Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Annie Louise Keller Memorial
Annie Louise Keller Memorial
Location: Whiteside Park, White Hall, Illinois
Dedication: August 25, 1929
Medium: Pink Marble
GPS Coordinates: N 39° 26.157 W 090° 24.204
Annie Louise Keller, the daughter of Philip F. Keller and Nora Russell Keller, was born near Walkerville, Illinois, on October 31, 1901. When she was still a teenager, her father died, and the rest of the family moved to White Hall. Annie’s friends described her as a conscientious but fun-loving girl who never missed a day of school. Annie also had a dark side and sometimes worried that people didn’t like her. She wrote poetry, and one of her works proved to be eerily prophetic:
“And some day when you are weary
And your friends seem rather few,
What you did to help another
Someone will do the same for you.”
Annie once drove a team of horses through an overflowing creek to get to church on time. She was almost killed at an early age when she and her mother were walking in a field and lightning struck a barbed wire fence that Annie was lifting. Annie graduated from White Hall High School in 1920, taught one year at Diamond, two years at North Lincoln, and three years at Centerville School.
On April 19, 1927, Annie Louise Keller was teaching in the small Centerville School when a large tornado passed through Greene County. Three students had gone home for lunch, but eighteen others were eating in the one-room school. Suddenly the tornado hit the school grounds, and a small shed next to the school was blown away. Annie told the students to get under their desks immediately. The tornado struck at 12:18 p.m., and most of the upper part of the school was destroyed. Flying debris killed Annie instantly. Howard Hobson, Annie’s fiancé, was the first person to enter the school after the tornado’s devastation. He found that a few of the students were injured, but none had died. Seven other people in Greene County were killed by the tornado. Annie’s funeral was held on April 24, 1927, and her body was placed in the family plot in the Russell Cemetery north of Eldred. The following passage from John 15:13 was inscribed on her headstone: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend.”
Members of the community quickly mobilized to recognize Keller for her courage. The Illinois General Assembly passed a resolution to honor Annie and observed a moment of silence. A fundraising committee collected donations from supporters and admirers from all around the country. Lorado Taft was commissioned to design a bronze sculpture to honor Keller’s heroism. School children from all over Illinois donated pennies to pay for the monument, and Taft donated his time. Taft chose pink marble instead of bronze even though the marble was more expensive. Greatly impressed with Keller’s bravery, Taft explained his choice of pink marble: “The effect would be more beautiful than could be obtained through a dark spot of bronze attached to another material. I generally use bronze, but I have a feeling that in this case we have an opportunity for a more ideal and poetic treatment. I am deeply interested in it and do not care if the carving costs me more.” Mary Keller, sister of Annie Louise, traveled twice to Taft’s Midway Studio in Chicago to pose for the sculpture. In his artistic creation, Taft depicted Keller as a teacher with her hair bobbed flapper-style. She holds a small boy and a small girl close to her chest as she envisions a storm approaching. Several schoolbooks dangle from the hand of the small boy. The names of all twenty-one students are carved on one side of the four-sided monument.
Three thousand people from Central Illinois, including all but one of Keller’s students, attended the unveiling and dedication of the Annie Louise Keller Memorial in White Hall on August 25, 1929. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Francis G. Blair presided. Five community leaders delivered speeches including Fannie Merwin, former head of the state teachers organization; V.Y. Dallman, editor-in-chief of the Illinois State Register in Springfield; Attorney Thomas D. Masters from Springfield; State Senater A.S. Cuthbertson from Bunker Hill; and Lorado Taft, the sculptor from Chicago. Given an ovation when he was introduced, Taft said: “I saw here in the heroism of Miss Annie Keller an opportunity to do something in honor of a more or less obscure woman who gave her life without one thought of herself. The value of preserving that ideal appealed to me. The vision I had is set up in the stone there. There is no more beautiful story that that told in the life and death of Miss Keller. I rejoice in my profession that makes possible this memorial to her if it becomes an inspiration to others and perpetuates her sweet memory.”
Superintendent Blair said: “Annie Louise Keller not only by her heroic act but by her daily walk and conversation, by her daily contacts with the pupils in her school, built for herself a spiritual monument. Here all of the children who sat in the schoolroom that fateful day are present, save one. They come to bear their heart-felt tribute to their beloved teacher. Annie Louise Keller had nothing to do in shaping the concrete foundation of this monument. Her hands did not fashion this beautiful shaft. It was not her genius that carved these fine forms and faces. The temple that she has built is in the hearts of these children who encircle this memorial of their teacher. That temple will not corrode, will not crumble, and will not fall.”
Centerville School was rebuilt in 1927 using thirteen-inch thick walls and steel beams. A storm cellar was added in the basement, and the school was later converted to a house. White Hall officials sponsored a memorial service in Whiteside Park on April 19, 1977, the 50th anniversary of the death of Annie Louise Keller. Emily Taft Douglas, the daughter of Lorado Taft and the wife of Paul Douglas, senator from Illinois, was among the dignitaries who knew the Keller story and attended the ceremony. To honor the White Hall heroine, the Chicago Public School system established the Annie Keller Magnet School.
For further reading:
Anderson, Francis P. “Annie Louise Keller: Heroine Extraordinaire.” White Hall Sesquicentennial Book. 1982.
“Annie Louise Keller Memorial: Unveiled At White Hall, Illinois.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Vol. 22, No. 3. October 1929. p. 468-476.
Bettendorf, Elizabeth. “A Young Schoolteacher’s Courage During a Tornado Has Become a Legend.” State Journal-Register. June 15, 1994.
Keefe, William F. “One Small Town, Two Revered Heroes.” The Beacher Weekly Newspaper. Volume 24, Number 24. June 19, 2008.
“Keller Memorial Unveiled At White Hall As Warning Sounds To Save Children.” Illinois State Register. August 26, 1929.
“Timepiece.” Historic Illinois. April, 1998.