Around this time 50 years ago, Austin was digging itself out of the worst snowstorm ever recorded in the Chicago area. And Lois and Ernie Baumann were having the time of their lives.
On the day the blizzard hit — Thursday, Jan. 26, 1967 — Lois, now 69, was on a Blue Line train traveling into the Forest Park terminus station. She was coming from taking classes at Roosevelt University and on her way to pick up her bride’s dress. Her and Ernie’s wedding was in two days.
“It was just an ordinary day,” Lois said during an interview last week. “But on my way home, the train — we called it the Des Plaines ‘L’ back then — came to a fierce halt in the middle of the Eisenhower. The windows on the train kept getting smaller, because the snow was covering them up so quickly. I looked around the car and thought, ‘I’m going to die with this group of people.’ We must have been stuck for two hours.”
According to the National Weather Service, the heaviest snowfall was in the late morning, with flakes accumulating at the rate of two inches an hour. Wind gusts blew up to 53 miles per hour and snowdrifts rose up to six feet high.
By the day’s end, roughly 23 inches of snow had ground city life to a halt, the Baumann’s wedding plans buried, along with everything else, by unprecedented mounds of snow.
“I had this feeling that another train was going to come and not see us,” said Lois. “I was thinking all kinds of things. There was no visibility here. I kind of realized then that the wedding might easily be sunk.”
The wedding, which had been scheduled to take place that Saturday at First Christian Church in Maywood, didn’t happen, of course. Air travel was suspended. Even those who lived in town, within blocks of the church, would find navigating the snowdrifts nearly impossible.
Their life plans interrupted, Lois and Ernie did what they’ve been doing for 50 years without ceasing and regardless of the conditions — whether epic snowstorm or fire or racial turbulence or economic decay — they had fun.
“We just went out in the snow and had a great time,” said Ernie, who had joined Lois during last week’s interview inside of the new dance studio the couple built last year through Maywood Fine Arts — the venerable nonprofit that was born from their wintry marriage 50 years ago.
The Maywood-based organization serves over 1,000 kids a week from all racial, ethnic and income backgrounds — many of them from the West Side Austin community — with thousands more alumni, seemingly as numerous as flakes of snow in a blizzard, hailing from all over the country.
“My mother was real upset and was amazed at how calm I was,” said Lois, recalling how she handled her disrupted wedding plans. “I think, probably for my mother’s sake, I should’ve been more upset! But, you know, weddings weren’t the sit-down dinner, banquet, band, bore your friends for two hours affair they’ve become in the last 50 years. It was just a simple ceremony in the church and back to the house for sandwiches. That’s what we did.”
The Baumann’s wedding, which eventually took place a week later, on Feb. 4, 1967, is the ultimate emblem of the kind of resilience that’s kept their marriage, and their mission, going for half-a-century.
“The thing that bonded us from the very beginning was our commitment to children, and particularly, at that time, to the children in Maywood,” said Lois, who has lived her whole life in the village. “We saw the disparity in what was happening in the country. This was during the Civil Rights movement.”
The couple met in 1966, roughly three months before marrying. Lois was a waitress at a restaurant in Maywood and Ernie was the owner of a small shop in town called the Newspaper Store.
“People would go get their newspapers before they caught the train and on their way to work,” said Lois. “It was kind of one of those old-fashioned stores that was like a hangout. It was a lot of fun.”
“A hippie hangout,” is what Ernie calls it. It’s where he and Lois befriended people like the famous singer-songwriter John Prine, a native of Maywood who, along with Lois, attended Proviso East High School.
Ernie had stopped by the restaurant for a cup of coffee one day. Lois took his order — and, immediately, his heart.
“All I had to say was, ‘You want cream in your coffee, honey?'” Lois said. “Those were my first words to him. It was absolutely love at first sight.”
But love doesn’t automatically translate into a great marriage, the two recalled. Ernie, roughly eight years older than his wife, said the age difference may have been the source of some strain. Lois said their strong personalities might have signaled disaster for the union if it hadn’t been for their mutual love of children and their penchants for movement.
Not long after marrying, the couple began coordinating recreational programming for the Maywood Recreation Department. Lois taught dance and Ernie taught tumbling.
“You had two counselors present all day, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and you had set activities that the kids did each day in those parks, so that the children in the neighborhood left their houses,” Lois recalled.
Eventually, Ernie said, their tumbling and dance classes began to grow exponentially, precipitating something of a philosophical standoff with village officials.
“We did everything — bike parades, canoe trips, everything you can of,” he said. “We had the support of the director, but what kind of happened with the dancing was the program got so good and enrolled so many people that they saw this as a cash cow. They wanted to start raising the prices. We said, wait a minute. You’re eliminating people by doing this, which is not the way it should go. So, we left and started our own thing and ran it how we thought it should be run.”
Their affordable array of artistic programming, many of their patrons say, has been a beacon of light for communities like Maywood and Austin, where, over the last 50 years, recreational options and park district programming have declined markedly.
Between 1970 and 1980, according to U.S. Census data, the population of Maywood changed from 60 percent white to 75 percent black. In addition, the suburb lost more than 2,000 residents, along with thousands of manufacturing jobs and a plethora of small businesses.
“We thought we could really impact things,” said Ernie. “We were right in the middle of ‘White Flight’ and people would come to our doors and say, ‘Look we can buy your house. You’re leaving aren’t you?’ We go, ‘Huh? We ain’t going anywhere.'”
During the same 10-year period, Austin, where many of MFA’s patrons live, went from 90 percent white to over 90 percent African American.
As those areas underwent swift racial change and dramatic economic decline, the Baumann’s philosophy of offering affordable programming despite the growing numbers remained unchanged.
In 1979, having decided to strike out on their own, Lois and Ernie bought a three-story building located at 20 N. Fifth Ave. (the former Maywood Opera House), which would anchor their newly formed artistic enterprise, and its flagship programs — Mr. Ernie’s Flip, Flop and Fly tumbling school and Stairway of the Stars, which offers a range of dancing instruction (from classical ballet to tap and jazz).
In 1996, Maywood Fine Arts was incorporated as a nonprofit and the Baumanns purchased a historically significant, boarded up bank property on the corner of Fifth Ave. and Lake St. The additional square footage would allow the organization to provide a wide array of program offerings, including music, visual arts, drama and karate classes.
The Baumann’s son, Spooner, who handles communications for MFA and sits on the nonprofit’s board of directors, was a year old when his family opened the first Stairway of the Stars dance studio — so-named for the 44 stairs that led to the building’s top floor.
“I have a picture of me as a one-year-old in my uncle’s arms in front of the building,” said Spooner, one of the Baumann’s six children — all of whom were born into their parents’ world of dance.
“I started dancing as young as I can remember. I grew up in that studio. There was no daycare, so I would go to work with [Lois], walking around the dance floors all day in my walker. As a teenager, I mopped the stairs.”
When the old Stairway of the Stars burned down in March 2010, Lois and her Stairway stars promptly moved rehearsals down the street to the First Congregational Church of Maywood. In no time, they were dancing again.
“We land on our feet,” Lois told the Chicago Tribune at the time. “That’s what I teach your children, and it’s something we have to remember right now. We always land on our feet.”
Over the years, Stairway of the Stars and Ernie’s Flip, Flop and Fly have a network of professional dancers and artists that spans generations and time zones and encompasses people like Craig Hall.
Last May, Hall retired as a soloist with the New York City Ballet. He was the first African American dancer at NYCB to perform as Apollo during the company’s prestigious season-ending program “Dancer’s Choice.”
“The whole family was in Maywood Fine Arts,” said Hall’s mother, Dorothy, who added that her son started dancing with Lois when he was three years old.
At one point, Dorothy said, her son’s talents nearly overwhelmed her family’s finances. Help from the Baumanns kept young Hall pirouetting toward the bright lights.
“Lois would say, ‘He needs a costume for this and for that.’ I had five kids! But she always worked with us and always kept us going,” Dorothy recalled.
Craig, who has grown to become best friends with the Baumann’s daughter, Purdie, a Radio City Rockette, was at the grand opening of MFA’s new dance studio last August, the facility that replaced the old studio that burned down in 2010.
“When the old studio burned down, it was like a little piece of all of us was broken, but it’s nice to know that there’s finally a place where the kids can come back to and have fun,” said Hall, 37. “It’s a dream come true.”
The new studio features modernized shock-absorbent floors and wall-to-wall windows that offer views of a liquor store, a barber shop, a vacant lot and a boarded-up building. The studio’s Main Street-facing entrance resembles a train depot and is located less than a block away from railroad tracks.
“This building costs $2.1 million to build,” said Ernie as he sat in one of the facility’s airy, light-filled dance studios. “People in the banking community told us that if we built property here, it would be worth $1 million less. So, the property is worth about $1 million. But we don’t care. It can be valued at a dollar. It doesn’t make a difference. We’re having fun.”
“We believe in making a difference in children’s lives,” said Lois. “We don’t believe in doing it at a distance. It’s a hands on thing. We wouldn’t ever leave. It was never a question in our mind. Boy, where did the 50 years go? I need 50 more, because I’ve got a lot of stuff I want to do.”