June 03, 2023
Downers Grove

Museum annex renamed in Montrew Dunham’s memory

DOWNERS GROVE – Inside the Downers Grove Museum, two small wooden plaques hang behind a front desk. To a visitor, these might be easily missed. They aren't exactly a focal point, merely freckles on the room's deep yellow rose-printed wallpaper.

A closer look reveals the names of individuals, the people responsible for what the museum has become. Their behind-the-scenes work, often tedious and time-consuming, translates into shifts of a labor of love, a silent vow to pay homage to their community.

Though three years have passed since the death of longtime resident Montrew Dunham, she lives on through those simple nameplates, her years of dedication summed up into titles: 2009 Volunteer of the Year and 2013 Historian of the Year.

For Liz Chalberg, president of the Downers Grove Historical Society, and many others who knew Dunham, those awards barely scratched the surface of her contributions. In her honor, the historical society and the Downers Grove Park District have decided to rename the museum’s annex as the Montrew Dunham History Center.

From the museum’s basement, Chalberg digs up what she and Carol Wandschneider, secretary of the historical society, call “the blue book.” Officially, it’s “Downers Grove: 1832 to 1982,” a textbook written by Dunham and still widely used to understand the community’s early beginnings. Dunham wrote a sequel following the village’s changes up until 2003 and also collaborated on a complete guide to the Main Street Cemetery.

Wandschneider shared that her late mother, Pauline, was the founder and former president of the historical society and entrusted Dunham, a professional writer by trade, to research and record Downers Grove’s history. By that time, Dunham had authored several titles under the Children of Famous American Series. Most of those books, Wandschneider said, are also housed at the museum.

“Having this resource, this story available as a resource for anyone …” Chalberg began to say as she clutched the blue book in her hands and searched for the words to describe Dunham. “This is such a valuable document.

“We’re just really fortunate to have had that woman with those skills available to us,” she added.

From the archives, Wandschneider opens a folder to find photos of Dunham. She flips through a thick stack, stumbling on a few black and white images. In one photo, Dunham was sitting at her desk with a typewriter. She’s buttoned up in a blazer with matching button earrings. Her dark hair is wavy but neat.

Denise Schiele, one of Dunham’s children, said she remembered her mother’s “little office” was in a corner of her parents’ bedroom. That’s where she would write and work. Back in those days, Schiele noted her mother was quite “ahead of her time,” balancing her career with motherhood.

Wandschneider pulls out another photo of Dunham. This time, she’s pictured at one of her book signings. Schiele’s brother, Jim Dunham, recalls how their mother visited schools around Downers Grove and talked to students about the process of writing, from being a writer all the way to how books were made.

Montrew Dunham’s personal style of writing was easy to read because she mostly catered to a young audience and she had the natural ability to absorb information and boil it down, Chalberg said. With the Children of Famous American Series, Dunham typically wrote biographies about leaders, including former President Ronald Reagan, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and astronaut Neil Armstrong.

“It’s one of those things when you’re a kid, you don’t really have an appreciation for what she was doing, her writing and everything that [she’s] accomplished,” Jim Dunham said. “It’s one of those things when you kind of look back when you get older and think, ‘that’s really awfully cool.’”

Montrew Dunham was a guidance counselor at both Downers Grove North and South high schools for nearly two decades. She was director emeritus of the Downers Grove Historical Society and volunteered for many organizations, including the American Association of University Women chapter in Downers Grove and the Morton Arboretum.

To Schiele and Jim Dunham, their mother was a very giving person, and Chalberg and Wandschneider acknowledge that. Montrew Dunham moved with intention and always sought purpose, and legacy is now woven into her beloved neighborhood’s story.

“She was one of those citizens who considered it part of her responsibilities to be, to give to the community,” Chalberg said. “She wasn’t going to just sit back and allow the community to give to her. She felt responsible for giving to others, and it’s just how she lived her life.”