The continuing adventures of Harry and Edna: New exhibit revives old images
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 17, 2013: Carol Felzien remembers them -- her Great Aunt Edna and her Great Uncle Harry Grossmann.
Uncle Harry was her grandfather’s brother. Together, they owned Grossmann Contracting Co. Uncle Harry and Aunt Edna lived in Frontenac. He was a Mason. She belonged to the Order of the Eastern Star.
Felzien saw them at Thanksgiving most years growing up. And at weddings. And at funerals.
They had no children. They traveled. And in 1983, Aunt Edna died, followed by Uncle Harry three years later.
That was their story.
And it was over.
But when 30 old boxes of Kodachrome slides were sold in an estate sale, and when those slides found their way to the St. Charles Antique Mall in St. Peters, and when a Chicago-based photographer pulled out one, then another, then another slide, finding images of a woman posing in a pink, then a yellow, then a blue frilly dress, the story resumed.
And this time, it was a mystery.
The slides Jeff Phillips bought second-hand in St. Peters were striking.
For $60, Phillips returned to Chicago with 1,100 slides. The more he looked at them, the more he discovered about that woman in the bright dresses. There was also a man. They traveled around the world. And one of them knew how to take photos.
Rules of composition were followed. The images were technically beautiful, every one sharp, he says, and exposed just right. Often, the woman was put right in the middle of the photo. When it was the man, he was in front of doors, his hand on the knob. He often took photos looking out from windows.
After the 500th slide, Phillips found her name written in pencil on one of the slides. Edna. Then his name followed on a photo with a blue Cadillac. Harry.
He began to find clues about when these photos were taken -- the late 1940s to 1961 -- thanks to what was inside the photos themselves.
The couple didn’t appear to have children. The images were boxed by subject, and one box was entitled “various children.” They traveled to Italy and Germany, Alaska and Hawaii.
But Phillips wanted to know more.
“The biggest mystery of all was who are these people?”
He had images and first names, but that was it.
So, Phillips, who is also a social technology consultant, went with what he knew onto Facebook and asked for help.
Is this your mother?
The Facebook page began in 2011, and very shortly, Is This Your Mother had hundreds of likes.
Phillips had enough photos to run one a day, every day, for three years.
“This image contains clues to a location where Edna once visited,” Phillips wrote. “The Colonial Motor Lodge, and the Hillbilly Court. June 19, 1955.”
“Both of those places were located in Springfield, MO,” one woman wrote. “The Colonial Motor Lodge is still in business.”
“Whoa. This is an interesting find,” Phillips wrote back. “I Googled the name some time ago and didn't find much. I just added ‘Springfield’ to my search and sure enough, there it is. Thanks for the tip.”
Some people clued in on small details, like the Tiny Tears doll in one photo.
People began adding their own story lines to Harry and Edna’s. They noted shoes and styles. And Phillips found they often projected their own feelings onto the photos.
In one, where Edna stands in front of street signs in Alaska holding what look to be wildflowers, one woman commented: “I have no children, and I have often wondered if anyone will ever care that I was here on planet earth. I can relate to Edna.”
Phillips continued posting, and people began getting more involved. A few followers started searching for real and finding small clues about who Harry and Edna were.
It only took three weeks before the story unfolded fully.
Someone suggested he zoom in on license plates, and he did, to find Missouri ones. They’d been on a Shriners cruise in 1958. Several of the followers stayed up together virtually one night, putting pieces together, until names of family members started fitting and led back to Harry and Edna Grossmann.
It was all too fast, Phillips felt at the time. He had 900 or so slides left to share. Would people lose interest?
Maybe. But he knew he had to share the outcome, he had to find Harry and Edna’s family, and he hoped they wouldn’t be upset with his search for the real people behind those memorable photos.
Meet the family
When Felzien, who is director of communications for the city of St. Charles, got the call from her cousin in Naperville, Ill., to go onto Facebook and check something out, she headed over and found her great aunt and uncle had this whole, rich life she’d never known about.
Once she and her cousins saw that Phillips was caring for their relatives' images respectfully, they joined in to the voices telling stories about Harry and Edna.
Except theirs were true.
They identified people and places, shared what was really happening in some of those photos.
“This is me...,” one family member wrote. “I will always remember this day ... I had so wanted a Tiny Tears doll. Aunt Edna and Uncle Harry came over to our house and brought me a Tiny Tears dolls with clothes and travel bed. How cool was that, usually I received books or gifts from one of the places they visited. Aunt Edna and Uncle Harry were my Godparents. They did not have any children but a lot of nieces and nephews.”
Edna died in 1983. Harry in 1986. Felzien was 27 or 28 at the time.
“And here we are, 30 years later,” she says, “and I feel like I know them better now than I did when they were living.”
The art of remembering
“Lost and Found: The Search for Harry and Edna,” opens Friday at the Foundry Art Centre in St. Charles. The photography exhibit shows the images Phillips found in those boxes, as well as the comments that unfurled on Facebook leading up to their rescue from the unknown.
“The exhibit, for me personally, has really helped me to see Harry and Edna not just as family, but through a whole news lens,” Felzien says.
And, Phillips hopes, it will also help start discussions about the images we make and keep. Harry and Edna’s slides found their way to his hands because they were no longer readable.
Now, he says, cell phone in hand, everyone takes photos all the time. Unlike the 1,100 images labeled neatly in boxes, where do our images go now, he wonders, when we can’t really hold them?
“I want Harry and Edna to help people talk about photography and how it’s changed, and if we’re preserving our memories as we should be,” he says.
Can mysteries like this happen any more, with everyone tagged, with easy-to-follow digital footprints?
“At least Henry’s slides were in a box,” Felzien says. “With a key stroke, we can just accidentally delete everything.”
The advancement of technology, she says, isn’t necessarily helping us create or save memories.
But it has, in an odd, full-circle kind of way, helped bring back a St. Louis couple who traveled the world before leaving it quietly.
Felzien and her family don’t want anything from Phillips. They’re grateful that, thanks to him, so many people will get to go along on the adventures of their great aunt and uncle.
And she hopes that, after St. Louis, “Lost and Found: The Search for Harry and Edna” will move on to new places.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” she says, “if the travels of Harry and Edna continue?”