Written by: David L. Wilson
America from the very beginning has been a story of movement. No other nation in history has been formed and nurtured with such ceaseless energy and motion. Immigrants from Europe typically had to cross nearly one quarter of the earth’s longitudinal lines to find a new home. And once they arrived many of them, energized with vision and hope, continued their journeys westward across the continent. One of the most intense periods of westward global migration occurred from 1895 through 1915 to North America. And right in the middle of it the automobile was born. Very much like the railroads, these new “horseless carriages” required an infrastructure to blossom into full potential.
Our national infrastructure of roads and bridges is often taken for granted. We don’t pay much attention to it, unless, of course we need to use it while it’s being repaired. On a day-to-day basis, we just want to go from point A to point B. But for some of us ordinary looking roads like U.S 30, our beloved Lincoln Highway, U.S. 40, our first National Road, and the adventurous U.S. Route 66, will always be more than just thoroughfares. This is the story of an American family, my family, spanning five generations, whose intimate proximity with the Lincoln Highway has been completely unintentional and absolutely incredible.
Frank Pettay and Marie Cippel were married in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1920 at a Catholic church one block from what was to become the Lincoln Highway, just a few years later. Frank was a young man from Austria who arrived penniless. He could neither read nor write. Marie was from Czechoslovakia. As immigrants, Frank and Marie were processed through Ellis Island just a few years earlier. The young bride and groom from Eastern Europe were destined to launch a classic American family success story.
As a new arrival in America, Frank acquired baking skills as he worked in an industrial bread and pastry plant in Pittsburgh. He and Marie had three daughters and eventually moved forty miles west along the Lincoln Highway to East Liverpool, Ohio. There, Frank opened a neighborhood bakery on Dresden Avenue, part of the original Lincoln Highway. In spite of the Great Depression the bakery supported the family. The three Pettay girls also worked in the store as they grew up. The Lincoln Highway, by providing sustainable traffic flow, was intimately involved from the very beginning. An American dream was up and running.
During this same period in East Liverpool, a young man, an only child, whose name was Charles T. [Jack] Wilson, Jr. lived on Thompson Avenue. Jack and Elizabeth, the eldest of the Pettay girls, became inseparable friends in high school. They graduated together in June of 1941. Six months later America was drawn into World War II. Elizabeth enrolled at the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing, a few blocks from the Lincoln Highway in Pittsburgh. She would graduate in 1944 and begin working as a surgical nurse. Her friend Jack would experience the adventure of a lifetime.
August 22, 1944 began as a quiet, delightful summer day near the Czech/Polish border in Eastern Europe, but quickly degraded into an hour of hell on earth. Jack was twenty-one years old, seated in the command pilot position of an Army Air Corp B-17 heavy bomber. Shortly after its target run and turn back towards home, the aircraft caught fire after being hit by German gunfire. Fifteen minutes later, second lieutenant Jack Wilson was swinging gently back and forth in a tree, dangling from his parachute lines. It had once again become a perfectly quiet and idyllic summer day.
Jack was captured and sent off to Stalag Luft One in northern Germany. Now this particular prison camp was exceptional in that it was run by the German Luftwaffe. It’s since been described as the country club of prison camps in Europe. During Jack’s nine months as a P.O.W. he joined an art club. While a prisoner of war Jack was encouraged by a fellow P.O.W., a college trained artist, to attend a quality fine arts college and develop his talents when he returned home. And that is exactly what Jack Wilson eventually did.
In July of 1945, Jack Wilson sat down at a conference table located in the art department of Carnegie Technical Institute, now Carnegie Mellon University, within a stone’s throw of the Lincoln Highway in Pittsburg. He was twenty-two, married to his best friend Elisabeth Pettay for just over a month. It was aptitude testing day for prospective students in the fine arts department. A young man of seventeen sitting next to him introduced himself. He was Andy Warhol, from Pittsburgh’s Czech neighborhood. The two became friends.
Jack commuted to college from East Liverpool for the first two years via the Lincoln Highway. During this time two sons, Roger and I, were born. We were born at Mercy hospital in Pittsburgh, just a few blocks from the Lincoln Highway. Our family lived next door to Jack’s Aunt Lettie in a tiny rented cottage.
Aunt Lettie Hunsicker had married a successful business man. The Hunsickers lived at 235 Pennsylvania Avenue in East Liverpool. The view from Lettie’s front yard was magnificent. It was a panorama of the Ohio River Valley looking south across the river into the hills of the West Virginia pan handle. Framed perfectly in the center of this image was the Chester Bridge, which supported the Lincoln Highway. As the generations of our family have drifted along, this scene has become perhaps the most cherished of all, as it depicts not only the love and memories of family, but the movement of America. Inside this frame one can see, hear, and smell the endless riverboat, auto, truck, and rail traffic, in a pleasant and picturesque setting.
After graduating from Carnegie in 1950, Jack and Elizabeth, along with their two little boys, headed west along U.S. 40, America’s National Road, to Indianapolis. Jack had entered the world of advertising that would in just a few years lure the family to Chicago.
Fast Forward. It’s the fall of 1964, seven years after the Wilsons had moved from Indianapolis to Chicago. Jack had become a success in the advertising business. He and Elizabeth now had six children. Older brother Roger was off to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. NIU at the time was growing exponentially as the deluge of baby boomers enrolled. The formal entrance to NIU is accessed from the original Lincoln Highway. One year later, while still seventeen, I began my college studies at NIU and roomed with my brother. The main east west street and heart of downtown DeKalb is the Lincoln Highway.
In January if 1971, three days after receiving my college diploma from NIU, I was traveling east along the Lincoln Highway with a fellow Air Force Reservist. It was January, bitterly cold and snowing. My friend Tom and I were to attend weekend military reserve training in Chicago. Eight miles east of DeKalb we encountered a stranded motorist and stopped to help. While standing behind my Rambler station wagon I was stuck by another car and slammed into my own. My right leg was severed just above the knee. I was bleeding to death. My friend Tom, an Air Force medical corpsman, saved my life. I was hospitalized in DeKalb, a few blocks from the Lincoln Highway. My life had abruptly changed.
Eight months later, after having learned to walk for the second time, I attended an informal mid-week gathering of graduate students from NIU. I had returned to study while I was physically and emotionally rebuilding. It was an evening of relaxation and light conversation. Early in the evening I was formally introduced to a young elementary teacher from the DeKalb schools. My conversation with Nancy that evening was delightful. As we were departing she turned to me and said, “Will I see you again?” This first encounter took place about one hundred yards from the Lincoln Highway. We became the best of friends.
At the time of this writing I’ve been married to Nancy for over forty-three years. Following our wedding in 1973, I worked as an assistant to the solo orthopedic surgeon in DeKalb who treated me for my injuries. Nancy continued to teach at Elwood School. We began our lives together, each working only a few blocks from the Lincoln Highway. The following year Nancy and I moved southwest Galesburg. Nancy grew up on a farm located on highway U.S. 34 a few miles west of town. I began work as a juvenile probation officer. Nancy returned to teaching in a rural elementary school. Our proximity to the Lincoln Highway appeared to be all in the past.
On a Friday afternoon in July of 1977, a professional looking man carrying a black briefcase and road map was ushered into my office. John was a charming and gregarious medical supplies salesman who I had met while working with the orthopedic surgeon in DeKalb. John offered me a job as an orthopedic sales rep with a territory that included, once again, the communities in northern Illinois that were strung along the Lincoln Highway. The name of the company I would be representing was DePuy. Its home office was in Warsaw, Indiana, right beside the Lincoln Highway. I accepted and it became my career. Warsaw, Indiana has been appropriately called the orthopedic capital of the world. Today, the two largest orthopedic implant companies in the world are headquartered along the Lincoln Highway.
Now Nancy was no stranger to the Lincoln Highway either. She attended college at Iowa State University, in Ames. Like NIU in DeKalb, the original Lincoln Highway runs right through Campustown at Iowa State. Nancy’s college years at ISU were endearing. Lifelong friendships remain today from her student days near the Lincoln Highway. And when it was time for our own daughter Diane to depart for college in 1999, Iowa State was her first choice. In the fall of that year, as Nancy and I were carting Diane’s things into her dorm room in Ames, I remarked, “Nancy, she’ll bring home an Iowa farm boy.” And that she did!
Our son Scott, Diane’s older brother by two years, left home only a few days following high school graduation in 1997. He was bound for the Air Force. When the day arrived to say goodbye, as we drove Scott to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, we stopped along the Lincoln Highway in DeKalb to have lunch. Scott would serve four years, all of it in Europe. He would observe life in twenty-two countries, become intrigued with their languages, and like his grandfather, return home and go to college. In 2001 Scott enrolled at NIU in DeKalb and made his student home just a few blocks from the Lincoln Highway. After a year at NIU, it was off to the University of Illinois in Chicago to complete his studies in Russian Language and History. Nancy and I left DeKalb, along with Scott and his belongings, and drove east along the Lincoln Highway towards Chicago.
In the spring of 2003, several hundred miles to the west of DeKalb, Diane had graduated from Iowa State University. Like her grandfather Jack, Diane was awarded a degree in Art. Diane married Micah, the Iowa farm boy, and fellow ISU graduate, the following winter. They moved to Clarence, Iowa, a small village along the Lincoln Highway, east of Cedar Rapids. Micah began teaching industrial arts at Stanwood High School just a few miles down the Lincoln Highway. Another move to the west and the young couple found themselves in Lisbon, followed by their present home in Mount Vernon. Included in CNN’s listing of the top ten most desirable small towns in America, Mount Vernon, Iowa is blessed with a vibrant main street downtown, which as you might expect, is the original Lincoln Highway. Diane and Micah, along with their five kids, live less than two blocks from the original Lincoln Highway as it runs alongside Cornell College. Four of their five children were born at Mercy Hospital in Cedar Rapids. The original Lincoln Highway runs right by the hospital.
So what has gone on here? Was all of this involvement with the Lincoln Highway intentional? Of course not. What are the odds of all of this happening as revealed, in the absence of deliberate effort? Now that’s a question to be answered perhaps by a PhD. candidate in Sociology or Quantum Mathematics. The fact remains, that our family is not unlike countless extended families in America. We are now and always have been intimately entwined with the infrastructure of movement. This will not change. American families have revolved around rivers, railroads, highways and even the skies. The Lincoln Highway, along with its sister historic roads throughout our land, will long endure and continue to nurture the lives of its travelers.