One of the not-so-joyous perks of entering Illinois College (IC) in 1967 was the requirement that all students attend a certain number of chapel services. This, of course, greatly increased the size of the chaplain’s congregation, but he was nearly always faced with a less-than-attentive audience. Most of us used the hour on Wednesday mornings to spread our textbooks out in the pews and catch up on some homework. Although I’m a bit ashamed now of my lack of attention to chapel services, I still doubt the sticking power of compulsory faith.
However, one icon is planted solidly in my memory of those forced chapel days … the water fountain. If you enter Rammelkamp Chapel’s front doors and take the right aisle, you’ll see a white, porcelain water fountain. It didn’t work in 1967, or ‘68 or ‘69 or ‘70, and when we held baccalaureate services there for our 1971 commencement, our mothers and fathers got mighty thirsty because it still didn’t work and it was the only source of water on the main floor of the chapel.
But here’s where the story gets weird. Okay, back in the sixties, IC had a college president who’d never spend a nickel on anything trivial like water … I was once walking behind him and I swear I heard him squeak, but a few weeks ago I was handing out programs at Rammelkamp and saw the old water fountain. Just for fun, I went over to finally get a drink … after all, I’d been waiting for four decades. It wasn’t working. The thing was in good shape and still gleamed its brilliant white, but why shouldn’t it if it hadn’t been used in the last 46 years? Was it really possible that the students of Illinois College had been flipping that stainless steel handle with no results for nearly fifty years? I wondered if a dry water fountain might be an apt metaphor for compulsory chapel.
I left the concert that night and headed out to Morton Avenue for a late night supper, passing by the old state hospital. I’m old enough to remember when the Jacksonville Developmental Center was lit up brightly at night, from a huge kitchen on the north side of the campus to the dormitories on the facility’s southern border. Then, in later years, this beautiful park in the center of our town would host scores of theatrical productions in the Sophie Leschin building and the large-scale productions would find cars parked all the way out to Morton Avenue. But on this particular night, the place resembled a modern day Dodge City – with sandwich wrappers instead of tumbleweeds blowing down its empty streets. No one can quite put the finger on the reason for its closing, but new treatment methods, a state in financial crisis and a Democrat governor unhappy with Morgan County’s age-old reputation for voting Republican is each a culprit. Meanwhile, prime real estate at the heart of our city has become a playground for vandals and no doubt a headache for the police department. It was like a water fountain that nobody would fix.
My night was fast becoming an excursion into the ‘Land of Who Cares?’
Of course, this attitude is rare in Jacksonville. A leisurely cruise down State Street or College Avenue, a walk across the MacMurray or IC campuses, or a jaunt around our town square will tell you that we care deeply about history and cherish both the architecture and the meaning of our heritage. Amid all the restored stonework and refurbished mansions, we still have those things that don’t work any longer but we keep them hanging around. I had a distant cousin like that. He quit working at about age 35 but we kept him around, I guess as a conversation piece or out of a lack of knowing what the heck to do with him.
And we’re still adding cool new things. Take a drive by Turner Jr. High or whatever they’re calling it this week … by-golly gorgeous – and before the summer’s spent, our beloved Morton Avenue will be as smooth as a baby’s asphalt. Add to that the handful of brave entrepreneurs who continue to take their chances opening new businesses in Jacksonville, plus new homes still being built and the new little city that seems to be springing up south of town along the interstate, and you have a town that still knows how to grow.
So pardon me if I continue to gripe about one or two things that need fixing. Maybe we could turn the old state hospital grounds into a water park so the kids at Rammelkamp would have a place to get a drink.