EDITOR'S NOTE: Joe Gisondi and Brian Poulter, journalism professors at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, traveled Illinois 1 this summer and recorded their journey. For our purposes, their journey started in Danville, but the six-part series will cover the length of the road from its origin near Cave in Rock and its end at the south side of Chicago. On the Illinois 1 project, under a grant from Verizon, Poulter used an iPhone 5 and a Nokia Lumia 928 cellphone.
PARIS — The Edgar County Courthouse is eerily quiet on this Tuesday morning.
Deputies do not dig through purses, collect cellphones, or inspect bags.
Visitors do not walk through beeping magnetic imagers that scan bodies for knives, guns, explosive devices or toothpaste.
In fact, no deputies are in the building protecting the state’s Fifth Judicial Circuit Court judges, the state’s attorney, or the numerous clerks and county employees.
So Brian Poulter and I slide our iPhones into our pockets, zip our backpacks and walk through the southeast entrance, one of four into the county’s main justice facility, and stand in the foyer alone, wondering whether we were, in fact, inside a working government building.
From the outside, the building looks like a medieval castle or cathedral. Large sections of yellow sandstone form massive, thick walls, while spires and arches frame the roof. A tower, galvanized by steel, rises 150 feet, offering clocks that face all four directions. Lady Justice, a 94-inch tall statue that holds the scales of justice, bestrides a copper-clad dome.
The building is a focal point for the community, especially at night when lights beam on Lady Justice, which is visible along Illinois 1 here in Paris.
Inside, our steps echo off high, frescoed ceilings and decorative arcading.
Rob Edwards, a 61-year-old Army veteran, is the first person we meet inside the stentorian, 122-year-old building that sits along Illinois 1. Edwards had landed this job as a custodian a few months earlier. Along with head custodian Bob Wilson, he keeps the building running.
Edwards polishes the black-and-white marble squares with a large machine, whose hum we hear while climbing the stairs to the second floor. Since retiring from the military in 2011, Edwards may have put on a few pounds, but he has sturdy shoulders and muscular forearms and his veins pop when he pushes the waxing machine. Rob’s hair has retreated from his scalp, entrenching itself in full, white shocks above his ears. His blue eyes are attentive to the task at hand, uninterested in the two meandering journalism professors, beyond offering a perfunctory glance. Edwards has seen far scarier people during his days fighting in Vietnam and Iraq.
At 8 a.m., few other people are in the building. On a corner bench on the second floor, a pudgy, middle-aged man with receding, moppy hair sits on a bench, wearing thick, dark glasses, a tan T-shirt, worn jeans and a bushy white moustache. In some ways, he appears like a slightly younger (and unkempt) Wilford Brimley.
Two women sit on the opposite side of the lobby — one in her 50s with tightly cropped, gray, wavy hair and wearing thin, silver glasses along with a sneer aimed directly at a diffident teen, whose eyes rarely glance up. A few minutes before 9 a.m., they all walk into the first-floor courthouse for an appearance before a judge.
In the meantime, Edwards replaces the buffing pads while Brian and I explore.
At the doors to the judges’ offices, I self-consciously record their names, wondering if I’ll be caught and suspected of planning some nefarious act. Nonetheless, I attempt to peer through the door’s frosted glass but cannot see anything.
Brian walks nearly sideways, like a sand crab, and folds his 6-foot-4 frame under and through a narrow staircase leading to the clock tower. But Brian soon finds that entrance is blocked and retreats even more awkwardly.
Several large murals hang from the walls, although nobody knows any details about the largest one that covers most of the southern wall beyond its name, “The Palace of Mechanical Arts,” and that the mural celebrates the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that took place in Chicago two years after this third edition of the Edgar County Courthouse was constructed. The co-director for the Edgar County Genealogical Library and Society asked that I share anything information I might learn. The society, she says, is also seeking the artists’ names for two murals on the first floor entitled “Pittman’s Ride: Winter of Valley Forge” and “Trial Scene from the Merchant of Venice.”
From the second floor, we can see an ailing business district. Like most Illinois towns, the courthouse has been placed in the middle of a square that once served as both economic and social hub. But, like many small Illinois towns, Paris’s square has become obsolete. Few businesses fill the crumbling buildings around us. To the west, rust spills down the façade of a three-story building whose top two floors appear vacant but houses Benjamin’s Office Connections at street level, along with an H&R Block that is either seasonal or nonexistent because doors are locked and lights are off. A movie theater sits a few yards away, featuring two movies for later that night — “Despicable Me 2” and “The Lone Ranger.”
TO THE SOUTH, architectural styles clash where the original county courthouse stood, a building where Abraham Lincoln argued a case in 1851. Harriet Benson had sued Milton Mayo for breaking his promise to marry her. Instead, Mayo had married Luisa Thorpe. Lincoln won the case for Benson, earning $70 of the $400 awarded to his client. Benson eventually married George Lilley two years later, despite Mayo’s claim that she was too fickle to please a man. Today, that one-story, wooden courthouse is gone as is any vibrancy around the square. No more than a few others walk the sidewalk in front of a print shop, a Bible training center and a store called Hidden Treasures whose window features riches such as ornate, glass sifters, antique editions of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and, for some reason, a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt.
Were it not for the courthouse, and perhaps nostalgia, these businesses probably would not exist. Like all cities, Paris could use the tax revenue and wants to avoid the appearance of economic blight.
“The business climate has certainly changed radically,” Paris City Administrator Paul Ruff said. “It’s never going to go back to the way it was; at least, not in our lifetime.”
Paris was among many cities that were hurt when interstates, such as Interstates 57 and 70, diverted thousands of cars each day from areas such as this square. Before I-57 was completed in 1971, Illinois 1 had been the primary road to Chicago for people residing along the Illinois and Indiana state lines.
Illinois 1 remains an essential economic lifeline to the area, Ruff says, bringing a stream of drivers through Paris, as does U.S. 150 and Illinois 16 that cross through Edgar County.
“The highways through Paris have always been the lifeblood,” Ruff said. “The railroad is still carrying commodities, but we do not have any passenger service, or bus service. The highways create the only activity for traffic through the city.”
The city has been developing a market study to detail ways to keep the square sustainable, such as repurposing several buildings. More than 900 people work on and around the square.
“We’re hopeful that we can repurpose some of the building,” Ruff said. “Route 1 has been a critical part of our past, and, hopefully, it will continue to be important to our future.”
Inside the courthouse, Edwards agrees to speak with us, even though he appears to be a quiet man. We’ll later learn he is not boastful either, despite earning several distinctions as a soldier during combat which we later learn from press releases and news stories.
Even now, 45 years later, Edwards is not sure why he volunteered for the U.S. Army during the height of the Vietnam War. But economics played a part.
“It was a job,” Edwards said. “I enjoyed the idea of having a uniform. But it was also a way to help the family out, even if just a little. Money was tight.”
He sent $25 back home to Terre Haute each month, one-fifth his salary.
Edwards was 17, having moved to the Midwest from his native England with his mother, stepfather and several siblings. He was not an American citizen, so Edwards would never have been required to serve in any military branch.
But the teen adamantly wanted to fight, so he joined on Oct. 1, 1968, several months after North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive and in the middle of the war’s deadliest year that claimed 16,000 Americans, nearly 30,000 South Vietnamese, and an estimated 200,000 communist forces.
“It was just something I wanted to do,” Edwards said. “I’m not sure why I volunteered.”
He earned a Bronze Star during his active duty in 1970 as a radio telephone operator with the 101st Airborne. “I was just one of the guys, wondering why I was there. Why I had volunteered.”
Edwards remained in the Army until 1979 when he became a naturalized American citizen.
Eight years later, he joined the National Guard because, in some ways, Edwards had felt cheated by the manner in which he and other soldiers had been treated when they returned from Vietnam. He was not spat upon or demeaned by angry comments. Worse, he was simply forgotten.
So he rejoined to earn a second homecoming. It was a decision that nearly cost his life during Iraqi Operation Freedom.
EDWARDS HEARD the first mortars before they hit the base.
Unlike Americans back home, Edwards would not be watching football bowl games on New Year’s Day 2005. Instead, he worked on trucks in the motor pool. It was noon on a Sunday, meaning it was much cooler than the summer months when temperatures spiked to 100-plus degrees.
Edwards had experienced this before. In army parlance, the insurgents were walking the mortars down the road in order to more accurately reach the base. Not that mortars are particularly precise. But Edwards knew mortars, nonetheless, could be deadly, having killed many people at Logistics Base Seitz, situated in the Sunni Triangle near Baghdad International Airport and close to Balad and Abu Ghraib. Seitz also once housed the Iraqi Republican Guard.
So Edwards ducked under a table in a small tent. When the mortars momentarily stopped, Edwards ran to take cover in a fortified bunker. As soon as he stepped from the tent, a mortar burst above a Humvee 10 feet away, which drilled shrapnel into his entire body and knocked Edwards off his feet.
On the ground, Edwards looked over at some friends who had dived under the Humvee, but were unscathed since mortar rounds typically blow upward in the path of least resistance.
As more mortars hit, Edwards hugged the ground, drew his knees in, thought of the blinding light, and stared at the shrapnel that had driven five inches into his right arm, metal hot enough to cauterize the wound and prevent excessive bleeding.
Shrapnel had also ripped into Edwards’ lower back, raked his right leg, and skimmed across his forehead.
Eventually, the mortars stopped, which enabled Edwards’ friend to crawl from under the Humvee and to bring him to an aid station where physicians removed most of the shrapnel and took care of his wounds, but they left four pieces alone since removing them would cause more damage to his body. The shrapnel had severed some nerves in his arm, but this eventually healed.
“This was nothing compared to what others had happen to them,” Edwards says.
That Edwards was hit by mortar on that Sunday morning should not have been a surprise. After all, soldiers who suffered constant mortar barrages from nearby Balad disdainfully called Log Base Seitz a “hell hole” and far worse. Located near Baghdad International Airport, the base endured more than 700 mortar attacks, by Edwards’ count, in a single year and sometimes as many as four per day. The camp was so close to town that soldiers could hear people offering their daily prayers.
Plus, Edwards served in the 1544th Transportation Company, a National Guard unit that lost more soldiers than all but one company during Operation Iraqi Freedom, a shocking stat for a noncombat group. Five soldiers were killed and 23 were wounded from mortar attacks, roadside bombs, and ambushes.
Like Edwards, many soldiers in this company resided in smaller towns along and near Illinois 1 including Marshall, Robinson, Chrisman, Danville, Martinsville and Casey. Towns like these bore the biggest brunt of the Iraq war casualties. Roughly a quarter of those who died in the second Iraqi war came from towns with fewer than 10,000, according to a Bloomberg analysis of the U.S Census figures. And about half of all casualties came from towns with fewer than 50,000 residents. The army offered job prospects, a chance for tuition-free college and a better life; something not always found in smaller towns.
AT ONE TIME, Paris was festooned in yellow flags and ribbons that draped from light poles and hung in business storefronts around town. They filled nearly every window on the square, even those within empty buildings. Red and blue balloons were tied to light posts, large yellow ribbons were tied to wide columns at the courthouse’s entrances, waving in the wind below an American flag that draped at least 20 feet from the roof, just high enough that a basketball player might leap to touch it. In one business storefront, yellow shirts lined the windows with a single black letter on each one that spelled out “1544” and “Heroes.”
That patriotic feeling is partially why Edwards had re-enlisted.
Edwards’ unit made its final trek home through Fort McCoy, located about an hour northwest of Wisconsin Dells and about 425 miles from Paris. Along the way, people waved from bridges draped in American flags, honked from farm trucks festooned with American flags, children held signs that said “Welcome Back, Troops,” and police and fire vehicles escorted the unit along state roads and highways. But the unit received its largest response on its final 13 miles down Illinois 1, turning south from U.S. 36 just south of Chrisman. In Paris, schools were let out early so students could join the thousands who had lined the route into town that included Becky Clark, the chief recorder for the Edgar County Clerk and Recorder’s office, which is on the first floor of the courthouse.
Clark was particularly emotional because her son, Major Shannon Clark, was still stationed in Iraq. A yellow placard with his name had been tied to a pole outside the courthouse. “The town celebration was really awesome and such a glorious day,” Becky Clark said. “I believe that everyone that participated had goose bumps and not a dry eye.”
Now, these yellow flags are mostly gone, many removed because the sun has faded away all color.
But Paris has not forgotten those who died in service.
The armory just north of the courthouse on Illinois 1 has a memorial to fallen soldiers, such as Sgt. Shawna Morrison, 26, killed in a mortar attack several months before the one that had injured Edwards. Morrison’s name is posted on a ballpark behind the American Legion field and a memorial tree has been planted at an elementary school. Plus, several businesses have established scholarships in her name.
“It was a great feeling,” Edwards said. “I wish every Vietnam veteran could have had that happen to them. That was something every veteran should experience.”
But for now, it’s back to work for the 34-year military veteran, who buffs the large black-and-white tile on the second floor. Life is significantly quieter now, especially here in the Edgar County Courthouse. But there’s no place else Edwards would rather be.
“Paris is a town that has everything you need — a movie theater, Wal-Mart,” Edwards said. “And we’re close to other bigger cities, such as Champaign and Terre Haute. Plus, there are jobs here if you want to work.”