“Frances Platt, whatever happened to that wonderful mind of yours?”
That was Miss Elizabeth’s greeting to my mother after not seeing her for years. The question was asked in a booming voice heard all over the main floor of the old Lincoln Library.
Typical Elizabeth Graham, no small talk, just going directly to what she cared about. Usually it was Vachel Lindsay. Miss Elizabeth was the number two fan of Springfield’s great poet.
Susan Wilcox was the city’s number one fan. Susan had been Vachel’s friend and Miss Elizabeth had been her friend, Vachel’s friend too.
Together the two women ran the English Department at Springfield High School for many years. Graham was a graduate of my first alma mater, Knox College.
There was no bowing to national fads like Common Core in those days. Miss Graham knew what education was about...reading and writing, using proper grammar and correct spelling. And attention to, and knowledge of, the books with which anyone with a liberal education should be familiar.
And, like a good university, she taught her students an appreciation of the arts and history, opening their eyes to a world beyond the limits of their native city. Like Vachel she taught of the world of wonder and beauty and unlimited possibilities.
One of her favorite references was Lindsay’s “Village Improvement Parade,” a poem and illustrations devoted to a more beautiful Springfield. She also favored his poem “On the Building of Springfield” in which he wrote about turning our city into an equal of Athens and Rome and said that making it so required “many Lincoln-hearted men.”
Miss Graham was one of the Lincoln-hearted. She came of age in Springfield’s progressive era of clean politics and clean water when the city adopted the new commission form of government, bought an electric utility and created its own water supply by forming Lake Springfield. Like Vachel she was an improver.
My mother and my uncle were high school students of Graham’s. I wasn’t.
Before my time at SHS, Graham and the school board disagreed over policy and she retired. The board had a leveling philosophy, the latest trendy thing, and Graham believed in tracking. She put the brightest students in the most challenging courses with the toughest curricula and failed them if they didn’t produce.
There was no concern for “self-esteem.” Produce, you got the grade you earned. Fail, you got an “F.”
There were echoes of Miss Graham’s philosophy at Springfield when I went there. We read the classics, Beowulf, Shakespeare, Pilgrim’s Progress, the Aeneid and the Odyssey. And lots of poetry, especially Lindsay.
The school still had the student paper, The Senator, which Miss Elizabeth started. I wrote a regular column for it, as had my uncle.
In Miss Elizabeth’s years, she and her students not only reported, wrote and edited the weekly but also printed it. They used an old printing press in the attic of Graham’s house on Governor Street.
While my mother enjoyed a lifetime of reading after her years in Graham’s English classes, apparently she hadn’t met her former teacher’s high standards. My uncle and his best friend, Tom Morgan, performed more to her liking. Morgan had a career at New York magazine and was press representative for NYC Mayor John Lindsay. My uncle left Springfield for a job as editor for Cornet Magazine, then a popular national publication.
After her forced retirement, Miss Graham became the promoter of all things Vachel. She inspired and worked for the restoration and opening of his home. She herself served as the caretaker for the house.
She opened Vachel’s door to any curious tourists who knocked. Then gave a tour unlike anything some bored site attendant might produce. There was a good chance that the somewhat startled tourist would end up declaiming some of Vachel’s poems under Miss Elizabeth’s enthusiastic direction.
Similarly she taught scores of young Springfieldians to understand and perform Lindsay’s poetry. I spent many hours at the home with Graham listening to and critiquing my interpretation and delivery.
Well do I remember performances that she inveigled us into presenting. Yearly we would be scheduled on the Farm-a-rama stage at the state fair. Imagine cows lowing in the background, a tractor demonstration across the way and in the middle of it all, a group of eager young poetry lovers chanting:“Dragons, dragons...Chinese dragons
Red firecrackers and green firecrackers and
Dragons, dragons Chinese dragons.”
And always Graham pushing and inspiring and teaching generations of young people.
Phil Bradley of Springfield spent several years doing poetry readings in Vachel’s house and in other Springfield settings.