FRENCH AND SPANISH CLASSES
Once in the lifetime of a school, a faculty member will make special contact in extraordinary ways with not just students, but their co-workers and the parents of the students as well.
Lew Wallace School had such a person in Miss Mary Cheever, who taught French and Spanish language classes. Faculty records show her on staff as early as the first graduating class of 1933. Miss Cheever can also be found on the faculty listing at Emerson School in Gary from 1926-1929. She is recalled as always there for anyone with a helping hand and ready to get the ball rolling if there was a lapse in momentum on a project. As a foreign language teacher, she reportedly made at least one trip to Europe and was enthusiastic in sharing mementos brought back from across the sea with her classes.
Unfortunately, what makes Miss Cheever so remarkable in the collective memory of Lew Wallace is the violent and sudden way in which she met her death. Leaving the school grounds on the evening of March 3, 1949, after a parent-teacher association (PTA) meeting, she drove to her apartment in the west side area of downtown Gary. She was accosted in the alley after putting her car into the garage, and the attacker grabbed at her purse strap. Miss Cheever fought ferociously for her purse, as evidenced by clumps and strands of her hair being found along the alleyway. The assailant dragged Miss Cheever down West 8th Avenue before shooting her near her back doorstep. The attacker fled, and neighbors, hearing Miss Cheever’s screams, came to her aid too late. She was pronounced dead at Gary’s Mercy Hospital, just a few blocks away. Later it was discovered that what she was so valiantly defending in her handbag was not money, but some of her souvenirs from Europe.
The school family was plunged into immediate mourning for their immeasurable loss. Principal Verna M. Hoke is quoted as saying that the city’s entire school system suffered a loss that could not be fixed.
No one was ever arrested for the murder until May of 1957, when a suspect in two area sex killings was questioned regarding the Cheever case. Articles dotted the local papers from time to time about suspicious figures supposedly seen that night, but officially, the murder investigation for Miss Mary Cheever remains unsolved to this day.
Not just the Lew Wallace community, but the entire city of Gary was shocked and subsequently motivated by Miss Cheever’s brutal death. Just days after the murder, approximately 2,000 women gathered at City Methodist Church’s Seaman Hall to rally against the upswing in violent crime being felt city-wide. They marched on the mayor’s office and demanded a police crackdown on vice. The incidents created such a stir that they received national press coverage, but ultimately the fervor died down and everything went back to the tried-and-true.
Back at Lew Wallace, where Miss Cheever had been an integral part of the school fabric, an award was adapted in her memory, becoming The Mary Cheever Award. It is not known for sure if this recognition had existed previously for the outstanding senior girl in the class, recognizing not just academics, but community service, school spirit, and interactions with others, both faculty and students. On Senior Awards Day, it was coveted second only to the Verna Hoke Award.
Much of the history of the award has become lost in the annals of time, but it is known to still have been extant through the late 1970’s. Somewhere there is a plaque with the name and graduating year of each recipient engraved, but it has not been located by this researcher or others.
In performing research for this piece, a scholarship fund was found in 2015 that is awarded through the Gary Teachers’ Union; the name is now the Hannegan/Cheever Scholarship. The union was contacted repeatedly for information but no response was ever given. It should be noted that Miss Angela Hannegan was a long-time stalwart of the Lew Wallace faculty, teaching English for many years. However it is remembered, it’s good to know that Miss Cheever’s giving spirit is still at work among Gary students, as she would have wanted.