Marian Cheatham (B.S. Ed. ’77) might not exist today were it not for an ancestor’s premonition — and avoidance — of the very disaster that launched Cheatham’s career.
Cheatham is a full-time writer of contemporary and historical young adult fiction. Her debut young adult novel, “Eastland,” is based on the real story of the 1915 Eastland boating disaster that claimed the lives of 844 people in Chicago. As a child, Cheatham learned that her grandmother was somehow linked to the deadly shipwreck, but it wasn’t until she had started her writing career that she learned her grandmother was supposed to be on the ship that day. She had given up her ticket at the urging of her mother, however, who had an ominous feeling about the trip.
Cheatham now lectures about the Eastland disaster to schools, libraries and book clubs, and writes a post on the subject on the Chicago Tribune’s “Chicago Now” blog site. The ill-fated ship’s story became especially prominent this year when a recent NIU graduate discovered chilling original newsreels of the disaster, just in time for its 100th anniversary this summer.
Born and raised in the Chicago area, Cheatham attended NIU, where she pursued a degree in special education.
“I LOVED my time at NIU,” she said. “My friends and family used to say that I should have been the poster child for Northern. I loved everything about college life — the stimulating learning environment, the beautiful campus, the cheese-smothered burgers and fries in the cafeteria. It was all good.”
Cheatham lived in Lincoln Hall for her first two years, and then moved to University Plaza for her remaining two years at NIU. After graduation, she returned to DeKalb and lived in a one-bedroom apartment off of Annie Glidden while working as a graduate research assistant for the head of the Department of Special Education.
Her undergraduate education was funded by a summer job at the M&M Mars Candy Company in Oak Park, Ill.
“The money we saved making Three Musketeers and Snickers paid for a full year of room, board and tuition,” she said. “It was a sweet job. No pun intended.”
Cheatham was especially impressed through her involvement in the NIU Honors Program.
“Each semester, I was required to take an Honors class, in additional to my regular course load of 12 to 15 hours,” she explained. “This made for some heavy semesters, but the Honors classes were always the highlight of my year, especially the Greek mythology classes. I lived for them. The professor was one of the most engaging, enthralling people I’ve ever met. To this day, when I think of his lectures, I still smile.”
A trained educator, her eventual writing career may come as a surprise to some of her former professors:
“As for writing, well, I had a terrible time in my literature classes,” she confessed. “I loved reading, but writing papers was not my forte. I had one English Lit professor who told me my writing was so boring, it put him to sleep. Yikes!”
Cheatham said she became a writer anyway, “because I learned from my mistakes.”
After graduation, Cheatham taught special education at the primary level for several years before spending a few more years working in a family business with her father and siblings.
“I eventually left the business world to pursue a career in writing, but I remembered what that NIU professor told me,” she said. “So, I read every ‘how to’ book on the subject, joined a professional organization, attended workshops, conferences, book signings, author lectures, anything and everything to do with the art of writing. And then, I just put my butt in a chair and wrote, wrote, and rewrote until I thought (fingers crossed), I got something right.”
Cheatham recently took some time away from planning the 100th anniversary remembrances of the Eastland Disaster to share about her experiences at NIU. Read on for the full interview:
How did you first become interested in the Eastland Disaster, and how did that lead to your involvement today?
At family dinners as a child, my father and aunts and uncles would often talk about this big ship that had capsized in the Chicago River killing hundreds of people. My paternal grandmother, Grandma Manseau, apparently had some part in this disaster, but I never really understood the magnitude of the tragedy until I grew up. Only then, as a 40-something newbie writer looking for intriguing stories to write, did I discover what all the animated dinner conversation had been about.
From my first day of serious research into the Eastland, I was hooked on the story. Unfortunately for me, my father had already passed, but I was able to learn more about our family’s Eastland connection from my aunt. She told me that Grandma Manseau had a ticket for the July 24, 1915, Western Electric employee picnic. Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Ill., had leased six steamships that would depart from the Chicago River and ferry the 7,000 picnickers to Washington Park in Michigan City, Ind. My grandmother did not work for Western Electric, but was going with a girlfriend who was a Hawthorne Works employee.
However, on the night before the big excursion, my great grandmother had a premonition of danger and death and begged my then 28-year-old grandmother not to go on this picnic with her girlfriend. Great-Grandma Savageau’s premonition must have been terrifying because my grandmother conceded and remained safely at home.
Of course, Great-Grandma Savageau had been correct. Something deadly did occur that Saturday morning, July 24, 1915. My grandmother’s decision to forego the picnic had saved her life — and mine. When the realization of that prophetic premonition sank in, I knew I had to write this story.
To you, what is the significance of the clips recently discovered by another NIU alumnus regarding the Eastland?
In my opinion, the significance is huge. It proves that the Eastland story was big news all across the globe. The foreign press in Chicago that day must have rushed to the disaster site to film as soon as word broke. The scenes in the clips are of rescue efforts only hours after the capsizing. Of course, in Chicago the news was unimaginable and devastating. But news of the Eastland had repercussions worldwide. Many of the Western Electric employees at that time were “Bohemian” from pre-WWI countries of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russian, et cetera. Some employees were working here to support family back in the Old Country. Losing that support meant not only suffering emotionally from an Eastland death, but also facing financial hardship.
On a more personal level, watching those film clips made the stories I’d only read about seem more real. Several times, I was moved to tears thinking of those victims being fished from the Chicago River or pulled from within the bowels of the ship. I knew those victims’ names. I’d met family members, visited Eastland graves, but now, it was as though I were watching the scene play out live. Those clips had an eerie 9/11 déjà vu feeling about them — haunting and unforgettable.
What is planned for the 100th anniversary?
The Eastland Disaster Historical Society of Arlington Heights, Ill., the official host of the 100th Anniversary Commemoration Weekend, has been planning for this occasion for decades, and they have many educational and emotional ceremonies planned over the course of a three-day weekend beginning Friday, July 24. (For a schedule of events and details on how to order tickets, visit the organization’s website.)
What can we learn from this disaster?
Urban legends regarding the cause of the Eastland tragedy have circulated around the country for a century – everything from passengers rushing to the riverside of the ship, to the wild story that the tugboat Kenosha pulled the Eastland over. But the sad reality of the matter is that human greed, hubris, and poor judgment caused the disaster.
On the morning of July 24, 1915, a series of events occurred in catastrophic succession, resulting in the greatest loss-of-life disaster in the history of Chicago and the Great Lakes. The news shook the world, but did anything change? Chicago initiated stability testing on passenger steamships after the disaster. Passenger capacity licensing came under stricter government controls. The entire steamship industry went into a steady decline after the Eastland, but that may have had more to do with war and the economy than fear over public safety.
There was an outcry for justice, but no one was ever found guilty. The 844 victims never received a penny in compensation from the owners, and although Western Electric Hawthorne Works suffered greatly over the loss of nearly 500 employees, the company eventually went on to become an American icon. Sadly, in hindsight, nothing seemed to have changed. The Eastland was a sensationalized story that sold millions of newspapers, but as for the survivors and the families of the victims, life went on.
Why do you work so hard to preserve the memory of this event?
I fight hard to keep the story alive because I see the victims as people — real-life human beings who struggled to make a life for their families in the booming metropolis of 1915 Chicago. So many victims were first- or second-generation Americans. They, themselves, had come here or their parents had emigrated here from Europe to forge the American dream. After reading about so many of them, learning their stories, meeting their ancestors, walking their neighborhoods, and visiting the Western Electric museum to learn about their workplace and the products they produced, I feel for these people. They are alive in my mind and my heart. That is why I can’t stop telling their stories. They deserve to be remembered.
What advice do you offer to current students and alumni about building a career?
As Oprah often says, follow your bliss. I’m a firm believer in that philosophy, but I caution that warm, fuzzy sentiment with a cold slice of reality. You may be the best novelist of your generation, but writing a novel can take years. Who’s going pay your bills until your brilliant book debuts? If you don’t want to live in your parents’ basement till your Social Security kicks in, then you have to have a paying day job.
That doesn’t mean you can’t work in your chosen field. If you’re the creative type, you can go into advertising or editing or teach dance classes. Work to pay the bills but save your free time to pursue your artistic dreams. Network to build contacts, take classes to improve your craft, join a critique group of like-minded souls for emotional support, attend workshops and conferences. In other words, nourish and nurture your dreams, and you will be a success.
Learn more about Marian Cheatham at: