Article helps man discover family history
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009
When Joerg and Wendee Theilemann asked the Pekin Times to find the rightful heirs to a box full of personal mementos they had purchased five years earlier at a garage sale in California, nobody realized how important it would be to one family member.
“I’m the son of Paul D. Towne,” said John Engstrom, who will turn 70 in January. Retired, Engstrom now lives outside Wyanet in Bureau County, where he runs a home improvement business. He and his wife, Lori, have two children, Christopher and Holly.
Engstrom, who has been searching for his roots due to a cancer diagnosis in the family, said the timing was right.
“I was born out of wedlock. It was tough times back then, and my mother was going to put me up for adoption, but my grandparents raised me,” Engstrom said, noting that his father, Paul Towne, died when Engstrom was 1.
“My father was lost at sea in the Atlantic,” he said. “He was in the Civil Air Patrol. He was in the area about a month when his plane went down. He was never found. He would have been 112 years old today if he had lived. He was born in 1897, and he had two sisters, Angeline, who was born in 1900, and Elvira was born in 1911.”
Over the years, Engstrom spliced bits and pieces of his family background together. He knew that his grandfather was Ernest Towne, and that he had a cousin, Sharon Towne, whose father was Irwin Towne.
“It was really amazing learning about the box in the Times,” Engstrom said. “Several years ago, in 2007, I met Mr. Towne and his daughter, Sharon (Towne) Clemens, who lives in Groveland. Then just a few days before the article in the paper, I went to visit them again … after my daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer.”
“My daughter just had a double mastectomy and is going through chemotherapy,” he added. “She has a good attitude, but it is a different type of breast cancer called ‘triple negative.’ I wanted to find out about cancer on my side of the family, and that’s why I went to visit Sharon. It’s been a rough couple of weeks here.”
Timing is everything, said Engstrom, adding that he is indebted to a “lady from Arizona who used to live in Pekin who read the article in the paper and recognized the lady and two kids (in one of the photos). She called the paper. And she also called Sharon.”
A few e-mails and several telephone calls later, Engstrom made contact with the Theilemanns in Vista, Calif., to get the rest of the box of mementos.
“We have heard from all kinds of family members,” Wendee Theilemann said from her home in California. “They are so thrilled.
“It is particularly important for one family member who was born without ever seeing his father. His father left for California before he was born. This will be some of the only pictures he has ever seen of his father. There is also a lot of correspondence that reflects the father’s state of mind and strong belief in God. We had no idea this family was also so prominent in the Pekin area. Remarkable.”
Paul D. Towne is believed to have been the first Tazewell County casualty of World War II. “The AMVETS Post in North Pekin is named after my father,” Engstrom said.
“I just received the box (from California) this morning,” he told the Times on Nov. 23. “There’s a lot of things that I don’t recognize. It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle … a lot of photos, quite a few things of interest. It’s going to take me a while to go through it all.”
Engstrom intends to share the box with his cousin Sharon.
Since the article was published on Nov. 14, many people have contacted the Townes and Theilemanns with questions of their own. One woman wondered whatever happened to Paul’s wife.
“This is all new to me and very interesting,” Engstrom said. “I really don’t know what happened to Paul’s wife. That’s a good question. Maybe we’ll find out.”
Perhaps they will. Someone sent a copy of the article to Ann Roberts, a researcher at the Ferndale Museum in Ferndale, Calif., and she found some information about Paul Towne on the Web.
“He was a portrait photographer,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Lived here from 1923-25. Had a studio on the second floor of what used to be Mathes Jewelers (building still on Main Street by clock). I do not think this information will be of any great interest to the world at large, unless somebody else picks up on the story and has a family interest. Then we will be ready for them.”
Anyone with information regarding the Towne family history should call John Engstrom at (815) 878-8445.
Pekin Daily Times