Monday, December 08, 2008
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Personality of the Week

Wally Kautz: Mount Pulaski is his home and its people are his family

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[December 08, 2008]  MOUNT PULASKI -- At 70-plus years of age, Wally Kautz has lived through portions of our nation's history that today's youth will only read about in their textbooks. As a young man in the Navy, he traveled to foreign countries and made friendships that have spanned the decades, even to today. He has seen the passing of both his parents and admits that biologically he has very few family members left. But watch the man as he talks about his community. The joy in his face and the pride in his voice will soon let you know that Mount Pulaski is his home, and its people are his family.

Wally was born in Mount Pulaski. His father, a World War I veteran who suffered serious injuries at war, worked in the late 1930s and early '40s at Myers Brothers clothing store as a clerk, then at the gas station as a pump truck driver. When Wally was 5, the family moved to a farm at Lake Fork, where Wally lived until 1966.

CivicThe bombing of Pearl Harbor is a day that Wally says he will always remember, even though he was only 7 years of age. His uncle, who had just reached the draft age, was outside with Wally, keeping him entertained. It was a warm, sunny afternoon, and they were having a good time, Wally says, when his parents came outside and told them about the bombing.

Wally also recalls VE day in Mount Pulaski. He said there was a spontaneous parade around the square with folks celebrating. The fire trucks were pulled out and driven around, the church bells were all ringing, and the fire whistles were being set off at the station.

He reminisces that things young people today just seem to think have always been here, he saw them come into being. He recalls the advent of the atomic bomb, the invention of television, all the way down the line to computers and cell phones.

After graduating from Mount Pulaski High School, where he was active in music and worked in the school library, Wally joined the Navy.

In the Navy he traveled to Germany, Sweden, the Mediterranean, spent Christmas in Cannes and in the second year was on board a ship in South America. He recalls that of all those places, Sweden was the place he liked best. He said it was the cleanest place he's ever been to.

Repair

Israel and Egypt were at war with one another at that point in time. Wally recalls that on one occasion: "It was the middle of the night and the officer of the deck saw flashes of light off to one side, and he thought it was lightning. Then he saw flashes of light off to the other side, and soon realized that we were sitting between two ships who were firing at each other over our ship."

After the Navy, Wally returned to the family farm and remained there with his parents.

Wally recalls quite clearly where he was the day that President Kennedy was shot. He was at the Christian Church in Mount Pulaski.

Volunteering his time even then, he recalls that they were electrifying the console of the church organ. One person working on the organ was a man who had brought his family to America from one of the Eastern Block countries.

Wally had gone home for lunch, heard the news and told the folks at the church about it when he returned there. He recalls the man saying in astonishment: "You mean here, in the United States of America, this can happen."

By 1966 his mother's health was failing, his father had passed away four years earlier, and she became concerned about living in the country. She wanted to move back to Mount Pulaski, nearer to family and friends, and she didn't want the responsibility of the farm, so she sold it.

Wally laughs and says, "She sold the farm, then said to me, 'Now, what are YOU going to do?"

His concern for his mother's health and the desire to be there for her brought him back to Mount Pulaski, where be became a city letter carrier. Wally stayed with the post office until his retirement in 1992.

Until the summer of '92, state employees managed the Mount Pulaski Courthouse as a state historical site. In June of that year, budget constraints forced the state to close the site. The mayor and community of Mount Pulaski wanted the site reopened and reached an agreement with the state that the town would buy back the property for $1. The state would maintain the building, and the community would provide volunteers to keep it open.

Wally had retired in October of that year, and it was the first of December when all the agreements were finalized and the courthouse became a community project. He says, "Someone asked me if I wanted to get involved, and I thought, Why not? And here I still am 16 years later!"

Wally is now the site director of the courthouse and is responsible for keeping the building open and in good working order. One of the most important things that have to be done, he says, is climate control. With furniture and documents that are 150-plus years old, humidity and temperature are important to their preservation.

Pharmacy

There are 14 volunteers for the site -- not nearly enough, Wally says -- but it is difficult to get folks to volunteer when they have to work for a living, so the volunteers are primarily retired people like him.

Wally says he personally spends about three days a week there, but sometimes it's more, as occasions arise that other volunteers are not able to come in when scheduled.

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Tim Guinan with the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency oversees Lincoln's New Salem, Postville Courthouse and Mount Pulaski Courthouse. Guinan stated in a recent e-mail: "Wally continues to be a very reliable and hardworking volunteer for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and the Mount Pulaski Courthouse. (His) dedication and commitment to the site visitors provides visitors from all over the country an opportunity to tour the courthouse."

When asked about the people he's met while working in the courthouse, Wally said that perhaps the most memorable moment was when Sen. Dick Durbin came in. He explained that it is a proven fact that the courtroom upstairs has its original flooring. Wally said that Durbin was in awe as he bent down and placed his hands flat on the floor, saying that today he had touched a spot where the great president stood.

In addition to his work at the courthouse, Wally has been a volunteer at the Mount Pulaski Township Historical Museum, he's assistant treasurer at the Christian Church in Mount Pulaski, and a trustee for the Mount Pulaski Library.

Sue Stewart, who serves on the board of the Mount Pulaski Museum and is a member of the same church as Wally, says she's known him since childhood. "I was raised in rural Lake Fork, and Wally and his parents lived in the farm behind our timber. Therefore we have been friends since my birth," she said.

"Wally doesn't say no when people ask him to help," she added. "He sells soda, popcorn, 50/50 tickets or any other money-making project that comes up. He loves the Mount Pulaski community and works to make sure history is preserved for the next generation. He also works hard in the Mount Pulaski Christian Church. He has been a member of the museum for many years. If someone in the Mount Pulaski community deserves to be noted, it would be Wally Kautz."

Wally says he enjoys a morning routine that includes a trek around the square visiting with friends. He starts at the post office, checking for courthouse mail, then drops in at the dentist's office to say hello to folks there. Moving on, he visits the bank and the hardware store and usually ends up at the antique store, where he enjoys a cup of coffee with the owner. He says that everyone knows about when he's going to be stopping by, and if he's a few minutes late in his schedule, they tease him about oversleeping.

Misc

On a more serious note, though, Wally says that while he has very little family, he has lots of good friends and neighbors, all of whom showed their love and concern for him when he became ill a while back. He said that even a longtime friend who lived in Maryland came all the way to Illinois to help out.

Wally adds that he is blessed and privileged to be a part of the community and to have so many friends in his life. He goes on to say that he knows there are people who don't have what he has. He doesn't understand how they get through life when they have no one to care about, and no one to care about them.

There are many people in Mount Pulaski who have wonderful things to say about Wally, but his friend and the presiding president of the Mount Pulaski Museum, Jane DeWitt, perhaps offered the best summary of all when she said: "(He) is the head coordinator for the courthouse, and we are truly blessed to have him. He is perfect for the job, being born and raised in Mount Pulaski area. Wally shows such enthusiasm with his knowledge of the town history, Abraham Lincoln and our courthouse. He works tirelessly with the volunteers and the daily upkeep of this historical site."

She added: "With all the budget cuts with the state (and shame on them for giving Mount Pulaski the short end of the stick!) Wally at times pays for things himself. He is admired and adored by many for being such a 'gentleman' and a 'gentle man. (He's) quiet, with a sometimes wonderful sense of humor."

When asked how he would describe his own life, Wally smiles and says, "Wonderful." After a short pause, he adds, "I have no regrets."

[By NILA SMITH]

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