Polio: Two Plagues Ago

Joe Writes . . . 

My mother wrote about the pandemic which most affected her generation, polio. It’s disturbing to note that while polio has largely been conquered, HIV/AIDS (the intervening pandemic) has not. There may be a lesson in that reality. It’s entirely possible we won’t conquer COVID-19 any time soon. We may need to find a way to live with it. Time will tell.

The following is an excerpt from our mother, Catherine McNabb’s, writings. I compiled some of her writings as a gift for her 85th birthday, and they are available for Kindle at Amazon. Cassie died in June of 2018; she was two months shy of her 93rd birthday. The picture below was taken on her 92nd birthday.

mom at 92 birthday

L to R: me, Joe Neely; our mother, Cassie; my sister, Amy Wisner; my brother and fellow adventurer, Tom Neely.

Polio Past: 1930s and Beyond (by Catherine Verschoor Neely McNabb)

Summer was the ‘scare time’ – – crowds must be avoided, especially for children. The public swimming pool at Briggs Park was forbidden – but it was pretty far away and nobody’s mom had a second car in our neighborhood anyway. Lake Michigan was acceptable for swimming and that was always the place of choice on rare swimming occasions, so not being able to go to a public pool was not much of a loss. Movie theaters were suspect also, but since we went to perhaps one movie a year that was not much of a loss, either. I know my parents were somewhat paranoid about the most innocent sneeze or scratchy throat at home or among playmates, but, for us kids living at the edge of town, summer went on much as usual. The epidemic seemed to pass each year with cooler weather.

When I started in a new school for junior high a nice, talkative boy named Bud Malewitz sat behind me in morning session for a couple of weeks. Then he was absent. I found out from his cousin, Virginia Emerson, that nice guy Bud died from polio. Wow!

During my college years I made a lifelong friend, Elly, who transferred to the University of Michigan during our sophomore year. She and a handsome Sigma Chi from the fraternity next door – a returning Army veteran who survived the worst of the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine – fell wonderfully in love. After Elly’s graduation they were married ASAP. They lived in a real dump near campus – – anyone coming up the stairway could look into their bedroom through the milk chute!

Elly worked steadily to get Jim through his final year and then Jim landed a good job in Denver, in his chosen field of advertising. Elly was joyously pregnant, and they came back home to Grand Rapids to say goodbye to family and pack up wedding presents which had been stored for them there. The car was packed and the day before they were to drive west Elly became ill. It was the dreaded plague, polio. She lost the baby and was put into an iron lung, supposedly permanently. I recall visiting my active, beautiful friend in that hospital ward.

Despite the dire predictions, Elly did make progress. With determined work at rehabilitation she advanced to a wheelchair, then walked with crutches and a brace, which she wore until the end of her life. She learned to manage a house and even drive a car with specialized equipment.

Elly and Jim tried hard to adopt a baby but were denied due to her disabilities. In time, and after a couple of miscarriages, they had a son they named David. They raised their son with love and caring help from friends and family. Elly eventually held a part-time job at a hospital desk; that made her so proud!

About 15 years ago  (note: this was written in 2004) Elly developed post-polio syndrome. I decoupaged a notable crutch for her that is still on view in a public display case at the orthopaedic center in the local hospital. In time, I helped her plan a Gathering of Friends Party, which was held at the hospital where she was a patient. A few days later, and with her doctor’s help, she chose to be sedated and have her breathing machine turned off. Jim and her sister were right there with her. What a love story! What a valiant lady! What a beloved friend! I miss her every day.

(Cassie loved limericks and wrote this one in 1994)

Here’s to the beautiful Eleanor Lee,
As valiant a lady as ever you’d see.
But in order to win’
She got help from her Jim –
Together they’re tops on the family tree.


We are glad you found our blog. If you like it, please tell a friend and share it on your social media. We would be delighted if you would leave a comment here, and will respond promptly. Tom has been scouting the final – but substantial – leg of our journey down the Grand and is anxious to share his plans with me. I will visit with him and learn what he has in mind and as soon as it is acceptable and safe to do so. I often end my posts by writing “Please take the river’s side; Industry and Big Ag already have plenty of friends in high places.” During The Great Isolation I will add, “. . . and wear a damn mask!” Be well.

This entry was posted in family, health, history, Michigan, Pandemic, Uncategorized, writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Polio: Two Plagues Ago

  1. This has helped me. Thanks for writing it. I don’t feel so alone and surreal. Did I use that word right?

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