By Marian Brennan Pratt
The Emmett News was looking for a story from the town’s oldest senior citizen and it turned out to be Edsel Dunn. I called him to see if he would talk to me and he said “Sure.” I said, “When?” He said, “How about now?” We talked for some time sitting at his kitchen table. The door was left open and a nice breeze found its way in. There was a pleasant, easy manner about him as he talked about his life and his family. When I asked a question, I got a full answer like he was telling me a story not just answering questions. I went away that day knowing I had a most interesting story told to me by a really nice guy.
Edsel Dunn and Mary Jo Gleason were married on June 23, 1943, at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Emmett, Michigan. As the song says, “It was a clear, bright, sunshiny day.” It was also a Wednesday. Do Catholics get married on Wednesdays? It seems that Mary Jo’s mother was the Regent of the Daughters of Isabella at the time and she was expected to attend the State Convention on Mackinac Island on that same weekend. What a dilemma! The answer? A Wednesday wedding.
“I was born in Greenwood Township,” Edsel begins. “My parents owned 80 acres with a good-sized two-story home and a large banked barn and two other buildings. I have two memories of it. When I was about 3 years old, my mother made two cherry pies and set them on the windowsill to cool. I got my hands into them. I got spanked and locked in the woodshed until my dad came home. (Edsel didn’t say what happened when dad came home, and I didn’t ask) The second one: My dad had a toothache and was sitting on the edge of the bed when flames went by the window. We all got out safe, but we lost everything except the sewing machine. Dad saved that because it was just inside the front door. A friend let us live in one of his houses for a time”
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“In school, I got permission to use the out-house. When I opened the door a billy goat jumped out. When I went back inside, everyone yelled and held their noses because of the odor on my clothes. The teacher sent me home and I cried all the way because I thought I had done something wrong.”
“Farmers used to get together and butcher pigs at one farm. Us boys would get the bladders out of the pigs and clean them up and dry them, pump them up, and use them for footballs. One of our pastimes, when our parents went visiting on Sundays, was playing rodeo by riding yearling calves around the barnyard. Neighbors would gather at one house that had a radio to hear boxing matches. They would park a car outside the window and hitch the radio to the car battery and run the motor so the battery would not run down during the boxing match. I was very lucky, once I received a pair of Buster Brown high top shoes with a pocket holding a jack
knife in it.”
Edsel attended OLMC school. “Between the nun’s program and our parents, no kids were left behind,” Edsel tells about the time he was with his dad and a state policeman stopped them for not having a license plate on the car. When asked why his dad stated that he did not have the money but that he would get a plate as soon as he got the money. He also brought up, that he didn’t have the money for a ticket either. Edsel held his breath. Whew! The trooper let him go.
When Edsel and Mary Jo married, he was working at Chrysler’s in Marysville but soon got laid off. He went looking for work and landed a job at the Ford Bomber Plant in Ypsilanti but they were not quite finished building it. He had a job with a company that didn’t even have a roof yet. The plant was slated to turn out B-24 bombers and it was ready to go by the time Edsel and Mary Jo got themselves moved to Ypsilanti. A large number of workers were women since the war in Europe was going full force. (“Rosie the Riveter”) After 6 months, Edsel informed his boss that he was leaving to enlist in the Air Force. The boss informed him right back that he could not quit because it was considered “war work”. Edsel left the Bomber Plant that day, went to Selfridge Air Force Base, and enlisted. “I guess it was all right,” he said, “Nobody put me in jail”.
Edsel went to flight school and learned to be a bomber pilot starting in October 1943. He flew B-25 twin-engine planes with a five-man crew including himself as the pilot, a co-pilot, a navigator, a bombardier, and a gunner. In March of 1945, Edsel was home on leave when his dad was hit by a car in Emmett and killed. He was able to extend his leave because of the family tragedy but the war was nearly over when he returned to duty. He flew into California and was scheduled to go to the East Indies when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
Mary Jo had come home to live with her parents as many women did at the time when the war took their husbands away. When Edsel returned in 1945, they rented a house in Emmett. He got his original job back at Chrysler’s in Marysville and they built a house. Mary Jo was a devoted D of I member like her mother – the reason she got married on Wednesday, remember? She worked for a short time at the Romeo car plant and also worked as a cashier in the grocery store. Her next job was being a mom. Edsel drove jitney on the day shift at Chrysler’s until he got bumped to midnights in the metal shop. He felt there was not enough work and was told by his union boss to “look busy”. Edsel didn’t really know how to “look busy”. He knew how to BE busy but LOOK busy? – not so much. When he would go out for his lunch, he would walk along the railroad tracks and wind up helping load the boxcars. This got him in a load of trouble. He quickly learned that in the union, you did your job and nobody else’s. When I asked Edsel if he continued to work at Chryslers, he said “Oh, no, I had a lot of jobs in my lifetime.”
Edsel quit Chryslers and took a job at a gas station where he drove truck and delivered fuel oil and gas for Texaco. His next job was on the non-stop Grand Trunk Mail service train from Port Huron, Michigan to Flint to Chicago and back. Since the train was not stopping, the station man had to set the system so the train could “hook” the mail bags as it went through town. At the same time, while the train was still traveling at a pretty high rate of speed, Edsel had to throw the bag containing that town’s in-coming mail on to the roadway so it could be picked up. There was a certain knack to it. If you threw it too soon, it might hit the station and split open, if it was too late the station man might have to climb into the ditch to retrieve it. And if one was really unlucky the bag ended up underneath the train and that was never good. The mail crew would stay overnight at the YMCA in Chicago and the next day, start all over again. There were times when Edsel had to take the special delivery mail to Canada before the start of their run. He was carrying a gun during these times because he had to walk several blocks late at night in a bad neighborhood. He had to travel by ferry across the St. Clair River and the boatman noticed the gun on one trip and said “How did you get that thing into Canada?” He then cautioned Edsel that if he was caught with a gun in Canada, he would surely be incarcerated. Edsel decided he wouldn’t be “packin” from then on. The next job was delivering oil and gas to farmers for Standard Oil Co (later Amoco) starting in 1953 and working for 23 years.
Edsel has been a member of Emmett Lions Club for 60 years – president three times, a member of the American Legion and Knights of Columbus, was president of the Village of Emmett and a charter member of the fire department. He was Township Supervisor for 15 years and Assessor for 13 years. During the time that Edsel was president of the village, Ford Motor Company considered bringing a plant to Emmett. Although they tried to follow up on it, nobody was ever able to find out why Ford didn’t make it to Emmett.
In 1948, Emmett set up a volunteer fire department. Bill Brandon, who was a member of the Flint Fire Department, was able to find a used Fire Engine for Emmett. There was only an engine – no separate tanker truck. 500 gallons of water were on the engine truck which was almost too big. Edsel says after you backed the truck in, there was about an inch extra on each side. The first fire the new Emmett Department was called to was the Ruby Lions Club. It was winter. Driving the truck which, by the way, did not have a cab, only a windshield, was the toughest job but Edsel and one other volunteer rode hanging on to the back of the truck all the way to the fire in zero-degree weather. That job may have counted as a tough job too.
Edsel’s Uncle had a gas station and sold Plymouth cars. Edsel asked him to please be on the look-out for a good used car for him. Uncle Irvin came up with a really good car and the story was that it had been owned by a school teacher – a little 1939 two-door coup – low mileage, the only problem Edsel had with the car was that it was “powder blue” but he drove it anyway – no need to be choosey.
After he retired from his Standard Oil job, Edsel set out to, what do you think – find a job, of course. He found one selling real estate, working at this last job for 23 years.
Edsel is deceased now, but he is remembered as a stand-up member of his community.
This article was originally published on November 26, 2019 and has since been updated.