Sun columnist wrote the book on Naperville's past
July 19, 2010 — Source: The Naperville Sun — Author: KATHY MILLEN
Genevieve Towsley documented Naperville's history for almost 50 years and, as a result, became an important chapter in the story as well.
Soft-spoken by nature, Towsley made her voice heard through her writing. She joined The Sun staff in 1954 and, during her heyday, wrote about community leaders and ordinary people who helped mold the city into what it is today.
Peggy Frank, executive director of Naper Settlement and the Naperville Heritage Society, said Towsley wasn't afraid to tackle important issues in her columns.
"What was often so unique about Genevieve was her willingness to address potentially sensitive subjects and not shy away from potentially controversial issues," she said. "She was a very unbiased recorder of what was occurring in our community. I think she had a very discriminating eye to identify what actually was significant that was occurring at the time that may have been overlooked by other reporters and writers of the day."
While Towsley covered Naperville's emergence as one of Chicago's fastest-growing suburbs, she is probably best known as the city's historian. She wrote two columns: The Grapevine and Sky-Lines. The first was news of what was going on in town at that time. The second included features and stories of Naperville's past. A selection from the latter was published in the 1975 book "A View of Historic Naperville." Some 35 years and seven printings later, it remains the definitive history of the city up to that time.
She wrote about the early days when the Blackhawk Indians populated the area. She wrote about Capt. Joseph Naper and other early settlers whose names are still visible on street and subdivision signs throughout the community. She wrote about the diaries Naperville resident Hannah Ditzler Alspaugh kept during the Civil War. She wrote about the infamous night in 1868 when a band of men from Wheaton sneaked into the DuPage County Courthouse, then in Naperville, and absconded with county records, thus robbing Naperville of its status as county seat.
She documented her own times as well, charting the growth of downtown Naperville and Edward Hospital's rise from a tuberculosis sanitorium to a modern-day hospital. She wrote about the evolution of Naper Settlement, the YMCA and the Naperville Municipal Band. She interviewed some of the city's most influential residents of the time, including Harold Moser, Judge Win Knoch and artist-historian Lester Schrader.
Frank said Towsley wrote from a strong human interest perspective, which helped make the stories she was telling relevant to her readers.
"Her collection of articles has become, in essence, a bible of local history," Frank said. "But I think something that's often overlooked about Genevieve's contributions through the written word, beyond the historic Sky-Lines columns, were her very newsy Grapevine columns. Those, themselves, have become historical records of current events as they occurred in our community."
Three years ago, Caryl Towsley Moy of Springfield published a book about her mother. She said Naperville would not look like it does today had it not been for her mother's columns. Through them, Towsley put her imprint on the community. She exposed secret plans to develop a dog track at what is now the research corridor along I-88. She championed the creation of Naper Settlement, which has preserved the city's history. She opened her arms to newcomers who have made their own contributions.
"I think the fact that she was so welcoming to new families who were not traditionally Naperville people made Naperville a richer town," Moy said. "When she would write about a new Argonne scientist or a teacher at the college, the flavor would be 'aren't we lucky to have these people.'"
Towsley died in 1996 at age 88. Since then, Naperville Century Walk unveiled a bronze statue in her likeness outside Barnes & Noble in downtown Naperville; NCTV included her among notable local women in the documentary "A Role of Her Own"; and Naper Settlement inducted her into its Heritage Hall of Honor.
Frank said Towsley's contributions as a reporter and historian have been invaluable.
"She was a very warmhearted person who could get anyone to open up to her," Frank said. "I think that was part of what made her oral history so successful. She got people to tell the stories they might not have told others."