Gilbert and Emma Holmes inducted into The Randolph Society

Gilbert and Emma Holmes

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Gilbert Holmes and Emma Penny Holmes, educators who shaped the lives of countless local children, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.

Gilbert Holmes, the son of a minister who had been born a slave, was born in Du Quoin in 1898. After the deaths of his parents, Gilbert worked as a laborer in an ice factory to help support his grandmother and brother, but by the late 1920s, he had enrolled at Southern Illinois Normal University (now SIUC). Gilbert studied to become a teacher and began his career in Coulterville’s public schools. In 1933, he was hired to teach at the Vernon School in Sparta. Staffed by black teachers and administrators, the school was opened in 1912 as part of an effort by Sparta’s African-American community to foster a positive educational environment for the town’s black children.

The same year that the Vernon School was opened, Emma Ophelia Penny was born in Sparta. The youngest of a large family, Emma was the daughter of a coal miner. She was educated in Sparta, and in 1930 she started studies at Southern Illinois Normal University. Both Gilbert and Emma demonstrated a talent for leadership at the university. Each served as president of the Dunbar Society, an organization founded in 1925 “in order to create a support network and provide entertainment opportunities” for African-American students at the university. Emma, who was a talented singer and musician, was also an active member of the Roland Hayes Club, a choral society for black students.

Gilbert and Emma married in Sparta in 1934. As their family expanded to include three children, Gilbert, John, and Beverly, both Gilbert and Emma also continued to be devoted to education. Emma began teaching at the Vernon School in 1936, alongside Gilbert, who became the school’s principal. They both worked at the school until Sparta closed the building in 1963 in an effort to fully integrate the district. After the school was shuttered, Gilbert chose to take on a new challenge, working as a counselor at SIU, but Emma continued teaching in the Sparta district until her retirement. Over her 30-year career, she taught in several district buildings, including the Vernon School, the Lincoln School, and Sparta Township School.

Gilbert and Emma worked tirelessly to establish and support professional networks that would improve the opportunities for local educators, often breaking barriers in the process. In 1957, Gilbert became the first African-American president of the Randolph County Educational Association. Emma served as president of the Beta Delta chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, a society that promoting the professional growth of women in education. Throughout their lives, Gilbert and Emma especially championed their fellow black educators, keenly aware of the difference that they could make to their communities by challenging students to reach their potential.

Gilbert and Emma’s love for music also formed a central part of their educational lives. Gilbert played the violin and directed church choirs, while Emma gave piano lessons, taught music classes, and directed school choral groups. In 1971, she became a founding committee member of the Sparta Community Chorus.

Both Gilbert and Emma lived long, full lives, and after their deaths, the citizens of Sparta paid tribute to the educators by dedicating the Gilbert Holmes Community Park and establishing the Gilbert and Emma Holmes Scholarship Fund. Sparta is also completing a park on the site of the former Vernon School, which will once again be a place where the musical voices of Sparta’s children, the greatest legacy of the Holmes family, will be heard as they learn, play, and grow.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Gilbert and Emma Holmes.

Charles Cole and Alice Cole inducted into The Randolph Society

Charles Briggs Cole and Alice Emily Cole

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Charles Briggs Cole and Alice Emily Cole, local philanthropists whose gifts helped shape the lives of the citizens of Chester, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.

Charles Briggs Cole was born in Chester in 1845. He was the son and grandson of the founders of the local Cole Mill, which used the excellent agricultural crops produced in Randolph County to make several brands of commercial flour. After earning a degree in manufacturing from Harvard University in 1867, Charles returned to Chester to join the family’s business. Under the direction of Charles and his brothers, the H.C. Cole Milling Company became a dynamic, innovative part of Chester’s growing economy.

The Coles built modern infrastructure and acquired new, state-of-the-art technology to improve the firm, including one of the area’s first electric generators. Charles also became a major figure in the local railroad industry, serving as president and general manager of the Wabash, Chester & Western Railroad, which stretched across Randolph County. As a founding director of state and national milling associations, he provided resources to other members of his trade. His leadership also extended into public service, including a term as a member of the Illinois state legislature and a lengthy tenure on Chester’s school board.

In 1869, Charles married Laura Layman, a graduate of Almira College in Greenville. They had four children before her death in 1878. (Charles remarried in 1882; he and his second wife completed the family with a daughter.) Charles and Laura’s eldest daughter, Alice Emily Cole, was born in Chester in 1872; she would go on to become an important companion to her father in his philanthropic efforts. Like her father, Alice received an excellent education, attending the Lasell Seminary for Young Women in Massachusetts.

Near the end of his life, the love of learning that Charles shared with Alice inspired him to make a generous gift to the people of his hometown. In 1927, he financed the construction of a new, modern public library for the town. The Chester Herald-Tribune lauded the gift, declaring that a “city is fortunate indeed, which numbers among its citizens, a man who has a vision to build for the future that which will not pay dividends in dollars and cents, but in education, culture and progress.” The new library was scheduled to open in March 1928, but Charles died of a heart attack before the planned dedication ceremony. Instead, the first public event held in the new building was his funeral service. The library building celebrates its 90th birthday in 2018.

After her father’s death, Alice continued her father’s legacy of philanthropy, helping to complete the family’s library gift. Five years later, she made a major gift of her own, presenting more than 50 acres of land to the city of Chester. The new Cole Memorial Park was dedicated in 1936, and it has become an important part of the lives of the area’s people in the decades since, providing them with a place to play, exercise, and celebrate. Alice remained invested in the park project throughout her life, even serving on the municipal park board. She died in November 1962.

Decades after Charles Briggs Cole and Alice Emily Cole shared their riches with the citizens of Chester, the people of Randolph County continue to benefit from their generosity. For the Coles, charitable giving was a cornerstone of their family business. A profile of Cole relatives in Alton summed up the family’s philosophy nicely: “privilege carries responsibility, and philanthropy is its own reward.” Charles and Alice lived these ideals by kindly sharing their own prosperity, giving the people of Randolph County the opportunity to enjoy successes of their own.


Click here to read a more detailed biography of Charles Cole and Alice Cole.

James Thompson inducted into The Randolph Society

James and Margaret Thompson

Honoring the celebration of the Illinois Bicentennial, the Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that James Thompson, judge, educator, and pioneering surveyor, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.

James Thompson was born in South Carolina in 1789. He arrived in Randolph County, Illinois, with his brother, Samuel, in 1814. The brothers settled in Kaskaskia, where James worked as a teacher for three years. In 1817, he and his wife, Margaret, settled on a farm in Preston, near the center of the county, where they raised twelve children.

James’s reputation as a reliable, responsible citizen – and as a capable surveyor – quickly led him to a career of public service. In 1820, he was named as a county commissioner, and during his year in that office he enumerated the federal and state censuses for Randolph County. The next year, he began working for the United States Surveying Service, a role he held for more than two decades. He served several terms as a county surveyor; he was also the county’s probate judge from 1831 until 1848, and in 1832, he served as a captain during the Black Hawk War.

Precise, accurate surveying became one of James’s most recognized skills. He surveyed and platted important early county roads, including one linking Kaskaskia and Vandalia, the state’s first and second capitals. He helped establish an official boundary between Randolph and Monroe Counties, and he surveyed and platted numerous local towns, including Chester, Sparta, Steeleville, and Rockwood. One historian noted that “whenever the name of James Thompson is mentioned, the idea of surveying is suggested. His foot has probably made its impress upon every section of land in Randolph County.”

James’s most famous surveying work, however, was done in the summer of 1830. He was hired by the Illinois and Michigan Canal Commission to survey towns at either end of their proposed canal, which was to stretch from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River. After completing a plat map of the town of Ottawa, James and his crew traveled to Fort Dearborn on the shores of Lake Michigan. On August 4, 1830, he completed the very first plat map of the city of Chicago. He named several of the new streets of Chicago after counties in Southern Illinois, including Jefferson, Washington, Madison, and Clinton Streets. And, of course, Randolph Street was named for Randolph County, Illinois.

At the time, there were only 32 registered voters living in the area around present-day Chicago. After the plat was completed, James left Chicago, which was still merely “Lake Michigan howling on one side and prairie wolves on the other,” to return to Randolph County. He turned down the canal commission’s compensation offer of several acres of property in the newly-platted town, preferring instead to take $300 for his work.

When James died in 1872, newspapers in Chicago recognized him as one of the city’s founders in their obituaries. Half a century after his burial in the Preston Cemetery, the people of Chicago installed a new monument at his gravesite. The marker was a fitting tribute, honoring the person that the Chicago Tribune once called an “unquestionable and identifiable founder” of the city of Chicago. The city still celebrates the date on James’s completed plat as an important anniversary. The grave marker, however, has since fallen into disrepair, and a restoration project would be an appropriate memorial to a person who helped create and connect Illinois’s communities. But his greatest monuments are undoubtedly the communities themselves. As one Chicago reporter put it, “James Thompson has another monument, a really spectacular one. If you wish to see it, stand anywhere along the main branch of the Chicago River, and look about you.”

Click here to read a more detailed biography of James Thompson.

Elzie Segar inducted into The Randolph Society

Elzie Segar and his children

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Elzie Segar, the pioneering cartoonist who created Popeye, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester in 1894. He was the youngest son of Amzi Segar, a local house painter. His early jobs included work at Chester’s Opera House, where he played drums to accompany silent films, ran the movie projector, and drew cartoon slides to play between reels. Early encouragement from the theater’s owner, Bill Schuchert, helped him complete a correspondence course in cartooning.

Elzie’s earliest professional work came in Chicago, where he worked for two newspapers in the midst of World War I. One of his unusual early assignments involved drawing comic-style highlights of the games during the infamous 1919 World Series. His work gained the attention of King Features Syndicates, a company producing and syndicating comic content to papers all over the country. He and his wife, Myrtle, moved to New York, where he developed his most famous comic strip, Thimble Theatre, for the company. Several of the characters in the strip, including Olive Oyl and Wimpy, were inspired by residents of Chester.

As Elzie’s cartooning career continued to flourish, he and his young family moved to California, settling in Santa Monica. In 1929, an unexpected inspiration took his comic strip to new heights of popularity. While developing a new storyline for Thimble Theatre, he dreamed up a sailor character based on a Chester man, Rocky Feigle. The supporting character, Popeye, soon became one of the most popular parts of the comic strip, and readers clamored for more. Popeye was soon the leading character of the strip, and Olive Oyl was his new sweetheart. The success of Popeye meant increased syndication for Thimble Theatre, and even in the middle of the Depression, Elzie became a wealthy man.

Unfortunately, less than a decade after dreaming up his most famous creation, Elzie died in California after a lengthy illness. He was only 43 years old. Popeye and the rest of the Thimble Theatre gang have lived on through the work of other cartoonists, and new Popeye strips are still being published every Sunday. Popeye and his friends have been featured in numerous television shows, films, games, and marketing campaigns. Memorials to Elzie’s work are found all over the country, but nowhere is he celebrated more than in his native Chester. The town’s annual Popeye Parade is a local fixture, and tourists can now also visit the Popeye & Friends Character Trail, a series of character statues placed near various Chester businesses and landmarks.

It’s particularly appropriate that Elzie’s characters remain his greatest legacy. For Elzie, Popeye and his friends were beloved companions, as real as any of the people in his life. One obituary notes that Elzie “lived with his characters, and talked about them as he would about any near acquaintance. He insisted that he could not manipulate his characters, but ‘just let them do what they wanted to do.'” The life that he breathed into those madcap creations, generated simply by paper, pencil, and the power of the artistic mind, continues to provide joy and laughter to countless people both around the world and in his hometown today.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Elzie Segar.