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6 1. Common Ground in Small Towns A Lifelong Love Affair with Vienna Throughout Paul Powell’s career in Illinois politics, reporters made specialtripstoViennatograspthelocalflavoraboutPowellandsize up the home ground of a powerful man. One such scribe, Chris Vlahoplus , a writer working in Springfield, made his journey to deep southern Illinois in 1961.1 He wrote articles for United Press International, one centered in Vienna, one in Harrisburg, and one in Springfield. Vlahoplus called the town a hamlet, the region the “Bible belt,” and Powell’s house a “tiny kingdom by the square.” Vlahoplus recounted basic biographical information and watched Powell greet local people who wanted to talk and ask for a job before he headed back to the state capital. He described Powell as bearing a “striking resemblance to movie actor Wallace Beery.” Oversimplified perhaps, but typical of press characterizations of Powell in his prime, and likely dismissed by the subject. ThattreatmentbyVlahoplus—wholaterbecameapressspokesmanfor Governor Otto Kerner—is one of the reasons why Powell’s friends and enemiesinViennarushedtohisdefense .Theyresentedoutsiderscomingbyto passquickjudgmentforaudiencesoutsidesouthernIllinois,harmlessornot. A chip on the shoulders of many Vienna residents was apparent when I visited the town in February 1998. A highlight was my meeting with residentsandconversationswiththePowellfaithful,whowantedtomake thecaseforPowellwithoutdwellingonoutsiderswhodemeanedthetown Common Ground in Small Towns 7 aswellasitsresident.Theyseemeddeterminedtoprovideacounterstory to what they considered the shortcomings of articles based on little understanding of people in southern Illinois. These resentments had a long history, not all of them related to Powell. Fromhisearliestage—hewasborninViennaonJanuary21,1902— Paul Taylor Powell was known by almost everyone in Vienna. The town had a population of about 1,200. His father had a high profile as a drugstore owner and operator. The family lived in a large Victorian house a half block from the town square. While the Powells did not reach the status of wealthy and powerful, they had a strong presence in Vienna’s upper middle class.ManyyearsafterPaul’sdeathin1970,townsfolkwho gatheredaroundatableatthePowellhouserememberedhimalmostfrom infancy. For them, Paul’s life was well lived.2 The Powell home—referred to as the Thomas Powell home—sits north of the town square. Given the proximity to the square, the Powell family’s business ventures were close at hand. Paul Powell had money from his estate set aside in trust to keep the home available for public visitation,muchlikeonewouldexpecttofindforgovernorsorpresidents. While that arrangement remains in the present day, funds have diminished due to investment challenges.3 You can tell much about a person from the personal space in a home. The Powell house is a memorial to the man, a museum, open to the public and managed by the local historical society. Powell had two personal spaces on the first floor of the two-story Victorian building. One was a small office near the front door. Speculating about what might have been is a favorite pastime of visitors to houses of great men (or women). Office files probably once held many personal documents that were confiscated by the Internal Revenue Service after his death in 1970, leaving behind scrapbooks from his secretary of state days and copies of his obituaries.4 One can imagine him sitting behind the desk. Powell spent most of his time in an addition to the original house that might be called a family room. However, that description does not fit the image of Powell, who had two wives and no children. It was a man-cave before modern culture coined the term. This room held mementos and gifts presented to Powell over the many years of his public service. Other itemsincludedoverstuffedchairs,books,personalphotographsonawall, 8 Common Ground in Small Towns fancy(empty)liquorbottles,andtelevisionsets.Onepersonremembered seeingPowellinhislaironaSaturdayafternoonwiththreedifferentfootball games playing on TV sets and Powell, always the politician, talking on his telephone.5 Telephone, of course, because in his day that was the primary method of communicating beyond a face-to-face conversation. HereiswherePowellconductedbusiness,entertainedguests,andgreeted old friends living in Vienna. The rest of the house was laid out in a traditional manner, with living room, sitting room, and kitchen downstairs, and three bedrooms and a bath upstairs. TheViennasquare,likethatfoundinoldercommunitiesofsouthernIllinois ,oncethrivedasthetown’scommercialcenter.By1998commercial development was scattered on the outskirts of the town, and the square had suffered as a result. Dominating the square with center position was the courthouse and government offices for Johnson County. Thomas Powell, whose Illinois roots reached back into the late 1800s, owned a drugstore for many years on the northeast corner of the square, and the building still stood. At one time a restaurant managed and operated by Paul had been in the same building. Neighbors remembered several locations where...


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