These posts are presented as a serialization that is best appreciated by starting with the first post HERE. You can then proceed in order by clicking on the HERE links shown in red at the bottom of every post.

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Click HERE to see what the Wisconsin Historical Society has to say about “An American Downton Abbey.” You can also read about our inclusion in the society's 2010 publication, "Wisconsin's Own: Twenty Remarkable Homes," by clicking on the book's cover on the right below.

Jen Zettel's story for Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers generated a huge increase in page views! See what she wrote and follow the links to view clips of the interview HERE.


Sunday, August 11, 2013


As part of CommunityFest, Neenah's Fourth of July celebration, I served as a Neenah Historical Society guide on a walk through the historic neighborhood surrounding Riverside Park. Here we are in front of the home next to ours and in the same year by Henry Sherry. At one time one of Wisconsin's most prominent lumbermen, Sherry went bankrupt in the 1890s, the result of what we would now refer to as a Ponzi scheme. Sherry's son Ed added to the shock by marrying a professional actress and moving to Milwaukee.  His wife, Laura Case Sherry, was the founder of the Little Theater Movement, which is today essentially community theater. She was also something of a writer and poet, being friends with Zona Gale, Carl Sandberg and Amy Lowell (who her husband objected to having in their Milwaukee home because she smoked cigars).

NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post HERE. To refresh your memory of  where we left off in the last post, "You Saw Your Duty," go HERE.

CHAPTER II, Entr'acte

First of all, I must begin with an apology for falling so far behind in my account of events. The month of July began for me with a walking tour of the historic neighborhood surrounding Riverside Park. The next week my wife Patti and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary with about 100 friends, followed by a family gathering in honor of Patti's uncle, who was marking 50 years of religious life as a Capuchin priest. Then five days after that we hosted yet another gathering, this time for donors of the Wisconsin Historical Society's  foundation, many of whom were had seen the house in "Wisconsin's Own" or had been following this blog and were interested in seeing it first hand. Through all of the festivities I was also writing six scripts for the Neenah Historical Society's "Oak Hill Cemetery Walk" in Augutst, struggling to get our three-year roof project finished, arranging to have the barn painted, and getting a leaky cast iron drain pipe replaced in the bathroom. Not exactly the life of a country gentleman. 

I hope, in compensation for the delay, you'll enjoy this more personal entr'acte or intermezzo about the events surrounding the first of our three party.  

It all began this past winter when I sent up a marital trial balloon, suggesting to my wife Patti that we invite our closest friends and neighbors to a party marking 2013 as a watershed year in our lives. It was, after all, going to be our 30th wedding anniversary, my 60th birthday, and the 130th anniversary of my great-grandfather's completion of the house here in Neenah. To my surprise, having poo-pooed similar ideas in the past, Patti bought into the plan. Her only proviso was that it could not to be about us, but rather about thanking our friends for being such an important and continuing part of our lives over all these years. With that understanding we talked about who to invite, what would be served, and what the entertainment there should be. As we both often think fondly of the night we spent in New York City at the Café Carlyle, it was easy imagine someone at the piano in our parlor playing "Isn't It Romantic" as friends drifted out onto the verandah with glasses of champagne. Only who would we get? 

The entertainment for our party was the extraordinarily talented Steve March-Tormé  (right), shown here in the parlor warming up with pianist Mike Kubecki and bassist John Gibson. Before the party Patti's nephews came over and helped us to move most all of the furniture on the first floor up to the second floor.  In the background here you can see the little gold ballroom chairs we rented for the evening. I never in my wildest imagination ever imagining myself saying, as I did in preparing for that night, "You know, a ballroom would be a very useful and practical thing to have."

As it happened, I saw online that Steve March-Tormé, son of the legendary singer Mel Tormé, was scheduled to perform at a free concert at Heid Music in neighboring Appleton. With a couple of mouse clicks I learned that that he had moved from Santa Monica to Appleton some years ago, and then logging on to his website I fired off an email to his booking agent. Much to my surprise Steve got back to me personally, and for the next several days we exchanged a number of friendly emails about his coming to sing at our house as an anniversary surprise for Patti. I also snuck out house under some good pretext to hear him in Appleton. At the music store that night, climbing up onto a makeshift stage, Steve had the audience eating out of his hand well before the pianist and bass player finished warming up. He regaled us all with stories of growing up in Beverly Hills (where he was the neighbor of my television mom, Lucille Ball), and of  his love of baseball, through which he met New York Yankee batter Tony Kubek (who as it turned out is also a resident of Appleton and was sitting right behind me in the audience). Steve then apologized for having a cold and not being entirely in voice - after which he blew us all out of the water with a consummate singing ability unlike anything I had ever heard outside a concert hall or in a studio recording.

As I expected would happen, Patti uncovered my plan several days later, but that didn't matter any more. I was so thrilled by what I had heard that I probably would have told her sooner or later. It also turned out to be even better than the surprise would have been, as Steve let Patti have a hand in selecting what numbers he would sing. For weeks she was able to savor the idea of hearing such favorites as "It Had To Be You" and "Look of Love" performed in the parlor, and these along with songs Steve was anxious to perform, like Paul McCartney's "I Will" and "The Folks Who Live On the Hill" by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hamerstein.  It also turned out to be a particular thrill to go out to his website and see "Private Party - Neenah, Wisconsin" in his touring schedule, with ours followed two days later by a return engagement at the Crazy Coqs cabaret just off London's Picadilly Circus.

Words simply can't express what it's like to have a singer of Steve's talent and ability performing in your own home - so friendly and engaging. My goal was for the evening to be unforgettable, and it was all of that and more. Afterwards one of our friends said to me, "There's no way anyone will ever be able to top this."

The preparations, however, proved to be far from easy. The furniture on much of the first floor had to be hauled to the second to make room for the best approximation we could muster to theater style seating. As for the refreshments, I thought we could prepare most of the food ourselves and took off from work the week before to focus on all the preparations. We decided to serve desserts, but in the process changed directions several times, settling ultimately on things that were no more than two bites and didn't require plates or utensils. Drinks hoped to keep equally simple by focusing on champagne, discovering in the last minute that a nice dry brut turned horribly sour when served with anything sweet. In the process of rather extensive experimentation, we finally settled on a rather modest Korbel red rosé champagne that actually proved to be rather a light and deliciously lingering companion on a sultry summer night. In the end all the details and arrangements were like a wedding - much anticipated in the abstract, a nightmare the planning and execution, but ultimately remembered with much satisfaction.

When it came time for Steve to go on that night, I stood up and welcomed everyone once again, and explained that this was not an anniversary celebration, but a thank you for their years of friendship and support, in good times and in bad. Looking around at everyone in the the library and parlor - at those spilling out into the dining room and hallway - I told them that a neighbor had asked if there was anything she could bring, and I said she could bring over her ballroom (and she really does have one). I then introduced Steve, pointing out that he was by one degree of separation a native son (his father raced cars with Neenah's millionaire playboy Jimmy Kimberly). After that Steve's trio turned the house into our own private Café Carlyle, if only for one gloriously perfect summer night. At the end I stood up again and explained that I had originally planned for Steve's performance to be a surprise for Patti, adding that if he hadn't been available I was going to learn one of Patti's favorite songs and sing it myself - which I really had planned to do. This was in the end the ultimate surprise, for in closing I simply read the beginning lyrics to Cole Porter's "You're the Top" to thank Patti for the 30 happiest years of my life. And when I began, our friend Peggy dared to snap the picture you see below (she knows Patti hates having her picture taken). And this made the entire evening and the eight months of planning, headaches, and expense all worth while. Our wedding pictures I never look at. This one I will keep with me always.

Patti has always hated to have her picture taken, so when I saw this one on the disk of photos our friend Peggy took that night I was ecstatic. It is one of less than a dozen that  I have of Patti in our 30 years of marriage, and I think it is the best.

In the week that followed two very strange incidents also occurred. Although most all the glasses and discarded napkins had been picked up, the next morning I went on a tour of the house to assess what work had to be done to get things put back and ready for the next party coming up the following weekend. Being dead tired and not sure exactly how we were going to handle all the work ahead of us, I stepped into the sitting room, which had been largely stripped of its furnishings, and my head was immediately filled with the words (just as simply as if someone standing there had exclaimed), THAT WAS GREAT! I HAVEN'T HAD SO MUCH FUN IN YEARS!  LET'S DO IT AGAIN! Then later at the end of the day, when the rooms had all been cleaned and vacuumed and the furniture put back, I went into the sitting room to pull down all the shades to close things up. No sooner had I started that then I was struck by a long and emphatic NO! NO! DON'T! NOT YET!

That was just the first incident.

On July 20th we hosted yet another party, sandwiched between ours on the 13th and a gathering for the Wisconsin Historical Society Foundation on the 25th. This middle one marked 50 years of religious life as led by Patti's Uncle Tom, a member of the Capuchin priesthood. It was a supremely happy occasion attended by family members from around the country, including several of Patti's cousins from California. In this picture Sam, his brother Seth and their cousin Armella are making butter mints in the kitchen for the party while Armella's mother Sharon, Patti and I look on. These three kids are among the nicest and most engaging people I've ever met, and their parents have every reason to be proud. I was also reminded of how my great aunts felt whenever family came to visit, filling the house with laughter and activity. I was sad when it came time for them to leave and found myself wishing they all lived much closer.

The second incident came a week later while cleaning my Great Aunt Betty's bedroom in preparation of putting it on display for the Wisconsin Historical Society. In picking up a small pile of rugs that I had set on the floor the previous fall, I looked down where the pile had been and saw that what looked like a flattened bottle cap. In fact it was a Victorian sterling sliver luggage tag engraved "Helen Babcock - Neenah, Wis," something that must have belonged to my Great Aunt Nell but I had never seen in all my 40 years in the house. Now, in all those years we've gotten fairly used to the idea that things can disappear and without explanation reappear days, months and sometimes years later. This was the first time, however, that anything previously unknown and unseen appeared out of no where. From it I got the sense that my Aunt Nell wanted to get my attention in the only way she knew how. And as this appeared in her sister's room, I inferred that as the eldest and titular head of the family, she wanted her room on show as well.

As you might expect, I complied with her wishes, a lesson well learned - something you'll hear more about in the very next installment.

I don't know what more there is I can say about finding this luggage tag, except when I told the 11-year-old children of Patti's cousins about it the following week, they were riveted by the story but refused to hold or even touch it.

CHAPTER II to be continued.