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Mary Trovillion Musgrave

©Mildred M McCormick

When I was asked to do this biography of Mary Trovillion Musgrave, my first thought was, "This should be Evaís story." Eva Baker Watson is well-known to Springhouse readers and is the niece of Mrs. Musgrave.

Unfortunately Evaís health now makes it impossible for her to create the essays which have brought so much pleasure to her- and to the rest of us- over the years. This then is my effort to portray "Miss Mary" as so many remember her. Most of the material is from Eva, through both written accounts and interviews. I hope I have captured the Aunt Mary the family knew.

The photos are through the courtesy of Helen Suter, niece, in whose parentsí home the aunt spent her last days.

"The gentle mind by gentle deeds is knowne," a line from Spenserís The Faerie Queene, seems an appropriate quotation to apply to the life of Mary Eugenie, third daughter and fourth child of Ferres and Carrie Clanahan Trovillion of Brownfield. The fact that "gentle" in Spenserís day usually meant the noble qualities of an ideal knight in no way renders the description inaccurate.

A bare outline of biographical data of this Pope County woman, born in 1891, is not impressive. She had an eighth-grade education, achieved in a country school. She was the "middle child" in a family of eight, the one who remained at home with mama after the others moved on to larger fields. She never drove an automobile, never traveled far from home, never engaged in battle for social or political causes. Except for a short time when she worked in a bank, she held no job until middle-age and did not marry until she was fifty.

Why, then, should we concern ourselves with a person so unworldly, so unexceptional.

Mary Trovillion Musgrave died in 1975 but there are still many of her admirers who will testify to the enormous influence she had on their lives, and on the community, even though she would never have earned a plaque nor the title of "community leader."

Although she had barely eight years of formal education she was literate and well-informed on a wide range of interests. She was a staunch Republican, a devout Baptist and worked diligently in the church. She taught classes in pencil-sketches to teenagers, among other activities.

Mary taught herself to write (using two fingers on an old Oliver typewriter) and soon published feature articles about life in Southern Illinois in such publications as The Paducah Sun-Democrat (now The Paducah Sun), St. Louis Globe-Democrat, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Evansville Sunday Courier and Press, as well as our local Herald-Enterprise.

Since interviews are an integral part of this kind of writing I wondered how she managed without being able to drive a car. I was told she spent a great deal of time on the telephone and in letter-writing. Her family also was generous in responding to Aunt Maryís, "Wouldnít it be nice to go see____?"

For a short time she was employed by the tiny First Bank of Brownfield, then, approaching middle-age, she was appointed postmaster at Brownfield.

By this time she had become "Miss Mary" to the community. She always seemed to have time to listen, to encourage. When a young friend or relative hesitated to embark on a venture she assured the fledgling with a firm, "Of course, you can do it."

During the ten years Miss Mary was postmaster she walked two miles morning and night to her job from the isolated farm where she grew up. The path was rough but even in winter she stayed in Brownfield only during the worst nights. 

While walking through one of the wooded sections of the trail she was once attacked by a rabid squirrel. The rodent fastened its teeth in her left arm and only by sinking to the ground was she able to roll over the animal and choke it. She suffered the long, painful Pasteur treatment and carried the scars of her ordeal for the rest of her life.

Miss Mary went beyond her duties as postmaster to serve the community. She established a lending library in cooperation with Illinois State Library and stocked a small gift shop which also sold millinery and magazine subscriptions. During this time she also pursued her free-lance journalism.

After ten years there was a change in the political scene. In those days the postmasterís job was awarded through political patronage. When a party was defeated the job was passed to the winning side. Usually the post office was also moved to benefit the winners. Miss Mary was relieved of her position and now devoted full time to her writing career.

Two examples of her work I remember well. The first was an editorial protesting the use of the nationís flag for personal adornment. This work of the 1940s seemed to look ahead to the time, decades later when the issue of misuse of the flag engaged the nationís attention. The work appeared in the Herald-Enterprise and won an award from Radio WILL, Champaign, for excellence in journalism.

This was Miss Maryís special strength. She carried no chip on her shoulder; she used gentle persuasion to make her point. She often used humor, sometimes in verse, as she did when she protested the rise in first-class postage to three cents.

The second article I remember with admiration was the tribute she wrote in June 1943 following the death of Phil A. Craig, the long-time, well-loved editor of the Herald-Enterprise. Her lyric eulogy for Mr. Craig was sensitive, without sentimentality. In it she included a short poem, a passage which could also be used to reflect Miss Maryís life.

"We know he will awake
And smile on us as he did yesterday:
And he will have some gentle word to say,
Some kindly deed to do; for loving thought
Was warp and woof of which his life was wrought.
He is not dead. Such souls forever live
In boundless measure of the love they give."

It was a short time after the end of her postmaster career, at the age of fifty, that Miss Mary became Mrs. J. A. Musgrave, wife of the pastor of McKinley Avenue Baptist Church in Harrisburg, Illinois. They were an extremely devoted couple and Miss Mary had, at last, found the role which she was so eminently qualified to assume. Her years of providing encouragement, sympathy when needed, and selfless service to church and family had found their reward and provided her with a larger scope for her abilities.

Miss Mary fulfilled her obligations as a ministerís wife and assistant to Mr. Musgrave when he became announcer and coordinator of the enormously popular WEBQ "Baptist Hour." When he became ill, after two years, she took over all his duties for the program, traveling daily by taxi to manage the position. After her husbandís death she was appointed officially.

For 25 years she was announcer for the program. She was dedicated, competent, compassionate, but she was not a good speaker. She was not able to transfer the vivacity, the sensitivity, the humor of her writing to her spoken messages. Neither was she able to sing as were most of the Trovillions.

Her speech was clear, cultivated and precise but her voice was monotonous and did not express Miss Maryís joy in her work. Not that she was criticized for this shortcoming- her listeners were so eager to hear what they were tuned in to receive that tone didnít matter. They sat impatiently through church announcements, bulletins, reminders of important dates, waiting on the edges of their chairs to hear "We come now to the death and funeral announcements." In hundreds of homes this list was the high point of the day.

Reception for WEBQ was spotty- not everyone could hear it clearly. My parents were interrupted at breakfast each morning, without fail, by an elderly neighbor whose radio was one of the weak ones. My mother would report on all who died and they would discuss all the detail- services, family, what was likely to follow the sad events. As soon as the "announcements" were concluded most of the radios were clicked off. 

Although Miss Mary was devout she was not narrow-minded. She welcomed the new translations of the Bible but she loved the beauty of the King James version. She was unswerving in her loyalty to the Republican party but she was respectful and tolerant of othersí views. She was a great admirer of John F. Kennedy, Catholic and Democrat that he was, but she was heard to remark, wistfully, that she so wished he had been Baptist.

When she was in her sixties, Miss Mary made her sole major voyage. She and a cousin visited the British Isles, Wales in particular, since it was the origin of the Trovillions. They also visited in Germany where the cousin had family roots. They left by ocean liner and returned by plane so as to experience both types of travel.

Besides her church and political party, Miss Mary worked in the Daughters of the American Revolution and in Home Bureau. She continued to boost the morale of her young relatives and friends as needed. Her real personal outlet was in giving to others. One of her hobbies other than writing, was a beautiful collection of bells which she left to the Saline County Museum.

Miss Maryís health failed during the last five years of her life and she demonstrated the same gentle spirit and faith in others which had dominated her life. She made a few special bequests-her house to a sister and brother-in-law who had helped to care for Mr. Musgrave and later gave help as she needed it. Her desk and typewriter she gave to her niece, Eva, who followed her example in journalism.

She left instructions that the family should gather after her death and choose what they liked from her remaining possessions. In many families such an event would have led from mayhem to murder, and a lawyer in the family was heard to say "This will never work." Such was the influence of Miss Mary, however, that they all behaved as she expected. One of the relatives said all was handled well, each respecting the othersí feelings, just as Aunt Mary knew they would.

So it is for all these reasons that Mary Trovillion Musgrave is worthy of recognition, that her outlet in giving inspired such self-confidence in her family and friends, and we can agree with Eva Baker Watson when she ended one of her sketches with, "Everyone should have an Aunt Mary."

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