Walter Wright dabbed his brow, then gently wiped stinging sweat from the eyes of his panting, very pregnant wife Wilma.
Glenn Miller’s Moon Love played low on the radio but this was a very Earthbound and stifling hot corridor at St. Mary's Hospital in East St. Louis, Illinois, August 7, 1939.
As Wilma was wheeled into the delivery room, a nun rushed ahead to make sure the drapes were fully drawn; a futile effort to block out the blistering summer sun. But there was no air conditioner, no fan, no escape from the blanketing, sweltering heat that smothered the room.
2006 144 pages
Wilma had joked if there’d been a contest over the gender of her coming first child, she’d win. Now, drenched in sweat, deep in labour, Wilma knew she’d won: She was giving birth to a girl. Her daughter would bear the unusual name of Caroleen Ruth Wright, a special name for a special girl, destined for an unusual life… a contest-winner was born…
As the Wrights drove back to their home in the nearby leafy little town of Maplewood Park, they grinned at the newborn Caroleen asleep on her mother’s lap and reflected on their own lives.
Wilma, the only child of Otis and Ora Gray, was born in Chester but at age 3 moved with her parents to enjoy a quiet life at Maplewood Park.
In contrast, Walter hailed from Columbia, Tennessee, was the fourth of seven children, and his life was far from uneventful:
When he was 10, his mother died from tuberculosis shortly after giving birth to twin girls. One of the babies died. The other, Francis, survived but had severe cerebral palsy. His father moved the family to Springhill, TN, and the children were separated and placed with various relatives. Still grieving the loss of his mother, Walter soon came to feel alone and unwanted as he was shuffled from one relative to another, eventually winding up in Nashville. The emotional scars never healed and a dark side festered in Walter that would eventually reveal itself with tragic consequences. Walter dropped out of Grade 8 and worked several unskilled jobs before arriving in Maplewood Park in 1938, at age 20, to board with a relative, Cliff Latta, and work for his heating coal delivery business.
During a coal delivery to 733 Mildred Avenue, Walter came upon the pretty 17-year-old Wilma, who found him the “most handsome man,” she’d ever seen. It was a fair assessment: Nearly six feet tall, Walter had a well tanned muscular build, tousled hair streaked blond from the sun and “gorgeous blue eyes that twinkled when he laughed.” Sparks flew.
Wilma’s parents however were far from impressed. Ora claimed he came a-courting barefoot, though Wilma disputed this. No one denies he drove up for a date in an old Model-T Ford in dire need of a paint job. But Wilma and her girlfriends soon made it shine with bright yellow paint.
A gifted musician, Wilma, on graduating from Dupo High School, won a music scholarship and was promised a music instructor job after she completed her studies. But she never took advantage of this opportunity.
Deeply in love with Walter, she decided to forego school in the fall of 1938 and instead eloped with Walter to St. Charles, Missouri, where they were married by a Justice of the Peace. Her size-3 peach-colored prom dress served as her wedding gown. The newlyweds honeymooned in a boarding house before moving into Walter’s room next to a barn at Cliff Latta’s coal delivery business.
Soon after, the coal business was sold to man with sons and Walter was no longer needed. He got a watchman’s job on the levee along the Mississippi River paying $20 per week but he had to kick back $5 to keep the job. To supplement his income he also dug ditches and graves.
One day he heard about a job paying $40 a week at the Aluminum Ore plant in E. St. Louis. He found out where the job supervisor lived and went to the man’s house several times until he found him at home. The supervisor was so impressed with Walter’s persistence that he hired him.
After Caroleen’s arrival, Walter became a bricklayer and repaired the Aluminum Ore plant smoke stacks. Occasionally he’d find a pigeon's nest at the top of one of the smoke stacks, with baby pigeons in the nest. Other workers would throw the nests and the chicks to the ground, but Walter would put the tiny birds in his pockets and bring them home where he and Wilma hand fed them until they were big enough to be on their own.
In 1942, When Caroleen was 3, her only sibling, Jo Ann, was born and the young family rented a small frame 3-room house on Mildred Avenue with a red picket fence – and an outhouse out back. There was no running water. Wilma had to pump water and heat the water for dishes and bathing. The home’s saving grace was that it was on the same street as Wilma’s parents. With World War II raging, Walter expected to be drafted at any time and wanted his family close by the children’s grandparents.
Despite wartime, Caroleen enjoyed an idyllic early childhood. Walter earned enough money to enroll her in tap dancing lessons at the Mary Louise Dance School followed by ice sodas at a Woolworth’s Dime Store. “I loved tap dancing,” Caroleen recalls. “I liked the noise the tap shoes made….” She would fondly recollect the experience many years later as a contestant in the Ms Illinois American Senior Classic Pageant – and would win the talent portion of the pageant with her tap routine.