By Sally Schneiders
Heads turned toward us as we made our way to a table at the Bluestone Restaurant one day last November. Ninety-five years old, yet still standing almost completely erect at 6’5″, my lunch companion looked impressive in a brown leather bomber jacket, tan slacks, and relaxed expression. As my friend pulled out my chair for me to sit down, a gentleman from another table said to me, “Your father must have been a great basketball player!” It’s an easy assumption to make that someone 6’5″ once played basketball, but the “great” part caught me off guard. Over the din in the room I replied “I think he did play basketball in college. He is not my father but a family friend.” “What is his name?” “Allen Menke.”
The gentleman looked at his phone, and then said to me, “Your friend played basketball at Purdue University and was inducted, in 1999, with his brothers Bill and Bob, into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame!” Mr. Menke looked up at the gentleman with a polite smile, nodded, and said, “That’s right.” Hall of Fame? We have had lunch together many times over the past three years, ever since his wife Ginny died, and I felt I knew him. As is the case with many of the “greatest generation,” Mr. Menke is humble.
Now, after learning even more about Mr. Menke for this article, I am the one humbled. His accomplishments are many. He was graduated first in his class at Huntingburg (Indiana) High School (1940); earned a degree “with distinction” in Mechanical Engineering and received the Ward Lambert Trophy for academic and athletic achievement from Purdue (1943); and served during WWII by teaching cadets at the U.S. Army Ordinance Corps how to use the M9 Director on the battlefield, and by teaching thermal-dynamics to cadets at West Point. He worked his way up from sales engineer to executive vice president at the Trane Company then moved on to become a vice president at Borg-Warner Corporation. He later bought and ran his own business, Artesian Industries, for 10 years in his “retirement.” He finally “really” retired, if you would call chairing various boards and helping establish a graduated care facility, while you are in your 80’s, really retiring.
In 1939 Mr. Menke visited the World’s Fair in New York where he met the inventor of air conditioning, Dr. Willis H. Carrier. The thus inspired 17-year old Allen decided to go into this new field of air conditioning by pursuing engineering as a career. On December 7th, 1941, during his sophomore year at Purdue, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. entered WWII. Mr. Menke remembers the President of the University announcing that based on military needs, students would attend Purdue year round. As a result, Mr. Menke was graduated from Purdue in August of 1943. Allen Menke met his future wife, Virginia “Ginny” McDonald at Purdue. They married on April 14th, 1944, following his graduation from Officers Candidate School as a Lieutenant.
He is proud of his service to our country, as well as his civic contributions. But, he is more proud of his family life. The Menkes came to Winnetka in 1968 and lived in their home on Tower Road until 2002, when they moved into the Presbyterian Homes of Evanston. They had four children: Janet, Bill, Bob, and Sarah. Allen and Ginny were married for an incredible 68 years. When he talks about his life and memories, Ginny factors into just about every anecdote. Mr. Menke is first and foremost a family man and I sense from his stories that he learned about priorities in life (faith, honesty, humility, resourcefulness, reliability, fairness, sincerity, good manners) from his father and mother. Ginny is gone, but Mr. Menke is still actively engaged in (and with) the world around him mostly his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
That November day we went to lunch, I pulled up to the curb of Two Arbor Lane, getting out to open the passenger side door, intending to help Mr. Menke take his seat. I spotted him inside the vestibule, rising from his chair to greet me. His stature, even at 95, really did give me pause. I imagined a soldier, in 1944, on time and ready to go. I tried to help him get in the car. “Nope, no, I can get in myself, thanks”, he replied, as he pulled his long legs over the threshold.
“Mr. Menke, The honor was all mine”