Sunday, January 3, 2016

“Well, world, what have you for me today?”

Cumberland Street in Marshall, Illinois, circa 1900;
boyhood home of Ignatius Donnelly Taubeneck

Leaving the farm, heading out – in search of education and the rest of the world. During the last decade of the nineteenth century, these departures accelerated among young Americans. The trend concerned President Theodore Roosevelt, who hoped to persuade young men and women to stick with the agricultural life.

In 1908, TR appointed the Country Life Commission, chaired by a brilliant Cornell University botanist with the inimitable name of Liberty Hyde Bailey. Bailey’s report contained three basic recommendations. 

First, make an exhaustive study of “the conditions that surround the business of farming and the people who live in the country.” 

Next, organize and expand agricultural extension work by colleges and universities. 

Finally, initiate a campaign to rebuild country life and spur “rural progress.” These ambitious plans launched the country life movement, which persisted with limited success through the New Deal.

Of course the children of farmers continued to get away. A large number became educators in urban areas, an essential development considering the exponential rise in public school enrollment. Many were fine teachers with interesting stories to tell.

Among them, a man named Ignatius Donnelly Taubeneck taught history and public speaking in Westchester County, N.Y., between 1930 and 1952. He had the habit of grandly opening a newspaper at the start of each class and demanding, “Well, world, what have you for me today?”

Born in 1892 in Clark County, Illinois, a region that contains the most fertile soil in the United States, Taubeneck grew up on a farm. His uncle, Herman, became national chair of the Populist Party and worked closely with a quirky Minnesota politician, Ignatius Donnelly, who made the fateful decision to endorse William Jennings Bryan for president in 1896. 

By throwing in the Populists’ lot with the Democratic Party, Donnelly ensured the demise of the People’s Party, as the Populists also were known.

Ignatius Donnelly served in the U.S. House and Minnesota legislature, as lieutenant governor, and as a state lecturer with the Minnesota Farmers Alliance. He championed the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War and was a brilliant orator. He also wrote futuristic novels.

His namesake, “I.D.” Taubeneck, graduated from Illinois State Normal University in 1917, having participated in oratory, nature study, and theater clubs. For his senior essay, Taubeneck wrote about “Our Social Delinquent.”

Right after graduation, Taubeneck became a high school principal in a nearby town. He requested exemption from the draft, citing “internal strain.” 

But in 1918 he changed his mind, shipping off to France with hundreds of other young men from southern Illinois. He served as a first class private in the machine gun company, 58th Infantry, Fourth Division. “He was on his way to the front, and within the sound of the firing when the armistice was signed,” the Illinois State alumni magazine reported.

Instead of returning home, however, Taubeneck joined the faculty of a university that the American Expeditionary Forces organized during demobilization.

This will surely sound remarkable because nothing like it could happen today.

During World War I, the YMCA led an overseas educational program through which more than 300,000 American officers and soldiers studied French language, European geography and history, and other subjects “to gain an intelligent appreciation of the achievements and ideals of our allies and the great aims for which the allies were fighting.”

After the war, the YMCA handed off the program to the Army, and a special commission oversaw the creation of a campus and curriculum at Beaune, France. Nearly 10,000 soldiers – the sole requirement was a high school degree – attended classes there between March and June, 1919. The faculty of 300 included Taubeneck.

Eventually, he went home to Illinois and taught at his alma mater until a school superintendent in the New York City suburbs hired him as a high school teacher.  

Ignatius Taubeneck, 1920

Among the many things I.D. contributed to the community was his habit of prophecy. He would predict the results of presidential elections and major national and international events. Each prediction would be sealed and placed in a safe deposit box. 

By 1942, when The New Yorker wrote him up in “Talk of the Town,” Taubeneck had aced 57 major predictions and 83 minor ones.

He never bought a house, having grown up amidst farm foreclosures. Nearly every summer, Taubeneck told a reporter, he would travel around the country with his family, “trying to find out what people think, if anything.”

That sounds just about right for today.

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