La Porte native writes book based on hometown places, events

 

 

Kate Towle (Kathy Beiser)

   In her formative years she was Kathy Beiser, a St. Joseph’s School student who went on to graduate from La Porte High School. Now she is Kate Towle, author and champion of racial equity. Kate’s new book is “Sweet Burden of Crossing,” and while fictionalized, she was inspired to write it because of the still-existing Emmett Wise Community Center in Michigan City, which opened in 1966. Also in the book, Kate writes of a family tragedy based on one that truly happened. “Admittedly, my book tackles tough (but relevant) issues,” she told WNLP. You’ll learn more in the excerpt below. Kate’s mother is Denyse Beiser, now Hughes, who worked as a nurse in La Porte and now lives in Iowa. Her siblings are Margie Beiser, a published author herself, and Michael Beiser, a retired German scholar.

   Kate, a Hamline University (St. Paul, Minn.) graduate, has worked with schools and organizations to foster best practices for engaging youth in the challenges of our times. Her model for intercultural and intergenerational youth engagement won the St. Paul Foundation’s 2011 Facing Race Idea Challenge. She now works with communities and organizations to explore the intersection of racial equity and educating for peace. She is married to Jeff Towle, whom she met at Hamline, and they live in Minnesota. They have two grown children, daughter Freesia and son Loren. 

  Kate’s thoughts on her book: “’Sweet Burden of Crossing’ is unique for its perspective of a white woman (Chris, who lives in La Porte) humbling herself to learn about the impact of white supremacy on her Black friend (Rikki, who lives in Gary) — and in her own life. In our times, white people do not have fictional narratives in which we can see ourselves growing in our awareness of racial disparities, being present to the struggle for racial equity, and staying the course. If we can’t see it, we won’t find our way there.”

  

Kate and Leslie Redmond (holding Kate’s book), president of the Minneapolis NAACP. Kate mentions Leslie in the book’s prologue as having helped their police chief find and stop perpetrators of violence during Minnesota’s 2020 racial unrest.

Here’s a review of the book that appears on Amazon: “A courageous book in a crucial time. Kate Towle has written a book about struggle, race, and ultimately, about hope. This novel models what can be done with the story: how we can communicate with each other across borders and differences by telling a tale. She weaves together the lives of two young women, one white, one Black, into an important portrayal of what it takes to truly confront our prejudices and become an activist for racial justice. By presenting Chris as a complex character who makes mistakes and keeps on working to change and understand, as well as wrestle with her own personal tragedy, Towle has given us a work of nuance and force. She also gives us, her readers, encouragement, in our own journeys toward activism and advocacy in eliminating white supremacy in all its guises.” — Julie Landsman, author, “A White Teacher Talks About Race.”

    To learn more about and/or purchase “Sweet Burden of Crossing,” visit www.sweetburdenofcrossing.org.

Here is a chapter from Kate’s book, set in La Porte and based on a real event from her life: 

For the Record 

When I turned five, my father moved us from his civil service work in Moline, Illinois, to live in the town of LaPorte, Indiana. The very name (in French, “the door”) suggests a threshold. Mostly, I remember LaPorte as a charming Midwestern town with sun-dappled maple trees and a moderate climate built around six thriving lakes. I never had a reason to find the sheriff’s office. Now as a college student, I  learn that it’s hidden, along with the jail, behind our landmark courthouse with its red sandstone and open arched clock tower that welcomes visitors to downtown. Since I’m out running errands without Mom, I decide to stop in to locate Dad’s accident report. I’m told that the record is open to the public for a fee of  $10, so I pay a stocky, tall officer who takes my application. He tells me to take a seat. He’ll know in  about ten minutes if it has to be retrieved from another building. 

My father’s death was as strange as it was tragic. He was driving our family’s baby blue Chrysler station wagon onto the train tracks at the Second Street and Orchard Avenue crossing when the wagon stalled. He was struck and killed by a Penn Central freight train that carried my father and our family wagon nearly a half mile down the tracks. A year after he died, the City Council met to discuss the flasher lights  at the Second Street crossing. A councilman said that train engineers tended, at the time, to overrun the switch that activated the crossing’s flasher lights. The lights had been flashing constantly. Motorists could never be sure if a train was actually coming. 

I sit down and look around me. I’ve never been so close to our jail. The large bench beneath me resembles a church pew. This is a hallowed space, with innocent and guilty people filtering through its doors like positive and negative charges across a cell membrane, leaving their lives to fate, and hopefully  a recalibration. The rest of us doing business here can only feel the echoes of pounding footsteps and the air of foreboding within the walls. Officers walk by, glancing at me quickly. I wonder how many young women like me step foot in here — with jeans and college sweatshirts, hair freshly combed, faces scrubbed clean. 

I’m here to learn the truth about my father. My class on historical evidence and analysis has me respecting the way something like a race riot, or my father’s tragedy, can be understood differently depending on who is telling the story. To the authorities, my father’s death at a railroad crossing was just another casualty. To me and Mom, it was the major catastrophe that forever changed our world. I used to overhear my father talk about his visits with people who were incarcerated. They lived in isolation from their parents, their children and lovers. They loved the best they could. My father’s stories of their humor, courage, and resilience were different from anything you’d read in a public record. His accident record won’t say anything about who he really was. 

Impatient, I walk over to the display case in the corner of the room, trying to quiet the squeak of my tennis shoes on the polished linoleum. The receptionist nods to me from her workstation, elevated like a judge’s bench, in the corner of the room. She’s dressed in the official blue officer’s uniform.  

The impressive display of confiscated weapons makes me take a deep breath. “You’ve got quite the collection,” I say, as if she’s gathered them herself. 

“They’re nothing to brag about,” she says, sighing as she gives me a look of disgust. Clearly, working across from the weapons day after day has triggered her disdain for the weapons, the work they represent and the people, like me, who constantly interrupt her. 

“They’re better off here than being put to use,” I say, as much to myself as to her. It’s an eerie exhibit, these tools of violence that thieves and madmen have used in my hometown. “Officer Reilly’s helping you, right?” the receptionist asks. She knows he is, but it’s been about fifteen minutes. I sit again in one of the waiting room’s black vinyl chairs and pick up a section of the newspaper. Queen Elizabeth has given her consent to the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. Egypt’s selling Soviet weapons to Iraq. We’re approaching the 2nd anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. In the local news, an Indiana State Highway Commission mechanic was killed when  a tire he was inflating exploded. College hasn’t allowed me to read the paper much. It’s important, I tell  myself, to know what’s going on in the world.

The ticking of the wall clock and the intermittent typing of the receptionist echo in the room’s silence. I startle when the phone rings. The receptionist, wide-eyed, looks right at me, as if she wants me to hear what she’s saying. 

“Oh, my God. I can’t believe it … just now?” She turns on a little transistor radio next to her, and the two of us hear that our 40th president, Ronald Wilson Reagan, has just been shot. Not only the president,  but a Secret Service agent, a police officer and Press Secretary James Brady were all critically wounded but have miraculously survived. 

I can’t believe it, either. Reagan’s been president for only two months. The campaign process that elected him was the first time I seriously followed an election — and the first time I voted. I attended a few  rallies for the Independent candidate, John Anderson, and nearly voted for him. When I heard that Reagan was elected, I joined a couple dozen students on campus to wear black all day in protest. In the end, I  believed that Carter had not been given nearly enough time to fulfill his agenda for peace and the release of the hostages in Iran. How is it that the hostages were finally released during the month of Reagan’s  inauguration? Reagan wasn’t the president I wanted, but I’m stunned that someone tried to kill him. 

Officer Reilly opens the swinging door to the lobby. He’s holding a few papers. 

“I’ve got your report, Miss. Must be your lucky day.” He winks at me. “Give me a minute to make  some notes for Cassie here so she can make you a copy.”  

“Reilly, have you heard the news?” she asks as she removes the staple and begins copying. “You mean the assassination attempt?”  

“Some idiot named Hinckley shot our president! The news says it’s the first assassination attempt since some lady pulled the trigger on Gerald Ford, but the gun didn’t fire. And the first since the Kennedys were shot.” She pulls out a clipboard from her desk that holds a thick stack of papers. The pen, attached by  a metal cord, falls to the desk with a zipping sound. 

Reilly looks over at me to see if I’m hearing the conversation. “Thankfully, he didn’t kill anyone. Now, they’re saying that there were three others injured besides the president, and that it’s a good thing he was shot on the left, not the center, of his chest. He’s in stable condition. One of the guys shot was a D.C. police officer just doing his job. And the damn press secretary was shot in the head, so he can’t tell us  what’s happening.” 

With all the guns and knives from other crimes before me, and the news that our president was shot,  I remember the life lesson that forever stole my innocence—tragedies happen to real people. One happened to me. Even when Dad warned me that we shouldn’t bring any valuables with us when we went to his office  and the Community Center because of the threats, I thought his protection was all I needed. 

Cassie pulls up the report, staples both copies and brings it to me. “Here you go, Miss Fitzgerald,”  she says. 

“Thanks so much!” I say. Not always able to find the papers I need even in my dorm room, I’m  stunned that the officer located it in short order. I thank Officer Reilly and Cassie, head out the big double doors and sit on the cement steps to read the report of my father’s death, which isn’t even a page long. 

Most disturbing is a black and white photograph of our station wagon with its hood and driver’s seat so crumpled and smashed it is barely recognizable. The driver’s side tire is detached and hanging from what remains of the front chassis. My heart feels as crushed as the car. I sink on the stairs; a wave of nausea pours through my body. I read on. “The County Deputy coroner listed a cervical spinal fracture as the cause of death. The engineer of the train said it had been traveling about 35 miles per hour at the time of the collision. Damage to the train was estimated at $1,500.” 

Photocopied at the back of the report is the obituary from our town newspaper, the LaPorte Herald Argus. In addition to listing me and my mother as “survivors,” the piece tells me some things about my father that I would otherwise not have known: that he served on the parish council of our church, that he  was an officer of the Lions Club, the president of the Michigan City Community Center Board and even a  committee member of the Center Township 4-H Club. The article also says that “police were unable to determine what may have caused the car to stall but indicated the auto went onto the crossing slowly, as if it were coasting.” My father looks official and solemn in the photograph of him that accompanies the article. This is not the father I remember. I catch myself in a daze, my mind trying to settle on any thought it can, but unable to focus. I fold my hands together as if I’m praying in church. 

A soft wind swirls around me, and my discoveries make me tremble. I attempt to calm myself, pulling out old adages from Mom and Dad, long ago memorized and taken to heart. This too shall pass … when one  door closes, another opens … time heals all wounds … look to your dreams … 

As tears slip down my cheeks, I close my eyes to remember all the miracles that I’ve known, the spelling bees I’ve won, the friends I’ve made at just the right time, Mom’s tendency to write me or call right when I need to hear her voice, the letter inviting me to France, my acceptance to college and  presidential scholarship. Clearly, I’ve been blessed, except for the tragedy of Dad’s death. My mother —  whose stoicism was bolstered by her exacting German father and the brave, poised examples of Jackie Kennedy and Coretta King — stands strong through all this loss. I know it’ll do me no good to bring this  report back to her. She’s had it with the pain, and will quickly snuff it out, as if it would become a kitchen fire growing out of control threatening to consume the life we’ve cobbled together since Dad died. 

Pain shoots through my neck, and my stomach turns. At the bottom of the report, an Officer Stanley  has written in cursive, “Besides the conductor, the only witness we have is a man who was walking his dog on 2nd Street between Weller and Orchard. He claims he saw the car pull slowly onto the tracks and stop. Potential suicide.” There’s another notation, made in April 1972, only seven months after the incident: Mechanic of the 1965 light blue Chrysler Rambler wagon claims vehicle had a history of stalling. Ruled an  accident. The report is stamped “CLOSED” with a large black stamp. 

Potential suicide. Stunned, my mind reels. Dad staring at the walls, tracing things with his eyes. Dad’s squinted eyes, the deep groove in his forehead. Long hours sleeping over the weekend. Always on the move and rarely just relaxing, even at dinner. Few of the things other dads do with their children: helping me with my science fair project, taking me to ball games, or to get ice cream. Instead, when he took walks with me, he talked about The Pentagon Papers, the U.S. government lying to the American people, the war in Vietnam, Tricky Dick, working for the federal government. “I’m taking on a whole, rotten, immoral civil service system,” he told me on a walk. “The rules are OK, but the referees are lousy!” “What does taking on mean?” I asked him. 

“It means that you’re taking responsibility when all the people around you are being lazy,” he told  me. “Promise me, Chris, that whatever you do, your actions will meet your intentions.” “What are intentions, Daddy?” I asked him. 

“Intentions are the things you want to do, that are important for you to do,” he said. What did Daddy see in his office, in the civil servant system, that made him so sick? And what about the Molotov cocktail thrown through the field office window, intended to kill him? Dad was under threat in  a way I never realized. 

Clearly, it’s in Mom’s best interest to leave this behind her. Even if she believed that Dad was somehow being played by an immoral system before the crash, she wouldn’t want me to know. She’s managed to hide the obituary from me for years. I’m hit with a pounding truth: all that’s left me from my dad’s final moments is a mystery. 

What would Rikki say about all this? Rikki, do you know that I got the accident report from my father’s death and there’s some question that he may have parked his car on the tracks? No, it’s not an option. It’s too much to share at once. 

Now what? 

Thunder claps as I dash to the car. The rain starts pouring, with more questions pouring into my  mind and heart, along with more longing to cull whatever meaning from them I can.

15 Responses to “La Porte native writes book based on hometown places, events”

  1. Mary grott

    Jan 29. 2021

    I’m the mom of one of your favorite classmates at Laporte high school and St. Joseph grade school! I’m sure you don’t remember but I remember you and the horrible tragedy you suffered. I can totally appreciate the impact that something like that has on a young person, as I too suffered a tragic loss when I was 14. It’s something you just don’t ever fully recover from! It’s always there, in the background, honoring a memory you shouldn’t have to have. Thanks Kate for this beautiful story!

    Reply to this comment
    • Kate Towle

      Jan 31. 2021

      I’m so happy you wrote to me, Mary! I have such fond memories of Beth and hope she’s doing well. You were always so kind to me. The beauty about baring a story like this is that we learn about what others like you have gone through too. Yes, our heart lessons carry their burdens and their sweet gifts–hence my title. I hope you read the full book! I’m grateful for the connection. How do we get a book in Beth’s hands?:-)

      Reply to this comment
      • Mary

        Feb 02. 2021

        I’ve ordered the book Kate! Congratulations on being published! Beth owns a vintage shop in muskegon Michigan called Pine Street Mercantile! You can find it on fb and catch their live podcast on Wednesday evenings, she generally hosts that! Such fun connecting with people from our past! God bless!

        Reply to this comment
  2. Glenn Smudde

    Jan 29. 2021

    Katie I want you to know I knew your father and mother and I recall you had a brother Michael. Your dad belonged to the Knights of Columbus here in La Porte. I was Grand Knight of the council in 1968 and your dad was a very active member. If you get to La Porte again some time let me know and we can talk about what a great guy he was. Your writing is very good.

    Reply to this comment
    • Kate Towle

      Jan 31. 2021

      It’s so wonderful to hear from you, Glenn. Yes, Michael is my brother and now lives in New York City. I appreciate your kinds words and hope you’ll be able to read the full story. Dad lives on through our memories of him and I always love hearing about him through those who knew him. I hope that through this story, he can continue to have the impact can only grow! Blessings to you and your family.

      Reply to this comment
  3. Lori Kabacinski Williams

    Jan 29. 2021

    I was your neighbor when we were kids. I remembered your parents and they were very nice people. They took my sister and I in when our family lost our house due to a fire. I am sorry about your father’s death. That had to be very difficult for your family to go through. I am so glad I saw this article and got to read about your family. Congratulations on your book!

    Reply to this comment
    • Kate Towle

      Jan 31. 2021

      Hi Lori! I remember your staying with us right after the fire. I also remember the joy of visiting your temporary home on Long Beach. I really enjoyed your parents too. Your fire, like our father loss, was that heart lesson (or burden) that bears its sweet lessons over time as we cross to new awareness (sweet burden of crossing). How is Donna doing? Know that I welcome conversations about the book via Zoom and love staying connected to my LaPorte roots! Blessings to all your family.

      Reply to this comment
  4. Margie Beiser Lapanja

    Jan 30. 2021

    Beth! Great article.
    Lori, I remember that night vividly. I’m so proud of my sister! I’d love to connect with all of you next time I’m in town.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Donna Kabacinski Parker

    Jan 31. 2021

    Congratulations Kathy! Great article that sparked alot of questions and memories for me and my parents about the years you lived across the street from us. Most vivid of course was the night of our house fire and sleeping on your couch and seeing all the firetrucks come back in the middle of the night because the house was smoking. I can remember looking out your picture window and seeing all the trucks lit up along our long driveway. Another memory was your Mom coming over when my mom went into labor with the twins, strongly encouraging her to get to the hospital!
    I am very sorry for the tragic death of your father. I can’t imagine how hard that had to be for your family. Take care

    Reply to this comment
    • Kate Towle

      Jan 31. 2021

      Good to hear from you, Donna! We shared a lot together in a short time, didn’t we? I remember the fire – and being so grateful that you were all OK. Mom has fond memories of both your parents. While our loss of Dad was rough, the bigger story is all the beautiful work he did in his brief life. I hold LaPorte close in my heart. We had such a great upbringing, even as our courage was surely tested! Our mom remarried to a wonderful man, and they are living in Mom’s hometown of Maquoketa, Iowa. Love to your family!

      Reply to this comment
  6. Ron Riml

    Jan 31. 2021

    I fondly remember uncle Joe Beiser; he was one of the motivating factors for my joining the Navy. I recall that he was a quiet, gentle man. He left us all way too early. My heart grieves for you. Let me know if you are very up in New England; I’m up in Boothbay Harbor, ME. You just cant get an old sailor to stay away from the ocean…….

    Reply to this comment
    • Kate Towle

      Jan 31. 2021

      Thanks for writing, Ron! I didn’t know Dad inspired you to join the Navy! Dad could be quiet and gentle, but he also had a fierce passion to move things forward! Those ten years I had with him were epic. Boothbay Harbor sounds lovely. Did you know our daughter’s now in Boston? She might beat us to you, because you’re only three hours apart. Living by water engages our expansive minds. I like living near the Mighty Mississippi!

      Reply to this comment
  7. Sandy Weidner Menne

    Feb 01. 2021

    Hi Kathy, Your story brought back such memories for me. So nice to get an update on what you, Margie, and Michael are up to. Your mom and dad were the best and loved to visit with my parents out on North 35. Mom and Dad have both passed now but kept in touch with your mom even after her move to Iowa. Your dad’s accident was a traumatic event that remains with me to this day. What year did you graduate from LPHS? I’m trying to remember which of the Weidner sisters you were in class with….Judy, Lois, Debbie or Sherry 😊. Take care and keep writing. I am ordering your book on Amazon tonight. Sandy

    Reply to this comment
  8. Kate Towle

    Feb 03. 2021

    So great to hear from you, Sandy! Yes, our families went through so much together, didn’t we? I remember playing in your backyard for hours and remember you all fondly. Your parents were so real and resilient – I loved them, and Mom was inspired by their strength. I’m realizing that Daddy’s death impacted many people, not just our family! I graduated from LPHS in 1979. I am jazzed you’ll be reading my book and hope you’ll keep in touch at sweetburdenofcrossing@gmail.com. Love to all your sisters!!!

    Reply to this comment
  9. Ron Riml

    Feb 09. 2021

    I have very fond memories of Kate’s father. Kate is one of my many cousins. Her father was one of my influences to join the Navy, of which I made a career. They will always remain in my heart and prayers.

    Reply to this comment

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