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Thursday, Jan. 8, 2004 02:20 pm

With help from her friends, a young widow made a life for her girls

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From the Herbert Georg collection, the Hunn girls at Aunt Hannah’s Baby Shop. From left: Marjorie Ellen “Marjie,” 3; Alice Claire, 4; Paula Anne, 6; Mary Louise “Mitzi,” 8.
Photo courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library

On May 27, 1942, the Hunn sisters of Springfield were innocence and beauty incarnate as they modeled their new spring outfits at Aunt Hannah's Baby Shop, which was then located at 126 N. Fifth St. in the Orpheum Recreation Palace. They had been specially outfitted for a party at the Leland Hotel to honor their Aunt Anne, who was retiring as state president of the Women's Relief Corps, Auxiliary of the G.A.R.

Paula (now Mrs. Tom Denny), who was then 6, remembers the fuss and solicitude on the occasion of "their special gowning," as it was reported in the SpringfieldCitizens Tribune. Through the prism of time, she can now see that she and her sisters were frequently surrounded by such an atmosphere of friendly care and attention during their early years, for the poignant subtext of the photograph is the cruel reality that their 35-year-old father had just died of a heart attack.

Paul Hunn was the owner and operator of the DX filling station located at the intersection of Edwards and West Grand (now Macarthur) streets (now a Hometown Pantry.) He was stricken while servicing an automobile, and though the firemen from Engine House No. 7 (now a beauty salon) rushed to his aid with an "inhalator," it was too late to save his life. His death left his wife Lily, now 96 and still residing just blocks from there, to raise her family alone.

"My sisters and I were so young that we weren't overwhelmed by the sadness. It's a wonder that it didn't overwhelm mother," Denny says.

At that time, the Hunns lived in the area of Fourteenth and Washington streets, which Denny describes as "a real melting pot of Italian, German, Jewish and Irish families -- the Pells, Wolfsons, Cellinis, Bartlettis, Slaughters. The neighbors were so good to us. We had victory clubs with the Bartlettis. The Pells to this day are our friends. When Buddy was killed in the war, we all felt that."

Lily approached the Mid-Continent Petroleum Co., which owned DX, and importuned the corporation to allow her to assume her husband's lease and responsibility for the filling station. Although it was without precedent (as she was a woman), she was given an immediate opportunity because of the special circumstances created by the exigencies of the war economy.

Lily and the girls moved to a house on Columbia Street, just blocks from the station. The move necessitated the removal of the girls from Cathedral school to St. Agnes school, which was but a short walk away. The girls didn't want to leave their friends, Denny says, but "Monsignor Giusti told us we could try it for two weeks, and if we didn't like it, we could return to the Cathedral." The girls adjusted and so did Lily, who provided a "homework desk" in the station office where they could attend to their studies. However, more often than not, the girls could be found at Engine House No. 7, sitting in the trucks, having milk and cookies (or sometimes full meals), or just sitting and "yakking." Denny will never forget the kindness of those firemen. "They were like fathers to us. They adopted us," she says.

Lily was successful at the station, due in large part to the assistance of two loyal mechanics, Albert Hale and Harold Miller, who stayed with her until the 1950s when she closed operations. "Without those two, mother never would've made it," says Denny, who nine years ago married her St. Agnes classmate (and high school sweetheart), Tom Denny.

The girls had many babysitters, but Denny asserts that they had a very normal life and that Lily, besides running the station, created a very warm home environment for them. "We all had a day of the week to fix supper. It was always spaghetti with Mitzi," she says, laughing at the memory. "Mother sewed a lot, and we all cleaned house and did laundry. We only had one family car -- a Willys Jeep with 'Hunn's DX' painted on the side. You should've seen us piling out of that thing at Easter mass in all our froufrou!"

"The DX closed in '53, the year I graduated high school. Mom left to go to work for the state, as did Albert. I'm not one to look too deeply into why this happened or why that happened. Things just happen. We girls always had tremendous respect for our mother and we still do. She provided for us and created a stable environment. She made a life for us."

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