By Matt Dutton, The Quincy Herald-Whig
Quincy, IL (AP) – Margaret “Margie’’ McClain has lived at least nine lives.
The 97-year-old has been an advertising representative, a journalist during World War II, a college student, a mother and a painter, to name a few. Oil paintings of landscapes line the walls of her home – a hobby she has only recently picked up. She moves a little slower today than she used to, and she’s a little more apt to cry while telling a painful war-time story, but her reflections on her near-century of life are overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve been blessed, fortunate, lucky,’’ she said.
McClain was drawn to journalism at an early age. She once interviewed Amelia Earhart eight months before the famous pilot vanished. After a brief conversation with Earhart following an assembly at Quincy High School, McClain walked away only to realize she had been so taken by the woman that she had forgotten to write any notes. On another occasion, popular violinist Dave Rubinoff offered to let her play his famed $100,000 Stradivarius violin during an after-assembly interview. She couldn’t dare.
“We got some interesting speakers for those assemblies,’’ she said.
A love for advertising found her working as first a copy writer and then advertising manager – she still takes pride in reaching management by 21 – after high school at Halbach Schroeder. When a Marine Corps recruiter came in to run some ads to encourage women to join the branch – the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve was created in 1943 – the ad she wrote was so good that she sold herself on it. Shortly after, she found herself on a bus to Chicago to take the train with many other women to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for boot camp. She was 23.
“The war had started, and everybody wanted to do something to help,’’ she said. “It was a different war.’’
Stationed in Quantico, Va., she became a combat correspondent, interviewing dignitaries and reporting the stories of Marines returning home from battle. Many of her stories, especially those that garnered national attention, were picked up by the Associated Press, United Press and the Washington Post. She remembers interviewing the secretary of the interior and Winston Churchill’s nephew, who was in town for a polo match.
A year later, she was sent to Parris Island, S.C. One story in particular has stuck with her over the years, and it’s still hard to talk about.
Tasked with reporting on a soldier who had saved 10 men and had his ear shot off in the process, and who didn’t want to share the story, McClain searched for common ground, and she found it in chess. She found a rapport with the man, and coaxed a little personal information from him. All he wanted was to go back to war, but with his injury, he could not. He is memorable for McClain because his anger and misery were so apparent.
“It’s hard for me to talk about, even now,’’ she said. “I know how he felt, I think. When you get older, you realize the emotions of other people.’’
After serving two years, from October 1943 to October 1945, she took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at Quincy College, with dreams of becoming an advertising representative on Fifth Avenue in New York City. In college, she met the man who would become her husband, Elmo McClain. He was one of her best friends’ brothers. They had always been friends, but somewhere along the way, the friendship turned into love.
“That destroyed my New York plans,’’ she said. “I no longer wanted to be in advertising on Madison Avenue. This took priority.’’
She had never really considered marriage or having a family until she met Elmo. They married on Dec. 26, 1946 and had eight children.
She was a stay-at-home mom. Elmo was a coach and would later go on to become a state representative. Elmo served four terms and was often away for extended periods when the legislature was in session.
“Being a coach’s wife, there’s a lot of nights when he had late practices, and you learn to adjust your family and your life,’’ she said. “You get used to your husband being gone.
“But he called home at least two times every day, and usually three times.’’
Elmo died in 1972 at 54, after 25 years of marriage. McClain has been without her husband for 45 years. She has 24 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
“It blew my mind when I turned 90,’’ she said. “How could anyone live 90 years?’’
She concedes, with a bit of frustration, that in the last two years, her body has begun to “feel its age,’’ but mentally, she is still young. Seven years ago, she took up oil painting and transformed the back room of her home into a studio. Lining the walls of her home are dozens of images of waterfalls and mountains all signed “Mcmc.’’ Her most prized work is a highly-detailed portrait of her mother hanging in her living room.
Sitting on an end table near the portrait is a framed photograph of McClain and her oldest son, Mike, in Washington D.C., taken when they participated in the Honor Flight together. McClain has been named marshal of this year’s Veterans Parade, which will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4, from 12th and Maine to 5th and Maine.
“I love this country very much,’’ she said. “I don’t know if you can be humbled and proud at the same time, but I’m very humbled and proud.’’
Margie McClain with an old photo of herself