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Uh, How Old Did You Say You Were?

Over at the Gogebic County courthouse on June 11, 1928, the Reverend Axel G. Pearson officiated the nuptials of 21 year-old Gisborn Sherman Penrose of Hurley, Wisconsin and 19 year-old Helmi Sylvia Johnson of Ironwood, Michigan as witnessed by Leo Penrose, the groom’s cousin, and Signia Johnson, the bride’s sister. At least that’s what the marriage license said.

It was June 11, 1928 in Ironwood, Michigan. The weather was a typical 70 degrees, a bit windy but mostly sunny. Not much was happening in the world. The Republicans were getting ready to nominate Herbert Hoover for president in the upcoming election but only after “mad speculation and nervous expectancy” would grip the convention goers in Kansas City. President and Mrs. Coolidge were departing for their summer home in Brule, Wisconsin and were not expected to return to Washington, D.C. until September.

Over at the Gogebic County courthouse, the Reverend Axel G. Pearson officiated the nuptials of 21 year-old Gisborn Sherman Penrose of Hurley, Wisconsin and 19 year-old Helmi Sylvia Johnson of Ironwood, as witnessed by Leo Penrose, the groom’s cousin, and Signia Johnson, the bride’s sister.

At least that’s what the marriage license said.

And so began a love story for the ages. Sherm (he never went by Gisborn) was one of thirteen children born to Leslie Gisbourne Penrose (yes, the two names were spelled differently and also spelled differently from their namesake, Frederic Newton Gisborne (1824-1892), the Canadian inventor of the Transatlantic Cable that facilitated telegraph communication between Europe and North America) and Mary Alma Carothers. L.G. hailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, although his parents were first-generation English and Irish immigrants. Other branches of the Penrose tree, however, could trace their exceptionally prominent American roots back to the 1600s. Mary Alma could also trace her American roots back to the early 1700s.

Helmi (who was known as Helma) was one of twelve children born to Otto William Korhonen and Marianna Fiskaali, both Finnish immigrants, who changed their surname to Johnson. Almost immediately, Sherman and Helma left Michigan for Louisville, Kentucky, where Eileen, Sherman and Darlene (my mother) were born. After a brief return to Wisconsin, where daughter Marilyn was born, the Penroses moved to California, where Richard, Carolyn, and Russell were born.

Sherman was always good with his hands. When the family moved to Yamhill, Oregon during World War II, he built their house, and after a fire burned it down, he rebuilt it a second time. He was also an entrepreneur, having owned several businesses over the course of his adult life. But I think his real love was the automobile. The above photo shows him working as an auto mechanic around the time he got married. He was a champion drag racer, winning titles at the old Santa Ana Drags strip. By day, the strip was actually the runway at what is today John Wayne International Airport, but on Friday and Saturday nights in the 1950s it was transformed into a speedway for the four-wheeled set

Not that he necessarily treated his personal vehicles kindly. For as long as I knew him, Grandpa always drove a Cadillac. He was quite short — around 5′ 2″ — and he claimed that the Cadillac helped his back (but I suspect he drove a Cadillac because, well, it was a Cadillac). In the mid-1960s he bought a brand new Coupe de Ville with a white interior and the day he bought it he threw a lawnmower engine on the floor in the back seat. Around Thanksgiving he would throw a bunch of grandchildren in the back seat and go “look at the turkeys.” He did spare us the thought of knowing the turkey dinner we would soon be enjoying was itself thrown in the trunk.

Speaking of height, he did not let his stature get the better of him. One day we went to visit and were told he was in the garage working on a car. We went out there and said hello. He said hello back but we couldn’t see him. It took a moment or two to figure out that he had actually climbed inside the car’s engine well.

My grandparents were together for half a century. Grandpa Penrose was conservative and for most of his life believed that a woman’s place was in the kitchen. But Grandma Penrose died a couple of years before him (on the Monday following her 70th birthday — to live to 70 was a goal the two of them shared) and Grandpa, suffering from emphysema and largely on oxygen, was suddenly left to his own devices. And again, he rose to the occasion. My mother would drive him to the supermarket and they would pick out fresh ingredients for soup. Grandpa would then make a big pot of soup which would last for several days. To this day, I cannot eat a bowl of soup without thinking of his transformation into a gourmet soup-maker.

Grandpa also met their goal of living to the age of seventy, for on February 16, 1981 — the Monday following his 70th birthday — he passed away in the arms of my mother. Now, normally when doing a celebration of one of my family member’s birthdate it’s common to state the date up front at the beginning, but in the case of Sherman Penrose there’s a slight problem.

Remember mention of the marriage license which stated that Sherman was 21 years old back in 1928? This would not become publicly known even to his wife for well more than forty years when he was required to produce a birth certificate in order to receive Social Security benefits, but the license was incorrect.

That happens when you lie about your age to the county clerk.

It turns out that Grandpa Penrose was not 21 when he got married, but 17. We will never know Helma’s reaction had she known the truth back in 1928. I suspect they would have worked something out, but as we celebrate the life of Gisborn Sherman Penrose today (and also my great grandfather Reuben Francis Bousman who died this day in 1937), I think it goes a long way in explaining the looks on my grandmother’s face in some of the gallery photos. Check them out here and here

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