As a boy growing up in the southern Illinois town of Herrin, Bradley professor James Ballowe enjoyed carefree days playing in Harrison's Woods.
No one then told him about the hanging, the shootings, the unmerciful deaths that left the woods littered with the bodies of strikebreakers one summer day in 1922. No one told him about the role his grandfather might have played in that bloody massacre. No one told him about the town's residents who brought their children to see the sight, nor how onlookers ignored pleas for water from those who had somehow eluded death. And no one told him about the disdain that an entire nation felt for the people of this small coal mining town in Williamson County.
A pall of silence had fallen across the town-a silence filled with so much fear that there were no whispers of the tragedy between a mother and a child, even decades later. Ballowe, professor of English, who also has served the University as associate provost and dean of the Graduate School and as dean of the College of Communications and Fine Arts, learned about the buried legacy of his hometown while in college, when he read the book Bloody Williamson by historian Paul Angle. "I was shocked, because I found my grandfather's name in the book. I talked to my mother briefly on a visit home, and she 'pooh-poohed' the book. My mother was a teenager at the time of the massacre. She was sent to relatives in another town with her younger brother."
Later, his mother began to unravel the story for him in bits and pieces. She talked about taking the trolley to Marion to visit her father in the county jail. He and 35 others had been indicted for murder, though no one was ever convicted.
Ballowe couldn't know how this revelation in young adulthood would impact his professional life years later. He began teaching at Bradley and quickly gained respect from both colleagues and students. He later accepted administrative positions, but never lost his love for the classroom or for writing. Through the years, he wrote poetry and prose, including The Coal Miners, a book of poetry. But there was always something gnawing at him. There were questions, and he became determined to find answers.
Ballowe queries, "What does this do to the person who begins to contemplate?"
Eventually, his quest for answers changed the direction of his scholarly work. Ballowe says, "I really wanted to get back to teaching and writing. I took a one-semester sabbatical, and I started writing a poem. It became a 60-page poem relating to Paul Angle's book about the Herrin Massacre, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and the gang wars. I came away with a feeling that I had something there."
When Ballowe returned to the classroom, he began teaching classes in autobiography and creative non-fiction. He adds, "That was the sort of writing that I had had the most success with. It was a natural, because I have always felt that teachers should teach what they themselves can do."
Ballowe had won an Illinois Arts Council Award for Creative Non-Fiction, along with two such awards in poetry.
He says, "I started writing articles about little-known events in the state of Illinois which in some way have had a great impact on me or others."
Ballowe's "The Work of Our Fathers," an essay about the Herrin Massacre, was published in the Chicago Reader on June 30, 1995. He also wrote pieces about Italo Balbo's arrival at Chicago's 1933 Columbian Exposition; about Kerker Quinn '33, who edited Accent, an internationally-known "little" magazine; and about a press in a small central Illinois town that became the largest publisher of poetry in the nation during the 1940s.
He also is preparing a book manuscript of essays on Illinois subjects. His poetry and his essays will be represented in anthologies of Illinois writers to be published in 1998. He also intends to write a history of Bradley, where he has spent 35 years of his professional life.
Ballowe recently collaborated with producer Gary Covino in creating a public radio documentary about the Herrin Massacre. He returned to Herrin and interviewed some of the people who witnessed it. The documentary, narrated by Ballowe, was broadcast in Chicago and Carbondale, and over Labor Day weekend in 1997, it aired nationally on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.
Discussing his appreciation for creative non-fiction, Ballowe concludes, "People like to talk about the surface of Illinois. I like to get beneath it."