Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

How Old-Time Square Dancing Shaped My Father’s Life—Happy 92nd birthday, Pop!

On his 92nd birthday, in his own words, my father Erwin A. Thompson, tells the power of dancing and music in his life...There'll be one coming up tomorrow night for his birthday party if you want to come by.--JGR

Violin close-up
Great-aunt Mim's Amati violin

My life before I discovered square dancing

I was born in Schuyler County, Illinois November 9, 1915. My parents had been Methodist missionaries in Korea for six and a half years, and had returned to the united States when World War I began. The Methodist board refused to send them back because of the uncertainty and danger involved with the world conditions.

Re-adjusting to life in the "real world" was very difficult. Their financial situation was in total confusion. Living conditions were not the best. When I was nine months old I had double pneumonia and was the same size I was at birth. The doctor suggested that my father send
me down to my mother's three maiden sisters who still lived on the home place with their father, and let me die down there. My mother was not in good health either.

The plan was accepted by all, except the prediction that I die. One of the three "girls" (middle aged, but somehow they were always referred to as: "The Riehl Girls") had just returned from a visit to the relatives in the northwest where she had suffered a nervous breakdown along with some serious physical trouble. She was assigned to taking care of me. This was a farm home, with plenty of work needed to keep things going. She often said in later years that we had learned to walk, together. The good news was that we both recovered.

Plans were made several times for me to return to the family home, but each time something happened to delay the move. I was raised by the three aunts, ably assisted by my grandfather who died when I was ten. In the meantime, one of these three middle-aged "girls" found a husband whom she got acquainted with through an advertisement for Rhode Island Red roosters that he had placed in the Prairie Farmer magazine.

Uncle George Gibbens had a lot to do with my growing up. One of the typical things that he did was to teach me the song: "Bill Grogan's Goat," which I have treasured through the years, and taught to my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Pop laughing while singing
Pop, singing at a square-dance

I graduated from the Alton High School, but I never felt that I fit there. National Honor Society, silver alpha for grade average above 90. I also was one of the founders of the Creative Writing Club there in the school. It survived for many years, and put out a
little magazine with the offerings of its members. My social life was rather bleak.

I discovered square dancing

The most interesting social event was that the Farm Bureau had a community meeting each month, of the members of our township. In the winter time they rented a local hall and had a dance. I was about sixteen when I started going to these functions, and they were a great thrill to me. Girls my own age were in short supply, but there were older women who were glad to help me learn. In particular, Blanche Lock was also unmarried, of the same generation of my aunts who raised me. She went to these dances, and I think she taught every male youngster in the neighborhood how to waltz. I particularly liked the square dances, as they fit my urge to enter into group activity, which except for my 4 H club contacts had been
almost nothing.

I had trouble with the allemande left, as almost every beginner does. Everybody was always patient with me, laughing with me instead of at me. One time Butch Hoffman (built like Paul Bunyan's ox) just picked me up and set me down going in the proper direction.

(More stories and photos tomorrow, promise!--

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4 Responses »

  1. Janet, the brush clearing and square dance pieces are just fine! Good job getting them up on your blog for all the world to see how active and alive your father is. Tell him happy 92 for me.

    Cindy Bellinger, author--and the world's only Journal Whisperer
    "Journaling for Women: Write, Doodle, Scribble! and Meet Yourself Up Close"

  2. I learned something new everytime you write Grandpa! Even if I think I know the story . . . In this case I found out I didn't know much about your high school achievements or social barriers. I certainly enjoyed squaredancing with you when I was growing up. It was special to hear you call the dance and light up when teaching others and seeing us have fun. Happy birthday!

  3. These are wonderful entries, Janet! Please wish your dad a happy birthday from me. I broke out laughing at one point when I read about the forest and the plains and the area between being "the edge." I live where what's referred to as the Cross Timbers rolls into the northern extension of the Hill County. I've always suspected, and now I'm sure, that I'm "living on the edge." 🙂

  4. Janet,

    Please wish your dad Happy Birthday from me, too! And thanks for collaborating with him to give us a picture of the world through his eyes.
    It's a joy to get to know you both!
    Susan J. Tweit, writing from the community of the land, the home of our hearts and spirits

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