Gertrude Cannon Wilson helped launch WWII newspaper
By Karen Carr Keefe
Just a few weeks short of Independence Day, the Island lost a true patriot from one of the community's earliest farm families.
Back in 1943, Gertrude Cannon Wilson was one of five young Grand Island women who launched The Islander, a mighty little newspaper that was mailed out for two years to hometown soldiers stationed around the globe during World War II.
Wilson, who passed away on June 18, considered Grand Island her lifelong home, where she raised three children who survive her, Daniel Wilson, Kathleen Ballester and David Wilson.
She was only 19 years old when the first issue of The Islander was published on Jan. 9, 1943. Her title was reporter, but her job was whatever needed to be done to get the bimonthly paper out to 150 Island soldiers serving stateside and abroad.
"Gert was a quiet girl, but she wanted to help," said longtime resident Shirley Kreger Luther, editor of The Islander and widow of the late LaVerne Luther, Grand Island supervisor in the 1980s and early '90s.
"I asked a group of my friends to join me," Luther said. "They were all very interested in patriotic things at the time because of the war. Everybody was patriotic at that time," Luther said. Besides Luther and Cannon, the group included Catherine Killian Long and the late Edna Schutt Delaney and Dorothy Phillips Mesmer.
"We'd get together and just chat about what we wanted to put in the paper and look at the responses," Luther said. "(Gert) helped with the folding and the addressing of the envelopes when we finally got together," she recalled.
"It was a fun group to work together. We'd call the parents (of the soldiers) and see if they had any news. And they would call us," Luther said.
Cannon helped her friend, Shirley, gather the news or "gossip," about Island families. Back then, the Island population was just over 1,000. From the mimeographed newspaper, the soldiers could read about Island political and social news, births, weddings. And from the warfront and military bases, the pages of The Islander shared news of furloughs, transfers and promotions, as well as marriages, engagements and, sadly, injuries and deaths.
Gertrude Wilson's daughter, Kathleen Ballester, of Candor, New York, said her mom still remembered the names of many of the soldiers on their mailing list, and one in particular, Arthur Wilson, whom she eventually married at war's end in 1946.
"I think my father really took a shine to her, more so than she did at the beginning," Ballester said. "And he was not a Grand Islander. He had come up from Pennsylvania, but knew people on the Island. He came up to Buffalo and then he met them and then went off to war."
Ballester said her mom told her, "I wrote to him, just like I wrote to all the other boys."
Her daughter said that Gertrude Wilson also remembered Charles N. DeGlopper, the Grand Islander who posthumously received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Battle of Normandy. DeGlopper was killed in battle on June 9, 1944, while drawing enemy fire away from his fellow soldiers by spraying hostile positions with his automatic rifle, saving the lives of his fellow soldiers who had gotten separated from the rest of their battalion.
Ballester said her mother and the other Islander staff members knew DeGlopper as a young man, even before he went off to war. "It didn't surprise her the way that he died, because she said he had such a big heart. It wouldn't surprise her that he had that kind of heroism - taking care of others, looking out for them."
The Islander newspaper had wide hometown support, and the soldiers receiving it eagerly awaited each issue.
Ballester heard many a story about the newspaper and its staff from her mother. "One of the points that I do remember my mom saying, very, very distinctly, was, 'We never, ever had to ask for any money from anybody. People always used to give us money when we needed to buy paper or give us money to buy ribbons for the typewriters.' "
"The town really came behind them and thought it must have been such a great idea that they were doing it. So I think it felt like a community effort in that way," Ballester said.
"They had to go around to visit all the families to find out what was going on. If somebody got a new car, that was the kind of thing they would write about - or a new cow, or something happened on somebody's farm. They actually had to go around and make sure they got all the news," Ballester said. She added that her mother was "a hotshot typist - so it was right up their alley to do that sort of thing."
Gertrude Cannon Wilson experienced a very different Grand Island from the one we know today and shared those stories with her daughter. "When they first got married, there was what my mom called 'the little house,' where Baseline meets East River," Ballester said. "I had two great-aunts who lived right along the river there and straight ahead there was a little house ... right on the river's edge. It had no electricity, and they would string an electrical cord from the bigger house over to the little house. That was my great-grandfather's farm."
"All of Calvano (Drive) was pasture land. We have photographs of the cows coming right down to the river and drinking out of the river. There was another farmhouse down by Huth Road, by the Island Presbyterian Church. Those two houses were from the same family," Ballester said. The family was Gertrude Cannon's mother's family, the Franz family, Ballester explained.
"Here's what I would say about my mom: She should have been an archivist, because she was so good at saving all these things and neatly archiving and labeling things and putting things together," Ballester said.
"She had every copy of all those Islanders and the newspaper clippings of the girls. She was just so good at keeping track of the memories and keeping everything together. That's why I used to call her the keeper of the memories," Ballester said of her mom. She noted that Shirley Luther to this day has also kept copies of The Islander, the clippings and the photos.
"It must have meant a lot to them," Ballester said. "It was nothing that their parents got involved in. They did it on their own."
"You know, Mom was not a socialite. My mom was that quiet person who had so much to share, so much to give. She was able to tell all those wonderful stories," Ballester said.