In memoriam

Sever Severson's headstone, 1864Memorial Day is a day set aside to remember and to honor the American men and women who have died while in military service. Unlike Veterans Day, which celebrates the service of all U.S. veterans, Memorial Day is specifically set aside to commemorate those who died while serving.

In this post, I’d like to commemorate the sacrifices of family members who have died while in the service of our country. If you know of people I have missed, or if you know of details beyond what I’ve presented here, please let me know in the comments section.

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A Death Greatly Exaggerated, part 2


Warning—the conclusions of this post are now known to be incorrect.  See the “He’s dead, Jim (or, Down a blind alley)” post for details.


In part 1 of this story, I introduced my great-great-grandfather Gilbert Michael Scherer. According to family tradition, Gilbert died a traumatic death shortly before 1900, when he was only about 22 years old or younger. According to his granddaughter, Anna Cornelia (“Anelia”) Hayes, who wrote a history of the family,

“Gilbert Shearer was building a home in Missouri.  He was working on the roof when he fell off across a tree stump, bursting his abdomen open.  He fell from his house while shingling his roof.  He was taken to a sanatorium, but died four days later. He was buried in Edmond Cemetery, 4 miles north of Powersville, MO.”

This would indeed be a sad end to a short life, if the story were true. It is not.

I don’t know if Gilbert fell off a house, or if he landed on a tree stump and burst his abdomen, or if he was in a sanatorium as a result. What I do know is what I’ve learned through my research; namely, that Gilbert did not die in 1900 as the family (or at least some of the family) was led to believe. Instead, he appears to have moved away and started a new life. At least two family members—his mother Emma and his sister Ivy—knew about his second life, and it’s very likely that his younger brother Leslie also knew that he hadn’t died.
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A Death Greatly Exaggerated, part 1


Warning—the conclusion of this post is now known to be incorrect.  See the “He’s dead, Jim (or, Down a blind alley)” post for details.


My grandfather, Vernon Curtis Black, was named Vernon Cornelius Shearer at birth. I don’t know why he stopped using Cornelius (his maternal grandfather’s name), but I have a fairly clear understanding of why he changed his last name. When Vernon was only five years old, his biological father, Ray Shearer (born Zyonia Ray Shearer), was given an ultimatum by Vernon’s mother Catalina: he could sober up and stay with the family, or he could continue to go out drinking with his friends and flirting with women. Ray chose the latter option, and Vernon never saw his biological father again.

As the ancient proverb states, however, there are always two sides to every story. Ray was apparently a friendly, outgoing man who had his own childhood scars—he also lost his father, Gilbert Michael Scherer, when he was only about five years old. According to Vernon’s younger sister Anna Cornelia (“Anelia”) Hayes,

“Gilbert Shearer was building a home in Missouri.  He was working on the roof when he fell off across a tree stump, bursting his abdomen open.  He fell from his house while shingling his roof.  He was taken to a sanatorium, but died four days later. He was buried in Edmond Cemetery, 4 miles north of Powersville, MO.”

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My uncle’s plane crash

My uncle Gary was in a fatal plane crash just a few months before I was born. He was only 17 years old and he was taking flying lessons with the hope of earning his pilot’s license. It must have seemed a perfectly safe and reasonable choice to his parents, as they lived close to the Van Nuys airport and his father was also a licensed private pilot.

Gary and his instructor took off from Van Nuys airport in the single-engine Ercoupe on Saturday, January 22, 1966. The Ercoupe has only two seats—Gary was seated in the left-hand seat and his instructor, Donald K. Carey, was seated in the right-hand seat. On their approach to the Santa Paula airport from the northeast, their plane apparently ran out of fuel just short of the airport. Their plane sputtered and lost altitude. The plane hit a eucalyptus tree in a residential backyard, and nearly hit two houses before it crashed into electrical and telephone wires. The plane made a hard landing on its right side, crushing the right wing and causing fatal injuries to Mr. Carey.

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The drowning death of Rose Prettyman

I’ve returned from Minnesota with a pile of scans and documents that’ll take me months to pore through. Before I get started with that, I want to satisfy a request my uncle made a couple of months ago—to learn more about the death of his father’s mother. Dan, this one’s for you.

The drowning death of my great-grandmother, Rosa “Rose” Cecilia (Gores) Prettyman, in 1945 on the St. Croix River is an event that has been shrouded in mystery in my family for decades. In the absence of specifics, stories have arisen. As with other family stories obscured by time and the lack of retelling of first-hand accounts (see these earlier posts), imagined details have evolved to fill the vacuum of understanding. I have heard at least three versions of the story of Rose’s death: Continue reading

Death by honeymoon

Towards the end of her life, my father’s mother, Dorothy Ruth McMurry Black, dropped a bombshell on me.  She told me she had accidentally killed her first husband on their honeymoon.  A first husband?  Accidentally killed on their honeymoon?  I was eager to learn more both of these revelations, but she was clearly very emotional about the incident, and I didn’t want to push her too hard.

Over the years, I managed to get her to tell me a few additional details about her first husband, but both he and the circumstances of his death were topics she did not like to talk about, and so the details remained largely unknown to me. Continue reading

The drunk-driving triple homicide

While my grandfather, William Eugene Prettyman, was alive, he alluded on a few occasions to an accident he was in in which three people were killed.  To the best of my knowledge, he didn’t tell the full story to any of his family members, but he conveyed enough overlapping pieces to several family members that the skeleton of a confusing story slowly came into focus. Continue reading