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To the raintree!

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Local officials join special guests in a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new
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Special guests Virginia Baumann, left, and Lis Kernan, center – both who were on the set “Raintree County,” the movie version of the Ross Lockridge book – join Marilyn Witt on the courthouse lawn Sunday during special ceremonies honoring the historical book.

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

The time for golden raintrees to bloom, normally June and July, has passed. But Sunday afternoon the legacy of 1948 novel and 1957 film proved timeless.

“Raintree County,” a story with characters inspired by a Henry County family, was celebrated not once, but twice, with ceremonies on the lawns of the historical society museum and courthouse. And, like a raintree in full bloom, the 30 or so attending the events thought of them as pure gold.

Letters from Hollywood, speeches from visitors who were actually on the movie set and remarks sent by Larry Lockridge, son of the late Ross Lockridge Jr., highlighted a program put together by the Henry County Historical Society. The afternoon culminated with the planting of a new raintree on the courthouse grounds near a historical marker honoring Lockridge’s book and its local roots.

Also planted, perhaps, is a renewed interest in a remarkable novel, the back story of which is equally as dramatic as the book itself, which sold out of its initial printing of 50,000 copies just 24 hours after its publication.

The 1,066-page novel was a fictional account of Raintree County, a Midwestern American county during the Civil War-era, based on the real life Henry County, Indiana and its people, most notably Lockridge’s family. Retired educator and local theatre enthusiast Dick Willis had the honor of reading a letter from Larry Lockridge, written especially for this occasion. Willis stepped in for former New Castle Mayor Jim Small, originally scheduled to read the letter, but unable to due to health reasons.

“Dear Henry County citizens,” Willis read as he began Lockridge’s letter. “Representing the family of Ross Lockridge Jr., I take great pleasure in the Return to Raintree County ceremony and the planting of the golden raintree on the lawn of the Henry County Courthouse, which played so large a role in my father’s 1948 novel, Raintree County. I wish I could join you. My special thanks to Mark Sean Orr, photographer, cultural historian, author of Raintree County Memories and the mover and shaker behind this ceremony. Also to Commissioner Kim Cronk, who began the search for a new raintree and to Kaye Ford, executive director of the Henry County Historical Society for her support of this project.”

Larry Lockridge, just five years old at the time Raintree County was printed, was eloquent in his description of his father’s efforts.

“In the summer of 1943 at the age of 29, in a refurbished barn in Massachusetts, my father had already drafted a 2,000-page novel and he intended to call it American Lives, set in the early 20th century and based on his mother, Elsie Shockley Lockridge’s Henry County relatives. He wasn’t at all happy with his efforts so far. People seemed without energy and focus. It was only when his maternal grandfather, John Wesley Shockley, the Henry County native, made an occasional appearance as an old man, that the novel perked up.

“One evening in late summer of ‘43, he had a Eureka moment and decided to move the entire action back to the 19th century Henry County with John Shockley, now John Wickliff Shawnessy, playing the central role. To save paper, he didn’t throw away the 2,000 pages of his first novel. He turned them over and began writing ‘Raintree County’ on the other side.

The following summer of 1944 he had another sudden inspiration. He was, in his own words, juggling words and trying out proper names by a process of sound resemblance and free association. He stumbled into the word, Raintree. By its slight phonetic similarity to Henry and the central theme of the raintree, as he put it, instantly fused with the already existing pattern of the book.”

“The original John Wesley Shockley, who wrote unpretentious poetry for local Henry County newspapers, could never have imagined that he, some day, would be portrayed by Montgomery Clift on the silver screen as life’s aspiring young American.

“May this raintree planted today on the lawn of the Henry County Courthouse flourish and soon begin putting forth its blossoms of golden rain in late spring. To the Raintree!”

Two people from the movie set also participated in the courthouse ceremony and praised Henry County residents for hospitality resembling the raintree – pure hearts of gold.

“I told my husband ‘that’s the friendliest little town,’” said Lis Kernen, who wore a replica 32-carat ring, the kind she said late actress Elizabeth Taylor used to wear. “Virginia (Bauman) and I talked about how friendly and how nice you all were, and I was glad to come back.”

“I want to thank you all for having me and remembering me, because it just gives me 15 more minutes of fame,” said Bauman, who was actress Eva Marie Saint’s stand-in on the movie set. “I never thought that, at almost 79, I’d still have 15 minutes of fame.”

New Castle City Councilman Aaron Dicken also read remarks from Michael Dante, another who took part in the classic film.

Dante was in the memorable foot race sequence between actors Montgomery Clift and Lee Marvin.

“It was a great experience working with Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Lee Marvin, Rod Taylor, Nigel Patrick, Eva Marie Saint and Agnes Morehead. They were all charismatic and highly professional. I learned a great deal about performing by observing these very talented artists working together to bring forth the writer and director’s vision to the scenes. Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most beautiful actresses.”

Also reading during the ceremony was Henry County Historical Society President Gene Ingram, who perhaps summed up the spirit of the occasion with a verse from the Raintree County song lyrics in the movie.

“For the brave who dare, there’s a raintree everywhere. We who love found it long ago.”