car was gone. It was not found until Sunday morning. It had been stripped of everything that could be taken. Anyone else would have called off the trip but not my father. Somehow he arranged for repairs to be made during Sunday afternoon and night so it was ready for us to leave on schedule Monday morning. I don't know where he got the money to pay for it but that did not keep him from helping us. At that convention I felt the call to be a missionary and in the end I became one. The account of my life is in the book, THE MAKING A MISSIONARY.
That's the kind of father we had. One other thing is memorable. He learned poetry and had a poem for every occasion. He had a little rack made that held bits of poetry. He fixed it just in front of the steering wheel of his car. As he drove he learned poetry. Every moment was sacred to him. He was one who opened doors of learning and of opportunity for others, sometimes at great cost to him. What a difference it makes when that happens.
I have already told you one of the guiding principles of my father's life: Never give up, with God's help go as far as you can. Another is this: Nothing is ever settled until it is settled right. Those two mottoes will fill any of you with hope and ambition so you can make your mark in the world.[by James E. McEldowney, Spring 1997]
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