I rarely devote a column to a purely personal subject, on the theory that what’s interesting to me isn’t necessarily interesting to many. In May I made an exception, and devoted this page to pondering a signature in a copy of Kipling’s Just So Stories I’ve had since I was a baby. I got more response than I do to most columns.
The woman who wrote her name in my book was named Signe Chamberlin; she was my family’s next-door neighbor on Sherwood Drive in Bearden half a century ago. She moved away soon after she gave me that book, and I have no definite memory of her, but I outlined the few facts I’d been able to discern. I was sort of expecting to hear from someone who knew her locally. But 50 years is a long time, and considering she’d be about 103 by now, contemporaries who knew her or her husband, who died in 1953, might be getting scarce. Or might not be the sort of people who read Metro Pulse regularly.
I had the impression she was exotic and well-traveled, and wondered if it was just my imagination. A reader in California who was intrigued by the story knew about a database I didn’t, and found Signe and her husband Donald took an ocean voyage from New York to Aruba in 1951, the year they moved to Knoxville. For a while I had no clue of what became of her after 1960.
Then I did hear from one person who knew Signe well. A few days after the column was published, her niece in Florida called. Susan Sherwin is a retired teacher. Augustana College, the small college in northern Illinois where there’s a scholarship in Signe’s name, got wind of the column, and apparently made enough connections that the column got to Susan. She lives in Venice Beach, and must be Signe Chamberlin’s closest living kin.
She remembers visiting Signe at her new house on Sherwood in the early ’50s. Back then, ranch-style houses were chic and modern. “I remember their open porch,” she says. “For somebody from Illinois, their patio was exotic. We didn’t have ranch-style houses yet.”
She says Signe was an expert golfer, which was not typical for a middle-aged woman of her era, and played regularly at Cherokee Country Club. She was a gourmet cook, and a lively and magnetic personality. “Signe was quite cosmopolitan, and lots of fun to be around,” Susan Sherwin says. “She was very attractive, and full of life.”
Signe was born in Minnesota of Norwegian parentage, but had darker features than her blonde sister. She grew up mainly in Rock Island, Ill., near Augustana College, which she attended in the early ’20s. She trained to be a nurse, and at the University of Chicago Hospital, she met a young physician, Donald Chamberlin, a Penn grad who was blue-blood Mayflower Beacon Hill Bostonian. She charmed his family with her beauty and lively wit, and they got married.
They lived in Boston for much of their early adulthood, as I’d figured from the fact that the published reports of his medical research are mostly in that area. Donald Chamberlin became well known for his research into gastroenterology. During World War II, Donald volunteered, against Signe’s wishes, to go overseas, to help with the wounded in England. He became a colonel in the army. While abroad, he contracted hepatitis.
In early middle age, perhaps on a wild hair, they came to Knoxville, where Donald Chamberlin had been offered a job at the Acuff Clinic, a much-talked-about medical facility downtown. Soon after he arrived, he diagnosed his own liver cancer, which they believed to be related to the hepatitis. He died at 48, not quite two years after they moved here. Signe outlived her husband by almost half a century, her niece says, but never recovered from that grief.
I’d heard that Signe worked in the furrier department at Miller’s, but Susan says she also worked for the Red Cross, employing her nursing skills to teach classes for new mothers. After about seven years as a widow in Knoxville, Chamberlin moved to Lexington, where her younger brother lived and worked, and found a job as an administrator of personnel for the university hospital there. She moved to Florida in the 1970s, and eventually lived with her sister, Susan Sherwin’s mother. Her father was a Lutheran minister, and the couple had moved to Florida some years earlier.
Signe Chamberlin was living in Homestead, Fla., in her mid-80s, when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. And she lost everything. Her house and all the antique furniture that impressed the few neighbors who got to see it when she lived on Sherwood Drive. In her 90s, she took to her bed and waited for the life to leave her. It took perhaps longer than usual.
Goodbye, Knoxville Cigar Co.
I mourned to hear of the likely demise of the Knoxville Cigar Co., on South Central in the Old City. It’s a fascinating, complex interior of bars and sitting rooms that seems like a setting for an Agatha Christie mystery.
I didn’t spend a lot of time there, but admired the idea of the place, and bragged on it in absentia. I always figured that when I had more money and time, I’d buy a seersucker suit and spend my days there, smoking fine Dominicans and reading the Economist or the Times of London in their plush sunlit rooms.
I’ve always preferred secondhand cigar smoke to secondhand cigarette smoke, maybe because it reminds me of Neyland Stadium in the ’60s. But I’m not sure I have the constitution for the cigar lifestyle. A few months ago, I was listening to a good jazz band in Knoxville Cigar’s wonderful upstairs speakeasy. It looked like the sort of place you might meet Al Capone or Boss Tweed or maybe somebody in Knox County government. I was about to pronounce it my favorite bar in town when I got an awful headache.