Everything’s Relative

By Family Tree Editors Premium

Seeking a Senator

As a young girl, my mother, Imogene Marie Van Court, told me tales about our family, including Aunt Jenny. In the early 1920s, Aunt Jenny had traveled around the world two or three times, driven the first electric car to my mother’s home in Hyde Park, Chicago, and wanted to send Mother to a prestigious girls finishing school in southwestern Illinois.

Thirty years, tons of questions and a stack of genealogy magazines later, I started on my quest to find answers to the questions I had about this mysterious Aunt Jenny. My first step in solving this mystery was the family photo album. The album contained a picture of a bearded and distinguished gentleman, with the name underneath the picture, Sen. James E. MacMurray. On the back of that picture was written “5th Illinois District.”

Since I knew the state, I quickly found an ad in a genealogy magazine for the Illinois Historical Library and immediately called the library. I spoke with the resource librarian, who offered to mail me the senator’s obituary and a copy of the Blue Book of the State of Illinois, 1925-1926. Lucky for me, the senator had been visible in the government of the state of Illinois and had served the state in the 52nd-54th Illinois General Assembly.

When the senator’s obituary notice arrived in the mail, it had just the sort of information I was looking for: dates, places and names. The MacMurray family had moved from Chicago to Pasadena, Calif. — only 20 minutes away from my home. Another pertinent piece of information revealed that church services took place at the First Methodist Church in Pasadena.

Finding out that the senator attended church told me where to go next. I looked in the telephone directory and found the number of the First Methodist Church in Pasadena. As I dialed the number, I prayed the church still existed. After all, 40 years had passed since his death on July 2, 1943, and the church might have passed out of existence. The church secretary answered the phone and must have thought something was a little strange, as I stammered and stuttered out the information, telling her the family name and why I was looking for the senator.

There was silence on the other end as the secretary seemed to be searching her mental index file of former and past church members. And, then she finally said the words I’d been waiting to hear: “Well, yes, the senator and his wife were longtime members of this church.”

She asked if I wanted to leave my name and telephone number, explaining that she might be able to find someone among their older members who had known the family. As luck would have it, an hour later, the telephone rang and on the other end was Sen. MacMurray’s third wife’s daughter, Lorraine. I had tracked down a living relative, one I could talk to about family. Later that same week, I was invited to talk with Lorraine at her home in Pasadena. After several cups of tea and much talk about family, Lorraine gave me the senator’s biography, The Man from Missouri, The Story of James E. Mac-Murray, written in 1943, and the journal he kept as a young man in 1882 during his school days at Chaddock College in Illinois.

Finally, the family puzzle had been solved and I could put the pieces together. In the senator’s obituary, there it was: The Senator’s wife’s name was Jenny Areson Rubel MacMurray. My grandmother Olive Aletta Spencer Van Court’s second husband was Charles Wesley Areson. My step-grandfather, Charles, and Aunt Jenny were brother and sister. This was the connection to my family.

Aunt Jenny had passed away in 1941, the same year I was born. Charles W Areson passed away on March 27, 1923, the same month and day my mother was born.

Pleased with my detective work, I knew I wasn’t finished yet. I had to check out my mother’s story about that elusive finishing school in Illinois. Well, there really is a Mac-Murray College in Jacksonville, 111., only in the 1920s it was called Illinois Women’s College. In 1930, the name was changed to Mac-Murray College for Women, in honor of James Edwin MacMurray, a major benefactor of the college. Today it is simply known as MacMurray College, and in 1996 they celebrated their sesquicentennial.


Granada Hills, Calif.

From the April 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine