Where Past Meets Present

Alan & Betty Dunwiddie

Focus In: Alan & Betty Dunwiddie

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Betty is a former employee of Merchants Bank and former volunteer at Rock County Historical Society. Alan is a retired Merchants Bank President, former RCHS Board Member, former President of the Janesville Foundation and co-founder of the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin.

Where were you from originally?

Alan: I was born in Janesville. I had one younger sister, Joan. My mother’s grandmother, Grace Mouat, came here in 1845 from the Shetland Isles. In 1850 she married David Jeffris who had driven a herd of cattle here from Charleston, Illinois. My Dunwiddie grandparents, Benjamin Dunwiddie and Nellie Gray moved here from Green and Lafayette Counties about 1880.

Betty: I was born in Racine, Wisconsin and grew up there until my senior year in high school when we moved to Janesville. Racine was a larger, different kind of place. My father was promoted in his job and had a choice of Milwaukee or Janesville. Mother didn’t want to go to Milwaukee. She said, “Let’s go to Janesville, instead.” When we came to Janesville and saw the shopping and the downtown we really loved it. We said, “It’s a lovely, lovely town!” And lucky for me! We moved a block away from Alan’s house on Jefferson Avenue.

Alan: Ten years later I found her!

Alan, tell me about growing up in Janesville.

Janesville’s first City Manager, Henry Traxler, General Motors, the new Janesville High School and I all arrived in town the same year, 1923. My family lived on St. Lawrence Avenue about 3 blocks from the old Jefferson School. I played with the neighborhood kids, had a lot of good friends. I switched to Roosevelt for 5th and 6th, back to Jefferson for 7th grade and then to the Janesville High School on Main Street.

My grandfather’s law partner at Dunwiddie & Wheeler Law Firm built what is now Paul Ryan’s house on St. Lawrence Avenue. I lived across the street and remember we used to go over during the construction of the house to play when the builders left. Even then, they couldn’t afford to pay a carpenter for his time picking up nails, so they’d leave lots of goodies there at the end of the day, nails and whatever scraps we might find.

Before high school, I shoveled walks and mowed lawns. I’d get 50 cents for mowing or shoveling a corner lot! Movies were 10 cents back then, so I could take my sister to the movie and have popcorn and still have 20 cents left over!

We’d go to the Beverly Theater on South Main Street, and the Myers Theater on East Milwaukee Street, (they’re both parking lots now). The Jeffris Theater was next to the Monterey Hotel. I remember when the downtown had the old Carnegie Library, and north of that was Bauman’s Grocery Store, Janesville Floral Company, Dorothy’s Beauty Salon, and C-M Office Supply.

Betty and I used to walk everywhere around town. We’d walk from our home near Palmer Park to the Vets Club for breakfast, or to the Wedge Inn by the hospital. A hike of several miles. We did that every Saturday morning, weather permitting! It was good exercise and fun.

In what sort of activities were you a part of during high school?

A good friend, Don Avery, and I were football team managers. Coach Kitelinger wasn’t interested in having a 90-lb. football player! Plus, my eye sight wasn’t too good; I’d worn glasses since I was two. If anything involved a ball coming at me, I had to duck. This was a couple of years after we’d beat Beloit in 1937 for the first time in 25 years! That night the town went wild! It was a big rivalry back then; we hated the Beloit football team.

Betty, tell me about when you came to Janesville.

I knew my parents were planning to move, and I asked them if perhaps I could stay with my grandfather in Racine, for my senior year. Mother thought it over for a little while, then decided that no, I would have to go with them to Janesville, which turned out very lucky for me!

I had the most wonderful experience here. I have a younger brother and sister. So, one night I was babysitting for my parents and a knock came on the door. I went to the door, and there were 3 or 4 neighbor kids who lived within my block. Some had just graduated from senior high and others were just starting. But, they came over to welcome me to the neighborhood. They also invited me to go with them the next day to see the high school. I fell in love with Janesville at that moment! One of the boys, Norman Jones, came over many nights to help me do the dishes.

Alan: I had just moved into the neighborhood the previous year. She and I had a class together. But we weren’t dating in high school.

What happened after graduation?

Alan: We graduated in the Class of 1941. The war was just around the corner.

Betty: I had just graduated in June. Luckily, I had a typing teacher who had been asked if she had anyone that Rock County Bank could hire. She said, “Oh yes, I have two girls you could have to train.” Luckily, they picked me! So, when Pearl Harbor was announced, I was working at the bank and continued working there during the war years.

Alan: Right out of high school, I worked for the Parker Pen Company in its Quink plant where they made quick drying ink. After that, I enrolled at MIT in Boston. That’s where I was at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Tell me about the war years.

The next year I was number 36805528, Private, U.S. Army Air Corps. I was a weather man. They sent me to the University of Minnesota for 6 months training, then to Chanute Field, Illinois, to prepare for this. We’d record the local weather conditions four times a day; send it out via teletype all over the world to our US air fields. Receiving coded weather reports from each, we would enter the data on a huge map. A meteorology officer would take all of these figures to prepare a weather map.

The whole procedure probably took 2 hours to get the map out for the local flyers. But the data was often 2 hours old by the time a pilot would get it, so he really didn’t know what to expect. These days you can just Google the weather on your phone and have an instant good report.

Most of the time I was at airfields in Alexandria, Louisiana, Alamogordo, New Mexico and finally in Newfoundland. I was closer to home in Newfoundland than I was in New Mexico!

Betty: But it was a tough time here. Some of our classmates died in the Bataan Death March and one of them escaped and lived with the natives through the end of the war. It was hard to lose our friends.

During the war, which had been going on for some time, all the men were gone, of course. So, a group of us girls decided we would buy ourselves corsages, put formals on and go over to the Monterey Hotel for a dinner. They had a beautiful dining room and the food was wonderful. We hired a photographer to come and take our group picture. So, we did that and went in to have our dinner.

Ladies' Night During WWII

A ladies’ night out at the Monterey Hotel during World War II while the men were away. Betty Dunwiddie is seated front and right, white dress & necklace, on the piano bench.

At that time, one of our friends got a call from her parents telling her that her brother, who was a pilot, had been shot down in the war in the Philippines. We all went to her house with her. It’s a memory I have that was both happy and, at the same time, very sad. I’ll always remember that.

What did you do when the war ended?

After the war ended, everyone went in different directions. We kept track of each other for quite a while after that, but we all get busy with our own lives. But that was quite a memory, it brought the war so close to home.

Alan: I came back from the war and went to Beloit College and graduated from there in 1949. I did a year of graduate work in mathematics at Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

When I came home from there, about 7 o’clock that first night, I got a phone call from Bob McRoberts, President of Merchants Bank. He asked me if I had a job and if I’d like to come work at a bank. He said, “Fine, show up tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock. And wear your old clothes.”

I had nothing in the way of suits and ties. But, I had old army fatigues and those worked. I showed up and spent two weeks with the president’s son cleaning out the bank’s basement!

However, they paid well. I showed up on time. And they kept me on. I ended up doing everything, basement to boardroom. And they finally threw me out when I was Chairman of the Board!

Betty: I stayed at Rock County Bank for a while, and then one of the officers at Merchants Bank, John Matheson, had heard I was looking for a job. He called and said, “We have an opening, would you be interested?” And I said, “Yes!”. So that brought me back in contact with Alan.

So, how did the two of you meet?

Betty to Alan: We were just introduced. Are you going to tell how we trapped you?

Alan: Well, there was another girl at the bank who apparently had her eye on me. I wasn’t aware of it, but Betty and her friend, Barbara Bass, decided to help this girl out. So, for a while, I was taking out 3 girls at the same time, Betty and these other two! And Betty wondered why I would always take her home last.

Betty: I did. Because I was pushing him toward my other friend.

Alan: She lost a friend there!

Betty: I have to confess that after I’d been with him a few times, trying to fix him up with my friend, I started to think that he was so nice. And, oh, he was very handsome! When I got to know him, I fell in love with him. We had the nicest dates! Our first date was when he asked me out for dinner.

We would go out for dinner on Saturday nights. We’d go to a popular restaurant, the Corral, in Beloit. We did that three or four times and then we started dating also on Wednesdays. So, it was Wednesday and Saturday. We dated for quite a while. By that time, I was pretty sure I was in love with him, so when he asked me to marry him, I said, “Yes!”

Alan: I think Mother and Dad were anxious to get me out of the house. They said, “Get your own car!”

Betty: Yes, you had to borrow your dad’s car for our dates.

Alan: I remind my own kids, even today, that we had 2 kids before we had our own car!

A year and a half after Betty started working at the bank, we got married. And a week before we got married, she quit her job and hasn’t lifted a finger since! (laughter) She knows I tease her.

Betty: We were married in Janesville at our church, The First Congregational.

So, Alan, did you continue at the bank?

Yes, I did, until my retirement.

Betty, what was your life like then, and what were your community activities?

I was a stay-at-home mom, that was my responsibility. When Alan and I married, most of my girlfriends were stay-at-home moms and we’d get together for coffee. We did volunteer work for the United Way, then called the Community Chest. We volunteered in other organizations, like the Woman’s Club, the Red Cross, and I became involved in political campaigns. My daughter Jane and I were “Goldwater Girls”. Sadly, Barry didn’t win. I also used to do work at the Republican Party’s office.

I volunteered at the Rock County Historical Society. Rick Hartung was the RCHS Director when I was a docent in the Lincoln-Tallman House, taking groups of school children through the house. We were given the story that the colorful upstairs stained-glass window was called the “Signal Window” for the escaped slaves. A light shone in the window when it was all clear. And they’d bring the people up from the river into the basement where it was a nice, clean, dry place to rest and have a meal before moving north to Milton and beyond. I also remember the Carriage House had one carriage which they would bring out now and then for events or a parade. And the children loved to see that!

A group of my friends became interested in the Stone House. Because of its history, they wanted it moved to the Rock County Historical Society on the Tallman grounds. When it was moved there in 1964, we helped get it in order, clean it, paint it and such, and we did that as best we could. That was nice. Sally Parker was instrumental in gathering support for the move, and we got to know Marion Allen then. She was a good worker, helping get the Stone House restored and was very interested in the Lincoln-Tallman House.\

And one day, we visited another historic place and noticed women would walk around in the traditional costumes of the Victorian era. It made it very interesting for the visitors. We talked to Rick about it and asked if we could do that at the Lincoln-Tallman House. He said, “Well, the gowns are very delicate. If you promise to be very careful, don’t sit in them or have problems where you might catch it on something.”

So, we did that, and paraded down and around the grounds in our dresses. It might have been on a Saturday, not a particular event. And pretty soon, one car stopped and people got out. Then another car stopped, and people wanted to know what was going on. And we thought, “Aha! We’ve captured an idea!” But, in the end, they felt the gowns were too delicate and it never went beyond that point. But it was kind of a fun time to pretend to be from that old era and living in that place.

When I was a docent, in the room to the left of the Tallman House front door was a gun collection of one of the Tallman’s sons. The children were always amazed and fascinated with why he would want that many guns, and all that. Another place they particularly liked was down in the basement, especially because of the story of the slaves coming through.

Alan: I believe what they called “The Tunnel” was actually a sewer and when the city put the road in behind the house, they uncovered a little limestone tunnel, about 12 inches square, large enough to serve as the sewer from the indoor privy. But there never was an actual tunnel there.

Betty: We also had a connection to the Milton House because they do have a tunnel there, and we’d take the kids on a bus up to Milton for a tour.

Alan, tell me about your community involvement.

After retirement from the bank, I took over running the Janesville Foundation, a charitable private foundation founded by the Parker Pen Company. In that position I became familiar with the prospect of a Community Foundation. I gathered a few friends and we started the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin. We each put in $1,000, and starting with only $5,000, hired a secretary to run it. And it just took off!

We got the approval from the IRS as a tax exempt public foundation in 1992. Now, it serves 11 counties and has grown to over 50 million dollars! I was also involved in the YMCA and the Boy Scouts, served on their boards and did a lot of fundraising. As a banker, they always would say, “nab him!” Other rewarding activities were serving on Board of Directors of The Nature Conservancy when I negotiated their purchase the Newark Prairie in Rock County. It’s now a State Scientific Area and managed by Beloit College for research.

I had also been involved in the Rock County Historical Society for a long time. I was on the Board of Directors and was President for a brief time in the 1950’s. It was a way to get out of the house and away from all these kids (laughter). So, they tapped Betty to become involved because I was there.

I even remember the Frances Willard school house in its original location on South River Road. In the early 1930s we watched Civil War veterans marching up Main Street on Memorial Day.

Betty: I think there have been positive changes going on over the last few years at the Rock County Historical Society.

What are some of the changes you’ve seen over the years in Rock County?

Alan: There’s been some struggle and turn-over in the business community since the closing of Parker Pen and General Motors. A lot of the smaller businesses come and go. But, look at Blain’s Farm & Fleet, Hough Shade (Hufcor), Gilman (Angi), SSI, and Prent, for example. They started small and are still growing!

Betty: The downtown, when we were teenagers, was wonderful. We had several lady’s shops and stores. J.M. Bostwick on Main Street, where Olde Towne Mall is now, it was a wonderful department store. If you got something from Bostwick’s, it meant something. We had a beautiful J.C. Penney store. There was nice, quality children’s clothing at Sears downtown.

It was lively and there were theaters downtown. On Friday night, we had angle parking and people would come down and just park. Some were there for shopping, some were there just to meet friends. There were soda fountains, like Razook’s on Main Street and Adamany’s on West Milwaukee where we’d often go after a football game. We’d walk downtown for a soda after school or a game. It was a lively, healthy business locality.

When they decided to build out north, we gradually lost some of those wonderful stores. Things have changed through the years. I don’t think we can go back to that.

We would like to see the downtown revitalized and brought back if it could! It has to be a positive thing. It may take a little time. And I’m pleased when I see this happening because of our happy memories. We went to the Lark the other day, which is next to what used to be the old Carnegie Library. I hope the downtown can succeed. I think people are working hard on it, and people are sincere. We wish them luck, we really do!

You’ve been married 66 years now, that’s a long time! At 94, what are some of your secrets to living a long life and holding on to love?

Alan: Try not to get mad at the same time! Can you imagine her mad? (Betty giggles) And walking together, just being side by side, you’re not confronting each other. And she’s a good cook.

We also traveled a lot together. We went through the St. Lawrence Seaway. We traveled to Australia, England, Scotland, Scandinavia and France. My favorite trip was through the South Pacific, down from Singapore to Indonesia. We went to the island of Sulawesi and took some gifts from a professor at Beloit College to a family she lived with when she spent a year there.

On that trip, we were on a small boat with only 70 passengers. There were pirates in the area, so one night our ship went full steam ahead and even skipped one of our ports because of the danger there.

Betty: During our married life, we did a series of things with friends. We did square dancing, we had another group for cross country skiing in winter and canoeing in the summer. We did a lot of walking, and that’s a tip for all couples out there. Sometimes when you’re out walking, and the weather is just right and you see different things…it’s a time when you’re having fun and you can just relax and the conversation flows. And he’s been a good provider.

What makes Rock County a great place, what has kept you here?

Alan: I grew up here. When I was about 2 years old I wandered downtown trying to find my dad. I knew he went to work that way. And someone recognized me and got me home. Everybody knew everybody. It’s hard to be objective. It’s the only place I’ve really known. Of course, I miss some of the things in Boston and New York, but in general, this is home.

Betty: It was a beautiful place to raise a family. We have 3 children, 4 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren! It was a safe city. Of course, as the city grows, it gains its problems. But, originally, you knew everybody. It has a small town feel that you can still see now and then. It’s a lovely town.