Being Remembered: Sherman Hall Janitor's Closet Serves as Signature Repository

Released: 19-Jan-2012 11:20 AM EST
Source Newsroom: Western Illinois University
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Many of the comforts we are able to enjoy during our attendance at the W. I. N. S. [Western Illinois Normal School] are due to the thoughtful and faithful service of janitors and engineers. — Western Illinois University "Sequel" Yearbook, vol. IX (1912), page 22

Newswise — MACOMB, IL -- Many buildings and structures on Western Illinois University's Macomb campus bear the names of individuals who have made significant contributions in regard to service and vision for the University and in regard to funds to construct the structures and support the mission of the institution. Hanson, Beu, Malpass, Spencer and Brophy are just a few of the names from Western's history that are well-known places on campus today. Sherman Hall -- the first academic building at Western, which now serves as the administrative building on campus -- has borne its name since 1956, in honor of Lawrence Y. Sherman, the Illinois politician who proposed the bill for the establishment of the Western Illinois State Normal School.

Since Sherman Hall opened September 23, 1902, the bell tower-topped building's stone-floored hallways have echoed the footsteps of many individuals who are connected to Western. Today, on Sherman Hall's second floor (east wing, south wall), students, faculty, staff and members of the general public can peruse the portraits of the University's past 10 presidents. A tour of the third-floor auditorium in Sherman provides visual history lessons -- the auditorium walls are decorated with four scenes of notable historical episodes in Illinois, painted by artist Herbert Connors of Amboy (IL).**

Through the eponymous buildings and this particular artwork, the history of the institution, as well as some of that of Illinois, is on display for anyone with some free time and the inclination to come and see. But a more hidden historical detail is tucked into a corner of Sherman Hall, as well. The "detail" comes in the form of a janitor's closet situated near the northeast corner on the third floor. The history part of it (aside from the fact that the closet is within the historical building) appears in several signatures -- dating back to as early as 1907 -- of several janitors and building services workers.

Terry Melvin, who has served as a building services worker here since 1988, said he has counted the individuals who have affixed their autographs in this repository reserved for brooms, trash receptacles and cleaning supplies. Melvin -- who earned his bachelor's degree in industrial education at WIU in 1980, grew up in west central Illinois and how lives in Plymouth -- estimates, with duplicates and including his own, there are probably about 110 different individuals who have penned (or penciled or etched) their names in the closet over the years.

"The earliest signature I found is that of 'C. S. Bateson' or 'Creighton S. Bateson,' who, along with his name, signed the year '1907,'" Melvin explained.

According to Melvin, Bateson's signatures, though many of them faded with time, seem to appear in the closet more than any of the others' names signed there. Based on his interest in local history, as well as that 1907 date and number of times Bateson signed the wall, Melvin said he decided to do a bit more checking into Bateson to find out more about him.

"I am sort of an amateur genealogist. I have done some genealogical research into my family, as well as that of my wife's family, and I am interested in local history. I guess that's why I chose to try and find out more about Creighton S. Bateson. His 1907 signature seems to be the earliest date that appears in the closet, and his name or his initials are there more often than any of the others. I didn't know what his name was when I first started. Basically, I was just going by his initials," Melvin explained.

In his searching, which included using sites like Ancestry.com, as well as old government records, Melvin eventually found Bateson's full name (Creighton Springer), his date of birth (August 19, 1874), as well as some other identifying historical familial detail.

"In the census data, starting in 1910, that I reviewed, he listed his occupation as 'janitor' at Western Illinois Normal School. He was married and divorced and lived with this parents for a while after that. He remarried, had a daughter and then adopted a son. He died in 1937, and his occupation was still listed as 'janitor.' He's buried out there in Oakwood Cemetery. If somebody really wanted to, he or she could go over here to the library, go back to the 1937 edition of the Macomb Journal and search for his obituary, and probably could learn more about his family and different things," Melvin noted.

Melvin said that he first became interested in tracing back and learning about his family's history from a book his aunt published in the early 1980s.

"After she published about my family's history, I thought to myself, 'You know, that's just my surname. What about my mother's family and the other branches?' There was just so much more I wanted to know about my family. And then I started doing a little bit of it, and I thought it was interesting, so I thought, 'Well, I do mine and then I'll do my wife's,' and so on," Melvin explained.

Although Melvin noted he has found the popular website Ancestry.com to very helpful in his quest for genealogical information about his own family, as well as that of Bateson's, he explained the ease with which he found some of the information takes "some of the fun out it."

"What probably took her years to do, I could do in a matter of days or weeks, with what's available on the Internet now. Sites like Ancestry.com, they just collect stuff from all over. It really almost makes it too easy. When I first started, I didn't really use sites like Ancestry.com because I didn't want to pay for a subscription. So, I would use their search engine to locate records, and then I would go to other free sites and get the information. I also like going to the library and the courthouse and digging through records," he said.

These days, Melvin keeps a public tree on Ancestry.com and adds his findings to the database. He noted that the site provides a great jumping off point for those interested in looking for information.

"A lot of people post information they find on there, and they keep a family tree. But you do have to be careful and check your sources. That's one of the drawbacks of something like Ancestry.com. People copy information that others have found, but they don't always verify it, so you do find a lot of errors. But it's a great place to start for somebody starting out," he said.

In his search into Bateson, one reference to his time as a janitor as Western appears in the 1912 issue of the "Sequel," the Western yearbook published from 1905-2006. Page 22 of the 1912 issue states: "Many of the comforts we are able to enjoy during our attendance at the W. I. N. S. [Western Illinois Normal School] are due to the thoughtful and faithful service of janitors and engineers. They are: W. N. Felters, head janitor; Creighton Bateson; Joseph McFeeters; W. E. DeCamp***; Fred Smith, engineer; and William Scott, fireman."

The brief note on page 22 supports Melvin's theory as to why Bateson may have signed his name and date multiple times in the Sherman Hall third-floor janitor's closet.

"I think some of them, like Creighton Bateson -- whose signature is there maybe 10 times -- just wanted to be remembered," Melvin said. "They may not have buildings named after them or portraits of them on the walls, but all of the people who have signed their names in that closet have been part of the history of the University."

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*The 1912 edition of the Western Illinois State Normal School "Sequel" can be viewed online at http://collections.carli.illinois.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/wiu_sequel&CISOPTR=23372&REC=17

**Factual detail about Western Illinois State Normal School and Western Illinois University is from "First Century: A Pictorial History of Western Illinois University" by WIU Professor Emeritus John E. Hallwas (Western Illinois University, 1999).

***W. E. DeCamp, listed in the 1912 edition of the "Sequel," was the individual who rang the bell the first day of classes at Western Illinois State Normal School, Sept. 23, 1902. His granddaughter, Lana Myers, a retired WIU employee, rings the family bell at each Founder's Day Celebration (Sept. 23) at Western Illinois University.


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