Oldest Living Alumni
Frances Sisk Thompson

As Arcola Alumni Association continues its recognition of an elite group of Arcola High School graduates who have reached the age of 90 and beyond, local resident Frances Sisk Thompson is now honored. She shares her memories of historic events in high school and the life she has enjoyed since her 1944 graduation.

Frances Virginia Sisk was the sixth of seven children of Benjamin Mose and Dora Lee Lewis Sisk. Benjamin, Dora and their four children moved from the Winchester area in the hills of southeastern Tennessee to rural Arcola in 1925. One son, W.J., died as a young child in Tennessee. Their third daughter, Frances, was born in their home southeast of Arcola on October 18, 1926. Their fourth son, Harold, was also born at home in 1929. Frances’ father was a farmhand at Whisnand Seeds and Henley Seeds of Arcola, while her mother worked at home and cared for their children.

The Sisk family moved to different farm homes as Benjamin changed jobs. Frances attended a country school in northern Coles County until March of her third grade year. She next attended Cofer school east of Arcola until March of the following year, and then Allison school northeast of Arcola until she completed fifth grade in 1937. While at Allison school, Frances’ teacher was Mrs. Bessie Van Cleave Little, who also taught her own younger siblings Robert, Christine and Delores Van Cleave at that time. Frances remembers that Mrs. Little’s husband brought all materials and saws to the school in order to help each student with a woodworking project. Frances made a small cabinet that she kept for many years.

The Sisk family then moved to East Jefferson Street in Arcola and Frances attended sixth, seventh and eighth grades at the East Side Grade School. At the time of her eighth grade promotion in 1940, Frances received the class American Legion Award.

Thompson explains three of her siblings attended Arcola High School. Her oldest sister, Ozzie Sisk Ruef, was eighteen years older than Frances and did not attend AHS. Her sister, Hettie Sisk Gritton, attended AHS with the Class of 1932. Frances remembers her brother Forrest Sisk attended high school in Mattoon while he stayed with another family. Her brother Horace graduated at Arcola High School in 1938 and Harold was a 1947 graduate.

Frances and her classmates entered ATHS in the fall of 1940. Frances describes herself as a quiet student who “pretty much kept to myself” until her Junior and Senior years. She devoted much time to her studies and “would never even talk to a boy!” At Arcola High School, Frances was a four-year honor student and was also involved in Glee Club, Arco-Lite, Junior and Senior class plays and served as an officer of the Masque and Gavel organization. Masque and Gavel was a National Honor Society that promoted quality speech and dramatics.

Times have certainly changed over the decades as Frances notes girls were not allowed to wear slacks to school and she does not recall the luxury of “snow days” while she was in high school. She continues, “While I am asking for pity, I might add that we had no hot lunches either.”

Her close high school friends include Wanda Roberts Dilliner, Loeita Lyons Smith, Frances Barnes Sanders, Vera Whipple Lutz and Jean Blagg Ghere. Memorable teachers include Mrs. Lois Moore and Miss Modesta Scott.

Prior to her sophomore year, Frances was visiting her sisters in Chicago when lightning struck Arcola High School on July 24, 1941. The subsequent fire burned the top floor and auditorium. High school classes started as scheduled on September 2nd with no roof on the building. Their class history noted, “Because of the great fire we ambled amidst ashes and water from class to class for most of the entire school year.” It was necessary for some of the classes to be held at the West Side Grade School. Frances recalls walking in rain, sleet, snow and “anything else the weatherman gave us” in order to attend her Biology classes in the grade school. The 1942 yearbook described how classes were interrupted with the pounding of the workmen and falling debris, and Frances explains how water rained down on students during class. The Torch also reported electric lights were in use for the first time in the school year on November 1, 1941, and the roof was not completed until the following year.

Frances and her classmates were sophomores at the time of the Sunday, December 7, 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and subsequent U.S. involvement in World War II. She states she will never forget the following day when students gathered together at school and listened intently to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio broadcast as he asked Congress to declare war on Japan.

She also remembers “men teachers were like revolving doors” during the war. The Torch reported three teachers, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Cousineau and Mr. Level left for military service during the 1941-1942 school year. The Arcola Record-Herald also reported several changes in the faculty at ATHS during the 1943-1944 school year. Dale Hull, vocational agriculture teacher, and Coach Earl McLane enlisted in the Navy. Jess Sargent, Arcola High School Class of 1938 graduate, guided the basketball team after Coach McLane left and the track team had no coach that spring. Clifford Gray took over manual training classes. Frances also recalls two of her classmates left school prior to graduation in order to join the service when they reached their 18th birthdays.

The Class of 1944 history reported members “wanted to do our share in helping the country, so we came to school on Saturday mornings.” With an anticipated shortage of farm labor for the spring 1942 farming season, school was in session on Saturdays, beginning January 31, 1942, with students completing the school year on May 6th, rather than May 31st. Senior class members sold war bonds and stamps, and their successful sales were rewarded with a half-day vacation from school. Enrollment at ATHS declined from 155 in the fall of 1943 to 143 in May 1944. The decline in numbers included six young men who left school to serve in the armed forces: Perry Gardner, Pat Harrington, Jim “Burley” Honn, Charles Hudson, Dick Miller and Bob Rich. Frances recalls the war years as a “dark time for everyone.”

During her senior year, Frances worked at the telephone office each day during 5th hour and all night every Saturday. The office was located downtown at the current location of Petty Law Office. She adds she tried to sleep on a cot in the back room after the taverns quieted down and their customers made fewer calls. In case of a fire, Frances had to activate the alarm and then answer all the calls from the firemen. Their lights on the switch board were a different color than the lights of other callers, so she knew which calls to answer first to provide the location of the fire. Frances remembers she was fearful at times as she worked all night alone with no locked doors.

Frances also shares another special memory of her senior year in high school. She and her 54 year-old mother had the mumps at the same time.

The May 18, 1944 Arcola Record-Herald reported thirty members of the ATHS Class of 1944 were to graduate in the high school auditorium on Wednesday, May 24th, with only 28 in attendance to receive their diplomas. Charles Hudson and Pat Harrington were both air cadets in the service of their country at the time of graduation and “had practically completed their work before having been called, having left during the semester, the board of education voted to award them diplomas.”

The Record-Herald also noted Miss Modesta Scott, class advisor, presented 4-year honor awards to Bobby Bright, Janice Honn, Wanda Roberts and Frances Sisk at Class Night on Tuesday, May 23rd.

Frances Sisk Thompson’s 1944 classmates included several graduates who local readers may recall: Charles Bickel, Jr., Jean Blagg Ghere, Bobby Bright, Charles Edwards, Lowell Garrett, Patricia Lindenmeyer, Martha Pullen Herrington and Wanda Roberts Dilliner.

Following her high school graduation, Frances continued work at the telephone office. She had planned her course work so she would be able to continue her education, but there was no high school guidance counselor at that time and financial assistance was unavailable to help with her school expenses. Upon the recommendation of a friend‘s father, who was a bank president in Mattoon, Frances applied for a job at The First National Bank of Arcola in December 1944. She was hired in January, completed her work at the telephone office at 10:00 p.m. and started her first day on the job at the bank at 8:00 a.m. the following morning. Frances worked as a teller and was also responsible for posting checks and deposits. She also remembers the coin arrived at the bank in large bags, which were dumped out on the counter, and then everyone counted and wrapped the change. She continued her work at the bank for four years.

Frances met her husband, Don Thompson, on a Sunday afternoon in January 1946 at Lester’s Sweet Shop in downtown Arcola. Staff Sergeant Donald R. Thompson served in the Army Air Force from March 11, 1942 until his discharge January 19, 1946. He had worked as an airplane technician in China, Japan and Ryukyu Island. Don graduated Arcola High School in 1940, four years before Frances, and had been employed with her father, but Frances and Don did not meet until he returned from the war. The couple enjoyed movies at theaters in Arcola, Mattoon and Tuscola about three times each week. Frances made a list of all the movies they saw together and still has the list. She also remembers they and another couple enjoyed card games. The more experienced men had played cards while in the service, so Frances explains the ladies had no chance of winning.

Don was employed at the Arcola Foundry and Manufacturing Company, while Frances continued work at the First National Bank of Arcola. Frances and Don continued dating and were then married by Rev. H.L. Hayes at the First Christian Church of Arcola on October 10, 1946. Their wedding reception was held in the Sisk home. Frances and Don lived in an upstairs apartment in Arcola following their wedding and later in a home owned by Mrs. John Clisby. Don was able to find farm work and the couple then moved to a home northwest of Galton. Their son Dennis was born in 1950. Don had the opportunity to rent a farm north of Arcola in 1951 and the Thompsons then moved to a home in Arcola at the southeast corner of the Elm St. and Springfield Rd. intersection. Their daughter Trudi was born in 1954, and the following year the young family moved to their home on the Egyptian Trail north of Arcola where Don was farming. Their son Darrel was born in 1955 and then Darrin in 1967.

When their older children were away from home in the early 1970s, Frances returned to work at The First National Bank of Arcola for two years. In 1974, their new home was constructed at the Thompson home site where they had lived since 1955.

Frances’ husband, Don, passed away while in his combine picking corn on October 15, 1982. Although she and Don had shared just 36 years together, Frances found comfort in knowing he was doing what he loved on the farm at the time of his death. Following Don’s passing, Frances’ nephew, Tim Sisk, and his wife Donna offered her a part time job in their grocery store. She remained with them 13 or 14 years until they closed their store and moved to South Carolina. At that time, Ron and Beth Vyverberg asked Frances if she would like to work in their store downtown. Frances accepted and helped the Vyverbergs for many years. She states, “You’ll never find anyone nicer to work for than those two couples – Tim and Donna, and Ron and Beth.”

Her part time employment allowed Frances much time to travel. Phyllis Bergfield’s article in the June 4, 2009 Arcola Record-Herald tells the story of Frances’ road trips with friends to most states in this country, as well as her trips outside the country to Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands. At that time Frances told Phyllis Bergfield she was amazed that a little farm girl from Arcola had the opportunity to see so many places in the world. Her many traveling companions included her children, Dennis and Trudi, sister-in-law Imogene Thompson and her daughters Bonnie and Cindy, Frieda Wood and Frenchie Gillenwater.

Frances continued friendships with her high school friends for many years. After they were widowed, Wanda Roberts Dilliner, Vera Whipple Lutz, Jean Blagg Ghere and Frances met annually for many years to celebrate their birthdays, which were all within a 23-day span. Frances notes, “Friends can be friends for a long time.”

When their children were young, Frances and Don each served as 4-H Club leaders. In more recent years, Frances served on the Arcola Senior Center board. She was baptized in the Kemp Church of Christ in 1940 and has attended the church her entire life. Frances states she has dabbled in various arts over the years, but knitting fits her best. She adds her very good friend, Sharlene Titus, gave her an old computer and then helped her learn to operate it. She gained enough confidence to purchase a new computer and is now comfortable using it as well as her iPad. Frances states, “I enjoy all my toys and now that I am 91, I have lots of time to play.”

Each of Frances and Don’s children are Arcola High School graduates: Dennis (1968), Trudi (1972), Darrel (1973) and Darrin (1985). Darrel’s daughters, Katie Thompson (2002) and Lisa Thompson (2006) completed a third generation of AHS graduates.

Frances is still driving, but admits she stays closer to home now with no long road trips. She enjoys the company of her children who are not far from Arcola. Dennis is living in Mahomet, Trudi in Clinton, Darrel in Arcola and Darrin at Humboldt. She is grandmother to 8, has 13 great-grandchildren and states, “I’ve had a great 91 years.”

Arcola Alumni Association is pleased to honor 1944 graduate Frances Sisk Thompson, and also welcomes recognition of other graduates who have reached the age of 90 and beyond. If readers are AHS graduates age 90 or older, or if you know one of Arcola’s oldest graduates, please contact Sue Stout at 268-3190 or any Arcola Alumni Association board member.

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Last Revision February 8, 2018