Hometown Heroes ~ From Thank Yous to Carnegie Medals


Last summer, Nancy Nordin, a loyal reader of Reminisce, gave me her copy of the six-part Diamond Jubilee issues of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review (June 16-July18, 1966). The supplements contained newspaper articles from 1891, when the village of Grand Rapids was established, through the early1960s.

January’s column, “I just needed twenty-four hours out” Escaped Prisoners, as well as most of the others for 2023, are based on an article that intrigued me from the Diamond Jubilee issues.  What caught my eye this month was a piece about Wanda Gail “Wendy” Schickling (1924-1994), a Grand Rapids woman who was the recipient of a Carnegie Medal for Heroism in 1948. The medal is given to individuals in the United States and Canada who risk death or serious physical injury to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the lives of others.

Carnegie Medals

Schickling, the daughter of Leonard and Edna (Bentz), was a twenty-two-year-old student at Wheaton College (Illinois) when she saved five-year-old Richard Johnson and thirteen other children from a burning bus. Schickling, a Sunday school teacher at Calvary Temple in Minneapolis, was accompanying twenty-eight children on an outing when a car collided with the bus which burst into flames. Some of the children escaped out the door with the bus driver, and others through windows broken by passersby. “Flames suddenly rose 10 feet above the pool, and some extended a foot and a half inside the doorway. Dense smoke issued into the bus, and heat was intense. Men broke in two windows in the bus, and six children escaped through them. Miss Schickling kicked out a third window and handed six more children through it to a man. She felt heat searing her face and wrists; kept her eyes, which smarted, closed part of the time; and had difficulty breathing. She tried but was too weak to pull another child away from the seat to which he clung; but the man by reaching through the window did so; and he and Miss Schickling lifted the child out. She then thrust out the last remaining child; and she got her head and shoulders through the window, lost consciousness, and hung over the sill, from which she was removed. Firemen soon extinguished the flames; no explosion having occurred. Eight of the children were burned, two of them seriously; but all recovered. Miss Schickling was seriously burned, suffered severe shock, and was disabled for three months.” [Carnegie Hero Fund Commission]

After returning to school, and finishing her degree, Schickling taught at Wheaton College. In 1954 she married Aswath Maddagiri, and in 1960 the family resided in Koochiching County, where their daughter was born.

The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission maintains a searchable directory, so I looked for other recipients from our area and found one more. Forest L. Willey, the director of secondary education for the Grand Rapids School District was awarded the medal when he died attempting to save an indeterminate number of persons from being shot on October 5, 1966. “A 15-year-old boy armed with a pistol went to the parking area of a high school and there shot another boy, who fled to a nearby building. Learning of the incident, Willey, 58, emerged from his office into the parking area. The armed boy was pointed out to him. Willey remarked that he was going to try to get the gun before someone was killed. He walked toward the armed boy, who turned and faced him. Urging him to hand over the gun, Willey moved nearer. The boy fired the pistol. The bullet missed Willey, who continued forward. The boy fired two more shots. One of the bullets struck Willey, and he fell to the ground. Police arrived, and the armed boy fired the remaining bullets at them before surrendering. The boy who had been shot recovered, but Willey died.” [Carnegie Hero Fund Commission] It is my understanding that this is one of the first documented school shootings.

Leo Julien

Leo Julien, son of Joseph and Maude (LeSarge), was lauded twice in seven months for saving someone from drowning in area lakes.

The first instance was in December 1928 when Leo, aged 13, and his brother Ernest, aged 8, and his cousin Irwin LeSarge were ice skating on Hale Lake.

“The two older boys were ahead and Ernest, following them, broke through in a weak spot of the ice where the water is very deep.  His cry as he broke through attracted the attention of the other boys and Leo, kicking off his skates, went to the hole and dove in under the ice after Ernest, who had disappeared. Two attempts were necessary before he reached his brother and swam back to the hole through which he had broken.  In the meantime, young LeSarge had gone for help and another boy on the lake had secured a plank and shoved it out on the ice to the two boys in the hole.  Leo held up his brother and clung to the ice and the plank for more than 20 minutes before enough help could be summoned to get them out.

Women at the Julien home telephoned to the local exchange that the boys were in the lake and asked for help. The fire alarm was sounded and a truck load of firemen with ladders and ropes were rushed to the scene.  Many men also went out as quickly as possible.  The ice was so thin that it would scarcely bear the weight of a man, so a boat was shoved over the ice until it was beside the boys, and they were pulled into the boat.  Planks were then carried out for the men to walk on so they could haul the boat out of the hole in the ice and reach the boys and carry them ashore.

Both boys were thoroughly chilled and were rushed at once to the Itasca Hospital, where they were given first aid treatment.  They are both apparently well recovered from their experience and no worse for their long immersion in the icy water.” [12-5-1928 Grand Rapids Herald Review]

The second instance was in July 1929 at the McKinney Lake bathing beach. Seventeen-year-old Helen Rodberg was attempting to swim out to the raft, which was anchored in deep water, and began to flounder. “She was unable to make the distance and sank from sight.  Leo saw her in danger and swam out as quickly as possible.  He found it necessary to dive for the girl, then brought her to shore, where first aid was administered, and she was soon revived.

There is a real danger at McKinney bathing beach.  It is generally used on these hot days and evenings, and more than a hundred people, young and old, are frequently in the water at one time. An appeal was made to the village council this morning, and it is expected to bring immediate results.  A guard, who will have supervision over the beach, to preserve order, and to save life in case of emergency, is expected to be engaged today, and to be on duty from noon until sometime in the evening, during the time the beach is used this season.  There have been two other instances of close escapes from drowning at the beach within the past week.  No boat is kept at the beach, and no means of saving a drowning person except to have a good swimmer go into action.” [7-17-1929 Grand Rapids Herald Review]

Leo married Loretta Catherine Blaszak in 1937, and in 1950 they lived in Great Falls, Montana with their three children.

Julia Vann

Another story of heroism occurred on Wabana Lake.

Young Girl is a Real Heroine ~ 6-2-1926 Grand Rapids Herald Review

“Little Miss Julia Vann, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Chris Vann, of Coleraine, is made of the stuff that produces heroines, as shown by her actions on Sunday, when she rescued from drowning, Dorothy, the four-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Brannan of Bovey.

Both families were out at Wabana Lake, and little Dorothy went out on the boat dock and promptly fell off in about six feet of water.  Her screams attracted the attention of her eleven-year-old brother, Donald, who jumped in after her. Donald was unable to hold to the supports of the landing and reach his sister and had hard work to reach shore himself.  Julia Vann, who says she can ‘only swim a little.’ Did not hesitate but leaped in and caught the little girl as she was sinking and managed to hold her up until older people came and pulled both from the water. None of the children were any worse for their bath, except for their fright.”

In March, I will explore a moonshine manufacturing site in the woods that was active twenty years after prohibition ended.

1 Comment

  1. youngv2015 says:

    Wow, people do brave things they probably thought they could never do. The story of the bus was harrowing.


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