Tom McDevitt spent a lot of time in jail while he was growing up.
It wasn’t like McDevitt wasn’t a miscreant. But as the son of a three-term Effingham County sheriff, McDevitt spent 12 of his first 24 years in jail, because the sheriff’s family was allowed to live there.
Thursday, McDevitt recalled the years he grew up in the jail, which was located across Washington Avenue north of the old courthouse. Tom McDevitt Sr. was sheriff for three non-consecutive terms between 1938 and 1958. At that time, county sheriffs in Illinois could not serve consecutive terms.
McDevitt was the first speaker in the seasonal series of history presentations sponsored by the Effingham County Cultural Center and Museum Association and the Effingham County Genealogical and Historical Society.
Thursday’s presentation was the first held in the first floor courtroom at the old Effingham County Courthouse, site of the county’s new historical museum. More than 100 people crowded the courtroom, spilling over into an adjacent hallway.
McDevitt said growing up at the jail during the mid 20th century wasn’t any big deal.
“I really enjoyed living in the jail,” he said. “It was just home to me.”
McDevitt painted a verbal picture of the scene surrounding the old courthouse at mid-century, bringing up long-departed businesses like the Benwood Hotel, Laue Ford, Zehner Shell, Heart Jewelry and Barlage’s Grocery.
He recalled crowds sitting on the courthouse lawn to listen to St. Louis Cardinal baseball games on hot summer nights. And, the old pro baseball player recalled how he fell in love with the game in the years preceding World War II on a makeshift diamond on the northwest corner of the courthouse square.
“We had my brother John, Jack and Ron Ealy, Maurie Mansfield and David Loy,” he said. “We played from nine in the morning to noon and from one to four in the afternoon every day.
“Grass did not grow there for many years.”
While the young boys didn’t hit the ball hard enough to break any windows, the crew did influence entry into the old courthouse.
“People got to where they wouldn’t use the north door,” he said.
McDevitt also described the scene inside the courthouse. His dad’s office was in the southwest corner of the building. Also on the west side were the circuit clerk and county school superintendent offices.
Across the hall, still on the first floor, were the treasurer’s and county clerk’s offices.
Upstairs was the main courtroom, flanked by the road commissioner and state’s attorney’s offices.
McDevitt said his dad made $150 per month when he was first elected in 1938 and had to buy his own squad car. Meanwhile, mom Louise cooked for the prisoners, as well as her own family.
“They got the same food we got,” McDevitt recalled.
McDevitt said his mother, a native of Italy, was known for her Sunday spaghetti and meatballs.
“We had vagrants who would get themselves locked up Saturday night,” he said. “Dad would let them go Monday morning.
“They came for the meatballs.”
McDevitt admitted that times have changed dramatically since his boyhood more than a half-century ago.
“Things were different then,” he said. “The county probably had about 20,000 people, and Dad knew a lot of people in the county.”
McDevitt recalled his dad only pulled out his gun twice in 16 years as either the sheriff or a deputy.
Some people would turn themselves in voluntarily without the security measures that police take nowadays. McDevitt recalled a Mason man named Jack Henry who was accused of creating a disturbance at a tavern in that community.
McDevitt said his dad didn’t arrest Henry that night. But he knew that Henry would come by Zehner’s Shell station near the courthouse at precisely 10 a.m. Saturday.
Young Tom recalled the conversation.
“Dad would say, ‘Hello Jack.’ Jack Henry would say ‘Hello Tom. I guess you’ve got to take me in.
‘Yes Jack, somebody filed a complaint.
“Well, can I go to the bank first?”
That was fine with the sheriff. Henry would draw his bail money out of the bank and report promptly afterward to the jail.
McDevitt, a middle infielder, eventually signed a professional baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. After three years of pro ball, he began a teaching and counseling career.
He eventually landed at Eastern Illinois University as an academic adviser. Shortly after arriving at Eastern, he became the baseball coach and headed the program for more than a decade before retiring on Jan. 1, 1989.
Series moderator Delaine Donaldson said the next presentation was set for Dec. 13 with Teutopolis High School German teacher and local historian Phil Lewis. Donaldson was not sure, however, where the December meeting would be because of the turnout at Thursday’s presentation.
Bill Grimes can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom McDevitt spent a lot of time in jail while he was growing up.
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