An Omaha couple renovating a bathroom pulled off the old wallpaper and got a surprise — a message from 73 years ago.
Written on plaster and dated April 16, 1939, it said: “Adolph Hitler is thinking up an answer to FD Roosevelt's plea for world peace. Hitler is considered a bad man by most Americans today. We are afraid there is going to be another world war.”
That prophetic passage was just part of a longer note about everyday life that the writer obviously intended to be read years in the future — a kind of personal time capsule.
Matt and Shelley Herek, who moved into the Dundee neighborhood home four years ago, were delighted at their long-ago predecessor's sense of history. They were less delighted at the drip-drip-drip sound that led to the bathroom renovation.
“The only thing that works in an old house,” Matt quipped, “is the owner.”
But he and Shelley love this old house, all the more so because of their newfound connection to previous owners, the McCagues. The Hereks are from the Omaha area, but for a few years they lived in New York.
Matt, 43, formerly a copy editor for such publications as Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator, is a marketing communicatons manager for Mutual of Omaha. Shelley (Kimbrell), 38, who holds a master's degree in molecular biology from New York University, worked in the medical examiner's office after 9/11. Today she sells medical equipment.
They happily returned to Omaha and are raising Olivia, who turns 9 this week, and Xavier, 5. The couple love their block and their neighbors, who enjoyed the annual Izard Street Christmas dinner last night.
Their block is widely known for its Memorial Day “Drazi” tradition, a light-hearted takeoff on Omaha's glitzy Ak-Sar-Ben coronation — two annual events that, respectively, spell Izard and Nebraska backward.
Izard neighbors wryly crown a “gnik,” (king, spelled backwards) and playfully call their 20 houses “castles.”
As the expression goes, everyone's home is his (or her) castle. Though inanimate, a structure is more than walls, windows, plumbing and a roof.
If our walls could speak, what animated stories they would tell — good ones and otherwise — about the domiciles where we return each day, lay our heads and, in large part, live our lives.
The Hereks' two-story, Colonial frame home with shutters was built in 1921. The original owners, who liked it well enough to stay — and who apparently left the 1939 wall message — were John and Marie McCague.
He was born in Omaha and founded Jubilee Manufacturing Co. in 1915. Before World War II, it made automobile horns, electric relays, voltage regulators and auto accessories in its plant at 1929 S. 20th St.
When war came, Jubilee converted its operation entirely to military manufacturing, making shells and fuses. In 1943, according to a World-Herald article, the War Department presented “the coveted Army-Navy 'E' flag for excellence” in “colorful ceremonies” at the plant. A military band played.
Imagine the pride the McCagues felt as they returned that day to their home at 5111 Izard St.
After the war, Jubilee converted back to civilian production, from pressure cookers to tire chains to hydraulic jacks. (It eventually made car and boat horns that played more than 300 tunes, including “There Is No Place Like Nebraska,” but the company went out of business in the late 1980s.)
Marie McCague died in 1968. John McCague, who was 86, died of a heart attack at the house in 1974. Their only child, Georgia, married, moved away and became a poet and artist. She died in 2005.
John McCague, for whatever reason, wrote on the wall — partly just describing the spring day: “A damp snow is falling on the new grass seed.”
Alas, this was not like writing on someone's “wall” in the Facebook age. Communication was not instant and widespread, and there was surely no delete button.
He wrote that he and his wife, each of whom owned a car, had sent their fur coats to the Brandeis department store for the summer. Then he corrected: “No, mother says to Kilpatrick's.”
Then he paid tribute to a man who apparently did regular work for the couple:
“Mr. Potter is going to paper over this wall. We admire him because he is a good painter and paper hanger, and has a large number of successful children. He has kept this house in good shape and we are happy in it and consider it well kept up.”
The Hereks aren't the first to have discovered the McCague note and then paper over it. An owner wrote in the 1980s about unrest in the world, hopes for peace and the impending arrival of family members at Christmas. And then covered it up.
Matt, who plans to share the home with Shelley for many years, says that before the renovation is finished, he will pen his own note and then cover it up. He is thinking about it, not taking it lightly. It's no random tweet — it has to last.
No, our walls can't speak. But at this house in Dundee, one wall connects generations.
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