I knew my great grandfather, Edgar Tharp , primarily from my time spent on the Michigan lakefront. It is in Fennville that he built an enduring legacy of a family in a farmhouse that still stands today. Because he died even before my mother was born there were no active memories to go on, just photographs and stories. But I knew that I needed to travel to Chicago to know Edgar well. I lived in the city when I attended Chicago Theological Seminary from 1983-1986. I knew that the seminary was located in my mother’s home turf but I didn’t think much beyond that. I was young and busily establishing my own professional life and falling in love. So I didn’t think about Edgar when walking in his space. The shortest journey on my Nourishing Roots Sabbatical was a weekend trip to Chicago.
We started with lunch at my sister, Michelle’s, home in Oak Park on Friday. We then kicked off our journey into my great grandfather’s roots by walking from Michelle’s home several blocks to the house where Edgar’s sister, Lillie Hyland, lived: 835 Highland Avenue in Oak Park. Just three quarters of a mile apart, the two homes are separated by four generations and, now, by I-290! So we had to jog east to cross the highway and then reconnect with Highland. The homes in this neighborhood were built in the 1920’s so Lillie may well have been the original owner. It was a cute house in good condition. My sister from Florida, her daughter and two granddaughters had traveled to be a part of this roots tour. So, with some of Michelle’s kids in tow as well, we posed for pictures in front of our long lost Great Great Aunt Lillie. This was the beginning of a weekend of smiling for the camera in front of strangers’ front doors, hoping that home owners would not run out at us with weapons!
We traveled into the Chicago Loop to spend the night. We stayed in The Drake Hotel, which is where my grandparents spent their honeymoon. The grand opening was in 1920 so it would have been THE destination of choice when they wed. It still is a beautiful hotel with old world elegance. With spectacular fresh floral bouquets and gilded fountains, it is a destination place for afternoon tea, a glass of wine or a perfect backdrop for a selfie! Unfortunately, we couldn’t spend too much there because we had work to do! But we savored the setting knowing that our grandparents had treated themselves to the Drake opulence almost 100 years before us.
Saturday morning we drove south on Lakeshore Drive into Hyde Park, my old seminary stomping grounds. I ordered sweet potato pancakes with pecans then set about to determine our itinerary before my hands were sticky. I had a list of ancestral addresses that were divided into south and north Chicago. I didn’t have any particular order to the six southern places so I plugged them all in from where we were sitting, The Medici Restaurant. The furthest distance away was eight minutes. Edgar and his family found this corner of Chicago to be a hospitable home and didn’t stray far from one another. This particular neighborhood is called Kenwood. I had always known it as Hyde Park. Annexed to the city of Chicago in 1889, it became one of the most affluent residential areas in the city. In recent years it received national attention as the home of President Barack Obama. The eastern boundary is delineated by Lake Michigan. It was and is such a desirable setting that it was chosen as the host site for two world fairs. The first was in 1893 when my great grandparents were raising their children in the area. The second one in 1933. Kenwood was an enviable place to live!
We decided to start with Edgar and Stella, our great grandparents’, home at 4343 South Lake Park. We had a sepia-tone photograph with brittle scotch tape holding it together where it had apparently been folded in four. With this in hand we headed north. As we approached the address we found a parking spot and pulled over. The six of us walked a couple of blocks, passing beautiful old homes in varied states of (dis)repair. Fortunately the Tharp homestead is in good shape. It has some changes to the original features of the house but is still very much the same. In the photograph from 1904 a little girl (we assume my grandfather’s sister, Stella, named after her mother) is on the front steps. My great grandmother, “Nana”, is a shadowy figure on the porch. My grandfather told us that his mother delivered all seven children in the upstairs bedroom marked by the window on the left. The doctor lived on the same street, convenient given the unpredictable timing of childbirth! To stand in front of the house where my grandfather spent his childhood was deeply meaningful for us. Three generations of us posed in front of it, again waiting for agitated homeowners to come flying out the door. We were armed with our 1904 photo to assuage them if they did. Two of us—Cheri and I—had recollections of our great grandmother from our early childhood. We could touch back to this home through the memory of her and especially of my grandfather who never lost his love for 4343 Lake Park. Reluctantly we climbed back into the car and plugged in another destination.
Our next address was on the same street, just a bit south: 4932 South Lake Park. We have a letter Nana wrote her daughter, Stella, in 1962. Nana died in 1966 at age 100 so this means she was 96 years old when she penned this tender letter of encouragement. It is a vacant lot now but I imagine it was an apartment complex that offered ample space for an old woman who had so much life in the rearview mirror. She spent her senior years just over one mile south of her family home. That must have given her great comfort, actively remembering walks with babies in strollers, Sunday mornings in church and family meals around their dining room table.
We have preserved a letter from Edgar that placed him at our next destination: 5710 Drexel Avenue. Our best guess is that it was a residence for him before marriage. It is now the campus of the University of Chicago Medical Children’s Hospital. The timing of his presence there remains a mystery but the location underscored our realization that his life played out in a relatively small geographical area. This stretched to a second beloved homestead on another lakeshore in Fennville, Michigan. He and Nana named the Lakeshore Drive home in Michigan after their beloved Illinois neighborhood: Kenwood.
The next address we pulled up on Google maps was 5447 Greenwood Avenue. No longer a residential area, we found ourselves looking at buildings that belong to two seminaries: McCormick Theological Seminary and Lutheran School of Theology. They are part of the Chicago Cluster of Theological Schools.
I was struck as we drove around the streets of Hyde Park on a rainy day that the very place where I was trained to serve as a pastor was home to my ancestors. The faith they nurtured in homes and churches were alongside the chapel where I nervously offered my first sermons (God have mercy!) in a Homiletics Course (sounds boring already) and where Garrett and I got married. My sister took pictures of me standing in the courtyard of what used to be Chicago Theological Seminary before the University of Chicago gave them a relocation offer they couldn’t refuse. In 1985 our classmates, who were poor grad students like us, catered our rehearsal dinner in the seminary cloisters. The chapel, which is the upper part of the building behind me, is now a classroom for the Freidman Institute for Economics of the University of Chicago. Time moves forward and spaces where God’s presence was invoked become settings for sweating an exam on macroeconomics! But, I digress. The Greenwood Avenue address that was so close to CTS was that of Edgar’s oldest daughter, Marguerite, and her husband, George. They lived one and a half miles from her parents. At some point they moved to California and raised their children far from her birth family. I suspect she never felt the same about her home out west as she did in the Kenwood corner of Chicago.
Our final destination in the south Chicago tour was the home my grandparents lived in until my mother was about four: 54 South Blackstone. The street view yielded by google maps showed green space, no house. While meandering in the general area of my seminary, we found the location. It is a corner lot that serves as a fenced-in yard to a neighboring residence. It was difficult to grow too attached to somebody else’s yard that once housed my mom’s family. But we darted out of the car to take another picture in the rain of soil that had once permitted a foundation to support walls and a roof over precious kinfolk.
What we were struck with was the overall proximity of Edgar and Stella Tharp’s family over the course of several generations. Chicago was their small hometown! My grandfather, Edgar and Stella’s son, started his married life in a house just a quarter of a mile from his childhood home. Even with failing memory when he was in his 90’s he remembered with clarity the richness of family and faith he experienced along the shores of Lake Michigan. I was newly impacted that God led me to a seminary and a life’s mate in that same neighborhood called Kenwood. As the preacher in Ecclesiastes proclaimed, “There is nothing new under the sun!”