KEOHANE

More than six decades ago, a group of Shimer College students orchestrated a successful write-in campaign for Shimer professor Robert E. Keohane, pictured in his office, to be elected as police magistrate in the city of Mount Carroll, a position that had not been filled for nearly 20 years.

By JOHN KEOHANE

keohane@prodigy.net

It was the Spring of 1957. I was a student at Shimer College, and 17 years old. My father, Robert E. Keohane, chaired social studies at Shimer. Mother taught high school civics in Morrison. My younger brother, with a first name, Robert, but a different middle name, was "Rocky”.

We lived at 728 E. Washington St. Our house was red brick, built in the 1850s by Nathaniel Halderman, a founder of Mount Carroll. The Weissmillers lived next door. Bob was a lawyer. David was not yet born. At that point, Bob and Jane had two young daughters.

It was a beautiful Spring day. The sun poured into our living room. While reading the Mirror-Democrat, I noticed that city elections would be the next month, and that there wasn't a single candidate for police magistrate. I thought: "What is a 'police magistrate'"? No personal computers back then. No internet. I figured Bob Weissmiller was the one to ask.

Police magistrates don't exist anymore, but they did back then. It was a low level judge, dealing with little things like speeding, or running a stop sign. There was no salary, the income from the job depended upon finding people guilty. If found guilty, the defendant could be charged court "costs" and/or a fine. Fines went to the city, but the judge pocketed court costs. No court costs existed if the person charged was judged innocent. Seventeen was too young, but anyone who was a registered voter could serve.

The city of Mount Carroll didn't have a police magistrate, but didn't need one. Mount Carroll straddles two townships, and a township could have a justice of the peace. The police took almost everything to Lee Gifford, the JP. Rumor was that Mount Carroll had last had a police magistrate when one of the Hartmans went off to World War II.

City elections allowed write-in candidates, and sometimes, before an election, a few guys might get together and say, let's write in "Joe" or "Bill" so "Joe" or "Bill" would duly get elected, but then as sure as there are hills in Mount Carroll, the newly elected would immediately resign.

Too young to serve, I could organize a campaign, if I could find a candidate. I didn't just want a candidate. I wanted a candidate who would serve if elected. But who?

Not Bob Weissmiller. Bad public relations for his law practice, and besides he needed real work to support a growing family. There were students at Shimer, but many of those were under age, almost all were away for the summers. There were fewer than 20 on the Shimer faculty, and many of those stayed only a few years, and/or left for the summers.

My list quickly shrunk to three. Mr. Ball taught physical education, Mr. Hensel, music, and then there was Dad. I don't recall whether I asked Ball or Hensel first, but each said "No". Accepting the danger of a teenaged boy giving his father more control of his life, I went with Dad. He said he'd serve if elected, but would not campaign. I phoned Mr. Thomas Watson at the Mirror-Democrat to tell of our campaign. He phoned us to check with Dad. Dad wouldn't come to the phone. He saw doing so as campaigning. No article.

Election campaign begins

We needed publicity. I enlisted Rocky to help. I purchased poster board and tempera paint and we composed a pitch: "When you vote Tuesday, write in the name of Robert E. Keohane for police magistrate. He's not yellow (splotch of yellow paint). He's true blue (splotch of blue paint)." I used thumbtacks to post on the court house square.

For door to door literature, Rocky and I used a Cub Printer. It was a child's model of a printing press. Each letter was pulled in by tweezers, into a metal track. Each track was about the length of the width on a 3x5 card. The printer itself was two rubber wheels, and a crank for rotating them. Each end of the track, fit into one of the rubber wheels, so that when the handled was turned, the wheel rotated. For each additional line, a new track and more use of the tweezers. The letters themselves were rubber, each the size of what would have been a rectangular eraser on a pencil. Capital letters only. I wrote the message and Rocky operated the printer:

“When you vote Tuesday, write in the name of Robert E. Keohane for Police Magistrate. Responsible. Honest. Church Deacon. On Boy Scout Board.”

With the Cub printer it was hard to get each line of type squarely between the wheels, so our lines were a bit slanted. Not really a professional job, but good enough. Rocky and I gave those cards to neighbors. I talked up our campaign at Shimer.

George Reed Murray suggested a torchlight parade. George had a flair for the dramatic. He came by it honestly. His father was a columnist for an afternoon newspaper in Chicago, Chicago's American, which relied on breaking news and newsstand sales.

We needed torches. Dick Bezjian knew how to make them. I'd need to supply the materials, tree limbs and wire coat hangers we had already. I bought gunnysacks and kerosene. Rocky and I made a banner, an old sheet, strung between two bamboo poles saying "Robert E. Keohane for Police Magistrate." I phoned the city for permission for our parade.

Murray wanted to ride a horse, John Dragonetti wanted a bass drum. I referred Dragonetti to Mr. Fred Hubbell, band director at Mount Carroll high. I told George to try the Schauts. Someone thought we should have a campaign song. I said, "Good idea. Write it."

First case — ‘Not guilty’

That Friday night, Shimer had a "Gymkana," which ended shortly before 10. George was there on a horse, Dragonetti had a bass drum, an assistant resident head of Hathaway hall, had the fire bell so he could be a town crier. Mac, my friend from high school, had borrowed his Dad's pickup truck from Plum River Farm. We trucked torches and banner over to the gym, so that when the gym cleared out, we'd be ready.

Meanwhile, Rocky, George, Dragonetti and I practiced our song: "Mr. Keohane is our man. We'll elect him if we can. But there is no time to waste, so let's elect him with all haste. 'Bounce with Bobby' is our theme, with our help he'll make the team….”

Shimer students streamed out of the gym. We recruited on the fly. Then with torches, song, George on a horse, John Dragonetti playing a bass drum, John Cotton ringing the bell, Mac driving the truck, a couple students holding the banner, and me running around everything, we walked, shouted, and sang our way to the courthouse square. We had everything except our candidate.

You'll remember, Dad had said he wouldn't campaign. I said, "Let's go to his house." We made our way. It didn't take much for me to persuade Dad to come out and greet and speak to the students. He hadn't seen our parade, but our parade had come to him.

On election day, Mount Carroll counted 87 write-in votes. For months, our new police magistrate did not get any business. Things changed after Oct. 4. On Oct. 4, 1957, the first satellite was rocketed into space. Our rivals, the Soviet Union, did it, and called it Sputnik. It didn't hold any astronaut, but it did carry a dog.

That dog led to a conversation between the new mayor and his uncle at the Edwards pub. Talking about dogs, someone said, "I wouldn't have a dog in this town. You'd have to buy a license." Whereas someone else said, "You wouldn't have to buy a license in Mount Carroll. Only fools buy licenses."

At that point, the record is a bit hazy, but a fistfight broke out, the mayor on one side, his uncle on the other. The uncle's glasses were broken. He filed assault and battery charges against the nephew. The mayor responded with a disturbing the peace charge against his uncle. Because these were criminal charges, they got their attorneys free, the city attorney to defend the mayor and the state’s attorney for the uncle. Of course both cases went to Justice of the Peace Lee Gifford.

I don't know why it was, but the mayor asked for a change of venue to Dad. Civil charges are easier to prove than criminal, because civil charges only need a "preponderance of evidence" whereas criminal charges demand "beyond a reasonable doubt”. This was a judge only case. No jury. Dad spoke about those levels of proof, and judged "not guilty."

After that, city business went to Dad. When police pulled me over for speeding, officer Fredericks said I should drive and follow him. After we'd both parked, I walked to the front door, took out my key and unlocked the door. I think Dad might have found me guilty, but an embarrassed officer Fredericks dropped charges.

copyright October 14, 2021, by John Keohane — keohane@prodigy.net