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A surprise worth whistling for Whistle Stop Library

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[June 10, 2014]  EMDEN - When LaDonna Gass and her family moved to Emden in 1981, she noticed that the community did not have a library, something she valued as an avid reader. She thought about this missing piece of her new community for several years, until the community summer reading program ended in the public schools. Gass knew she had to do something to help her new community. What followed is history.

Gass found a suitable building, the old train depot that was being used for storage, and set to work restoring the building for its new use as Emdenís first public library. The old depot had no electricity and was filled with trash when she first began the transformation.

When the library first opened in 2007, the shelves were filled with four boxes of donated books. Today, the library is filled with books and magazines, and offers summer events for children every Thursday.

For her efforts, LaDonna Gass has been honored with many awards. The mayor of Emden at the time the library project began, Ivan Rademaker, was a backer of LaDonnaís idea. Mayor Rademaker nominated Gass for the prestigious Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, and she was one of only forty-four recipients in 2009 in the State of Illinois. But all of this is well known. This story is how one personís idea touched a community and the surprise that came about because of hard work, vision, and dedication.

In February of 2008, a small article appeared the Pekin newspaper announcing that Earl Gass, LaDonnaís husband, had started a business in his home of copying 8mm home movies to DVDís. The old movie film can grow fragile over the years and disintegrate. Families want to preserve their movie memories, so converting the movies to DVDís is a move that will preserve them forever. An elderly resident of Pekin, Gertrude Schrader, read the article and clipped it. She had a stack of home movies from her life in central Illinois and thought it would be a good idea to transfer them to DVDís. She did not act on her plans until August of that year.

Since she no longer drove, she convinced a friend to drive her to Emden. When they arrived in town, Gertrude, Trudy to her friends, had no idea where Earl Gass lived. Being a resourceful person, she stopped at the Farmerís State Bank to ask for directions. When she inquired about Earlís address, the bank employee gave Trudy and her friend directions to the Gass residence. Ms. Schrader was not quite sure they could follow the directions, so the bank employee said she would take a few minutes off and show them personally where Earl lived. Small town America really does exist where neighbors help one another.

LaDonna picks up the story from here. ďIt was a hot August day and I had the front door of my house open to let a breeze blow through. I happened to look out and saw this elderly lady walking up my front walk carrying two huge shopping bags. She marched right up the front steps of my porch. When I asked her if I could help her, she showed me the two bags of home movies and said she had seen the article about Earl and wanted her movies saved on DVDís.Ē

Recovering from her surprise, LaDonna explained that her husband was not home, but would be happy to call her and discuss the project. Ms. Schrader insisted on leaving her movies, telling LaDonna that she was sure Earl could do the job. LaDonna could not dissuade her, even suggesting that Gertrude keep the movies until Earl called, but to no avail.

Ms. Schrader plopped the two bags on the floor and prepared to leave. LaDonna said ďDonít you want to know how much this project will cost?Ē Gertrude Schraderís response was a classic. She said, ďOh, thatís ok. Iím sure he wouldnít rip off an old lady.Ē

With that, Gertrude and her friend turned and left. To say that LaDonna was surprised at this incident is an understatement.

When Earl got home that evening and heard the story and saw the pile of movies, he was shocked! He had just started his movie conversion business and had not even attempted a project of this magnitude.

The two shopping bags contained reel upon reel of movies. LaDonna and Earl went back and forth on what to do. Earl finally decided to tackle the job.

Converting this many old movies to DVD was not a simple matter. Some of the ancient films broke when Earl tried to play them, then requiring an intricate job of splicing. Earl also had to find a bulb for his old 8mm projector. But through perseverance, a quality that runs deep in the Gass family, the conversion got underway.

It was taking some time, longer than anticipated. One day, the Gass family received a phone call from a woman in California who identified herself as a relative of Gertrude Schrader, and inquiring about how the job was going. It was coming up on October, and Earl replied that he was almost done.

Finally, after three months of almost daily work on the Schrader movies, the job was done. Earl and LaDonna drove the movies and DVDís to Pekin to deliver them personally.

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Gertrude was thrilled with the results. Earl had placed each DVD in an individual jewel case with a photo he had taken from the movies on the cover to help identify the contents. When they played a DVD, Gertrude exclaimed how pleased she was with the results. Earl had done a professional job and his client was happy with it.

Still the question of a fee had not been discussed. Gertrude stepped up and handed Earl three, twenty dollar bills.

A glance between Earl and LaDonna seemed to say, ďOh well, Mrs. Schrader is happy. Thatís enough for us.Ē

Much later, LaDonna said with a laugh, ďI figured the $60 amounted to about a nickel an hour for all of Earlís work.Ē

Just as they stepped to the door, Earl mentioned the Whistle Stop Depot Library and suggested maybe Gertrude would consider making a donation to it. With no response, the Gass couple was on their way back to Emden. LaDonna was not sure it had been a good idea to mention the library. They never heard from Gertrude Schrader again.

Well, thatís not quite accurate. In February of 2014, the phone rang in the Gass home. It was a law firm in Morton inquiring if LaDonna was the contact for the Whistle Stop Depot Library. The law firm said that a client had passed away and left the Whistle Stop a part of an estate. Without identifying the client or amount, the law firm said they would mail the necessary documents for LaDonna to sign.

After hanging up, the guessing game began. Who would have done this, and how much was the bequest, probably just a small amount, surely. Well, she would just have to wait for the mail to bring the paperwork. It arrived a few days later, and when LaDonna opened the envelope, she received the shock of her life. This was truly an OMG moment. Someone LaDonna had never heard of left the Whistle Stop $10,000. ďMy jaw hit the ground,Ē she said. There was a name and address in the documents, but LaDonna was unfamiliar with them.

When Earl got home she showed him the information. He was baffled also. Who was this person? Then a glimmer of a thought came to Earl.

He went back in his records and found the same address in his files for the elderly woman in Pekin he had done the movie-DVD conversion for in 2008. Gertrude Schrader had heard Earlís parting comment about the Whistle Stop donation and taken it to heart.

After returning the legal documents to the lawyers, LaDonnaís curiosity caused her to call the law firm and ask some questions about Gertrude Schrader. She learned that Ms. Schrader was 105 years old when she passed on in 2013. That meant that when she walked up on LaDonnaís porch carrying two shopping bags of heavy movies, she was 99. She had been a resident of the Emden area before moving to an apartment in Pekin, and was known as being an able business woman even into her later years.

Schraderís will had been written in 2000, and had never been changed except in 2008, the year Schrader added the Whistle Stop Library to it. The call from California might have been a niece, as Schrader never had children. She left the bulk of her estate to organizations she supported, including one small library in a small Logan County town.

The gift from Gertrude Schraderís estate arrived at an important moment for the Whistle Stop. The small railroad station turned library needs some extensive repairs to keep it going. An exterior paint job is number one on that list. It also needs volunteers.

When LaDonna found the location of Trudy Schraderís final resting place, she drove there with a big bouquet of flowers and said a prayer for her benefactor.

So, you never know when a kind touch for another person will lead to a pleasant surprise down the road.


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