With each death, a town loses a bit of its culture
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
“The Pirate 1924.”
A yearbook: A compilation of names and faces, accompanied by hand-written notes and newspaper clippings.
Gifted to me by my brother, Robert, who bought the 1924 yearbook at an informal auction at a Postcard Club meeting in Hannibal – this yearbook became much more to me than a printed document. It became a source for research and story ideas, and led to my introduction to one of Hannibal’s most unique characters: Walt Chandler.
This was his mother’s class yearbook. While downsizing a few years ago, he parted with the document that had been carefully preserved during his lifetime. A little research revealed to me that the handwriting belonged to Anna May Snyder Chandler, a legend in Hannibal music circles. Walt was her prodigy, her only child. He learned to play the piano by her side, and at the age of 4, in 1935, he performed in association with the Mark Twain Centennial Celebration. He was a showoff, he later told me.
Walt Chandler. He died Monday – coincidentally (or not, you see I don’t really believe in coincidences) on my birthday. His death didn’t sadden me, or mar my special day. You see, over the course of the last year, Walt and I had several long and reflective talks. I shared with him that I was now the keeper of his mother’s treasured yearbook, and he knows it’s in good hands. He shared with me many life stories, and his decision that he was ready to meet his maker.
To a collector of all things Hannibal – like me – an old yearbook filled with handwritten notes, family photos and newspaper clippings is a treasure-trove of story possibilities.
Dan Griffen told me about the house across the street from his flower shop on St. Mary’s Avenue, where he delivered flowers when he was just a boy. Lucy Neeper – one of Anna May Chandler’s classmates – was the recipient of those flowers.
Dan Landau, pediatrician to the baby boomers, was Anna May Snyder’s classmate, and within the pages of her yearbook is tucked a newspaper story about Dr. Landau’s return home from World War II. In addition, there is a death notice for Dan Landau’s sister, who died in a fall from Lovers Leap.
As precious as this yearbook is to me, the most important thing I gleaned from its pages did not constitute ink on paper. Instead, it was the yearbook itself that lead to my introduction to Walt. Our mutual friend Dorothy Cerretti facilitated my introduction to this quirky and quintessential expert at all things art, and, during the course of a year, he talked and I listened.
Bits and pieces of the tales he told me are already interwoven into the stories I’ve written about Hannibal’s past. And the notes I took during our visits continue to give me inspiration for stories to come.
He once owned the building at the Wedge on Market Street which burned last Christmas Eve. He operated a flower shop in the 500 block of Broadway where the F&M Bank now stands. And on Chestnut Street, his grandfather operated a neighborhood grocery store out of his home. Walt’s mother probably played at more weddings and funerals than any of her generation, all the while teaching piano to generations that followed.
During the last year, Michael Gaines has been picking up Walt at Beth Haven Nursing Home, to facilitate “Tuesdays with Walt” – a mini musical concert - at the Hannibal Arts Council. In addition, Walt played the piano at 1 o’clock every day except Sunday at Beth Haven Nursing Home. His performance was conditional – somebody had to remember to turn the television off. Otherwise, he wouldn’t play.
The last time I visited with Walt was in February 2016, when he summoned me for a visit. I took careful notes while he talked, and snapped a few candid photos with my iphone while the sun was shining into the room, offering just the right light to accentuate his essence.
That’s how I’ll remember Walt.
Of all the stories he shared with me, my favorite I’ll call the Cheese Story. It is about his grandfather in the role of neighborhood grocer, and the lengths he went to in order to fulfill his customer’s wishes. This is one of those stories that encompasses a time and place, and it would have been lost to posterity had Anna May’s yearbook not facilitated my introduction to her son.
Mr. and Mrs. H.M. Greene lived at 2417 Broadway, five houses from Walt Chandler’s grandfather’s house. “I delivered (groceries) to them from early on,” Walt said.
Mrs. Greene – mother of Hannibal doctors Harry and Don - was from Boston, and wanted aged cheese. In order to accommodate his good customer, Pink M. Snyder learned the technique for aging cheese.
Walt said you start with an individual “daisy wheel” of cheese, which measures 6 7/8 inches around. In order to acquire cheese in this form, his grandfather had to buy a minimum order of four daisy wheels, weighing about 40 pounds.
Mrs. Greene told Mr. Snyder that if he would age the cheese for her, she would buy it all.
“He stacked the cases by the furnace in the dark basement, covered them with gunny sacks, without refrigeration, and hosed the cheese down every other day – for two years,” Walt said.
The cheese would have a black crust about 3 inches thick when ready. “Old Mrs. Greene would come to the store, smack her lips and eat a quarter pound at a time,” Walt said. “We had a lot of money tied up in that cheese.”
Walt Chandler, February 2016. Photo by Mary Lou Montgomery