For Adeline Nall an Interview with her Son David

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On August 6, 1906 Anna Adeline Mart was born in Grant County , Indiana in the town of Marion to Nina Shugart and John Mart. She later became known as Adeline Nall, the speech and drama teacher at the Fairmount High School, Fairmount, Indiana who helped inspire James Dean to pursue his dreams and encourage countless others, including cartoonist Jim Davis to do the same. With her passing on November 16, 1996 the world lost one of most inspirational teachers of our time. It is with great pleasure and deep gratitude that I bring you the following in her memory from her son, David Nall.

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Did your mother ever talk much about her parents? What were they like as people?

Actually Mom and I lived with her mother, my Grandmother, Nancy Shugart Mart Mills from the age of 4 in 1937 until she, ultimately, went into a retirement community following her leaving teaching. (I called her “Grand Nina” because she was the “Grand – – what-ever” for the Knights of  Pythias Women’s Auxiliary (to learn more go to www.pythias.org) for the State of Indiana.)

An important part of mom’s early history was the fact that her father, John Mart, was a conductor on the Interurban, a passenger train that went from one small city to another in Indiana. Tragically, he was killed. I believe, at the age of 29 when attempting to get a drunken passenger off the train. This was when Mom was still a teenager. Grand Nina, who inherited the farm, re-married Edward Mills, Mom’s Step-father. She, however, was Adeline Mart. Grandpa Ed was hospitalized in the early ‘40s I believe, and I never saw him again.(I believe there was a serious mental problem.)

Mom and Dad divorced, in ’37 and she and I traveled by train to Marion and we moved in with Grand Nina.  At that time, in addition to Grand Nina and Grandpa Ed, there was a second  gentleman, Bill Hunter,  that lived there. I really don’t know why but he was there until his death, probably in the late ‘30s. Thus, as you can see, it was just the three of us until I left for collage. As you might suspect, this being during the depression, we were quite poor. The farm was only 36 acres so there really wasn’t very much income that came from it, Interestingly enough, I never thought that we were, actually, “poor”. I suspect that was because we were able to grow most of the vegetables that we ate.

Mom, originally, got a job as a reporter at the Marion Chronicle Tribune where she did quite well but her real love was teaching. Although I believe she taught, briefly, at a grade school in Marion she ultimately became a member of the teaching staff at Fairmount HS.

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Did she ever tell you much about her childhood? What was she like as a child? 

I really don’t know too much about her childhood, however, I know that she was a very bright student and extremely active in high school. She was Winner of the County Declamatory Contest ’21-’22, President Dramatic Club ’24,Year Book Staff ’24, HS School Chorus ’23-’24, Latin Club, in the Senior Play, Ukulele Club ’23. She was, also known as “The Most Popular Girl in School!” Unfortunately I don’t have anything about her collage activities, however, she did have a Masters Degree in, I assume, Speech.

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What was her life like during the time you came along? How did she come to find herself in Chicago? What led her back to Indiana?

My parents both graduated from Marion High School at the same time.  Dad’s name was Darl Otto Nall. I’m not sure when they were married and/or where both went to college but they ended up in Chicago where I was born in ’33.  It may have been because Dad graduated, I think, from the Univ. of Chicago and found work as a Social Worker for the Chicago Commons, a “Settlement  House” where we lived.  Mother got a job as a school teacher.  Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the marriage didn’t work out.

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Adeline & David Nall

What was she like as a mother?

My Mother was, literally, the most wonderful mother this world has ever known! Period! She was desperately concerned about my growing up without a “Father Figure” in my life! Living on a farm there were no men constantly around on a daily basis. (Grandpa Ed was, frankly, of NO help in that area!) Mom even re-married in hopes of “finding” a father for me. The marriage was a disaster and lasted a very short time.

Mom learned about the Cub and Boy Scouts of America organizations and quickly, at her urgency, I became a member. Why is this so important, you may ask? Well, remember, we lived on a farm which was at least 8 miles, away, from where my Cub Pack and later Boy Scout Troop met weekly. Yet, every week, 52 times a year, until I was able to drive, my Mother drove me to the weekly meetings, dropped me off and then, did something – – I have no idea what – -for the next 2 to 3 hours until the meeting was over at which time she picked me up and we drove another 8 miles back out to the farm so that I could have the “influence” of a male Cub Master and Boy Scout Leader. This is just one example.

Here is another. In High School I “tried out” and – – almost immediately – – was eliminated from the basketball team.  However, my Coach, realizing my disappointment, asked (I didn’t know the first part of this until much later) Mom and then me, if I would like a position as a “Student Manager” (This is the guy who, goes to every game – at home or away – hands out water and towels to the team during practice and the game and washes the uniforms, “jock straps” towels, et al)  She, apparently, was absolutely delighted (I learned after graduation) and thanked Coach Weaver very much for offering me the position!  The result was that, after her daily job of teaching she had to stick around school every night while the team practiced and/or played a game – in Fairmount or away – every night !  Unbelievable!  These are but two of the dozens of examples of her amazing role as both Mother and “Father”.  As I have said many times, My Mother and Wabash Collage are the two reasons of my success in life as an adult!

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What was it like growing up at the farmhouse? Can you tell us a little about that?

Well, lonely I guess!  Although I had a number of friends in Church and School, the nearest one lived about a mile and a half away from our farm.  I would see my “Best Friend” (to this day) only Sundays at Church. However, early in my life, I began to work on the farm driving tractors and trucks (I learned to drive at the age of 7) so was quite active physically.

Since both Mom and Grand Nina were members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union – WCTU (Grand Nina was Indiana State President at the time for a couple of years) I was strongly encouraged by Mom to begin entering the numerous teenager WCTU sponsored local and state public speaking contests and I, as the result with Mom’s brilliant speech training, was able to win a number of times during my time on the farm – again Mom driving me to ALL.

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What would you say is the most important thing you learned from her?

Honesty — Integrity — Hard Work — Study Hard — Never Give Up — and all the other vital things that one learns from a Good Mother.  However, I think the most important thing that she taught me, and this began at an early age when I began to speak at the WMCA Loyal Temperance League (LTL) competitions, was the “Art” if you will, of Public Speaking.  There are many elements to that which is why I use the term “Art”  First, I remember her telling me that whenever I was talking to, literally, more than one person, I should always remember that I was speaking to an “audience.”  This encompasses speaking clearly with inflection, correct and precise enunciation, proper gestures when applicable, et al.  This was even more emphasized when I was a member of her class in High School.  I remember her taking me into to the auditorium and pointing to the last seat in the very last row at the back right side.  “That, David is your most important listener!” she said.  “Make sure that he or she can hear every word you say with or without a mike!”  She also emphasized the use of gestures and facial expressions.  It was much more than simply telling a crowd something.  It was, truly, an art and required a LOT of practice, practice, practice. She was an excellent teacher!  As mentioned above, I credit her, and the head of the Speech Dept. at Wabash College, with any success that I have had during my  Career!

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What led her to pursue a career as a teacher?

While I don’t know for sure, I suspect it was something that she always wanted to do. Although, as mentioned above she, briefly, worked as a reporter in Marion at the news paper, I believe her first job in Chicago was teaching.  Mom was quite intelligent and she had a distinct desire to provide information to others to assist them in their life.  As you may know, not only did she teach Speech and Drama, – – Yes, the Director of a play is ‘teaching” the actors various ideas and concepts so that they can use the “teaching” to portray the character they are playing – –  she also taught French, and Spanish.  During the summers at our farm, when immigrant Mexicans were working in our fields I remember her going to their camp sites in the evenings to spend time with them perfecting her Spanish – – every evening for a couple of hours!  (As an aside  she, Dr Brigance, my speech Prof at Wabash, and a third Prof. from Indiana Univ. I believe, were selected by the State of Indiana Educational Department to design the Speech Curriculum for all Indiana High Schools.)

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What qualities did she possess that made her so good at that?

As mentioned above, intelligence and a great desire to inform and provide “talent” and her ability to work with teenagers.

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You once told me you and James Dean got the chance to play “money changers” in the Easter Pageant over in Marion. What do you remember about that most clearly? Adeline was also often a part of those. What was it about those that she enjoyed most do you think?

You received a picture of Mom in her Easter Pageant costume in the packet I sent.  This was an annual event in Marion, IN when I was growing up.  I remember that it was presented at the very large Marion Gymnasium with a cast and chorus of, I believe, 300 to 400 folks from many churches around town.  Because of her acting ability and her beauty (she was quite attractive) she was cast many times in the role of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  The show covered the entire basket ball floor which had a stage at one end where specific scenes – – The Last Supper – -A Temple etc – -., were set.  Every year, Grand Nina, Mom and I were in the show.  During HS Mom suggested that Jim sign up to be one of the members of the cast and we were both selected to portray “Money Changers”. As you know in the Bible the Money Changers were not all that honest in their work and Jesus “Cast them out of the Temple” Jim and I portrayed two of those that were chased out by him..

I think you are aware of Mom’s heavy involvement in the Marion community theater activity.  She both starred in and directed a great number of shows during her entire life – both before and after the short time she went to New York at Jim’s urging.  The Easter Pageant was just another theatrical activity in which she participated.  Theater was her Great Love!

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She seems to have inspired countless people from an early age on to pursue their dreams. What were her thoughts on that?

My Mother had a great talent with the “Art Of inspiration.”  She seemed to be able to identify individuals with almost hidden talents but who were not quite sure how, exactly, to develop those talents into a career, or a life experience, et al.  Once she noticed that element in a person, with a little probing, she seemed to be able to, gently, but firmly, nudge them along the right path.  At my age now, I can’t give you specifics but I can well remember her spending times over the dinner table when she spoke of this or that individual and what she was going to do to “push them along” the following day…

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What was it like during the time James Dean convinced her to go to New York to pursue her own? Was she nervous about the whole thing?

Unfortunately, I can’t give you much help on this since I was away at Wabash Collage from 1951 to 1955 and, during the summer, I was employed at our Boy Scout camp as their Program Director.  However, I really don’t think that she was “nervous” about going.  I do know that he was extremely influential in getting her to go and introduced her to his Agent and many other  contacts there.  As you may know, Jim had a brief but STRONG short career in NYC.  He was in plays on Broadway. He stared in The Immoralist and appeared on T.V before he went to Hollywood.  As such, his untimely death really hit her hard and she just lost interest in it.  However, as I may have mentioned, when I asked her why she returned she told me that she came to realize that she was a much better Director then she was an actress. As you know she was immediately rehired by Fairmount HS.

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What was she like on stage performing?

I did see Mom in a few of the many local productions she was in and directed, however it has been so long ago that I can’t remember any of their names. Having said that, however, I can remember that she was simply spectacular and received many, many accolades for both her performance and her directing talents. As mentioned in previous questions, Mom was very attractive in her younger years and did a great deal of acting from High School on.

How did she react to learning of Dean’s death? Was that a particularly hard time for her do you think? How did his passing affect you at the time?

When Jim was killed I was in the Army either in Basic Training or in MD or San Francisco, CA.  I simply don’t know what her reaction to Jim’s death was when she first learned of it.  She must have been in New York and I would suspect, as mentioned, that it hit her very hard.  I do think that (as I believe I mentioned) it may have really taken the heart out of her activities in New York and probably did cause her, at least partly, to return home.  As far as how did it affect me … quite frankly, while I was shocked and sorry to hear it, I was, obviously unable to attend the funeral because of the military, et al. Actually, I had the same feeling that I would have had if ANY of my High School buddies had suddenly been killed in  an automobile accident.

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Was she excited when she became a grandmother?

As you might expect, being a remarkable Mother she was, equally, a fantastic Grandmother as well. Unfortunately, since my wife(s) and I never lived near Marion (We lived in Chicago, California and Hartford, CT.) she was not really “around” if you will. Nevertheless, she never missed a birthday or Christmas with a card and/or a phone call, and we did spend a great deal of time visiting both she and Grand Nina down at the farm where she was with them constantly. They each, in turn, dearly loved their Grandmother.

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Martin Sheen visiting Adeline.

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What would you say is the best advice she ever gave you?

As I mentioned previously above, her advice was to live a Christian life, and live according to the “Law” of the Boy Scouts of America, “Be Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent!”

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What was her personal approach to aging? What do you think we could all learn on aging gracefully from her?

This is an interesting question. As you know, once I graduated from collage I really left home. So individual “statements” weren’t available. However, looking back on her life I feel that she was “in control” very much of the entire period of her life from birth to her death at the age of 90 in 1996. I was with her at her death … well almost. I had arrived in Marion and was with her for quite a while that afternoon but had gone over to my motel room when I got a call that she had passed. Fortunately, we were able to spend quite a bit of “quality time” together earlier. She never lost one bit of her mental capacity to the very end. Although there were, obvious, physical difficulties, she had visitors, almost every day of retirement from Dean fans and other friends from, literally, everywhere. It was amazing! She spent time with each one of them! Young , old, it didn’t matter. She was pleasant, talkative, kind and gentle with never a word of “I’m busy now.” She was truly, an unbelievable and lovely person to the very end. While she, obviously, knew she was aging, it had NO effect on her approach to people.  I knew, and saw this throughout her entire life.  Hopefully, I am continuing down that same path!

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What were her personal thoughts on death and dying and what hopefully comes after?

Mom was a devout Christian! I’m sure that she spoke with her Father in Heaven every day of her life! Because of this she had absolutely no fear of dying and knew, without question that it was just another phase of Eternal Life … whether that started immediately or after the second Resurrection of Christ.

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What do you miss about her the most?

Her warmth, constant Motherly love, incredible ongoing training and teaching abilities long after her “formal teaching” was over and her wonderful and outspoken pride in my lifetime accomplishments.

What do you think she would have thought about how she is remembered today?

I think she would be very, very (and TOTALLY justified in being)… Proud.

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