Henry Gerecke inducted into The Randolph Society

Henry F. Gerecke

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that the Reverend Henry F. Gerecke, who devoted his life to ministering to the most vulnerable, marginalized, and culpable members of society, is the final honoree of the 2017 class.

Henry Frederick Gerecke was born in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, in 1893. The grandson of German immigrants, his life was centered from the beginning on the local Lutheran church. In 1913, he enrolled at St. John’s Academy and College in Winfield, Kansas, a Lutheran seminary prep school. After graduation, he moved to St. Louis, where he began seminary studies at Concordia and met his wife, Alma Bender. They married in 1919 and had three sons: Henry, Carlton, and Roy.

Gerecke was ordained in January 1926 and began serving as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, located near St. Louis University. After a decade leading the church, he took over the leadership of City Mission, which was devoted to helping the neediest members of society in the midst of the Great Depression. This new ministry took him to hospitals, jails, and workhouses – anywhere that he felt he could help those who needed it most. Gerecke also widened his ministerial net via his own radio program, Moments of Comfort.

When World War II broke out, Gerecke volunteered for the United States Army’s Chaplain Corps. He was assigned to the Ninety-Eighth General Hospital, an army medical unit that moved throughout Europe during the war. In 1945, the army requested Gerecke’s transfer for a special assignment: he was to serve as the Lutheran chaplain for the Nazi war criminals who were about to be tried at Nuremberg.

Gerecke’s faith, his facility with the German language, and his experience ministering to the incarcerated in St. Louis were all factors in his selection for the post. The assignment was perhaps the most frightening and challenging moment of Gerecke’s life. He had visited concentration camps in Germany, and he understood the atrocities the prisoners had committed. Ministering to them throughout the trials and subsequent executions challenged the limits of Gerecke’s understanding of good and evil, of salvation and forgiveness.

When Gerecke’s military service ended, Randolph County became the beneficiary of his ministry. He and Alma moved to Chester, where he served as the assistant pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church; perhaps even more importantly, he also became the chaplain at the Menard Correctional Center and Chester Mental Health Center. He extended his ministry even further, making regular visits to patients at Chester’s hospital and serving as a chaplain to the VFW and the American Legion.

Gerecke died suddenly of a heart attack in Chester in 1961 at the age of 68. His impact on the prisoners at Menard was so profound that they requested a special visitation so they could pay their respects to their late chaplain. The prisoners even raised the funds to install a lighted cross atop St. John’s School. The cross, recently repaired and rededicated, still shines in Chester today as a reminder of Gerecke’s legacy. Eileen Gordon, the secretary at St. John’s during Gerecke’s tenure there, explained that legacy simply: “When someone writes of Pastor Gerecke, they must write of love, because this, indeed, was the essence of the man.”

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Henry Gerecke.

Bill Mullins inducted into The Randolph Society

Bill Mullins (1905-1978)
Bill Mullins (1905-1978)

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that W.E. “Bill” Mullins, founder and president of a local coal mining corporation and pioneer in the field of land reclamation, will be inducted into the 2017 class of honorees.

William Edward Mullins, Jr. was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1905. After his graduation from Westport High School, Bill moved with his parents and two siblings to Lawrence, Kansas, where he attended the University of Kansas. He graduated in 1929 with a master’s degree in civil engineering, and he was quickly recruited by an uncle, T.C. Mullins, to work for a coal company in Indiana.

Bill’s next career move – a job working for a Chicago-based engineering firm – proved to be life-changing. He traveled to Siberia to help develop coal mines with Soviet partners. Bill was shocked by the dangerous mining conditions and the way that the landscape was ravaged by the project. His wife later explained that the experience in Siberia helped Bill develop two important convictions: first, “that he would never put anyone to work in an underground mine,” and second, that “he would never lay waste to the land that gave him its riches.”

On his return to America, Bill worked for a mining company in Henry County, Illinois, where he met his wife, Maria Everett. The two married in 1936 and had a daughter, Mary. The same year, the family moved to Randolph County, where Bill became the founder and president of Southwestern Illinois Coal Corporation. The firm opened two mines in the area: the Streamline mine near Percy and the Captain mine near Cutler. The latter was the largest surface mine east of the Mississippi River.

Bill worked constantly to develop new mining technologies and techniques. The most famous of these innovations was “the Captain,” the enormous electric shovel commissioned for the Captain mine in 1965. At the time of its construction, the shovel was the largest mining shovel in the world – and the largest mobile land machine ever built.

Decades before coal companies were legally required to do so, Bill tirelessly pursued ways to support and reclaim the land that had given so many resources to him. He worked with local university faculty, experimenting with reforestation and agricultural projects on recently-mined ground. Eager to give back to the community that had supported his coal mines, Bill was instrumental in establishing the W.E. Mullins Recreation Area near Percy, which included lakes and ponds, campgrounds, a shooting range, the Southwestern Lakes golf course, and the Scuttle Inn.

After his death in 1978, Bill’s important work in land reclamation was recognized by conservationists. In 1981, he was posthumously given the Eddie Albert Fund Conservation Award; the fund subsequently also created the W.E. Mullins Conservation Award in Bill’s honor. Long after his death, Bill’s “foresight and imagination” have continued to be recognized by those who have hailed him as a “pioneer” and “a truly concerned citizen.”

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Bill Mullins.

Nora Lane inducted into The Randolph Society

Nora Lane in a studio portrait
Nora Lane in a studio portrait

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Nora Lane, an actress who made her mark as a leading lady in Hollywood Westerns, will be inducted into the 2017 class of honorees.

Nora Schilling was born in 1905 in the small settlement of Cora, in the southernmost part of Randolph County. Her parents were from German immigrant families who lived and farmed the fertile land around Chester and Wine Hill. The family later moved to Willisville, where her father worked in the coal mines. After her mother’s early death, thirteen-year-old Nora was responsible for keeping house and watching her younger siblings.

As a young woman, Nora moved to St. Louis, where she worked as a model. During a 1925 trip to California to visit friends, she was convinced to do a Hollywood screen test. She began working as an extra in silent films, and she was soon signed to a contract with Paramount Pictures. As her star rose, she adopted a stage name: Nora Lane. Her early pictures were Westerns with popular cowboy star Fred Thomson. One, a biopic of the outlaw Jesse James, brought Nora extremely positive reviews.

Thomson’s sudden death in 1928 put a slight damper on Nora’s rising star, but she continued to work steadily in Westerns as well as in other film genres. She acted in films directed by the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Frank Capra, and she starred alongside famous figures like Boris Karloff, Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Jimmy Stewart, Mickey Rooney, and even Rin Tin Tin. While some actors struggled with the transition from silent to sound, Nora made the transition to talking pictures easily.

Nora’s career waned at the height of the Great Depression, although she continued to work in supporting roles and short films. A failed marriage to her business manager stalled her film career even further. After their divorce, she found success again as a leading lady in Westerns, especially films in the famous Hopalong Cassidy series.

Nora also found renewed happiness in her personal life, marrying Burdette Henney in 1941 and becoming stepmother to his two children, Tim and Jill. Her final film appearance was in 1944, and she began focusing more on her family life and charitable work. After Burdette’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1948, Nora found that she could not endure and ended her own life. Although her life came to a tragic end, her legacy endures, with more than eighty film credits and a career that spanned a fascinating and tumultuous period in film history. Nora saw a career in entertainment as her destiny; just after signing her first studio contract, she told a reporter, “I didn’t choose pictures for a career — they chose me.”

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Nora Lane.