Next year is the 90th anniversary of the introduction of the “old corn game” to the U.S. populace and it still seems popular as ever. The Catholic Church has raised millions over the years with its weekly games around the country; retirement homes and American Legion and VFW posts still host weekly games. Even the Potawatomi tribal leaders must think there is money in Bingo, wanting to build a multimillion-dollar casino near Shabbona, expecting to bus in hundreds of Bingo enthusiasts from all over northern Illinois.
But I find it the most fun when played at the annual community days celebrations around the county, where people will sit in front of their array of cards for hours, just waiting to call out “BINGO” before anyone else.
The last time I played the game (before last weekend) was in Kirkland on the 4th of July in the early 1960s when the editor of the DeKalb County (Kirkland) Journal, the inimitable Fern Worden, spent hours putting corn on numbers ranging from 1 to 75. I sat down to play and chat, but Fern hushed me so she could concentrate on her six cards.
Fast forward to last weekend during G-K Days, I found myself at the Genoa Lions bingo concession where about 200 players could sit at tables outdoors and play. The caller was Gene Bradford. Kay and I spent a quarter a card to play a few rounds, not coming close to covering a row or four corners.
Later, I chatted with Gene and he said he is the second generation of his family to be a caller. When the G-K Fire Department used it as a fundraiser, his father, Clyde, a volunteer fireman, could be found running the game. When the fire department got so busy managing the annual festival, it turned it over to the Lions, which pays a $350 flat fee for exclusive rights to the game. Gene said there are other costs, such as the state of Illinois permit fee, and then the state also takes 5 percent of the gross. But the club manages to make about $1,500 to $2,000 in years when it doesn’t rain.
Having been away from my hometown some 40 years, I didn’t remember what Gene did most of his life. During high school, when only 15, he worked at Bob’s Royal Blue grocery store for 90 cents an hour. He said before that he had a Daily Chronicle paper route that paid him $8 a week.
Even while going to NIU he kept working at Bob’s, but after graduation he was drafted and went to Vietnam. When he returned from the service, it was back to the same store. Later, he became manager for 14 years, then bought the business and ran it until 1994 when he retired.
But Gene is not one to sit around the house like a couch potato. He has had a dozen volunteer roles in town, including three stints as president of the Lions. When the current president, Jerry Helland, steps down, Gene will have to fill a fourth term. My question to him: “Where have all the young men (and women) gone?” Gene said working parents are so busy with family obligations, sports and other school-related activities with their kids, they just don’t have the time for service club work like retirees do.
I hope there is bright side now that the baby boomers are retiring by the millions, so there should be an upsurge in volunteering.
I should also mention that Gene called Bingo games for 20 years at the American Legion until recently, and for 10 years has been selling sweet corn and vegetables during the summer months from the back of a truck next to the museum on Main Street, donating all the profits to the Genoa Methodist Church. It would be hard to match that record of community service, anywhere!