If you’re a current subscriber, log in below. If you would like to subscribe, please click the subscribe tab above.
Username and Password Help
Written by Wilma Williams in the mid 1980s
Special to the
Shelby County Herald
About the turn of the century, a family with eight pretty girls and two boys moved from the Kentucky Bluegrass region into the Mark Twain area of northern Missouri. The father set up a grocery store in the small town of Shelbyville.
After graduation from high school, the second to the eldest daughter chose to teach at a rural school six miles from town. Anna Cary Robertson, named after a famous poet, took her turn at the Christian Church piano, as did all the girls in turn. She also played for the weekly singing school. The professor was already engaged to the pianist at another of his singing schools, but he persuaded his younger brother, Roscoe McMaster, to come along and meet Anna C. By this time, she had a devoted boyfriend, but this younger brother with the shiny buggy and high-stepping horses quickly won her heart. His father was a Civil War veteran from the First New York Regiment, having been wounded at Harper’s Ferry and taken prisoner. Now his son, a staunch Republican farmer, was a willing prisoner of a staunchly Democratic family from Kentucky.
Anna C. had saved enough money in two years of teaching to buy a new Kimball piano, and Roscoe had saved enough for a honeymoon to Niagara Falls, and so they were happily married.
Three girls, of which Wilma was the eldest, arrived within the next eight years. However, when Wilma Eileen was 12, her sister Roberta Jean 10 and the youngest Reva Jeanette only six, Anna C. died of tuberculosis. The family lived in Las Animas, Colorado for a year to be near the hospital where she was treated, but it was to no avail.
The family moved back to the farm in Missouri and Roscoe gave the girls the choice of having a housekeeper or keeping the house themselves. Their mother had trained them well during her last summer, so they chose to keep house themselves and were soon holding family reunions or feeding steam-engine threshing crews of 25 men.
Willing aunts and neighbors were always on call for any emergencies. Their home became a haven for any girlfriends who needed to attend school or church activities, for Papa was never too tired to take them the two miles to town and even sleep in the car if it was a kid’s affair.
Starting in eighth grade, if the weather and roads were good, Wilma was trusted to drive. She was the willing designated driver to various outings, including church and Campfire Girls’ camping trips. Music was an important part of the girls’ lives. Each took piano lessons and Wilma played the violin in the orchestra. Roberta played the trombone in the band, which performed in town on the bandstand that their father had helped to build.
The girls were quite active in school. Wilma was a senior class president and graduated as valedictorian of her class. She went on to attend Christian College in Columbia, a two-year private school for girls.
At 19 she started teaching elementary music and accompanying for the high school music in Callao. Her first public appearance was in a street parade, wearing a baggy suit and directing a youthful rhythm band. She was, by no stretch of the imagination, the typical flirt of the 30s but in a baggy clown suit, one is not truly one’s real self.
So, when the town beaux passed the parade in a Ford touring car with the top down and several of his friends on the fenders and waving to all, her eyes met those of the most handsome man she had ever seen. He also had a most winsom smile and her heart skipped a beat, stopped, and then raced like mad, undoubtedly increasing the tempo of the rhythm band.
At the fair that evening, he was properly introduced and she found out that he was from Jefferson City, a railroad detective on the Missouri Pacific, and home for a vacation. A traveling stage director from Kansas was staging a home-talent musical, and Larry had been asked to be chief soloist. As the accompanist, Wilma found it imperative that she have a ride each night for the three blocks in a strange town and Larry was happy to oblige.
Two weeks passed all too quickly and, except for an occasional letter and gift, she would have thought it all a dream.
From there she went to St. Louis to teach music, finishing her degree during summers in Columbia at Mizzou, because no one gave up a job during the Depression to finish a degree during the winter.
In June after Pearl Harbor, Larry went into the Air Force, trained at Colorado Springs and was on his way to the African invasion by December as part of Elliott Roosevelt’s 12th Reconaissance Squadron. Transported by sea, his ship was sabotaged and after one day out, all the motors were dead and the ship left floundering in a storm with no lights, heat, cooking or communication.
Because it was located in a dangerous submarine lane, the rest of the convoy had to go on, with his ship not even being allowed to send messages back to the port. Three days later, a Coast Guard plane located them and sent a tug. A second start from Camp Kilmer in New Jersey got them across in time for the invasion of Africa and for the chase across the desert for General Rommel, the Desert Fox, then to Malta and Sicily, always with Berlin as the goal. During his time in Africa, Elliot Roosevelt gave Larry the privilege of naming the plane in which he flew and it became the Wilma Jean.
After being discharged in September, Larry went to work in St. Louis and Wilma and he were married on Thanksgiving Day. A year and a half later, Wilma retired from teaching and spent two years traveling with Larry in the investment business, northeast Missouri being his territory and their families’ homes. Heading back into crowded St. Louis each weekend got tiresome and so an office was established in Shelbyville and a home built on Wilma’s family acreage. It was in sight of Roberta’s house and close enough that in later years her three nieces could walk or ride their bikes over for frequent visits.
In 1947, shortly after moving to their new location, the school superintendent C.J. Kessler came to ask her to fill a sudden vacancy in band and vocal music. After his third trip out, she agreed to take the position until he found someone else, surely only a month or so. She remained 12 years, teaching all music to grades one through 12 including high school band and chorus.
In addition, she started 22 Tot-Twirlers, grades one to three, who marched with the band and she was co-organizer of the Mark Twain Band Festival, which included many schools in the northeast Missouri area and continues to be active today.
During those 12 years there were Saturday night band concerts in the park, Band Benefit box or chili suppers, grade school and high school operettas, Christmas programs, Easter cantatas, spring music contest, a May Day Fete for eightH grade graduation and music for Baccalaureate and senior graduation.
Wilma became a member of Chapter M, P.E.O. on April 12, 1951 at the home of Agnes Douglas and Gladys Kessler and Gladys Fox were initiated with her.
In the spring of 1959, Larry, with cancer, was undergoing deep throat x-ray in Columbia. Wilma resigned from teaching, and they decided to spend winters in Arizona, partially for Wilma’s sinus condition and migraine headaches. In checking desirable locations from Tucson to Phoenix, they came through Casa Grande where the junior high needed a music teacher. After a 10-minute interview, Wilma was no longer retired and was scheduled to meet 900 children twice a week for vocal music.
Two happy winters were spent there but at the end of the second year, they returned to Missouri to please Larry, who was homesick for Missouri.
This time it was Shelbina that needed a high school vocal teacher, and so Wilma went back into the high school routine for two years. Seeing Larry in failing health, she once again resigned and expected to stay at home but school board friends of Larry’s insisted she take a second grade with music part time in Shelbyville.
Larry slipped away November 20, 1963, two days before the assassination of John Kennedy, and those second grades became like family to her and have remained very special.
At the end of the year, she was offered a teaching contract to return to Casa Grande and was offered a home by a friend there. She returned to Arizona and taught junior high music until her retirement in 1975.
During her 35 years there, she also served as a Sunday School teacher, choir director and until 1998 was the church organist. She was active in the American Legion Auxiliary where she served as state president and in 1974, was one of the organizers of Chapter BP, P.E.O. in Case Grande.
Editor’s Note: Wilma returned to Shelbyville to be near Roberta and her family in 1998. She entered Salt River Nursing Home in the spring of 1999 and served as president of the Resident’s Council and conducted a weekly chapel fellowship. She passed away on March 7, 2010 having celebrated her 100th birthday the previous October.
She had said that the path her life had taken seemed to have been set for her without much decision-making on her part. She always had faith that the future would be guided and in the words of Sara Teasdale, truly “Life has loveliness to sell.”