Hillsboro couple remembers magazine photo spread that captured their family Christmas 65 years ago

Most people have Christmas memories from days gone by, but few would have those memories captured forever in the pages of a national magazine.

Anytime they choose, Myra Lee and Levern Love of Hills?boro can relive their extended family Christmas celebration 65 years ago in a photo spread featured in the Dec. 24, 1945, issue of Life magazine.

?It was a big event,? Myra Lee said about the local response in the small town of Neosho Rapids, near Emporia, when the magazine hit the newsstands.

The holiday gathering of James and Garland Irwin?s family included seven children, four grandchildren, two sons-in-law and an uncle.

Myra Lee, one of the Irwins? daughters, said Life was looking for a family that had several members coming home from the service in the days following the end of World War II.

For potential leads, Life had contacted William Allen White, legendary editor of the Emporia Gazette.


?I remember very well my mom talking on the telephone to a reporter from the Emporia Gazette,? Myra Lee said. ?(The reporter) said, ?I thought of your family,? because we were a big family, and had several branches of the service represented?Air Force, Navy and Army.?

Because the Irwins? 20-year-old son Jack had to report back to Navy duty by Dec. 14, the Irwins were planning an early Christmas, which suited Life?s publication schedule.

Photographer Myron Davis and an associate, whose name Myra Lee no longer remembers, came out to the Irwin farm to shoot photos starting Dec. 4.

?We had to go through the whole Christmas ritual three weeks ahead of time,? she said. ?It was something we never did that early in December. But they were right there in and among us for three days.?

The magazine?s five-page spread was comprised of 15 photos, including a panel of six that documented the butchering of a family goose for Christmas dinner.

?The things (Davis) was interested in kind of surprised us because they were just normal things to us,? Myra Lee said.

Other photos published depict the family bringing home a Christmas tree from the pasture, decorating and gathering around the tree and enjoying a Christmas dinner that included not only roast goose, but also rabbit.

The largest photo?a full page?features the exterior wall of a tool shed on which hung muskrat skins, quail, cottontail rabbits and a large jack rabbit. A bushel basket of black walnuts sets on the ground below.

?Several people were interested in buying black walnuts,? Myra Lee remembered about the many letters the family received from admirers across the country.

?One man sent us two packages of nylon hose?which you absolutely could not buy in those days,? she added. ?That was the most exciting thing to us. The fellow was from Chicago.?

For the most part, Davis didn?t pose the photos.

?He wanted us to do what would be natural for us,? she said. ?I don?t remember what he suggested, but he probably watched us. He would have known what he was looking for without us telling him.?

At least one photo was of an unnatural activity in her family.

?He took pictures of the guys helping to dry the dishes after the dinner,? she said with a chuckle. ?The minute he drop?ped the camera, they dropped the dishtowels. That one was posed.?

Perhaps for that reason, that photo never appeared in the magazine. But the family did receive 20 to 30 photos from Davis that never made it to print, according to Myra Lee. Each family with a serviceman received a large, glossy family portrait.

Though the photo shoot occurred 65 years ago, all but one of the siblings are still living. One brother-in-law, a bombardier on a B-29, was missing in action at the time. He was officially declared dead several months later.

Myra Lee and Levern continued living in the Neosho Rapids. Levern began a wiring business that was responsible for bringing electricity to most farms in the area. After 37 years, he purchased his family?s home place and farmed.

While Levern was in the service, Myra Lee became the first married woman allowed to take nurses? training at Emporia State. She worked for some time in the field, but was busy raising their own five children.

The Loves became acquainted with the Hillsboro area through her daughter, Jane, who with husband Larry King live in Marion.

Garland Irwin lived out her final years at Salem Home in Hillsboro, where Jane was working at the time.

?I used to drive back and forth to Hillsboro every week, and I loved Hillsboro,? Myra Lee said. ?I thought this was the neatest little town.?

At Jane?s urging, the Loves purchased a house on North Adams Street. They divide their time between there and the farm they still own near Neosho Rapids.

The Loves also were drawn to Hillsboro by Lindy Wiens, whom Myra Lee describes as ?a niece who is really like a daughter.?

Photographer Myron Davis, who was 25 at the time, went on to have a distinguished career at Life and other publications. His best-known photos are those of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lan?caster, as lovers in the surf of Hawaii, for the movie ?From Here to Eternity.?

Davis died in April of this year at the age of 90 from injuries suffered in a fire in his Chicago home.

According to the obituary that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, thousands of Davis’s career-making images were found in files at his home and miraculously went undamaged by the fire.

Certainly the ones he took near Neosho Rapids 65 years ago will survive among Irwin generations who experienced them and those yet to come.

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