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Christmas in Cairo
Apartment No. 622: A family raised here reflects on a final Christmas at Cairo's McBride Place

CAIRO — Loretta Collier walked through her front door at McBride Place on Tuesday evening and headed toward her little Christmas tree that she bought on sale at the Dollar General.

It’s a humble little tree, standing only about a foot tall. Collier explained that she has a bigger tree, but that it overcrowded the living room. This one feels just right, she said, as she plugged it in and the multicolored lights sprang to life. It cast a warm glow onto the nearby curio cabinet full of collectible angels and old family pictures that belonged to her mother.

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

With the lights of a small Christmas tree glowing in the background, Loretta Collier is shown in the McBride apartment where she grew up with her mom and nine siblings and now lives with her own children. Behind Collier is a cabinet containing a collection of angels that belonged to her mother.

“It’s pretty when you light it up,” Collier said, and then she began to tell stories about how much her mother, Norma Jean Childs, loved Christmas and collectible angels. “This is my mother’s cabinet. I didn’t take nothing out of it,” she said.

At one point, there were probably close to 150 miniature angles throughout the apartment, Collier explained, laughing a little at the thought of all those angels — in the living room, the kitchen, even the bathroom.

Her mother died in 2010, and Collier said she likes to think the angels she held on to in her mom’s cabinet keep watch over the family. She pointed to a framed picture of her mom, and encouraged a closer look. “Everybody says we resemble each other. What do you think?” she said, with a warm smile on her face.

mollyjaneparker / PROVIDED BY TERRI CHILDS 

Norma Jean Childs is pictured here at Christmas about a decade ago. Childs, who raised 10 children at McBride, Apartment No. 622, in Cairo, died in 2010. One of her daughters, Loretta Collier, moved back in to the same apartment upon her mom's passing. 

It was nearly a half a century ago when Norma Jean moved Collier and her brothers and sisters — there were 10 of them in total — into Apartment No. 622 at McBride — a number just about everyone in the family knows by heart to this day. Collier, who is 53, said she was just 6 years old when the family moved from their home on 33rd Street in Cairo because they needed more space.

At the time of her mom's passing, Collier and her children had been living in a different apartment at the McBride complex. Because she didn’t think it would feel right for another family to live here, Collier asked if she could move into her mom's place, where she was raised. 

As a child, and then as an adult raising children of her own, Collier has spent countless Christmases inside No. 622, though this will likely be her last.

By sometime next year, if all goes as planned, federal housing officials will have assisted all residents of McBride, and nearby Elmwood, in relocating to other places.

The 75-year-old complexes are no longer considered safe, and Housing and Urban Development officials have said it’s too costly to renovate them. They also do not plan to build new public housing in Cairo, so some families have been moving to other nearby communities.

In heated meeting, HUD tells Cairo public housing residents they have to move

CAIRO — A gathering of Cairo residents erupted in anger Monday night as federal housing officials informed them that close to 200 families residing in two sprawling World War II-era family housing developments of the Alexander County Housing Authority will have to move out of their units in the coming months, and that there is no immediate plan to provide new government-assisted housing in Cairo to replace the developments they intend to demolish.

At first, Collier was upset about having to relocate. She has grieved, but since that time, her sadness and anger have given way to acceptance. As she was preparing this week for a final Christmas here, Collier said she was feeling “high on life” after getting a clean bill of health following a recent stroke that left her in the hospital for four days, and a new van to replace one that she said was recently shot up.

What’s important, she said, is that everyone in the family stays in touch with one another — that’s what their mother would have wanted most. 

“I just think like this. As long as we are all together, we’ll be all right. We’ll get over not being here," she said. Collier said she will take the memories with her wherever she goes.

Counting blessings 

Every Christmas, Collier said, her mom made sure that they celebrated the holiday together with gifts and plenty of good food. Pointing to the kitchen, Collier said she could still picture her mom standing over the stove cooking, and the smell of warm food wafting throughout the apartment.

“We’d have chitlins, a big ham, a big turkey. Right in this apartment, and all 10 of us was here for Christmas,” Collier said.

PROVIDED BY LISA CHILDS 

Children and grandchildren of the late Norma Jean Childs pose for a picture at McBride Place, Apartment No. 622, at Christmas in 1996. Pictured are Tonetta Barnett, Jovonna Childs Haba, Anedra Collier, Lacreasia Barnett, Lacynthia Barnett Mathews, Tyia Barnett Edmonds, and Zaleaka Childs. 

“They said we was poor, but we didn’t know it because we always had stuff for Christmas. Easter, too, we’d have big pretty dresses like everybody else,” Collier said. “We didn’t know that we was poor until we growed up and people said we was.

"We had everything that everybody else had. And the most important thing of all was we had love.”

Collier’s oldest daughter, Anedra Collier, lives in the same complex with children of her own, as does her sister Terri Childs and her children. One of their brothers, Jeff Childs, works for the housing authority, and a sister, Lisa Thomas Childs, is the principal at Cairo Junior/Senior High School. They have other family members near and far, and all of them have remained close to one another over the years.

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Miracle Childs, 9, smiles in front of the Christmas tree on Tuesday, at McBride Place in Cairo.

On Tuesday evening, Lisa, Loretta, Terri and several other family members gathered at Terri’s apartment to put the finishing touches on gift bags for the children to give their teachers on Wednesday, which was the last day of school before the holiday break. They crowded into the living room, laughing and telling old stories and listening to the children talk.

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Despite suffering flu symptoms, Terri Childs (right) helps her sister, Lisa Childs Thomas, assemble Christmas gifts Tuesday evening for the children to give to their school teachers the next day. They are gathered in Childs' McBride Place apartment in Cairo.

The little things 

Terri Childs, who also lives at McBride, said she felt blessed to have a full house and everyone still nearby, even though she had recently come down with something and wasn’t feeling well that particular day. She showed off her white Christmas tree decorated with sparkling bright blue ornaments. She laughed with delight while pushing a button on the bear hanging on her door, causing it to play “Jingle Bells.”

The children love it, she said. Childs said that for her, it's the little things that bring a smile, and most of all being with her family, that make Christmas special. Childs’ home also is decorated with several of the angels that belonged to their mother.

PROVIDED BY LISA CHILDS 

Lisa Childs Thomas and her brother, Robby Childs, pose outside apartment No. 622 at McBride Place, where they were raised. The occasion was Lisa's preschool graduation ceremony, in 1975. 

Lisa Childs Thomas, who also was raised at No. 622 at McBride, though doesn’t live at the complex now, said their mother was full of love for her children and grandchildren, and always wanted everyone to feel special and come together at the holidays.

“Christmas was always special to us. That’s why it’s my favorite holiday” said Thomas, who was a preschooler when her mom moved the family into the apartment where her sister Loretta Collier now lives. As the siblings grew older, Thomas said those who had moved away would try to make it home almost every year for Christmas, which delighted their mother.

Many memories 

“Momma would buy gifts for each of her children, and when all of her children became adults, she would buy gifts for each of her children’s family, even though she was on a fixed income,” she said. “If you were without children, we got personal gifts. I loved that.” Being at McBride brings all those wonderful memories of their mom flooding back, she said. 

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Rachel Sampson, 5, holds a stuffed moose handed to her by her Aunt Terri Childs at McBride Place in Cairo on Tuesday as family members gathered to prepare Christmas gifts for the children's teachers. 

Thomas said it was hard to watch Housing and Urban Development officials board up the units at Elmwood that have been recently vacated. She said she's glad they have not started doing that at McBride in large numbers. HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said the units had to be boarded up at Elmwood because there were reports of people living illegally at the units and stealing things from empty apartments. It was done to protect the safety of the families who remain, he said.

Tom English / THE SOUTHERN FILE PHOTO 

The windows and doors to some of the units at the Elmwood Place housing complex in Cairo are boarded up Saturday, Dec. 16.

While a deadline has not been set for people to move, Brown said the agency’s goal is to return the Alexander County Housing Authority back to local control by the end of 2018, after everyone has been relocated and the complexes secured. HUD has not made clear when the complexes will be demolished. 

Brown said federal officials understand that some families want to wait until the end of the school year in May 2018 before making a move, and that will be accommodated to the extent it is possible. So far, about half of the 185 families who were living at McBride and nearby Elmwood when HUD officials announced the relocation plan on April 10, already have moved.

Looking ahead 

Collier is hoping to stay at McBride until her 18-year-old daughter Aaliyah Collier graduates from Cairo High in the spring. Then, she said she’s hoping to find a place that's close to her older daughter, Anedra Collier, once she gets settled in a new place. Anedra, who has eight children, said the main challenge to her relocation is that it’s difficult to find a five-bedroom place within the price range she can afford with her rent voucher to accommodate her large family.

Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Anedra Collier sits on the couch with Rachel Samspon, 5, who had just arrived at the McBride Place apartment belonging to Anedra's mother, Loretta Collier, on Tuesday in Cairo.

Anedra Collier, a 2002 graduate of Cairo High who served in Iraq after 9/11, said she wants to move to Williamson or Jackson counties so that she can be closer to Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She is scheduled to graduate in May with an undergraduate degree in finance, and then plans to continue on for a master's degree in the same subject. Between a newborn, starting a new job at the Dollar General store in Mounds, serving as a drill sergeant in the Army Reserves, and attending classes Monday through Thursday, Anedra also said she’s had a hard time fitting house-hunting into her schedule.

But she’s hoping for a breakthrough in early 2018.

Anedra Collier's McBride apartment is not far from her mom’s, where she was hanging out on Tuesday evening with her children. Though she has been anxious to move, and hopes that her children will have access to more and better opportunities in Marion or Carbondale, she said it’s still sad to think of spending a final Christmas in the apartment that was her grandmother’s, and where her great-grandmother also lived for a period of time, as she has many happy memories here. 

“But bigger and better things are ahead,” she said.


State-and-regional
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The story of Kaskaskia Island, Illinois’ first state capital

Editor’s note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com. 

On July 4, 1778, the bell rang and the battered people of Kaskaskia gathered. They found themselves under new rule. George Rogers Clark explained that the revolutionary government was not interested in changing their faith, but wanted to give them liberty.

The once British-occupied territory had been liberated by Clark, who was fighting for the Continental Army. About four decades later, this small settlement flanked by the Mississippi River would be the home to Illinois’ first capital.

There is a lot to Kaskaskia’s story — a lot that wouldn’t be gleaned by a visit to the sparse island on what would seem to be the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. Emily Lyons, curator for the Randolph County Archives and Museum, said she has spent the last 20 years working to preserve the county’s history in an official capacity, but has spent her life immersed in it.

Lyons said her family can be traced in a direct line back to settlers who came to what was then the Kaskaskia peninsula in the 1700s — Lyons explained that the peninsula became an island after years of deforestation along the banks of the Mississippi, as well as soil erosion, created a perfect storm in April 1818 when an ice pack at a bend in the river finally caused what was left of the remaining ties to the mainland to gave way.

Lyons explained that Kaskaskia began as one building — in 1703, the Jesuits built a chapel. Not long after, a small population of native peoples and 12 French settlers called the place home. By 1718, and several church buildings later, the chapel became a parish, the Immaculate Conception Church.

Lyons said the population grew, and, in 1725, Kaskaskia was incorporated by the French. She said Kaskaskia’s location on the Mississippi River made it ideal for shipping the agricultural goods being produced in the region, but most valuable perhaps were the furs being trapped and sent to the garment trade in Europe. She said over the course of its history, the once-bustling community garnered the moniker of the Versailles of the West. In fact, the Liberty Bell of the West was gifted to Kaskaskia’s Immaculate Conception in 1741 in recognition of its importance. The bell still sits among the scattered historic buildings left on the island.

Isaac Smith, The Southern 

The Liberty Bell of the West was rung after Kaskaskia was captured from the British in 1778 by the Colonial Army.

Lyons said before being incorporated, the king of France had sent a military detachment to build what would be Fort de Chartres. This proved to be a valuable asset in the years and conflicts to come.

After the French and Indian War ended, in 1765, Britain took the fort. Lyons said because of poor conditions there, the British moved to Kaskaskia, which is where Clark found them during the Revolutionary War. Lyons said while Clark and his men, who took Kaskaskia without a drop of blood being shed, announced they were happy to let the residents live their lives as they chose, they would need to be supplied. She said the following winter was a hard one as many larders had been raided to help with the war effort.

Lyons said after the war ended, Kaskaskia was part of several different territories. First it was part of the Virginia Commonwealth after the Treaty of 1783. Then it was in the Northwest Territory until it was part of the Indiana Territory in 1800. Finally, in 1809, Kaskaskia was part of the Illinois Territory.

When President James Monroe signed off on Illinois being admitted as the 21st state in the union in 1818, Kaskaskia was chosen as its first capital. But it didn’t last long. Within a few months of acquiring statehood, Vandalia, which was not even populated at the time, was chosen as the state’s new capital as many favored its more central location within the original 16 southern counties. The first meeting of the second General Assembly was held at a newly constructed statehouse in 1820.

Though at one time home to a vibrant population, Kaskaskia Island now is home to an almost startling quiet. Fewer than 100 people call the island home, with miles (in some cases) between houses. The Liberty Bell of the West sits encased in a brick shrine and the Immaculate Conception Church, its final brick building, just a few yards away. Yawning trees dot the grounds.

Lyons said while Kaskaskia is not the tourism hub of, say, Abraham Lincoln’s estate in the current state capital of Springfield, she is happy with things the way they are. She said many who still live on the island do so for a reason — it’s quiet. She said her biggest struggle as curator is getting people to see the value in history, as well as seeing the value in keeping historic buildings standing when possible.

“Sometimes the impression is new is better,” she said, noting the irony that many buildings that replace historic structures are often estimated to last only a few decades while those that come down have lasted centuries.

She said she always tries to explain the value in these historic places. And when she loses, she is not happy.

“It’s not a good feeling,” Lyons said of seeing pieces of her county’s history meet the wrecking ball.

Lyons said she wants to preserve her home’s history and wants to ensure the buildings and museums can be maintained. This has been no easy task, as budgets in Illinois have shrunk in recent decades. However, she said she has to strike a balance when it comes to Kaskaskia: The grounds and buildings need to be kept up and the history should be celebrated, but not at the expense of those who still call Illinois’ first capital their home.

“The rich and famous go off and buy islands so they can have a secluded place to live, and we don’t have to do that,” Lyons said. “We have a secluded place.”


Carbondale
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In open letter, WDBX station manager and volunteers call for resignation of board — his bosses

CARBONDALE — A community radio station manager claims the station's Board of Directors has been hands-off and absent in the management and day-to-day operations of the business, and he and volunteers need them to resign so the entity can move forward.

In an open letter to the Southern Illinois community, Dave Armstrong, station manager at WDBX 91.1 FM, Advisory Board members and some volunteers called for the resignation of the station's governing board — the Heterodyne Broadcasting Co.'s Board of Directors — Armstrong's bosses.

The station volunteers shared the letter on the radio station's Facebook page, calling for the resignation of the Heterodyne Board of Directors, which runs the station.  The radio station is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation.

The letter-writers criticized the now two-member board for being distant and disengaged in the oversight of the station.

Armstrong said he planned a meeting with the board on Dec. 12, intending to discuss future direction for the station.

Shortly after they came together, the three board members entered executive session, to which Armstrong said he was excluded. During that meeting, one of the board members, Navreet Kang, resigned.  He said the other two board members left without talking to him.

Armstrong said the next day, he and some advisory board members and volunteers wrote an internal email to Egert and Turk, setting the one-week deadline to respond to their concerns.

After the seven-day deadline, the group posted the open letter to its Facebook page.

In the open letter, the letter writers suggest that once the board resigns, that a committee convene to appoint a new seven-member governing board.

"A timeline of one week was set to begin this process — to have a meaningful meeting with this goal in mind, and to start the difficult work necessary to move forward," the open letter reads. "It was also made clear that after that week, a lack of meaningful engagement from the Board members would result in our public expression of those demands, and a call for the resignation of all current Heterodyne Board members."

The letter was signed by Armstrong and five advisory board members, 11 volunteers, one underwriter/volunteer and one listener-supporter.

Sometime after the station was founded, the Heterodyne Board appointed an advisory board. Armstrong said that after some time, the advisory board members realized they had no real power or say in the management of the station.

Armstrong said, overwhelmingly, the community response to the letter has been positive.

Gene Turk, one of the Heterodyne Board members, said Armstrong plans to take over the station and privatize it. Turk, who said he was also speaking on behalf of fellow board member Tom Egert, said his next steps were to enjoy the coming holidays.

“It’s sad … that he is using a public forum for his own personal soapbox, not even soapbox, trying to take over,” Turk said.

"I want to enjoy Christmas," Turk said, "and then after Christmas, we’ll sit down and try to figure out what should we do here."

Kang noted that anyone considering taking over the station or the board needed to note that that came with a financial responsibility, such as management of about $75,000 in loans for the station. He and Turk said about $70,000 of that was for the building mortgage and the other $5,000-plus for a lot next to the station on Washington Street.

WDBX is run by about 100 volunteers — excluding Armstrong, its only paid staff member. The station has an operating budget of $100,000, about two-thirds of which comes from community donations and the other one-third from underwriters and sponsorships.

Now that Kang, who handled the station's financial matters, has resigned, Armstrong said he is not sure who would authorize the payment of his paycheck. But,he added, he is not worried about that at this point.


Pinckneyville
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Fire destroys popular Pinckneyville restaurant

PINCKNEYVILLE — Christmas lights were still bright on a street post over what is left of the Grecian Steak and Seafood House, after a Saturday morning destroyed the popular restaurant, which is owned by Angelo Sandravelis.

Pinckneyville Fire Chief Jim Gielow said the department was called to the restaurant at 502 S. Main St. at about 6:20 a.m. Saturday.

Fire departments from Du Quoin and Tamaroa were called to assist with the fire. Gielow said they were at the scene most of the morning.

“The building is a total loss. They were in the process of remodeling and expanding it,” Gielow said.

As people walked or drove down Main Street, they slowed to look the pile of rubble where the restaurant stood. Around town, people talked about the tragic fire and expressed hope that the Sandravelis family will rebuild.

George and Betty Culley of Pinckneyville ate at the restaurant Friday afternoon after a food giveaway at Least of the Brethren Food Pantry, which they run. 

“We had a gift certificate. I’m glad we went yesterday,” Betty Culley said. “I hope they rebuild.”

“We had dinner about 2 p.m. He said they were about 90 percent done with remodeling,” George Culley said.

The couple say they eat at Grecian as often as they can, and really hope the family rebuilds. 

“They had done a lot of work already. This has put them back. They will have to start all over,” Gielow said.

The news spread online, too. A Facebook post by Perry County Treasurer Mary Jane Craft was shared nearly 900 times. Pictures showed the restaurant building engulfed in flames. Patrons and friends offered best wishes to the family and talked about enjoying the restaurant.

At this time, the cause of the fire is unknown.

“The fire is being investigated by the State Fire Marshall to determine the cause, but it may be pretty hard to do with all the damage,” Gielow said.