She doesn’t see dead people, or talk to them, but she has talked about them – if they are buried in Downers Grove’s Main Street Cemetery, that is. It’s just one of the reasons Marilyn Ludwig will receive the 2021 Historian of the Year Award from the Downers Grove Historical Society (DGHS).
The Downers Grove teacher, author, director and historian has spoken of many of the cemetery residents for the past seven years. That’s because she coached Herrick Middle School Drama Club students in portraying some of the early residents buried there, as part of the Downers Grove Historical Society’s fall Living Cemetery event.
Her work related to the event is one of the main reasons she was chosen for the Historian of the Year Award, an honor she richly deserves, said DGHS President Liz Chalberg and the Living Cemetery event coordinator, Lois Sterba.
“The Historian of the Year Award was created in 2013 to recognize those who have significantly promoted and preserved Downers Grove history,” Chalberg said in a news release. “Marilyn, who is a member of the historical society, has impressively met this criteria mainly by faithfully having provided, for seven years now, a wonderful cast of young people for the cemetery portrayals.”
Her students have done a wonderful job, Sterba stated in the release.
“They complemented the efforts of the adults involved because Marilyn prepared them so carefully,” Sterba said.
Ludwig, a former teacher with a theater background, which includes work in various facets for Grove Players, the village’s community theater, was able to combine her education and drama interests at Herrick. There, she directed the drama club after-school theater program for 30 years.
When the Living Cemetery program, begun in 2012, was in need of more volunteers a year later to portray the residents laid to rest in the cemetery, Sterba reached out to Herrick for help, and was told about Ludwig. She contacted her to see if any of her students might be interested in being involved in the event.
They were, so Sterba provided Ludwig with the names of the early settlers whose lives could be covered, as well as information about them. Much of that material is available in “Voices That Are Gone,” a guide to the cemetery that was written by historical society members Phyllis Betenia, Montrew Dunham and Carol Wandschneider in 2005, and to which Sterba since has added more information.
Ludwig made that research material available to her students early each fall, so those willing to participate had time to review the information and then choose the person they were most interested in portraying.
“During regular Drama Club meetings, we worked in small groups, giving each other feedback,” Ludwig said in the release. “There were no scripts and next to no memorization involved. Students learned about their person, and created their own impression of him or her.”
Not only did Ludwig and her students learn how to make the delivery of each early resident interesting, they also worked on remaining in character while interacting with audience members.
“During our final club meeting, we had a simple dress rehearsal,” Ludwig said.
First, students had to hurry and get into costume. With the exception of boys’ pants, shoes and a few borrowed items, she said all of the costumes – from bonnets and cloaks and hats to dresses and vests and more - were hers.
“Then the big day arrived,” Ludwig said. “Rain, shine or snow, students arrived in costume, nervous until they faced their first audience. Then there was simply no time for nerves.
“Being involved in the Living Cemetery event was a rewarding experience for my theater students, in that it gave them a chance to practice their craft, as well as providing camaraderie and an exercise in cooperation,” she said.
It was also another opportunity for them to interact with the public.
“It was always important to me that drama club reach out to the community, as we did with many park district, village and library events throughout the years,” Ludwig said.
Assuredly, the student participants will always remember Ludwig, their history-promoting drama teacher, director, mentor and friend, who said she will certainly never forget a single one of them.
Ludwig has done such a good job of immortalizing the Living Cemetery event that even those who haven’t participated as actor or audience can feel as though they have. They need only read her middle grade/young adult novel, “The Ghost of a Tree Remembered.” Ludwig, a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, has written 10 novels so far. Most are historical fiction for middle grade and young adult students and include some mystery, adventure or fantasy.
“The Ghost of a Tree Remembered,” written in 2017, involves time travel for two young present-day Living Cemetery participants. In the novel, just before the cemetery event is to start one year, students Liz and Nick magically are transported back in time to 1863 Downers Grove, where their adventure begins.
All the elements of a good story are present – likable characters, some magic and mystery, and a dramatic plot, along with the bonus of carefully researched local history into Downers Grove residents. The inclusion of information on the Underground Railroad and the Civil War background increase the story’s level of appeal for adults, as well as younger readers.
The numerous historical details imbue the book with a lot of period authenticity, one of which is mention of a game from that period, shared by noted Underground Railroad expert Glennette Tilley Turner of Glen Ellyn.
The award ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. Oct. 16, at Lincoln Center, 935 Maple Ave., in the James Henry Breasted Auditorium. Registration is required with details at www.dghistory.org