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Thomas Googerty
Thomas Googerty

    An Ironworker with Dreams..

    In 1938 the Chicago Daily News captioned a front page story about Tom Googerty with the phrase, "Iron Worker With Dreams Helps Forge Men at Pontiac." The reporter described a group of eager young men busy at forge and anvil and praised the nearby exhibit room filled with elegant ornamental iron work. The soft-spoken master of the shop spoke proudly of his artisans' command of ancient skills. "I think we're doing something," said Mr. Googerty modestly. "You won't find much better workmanship anywhere than this. The lads who made these screens are artists. They have learned an interesting craft and, what is more important, they are able to do something toward preserving a vanishing art." The most remarkable thing about it all, concluded the reporter, was that the place was a prison and the artisans all inmates.

    By 1938 Tom Googerty had been forging iron and men at the Illinois State Reformatory for nearly half a century. His calling stemmed from native talent and personal choice, channeled by broad-ranging progressive reform movements that energized many Americans at the end of the nineteenth century. Several converged to give Googerty's career purpose, direction, and a social setting. A humanitarian urge to save children from poverty and crime focused on a newly-named social malady, "juvenile delinquency," and invented new juvenile courts and reformatories to cure it. An educational crusade to integrate thinking and doing prompted the creation of manual training programs throughout the country. An aesthetic revolt against declining quality and taste in an age of mass production found expression in an artistic movement called Arts and Crafts.

    Chicago was a hotbed of these overlapping progressive reforms, and the city's cultural influence spread out across the prairies of northern Illinois. Pontiac, a county seat farming community of a few thousand people and no paved streets, was nearly a hundred miles southwest of Chicago but just hours away on the Chicago and Alton Railroad main line. However rural its setting, Pontiac lay well within Chicago's expansive cultural sphere.

    Thomas Francis Googerty was born in Pontiac about 1863(in later years he claimed various birth dates) to a barely literate Irish immigrant family. His father, Thomas, worked for the railroad; his mother, Mary, kept house and occasionally took in boarders, and probably laundry. Tom junior was the second child and the first son, born a year after his sister Jennie. Younger brothers Andrew and William followed Tom a year apart.

    Thomas senior died in 1865, leaving Mary with little besides four young children and a modest house next to the tracks. She somehow eked out a living and sent the children to St. Mary's Roman Catholic Parochial School. Home and school doubtless instilled the religious devotion, social conscience, and moral rectitude that governed Tom's adult life. Pontiac offered him growing-up space that was small enough to be nurturing but large enough to give an inquisitive child a hint of the wider world. All four Googerty children matured into popular, successful adults who traveled widely but continued to live at home with their mother. None of them ever married.


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