Attending the summer journalism camp at Eastern Illinois University and on assignment to explore “Small Town America,” Krystina and I, two aspiring journalists ventured into Teutopolis, Ill. T-town , as called by the locals, is a village of 1,500 known for its German-Catholic people and the wooden shoes they produced.
In the heat of the summer, looking around a future ghost town, pursuing any shred of a story, our patience and luck dissolved. Talking to any residents available, we determined there had not been a worthy story in this town for over thirty years. A panic attack was coming on, as my hopes of finding a story withered away.
Suddenly, Jeff, a professional journalist assigned to help mentor students, emerged to see if we needed help. I was frustrated with my indecisive partner, with the heat, and with the professor who thought a story existed in this cultural desert. I took out my frustration on poor Jeff.
“We have no story, and this town is so bleak, we don’t have a chance!”
With a teaspoon of magic and freight load of patience, he calmly looked around, pointed at a building across the street and asked us about the elegant building down the street from us. Without a clue, we hurried over to make out the sign, which read, “Bauer Funeral Home”. My first instinct was to turn away; just another dead-end, this time more in the literal sense than before. I remembered the famous pirate at Disney moaning, “Dead men tell no tales…” But Jeff and Krystina showed immediate enthusiasm.
The funeral home was across from the looming Catholic Church. Colonial architecture and a row of columns would have consoled mourners on any given day, but today, it would have to welcome two discouraged journalism students.
A few people sat gossiping outside, caretakers by the looks of things. As soon as they saw us approach, the alpha woman of the group barked, “What are you selling?” The woman turned out to be the owner, Carole Bauer.
Mrs. Bauer wasn’t the happiest person ever to be interviewed; she was a grumpy lady that did not believe she had anything interesting to tell. She didn’t like being known in town as the lady who handled dead bodies. Just as Jeff had sensed, however, she was a gold mine of interesting stories and different perspectives. For instance, this particular funeral home was bought as a sporadic “Christmas present” of sorts.
“I was at a Christmas Eve party when my husband got a call from another director that needed to sell his funeral home ASAP. He took him up on the deal right then –without telling me- and within three days, we had a funeral home,” said Bauer, rolling her eyes in recall.
As expected for a funeral director with a conscious, she’d had her fair share of grief.
“One year I had three of my close friends die; one after another. That was the hardest time of my life. I wanted to never see this funeral home again,” said Bauer. “Since then I’ve come around. A funeral home can really make an impact on a community – how individuals deal with grief is what determines the environment of, quite possibly, the whole town.”
In the end, it was what looked like the dullest, deadest place in town that contained a great story about a woman who spent her years taking other people’s burdens and turning them into a manageable experience.
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