Family Stories Marcia Shank Brant: An Oral History

Well, I don’t talk about my past much. I was born in Bradford, Pennsylvania. We didn’t move around much, but shortly after I was born we moved from dad’s home town of Bradford to Olean, New York. We moved because there was a lot of work there.

Main Street - Bradford, Pennsylvania

My mother’s family was also from Bradford. In Olean, the Protestant cemetery was on one side of the city and the Catholic on the other. Grandma Sally Shank was Methodist and mother’s family was Catholic. My dad was Protestant and he never converted. They never asked him to.

Union Street - Olean, New York

Dad never got angry much, but once in a while he would. I came home one time from Confession. Boy, the priest really gave me heck for missing Mass and going to the Methodist Church. Dad said angrily, “Don’t you ever talk against your grandmother’s religion. She’s so good.”

“Grandmother Shank made all my dresses. She was a wonderful person.”

Grandmother Shank made all my dresses. She went to every First Communion and Confirmation. She was wonderful. And Aunt Nellie Riddle, too. Aunt Nellie was a dwarf. Everybody in Olean used to know her. She was dad’s half-sister. Grandma Shank was married before and widowed. Her name had been Riddle. Then she married Bill Shank. Nellie was part of her first marriage.

Marcia (r) with brother Bill, cousin Rose Binder and aunt Ethel Lilly, ca 1920

Dad was a painting contractor. He often worked for other people and was one of the best there was. He belonged to the Painters Union, although he never liked unions. He was a good, hard worker. Everybody liked him. When he died, there were so many at his funeral, it surprised me. He used to love to go to my grandfather Lilly’s farm near Bolivar, New York, on the Shawmut Railroad, which went near the farm.

We used to go to the farm in the summer. My grandfather Lilly was not a farmer by trade. He was a caretaker of an oil field…you know, those pumps that went up and down. He’d make his rounds looking after them. There were no farm animals, although they did raise a few crops. When dad was first hurt, he went up to the farm and grew gladiolas and sold them to florists.

My grandfather Shank was dead by then. He died of natural causes. He was an engineer on the railroad. He’d be gone on overnights, but I don’t know in what capacity. When he came home, he’d be swinging his lunchbox, and I’d run out to meet him when I was staying there. I believe I was the only one of us the three kids who knew him. He was the dearest man you’d ever want to know. He named me. I was born in March, and he liked the unusual name of Marcia.

Marcia in 7th grade class photo
“Dad wasn’t educated. He never went to high school, but he was one of the best painters.”

My dad loved kids and always had candy and the kids knew it and would flock to him. His problem was drinking. Friends would buy him a drink and one thing led to another and he’d come home drunk, which is terrible.

Dad wasn’t educated. He never went to high school, but he was one of the best painters, especially on those old homes.

He had a certain technique for painting delicate oak. The older women would appreciate his artistic painting so much that, in addition to his wages, they would give him heirlooms. I remember one time they gave him an oak desk to give to me. I wish I had kept it.

Dad loved hunting and things like that. He took up taxidermy as a hobby. He was so good at it that everybody wanted his stuffed pheasants. And, of course, we’d eat the meat and I got so sick of pheasant! We kids would always get the legs.

We couldn’t afford his medical care after his injury, so in later years mother divorced him so he would be eligible to be placed in the County Home. None of us could support him. He was so good hearted. I can remember when I was so little and mother wanted me to learn to spell my name. I’d get stuck on the “c” and dad would quietly help me out until mother found out and she’d scold him. He and my sister June were good pals. He’d teach her to play cards.

“I think I was 12 years old…we realized we all had to work. We had no money.”

What happened was that dad was at a union function or picnic near Allegany, and he was in charge of the food. All the men had been drinking, including dad I suppose, although not that much because he had to look after the food. From what we were told, he and a bunch of men were standing around and one of them starting mouthing off at dad. They got into it, and the coward clobbered dad on the head with a beer bottle. In those days, the bottles were heavy, heavy glass. It knocked him unconscious. Two of dad’s buddies brought him home and left him in the doorway without telling Mom what had happened.

In the morning, he was still unconscious. They called the hospital and had to operate. His skull was so severely crushed, that it took a long time to operate. By then, the damage had been done, and he lost the full use of his arm and some of his speech and memory. He was never able to work again. Then, to make things worse, when he tried to do little jobs for the neighbors…we were all poor…the union wouldn’t allow him to take less than union wages, so the neighbors couldn’t afford him. The union did nothing for us.

We pressed charges, and the man was brought to trial and we won. The judge awarded something like $3,800 and the man’s shack on the way to Rock City. We kids wanted her to take the shack and use it as a cottage, but we didn’t have the money to pay the taxes or fix it up or even travel to use it, so we never did. We also never saw any of the $3,800 because the bum never had any money. That’s when all of us went to work.

Marcia, 13 years old

I worked in the dime store, Bill after school in the grocery, and Mother got a job. I think I was 12 years old when the event happened and a little older by the time we realized we all had to work. We had no money.

Bill had good grades, and he had a chance to go to college. My mother’s brother, Paul Lilly, saw that he was bright and wanted him to have a chance. So, he agreed to take him to Detroit with him to go to the Catholic school, the University of Detroit. Bill worked after school to help with his tuition. Paul had graduated from the University of Detroit.

I was working at the dime store in Olean. I had to get working papers because I was too young. The manager of McCrory’s was well-liked. He was a wonderful person. He was a higher caliber than most in Olean. He took me under his wing. I believe he saw that I was bright. “Miss Shank, I think there are other things for you to do.” He put me back in the office with older staff women doing bookwork. In high school, I had top honors. In the state regents, I could have had 100%, but I missed reading the second part of a question.

But no one told me that if I wanted to get into college, I had to take Latin. Back then women didn’t go to college, so the administration never encouraged me. It was only too late when I found out. Of course, I had to go to work immediately to help the family. I was always good at business and math.

Later, my uncle George Lilly in Indianapolis wanted me to apply to Butler University, but I was too scared because I didn’t have the Latin and I was afraid they’d turn me down. Uncle George and Aunt Kate came back to Olean to visit my grandfather Lilly, who was close to dying one time. They hadn’t seen him for a few years.

“Aunt Kate was wonderful to take me in, so kind. She would buy me clothes.”

Uncle George said, “that girl needs to get away from here.” And they arranged for me to leave Olean and come to the big city of Indianapolis. I was 18. I lived in the 2nd floor of their home on 49th Street. I went every Sunday to Catholic church. I’d walk from 49th to 42nd and Central to St. Joan of Arc.

Wasson's Department Store - 1940s

Aunt Kate was wonderful to take me in, so kind. She would buy clothes for me. She got me in at Wasson’s Department store. She took me down to Wasson’s, and they gave me a job in the handkerchief department. They made me an assistant buyer. We didn’t get to travel to New York, but I had managerial duties.

My dates would ask, “What’s that guy always here for?” “He’s just my cousin Jack’s friend from next door.”

About that time, I got engaged to Bob, at age 22 or 23. At that time, Bob was working at Indiana Oxygen Company. He had decided after one year of college he was ready for IOC. He’d come over when I’d have dates and my dates would ask, “What’s that guy always here for?” “He’s just my cousin Jack Lilly’s friend from next door.” Bob was adventurous and loved a good time. One time we drove to Cincinnati. I thought we were both going to get killed by our parents because it was rainy. Bob proposed to me at Christmas. He bought that ring from a man in his lunch club and paid for it on time. That same Christmas, Jeanette Tarkington started showing her ring off. Bob would say, “I want you to look at Marcia’s. It’s not as big but it has just as much love.”

When we went on our honeymoon, we had the apartment all signed up for at 33rd and Meridian Street and furnished. That was where Bob’s father and grandmother lived. While we were away on the honeymoon, Aunt Kate and Bob’s stepmother Bea Brant had to move us. The landlord learned that we had been working on fixing up the farm house at Brantwood Farms near Noblesville. When he found out, he terminated our lease before we ever moved in, saying we were undesirable because we wouldn’t be living there long enough. So, Bea and Aunt Kate moved us to an apartment at 3777 North Meridian Street. It was lovely. We stayed there about a year and then moved to the farm.

Marcia, 1940

We lived on the farm with Sandy and until we were expecting Wally, and there wasn’t enough room so we had to move back to Indianapolis. Bob commuted from the farm to IOC. It never bothered him except for the snow drifts that would keep him from getting out of the driveway onto State Road 32. Traffic really wasn’t too bad in those days.

“We loved the Thompsons, our neighbors at 47th and North Graceland. Ralph was Bob’s best friend.”

Every house we’ve lived in we have loved. We liked our neighbors. We loved Ralph and Mickey Thompson, our neighbors at 47th and North Graceland. Ralph was Bob’s best friend. We moved there in 1949 right before Wally was born. We started looking for the 7203 Pennsylvania address after Ronni was born because Sandy had to study and couldn’t take a sister as a roommate, and we didn’t think it was fair to put Ronni and Wally together. So, we moved.

I was president of St. Luke’s Women’s Club when Father Courtney was there. I was also on the Brebeuf School Board of Directors. I was President of the Sigma Phi Epsilon Mother’s club. I was a member of Delta Theta Tau sorority, a charitable sorority. Riley hospital was one of our main charities. Nelda Walk got me in. The first meeting I went to they had a progressive luncheon. It was my first chance to meet “the girls”. Bob and I didn’t have much money then. I bought a new dress and didn’t pay much money for it. They were serving punch. Somebody hit my elbow. The whole thing fell in my lap, and the dress started shrinking and the hostess had to lend me a dress for the rest of the party They still took me in.

Marcia, 1985

The sorority had a stroller rental and the food booth at the Indiana State Fair. We made a lot of money on the strollers despite the thieves who wouldn’t bring them back. We baked our own deserts and were the favorite booth at the fair until the Board of Health stopped it. We served sandwiches. We’d keep busy until 10pm.

At St. Thomas Aquinas Church I was treasurer under Father Holloran. He was so good to me. He kept telling me that I didn’t have to worry about the women’s club or others not having enough money because we had several parishioners who would chip in when we needed money.

Your dad took you to the old Orchard Little League on 42nd and Cornelius when you were seven. You were too young. For a guy who didn’t like playing baseball, he sure wanted you to get into it. He never had the opportunity to play, living with his grandmother Brant. When he had to march in the Boy Scouts, his grandmother would follow in her chauffeur-driven car so he wouldn’t get too tired.

That’s all I can think of.


(This story was taken from a taped conversation between Marcia and her son, Wally Brant, that occurred in March 1999. It has been used here in an edited form, primarily for clarity.)


Cover photo: Marcia with her sister and Brother-in-law, husband and mother.

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