Alton Cardinal

"Some of these things are very important, but only to the people involved." (ALC, May 2005)

Early Years

in Washington
[+] Two years old in Washington state; [-]

Alton Lyle Cardinal was born on April 10, 1913, in a relative's house at [+]812 York Avenue[-] in Spokane, Washington, to Gilbert and Lillie Cardinal. His first years were spent near Indian Prairie, Washington, on wheat ranches managed by his father.

at Oneida
[+] At Oneida station, 1918.

Information about his parents and their residences in his early years can be found in Alton's recollections of the Cardinal family.

In the fall of 1916, the family moved back to Green Bay, Wisconsin, and in the spring of 1917 they moved to a series of houses in Oneida. Among Alton's friends at Oneida were Robert and Prudence Bennett. (Bob Bennett eventually became Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the first Native American to hold that post in the twentieth century. They reconnected when Bennett was in the news in 1962; Bob Bennett died in 2002. Prudence Bennett Doxtator still maintained contact with the Cardinals in 2005.)

(The structure in the background of the photo is not the Oneida station itself but the section foreman's house which was immediately east of the station.)

Growing Up in Green Bay

penny circus
[+] The penny circus company:
Alty, Jesse Banta, Mick McDonald, and Bob Banta [-].
This troup put on their show on June 21 and August 19, 1929.

In the spring of 1920, the family moved to 132 South Oneida Street in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Alton started Sunday School at St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church. (Beatrice Ferslev, his future wife, started Sunday School there in the same year.)

Among Alton's friends on Oneida Street were Mickey McDonald and the Banta boys.

The house had a small barn in back. His father Gilbert removed most of the loft floor and installed a trapeze for Alton and his friends, who then put on a penny circus. They also worked with the real circus when it came to town; it was traditional to hire local boys for both the labor and the publicity. Alton helped set up the tents for Ringling Brothers and watched as an elephant was used to free a vehicle mired in the mud.

Lincoln School
[+] 2nd and 3rd grades in Lincoln School, 1921 [-]

Alton's first year of school was in Oneida, but all the rest of his school years were in the Green Bay public schools. Lincoln elementary school was almost new, having been built in 1918, and located just 2 blocks away on Shawano Avenue. (When the school was rebuilt in 1994, it was turned to face Buchanan Street.) One of his teachers at Lincoln was Miss Ann[?] Hnilica; she spent her career at Lincoln, eventually teaching Alton's son Peter.

Eighth grade was spent at McCartney School, which was located on South Ashland Avenue (just north of School Place).

West student
[+] Drawing of Alton in 1931 by William Moutrie,
who was a West High classmate at the time. [-]

Alton's [↗]diaries for 1927, 1928, and 1929

Alton continued at West Senior High School, at 966 Shawano Avenue, Green Bay, Wisconsin. Besides the usual academic subjects, he played the cornet and, in 1928, he took a course in woodworking. The results of the manual training included a desk, bookshelves, and a lifetime hobby.

University Days

UW student
[+] 203 N. Park St., Madison, Wisconsin,
in September of 1933 [-]

When Alton began to think about going to college, Gilbert, with no personal experience in higher education, sought advice from other people he trusted. One of those was Mr. Halliday, a civil engineer Gil knew from the Green Bay and Western Railroad, who suggested the University of Wisconsin as a good place to learn engineering. (When Gil was on the GB&W section crew, Halliday would call on him as a field assistant. Years later, Alton and Bea delivered mobile meals to Halliday, who remembered the story.)

During the summer after his first year of college, Alton watched the construction of the Shawano Avenue underpass at the Milwaukee Road tracks (between Ridge Road and Locust Street). The excavation was performed by men using #2 shovels; the railroad bridge was built next to the tracks on extended abutments and slid into place. Seventy years later he watched the bridge being removed and in 2005 the roadway excavation was filled in and Shawano Avenue rebuilt at grade.

student engineer
[+] January 1934 Alton Cardinal between semesters, the engineer
[notation by Mabel Doncheck transcribed by Phillip Doncheck]

Alton lived in the university's Adams Hall for his first two years of college, where he had a room overlooking Lake Mendota. Before starting his third year, Alton and his mother Lillie went to Madison to find housing. At that time there were many places available for students, although some were restricted to women only. They found a suitable rooming house on the east side of Park Street near the campus. (There are no houses left in that area now.) It was a good room on the second floor of a three story house, next to the bathroom, and he stayed there for the next three years. In the summer, however, the owners, a family named Herrling, asked him to use a room on the third floor so that they could rent the second floor to tourists.

The engineering school required a senior thesis. Along with another student, Alton researched traffic delays at signalized intersections.

Engineering study naturally included advanced math. Years later, Alton commented that he never used calculus professionally; by the time he had a problem that could be solved with calculus he had forgotten how, so he solved the problem another way. Even so, he felt that everyone should learn calculus, not so much for any practical benefits but "just for the sheer beauty of it."

During his university days, Alton was active in the Wesley Foundation (1127 University Avenue). One of the programs of the Foundation at that time was "Three Squares" which provided low-cost cooperative meals for students, a very important service during the Depression era.

Engineering license
[+] License to practice civil engineering,
October 20, 1945

Early Career

Dada and mother at cypress lake in Arkansas
Alton's [↗] photo album
Price County
[+] Bryant-Lily Road construction,
Price County, Wisconsin, 1938

After graduation in 1935, Alton's first job was at the state highway lab, which was located on the UW campus. He worked there during the summer, but layoffs were expected that fall. His boss refused to allow him time off to look for another job, but afterward it appears that she was really looking out for his future. Rather than being laid off, Alton was transferred to the Highway Commission's district office in Rhinelander, Oneida County, Wisconsin. He liked that job and worked there for three years. While working in Rhinelander, he attended the annual contractors' conventions in Madison.

After that, Alton was transferred back to Madison where he worked for another year. While there, the staff moved into a new building on the west side of Randall Avenue near the railroad tracks.

Nimrod dam
[+] Nimrod Dam construction (courtesy US Army Corps of Engineers)
[also see 1990 view]

Deciding to broaden his horizons, Alton took a civilian job with the U.S. Army's Corps of Engineers in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most of the work related to flood control projects. The Little Rock District offices were scattered in rented rooms in downtown Little Rock. Later, Alton was transferred to another office of the Little Rock District in Russellville, Arkansas. There he worked on the construction of the Nimrod dam on the Fourche LaFave River from September 1940 until March 1941.

The Arkansas Democrat

World War II

army uniform
[+] At home as a commissioned officer,
October of 1942 [-]

As World War 2 approached, Alton was drafted into the Army along with the local Arkansas natives. When he received his draft notice, Alton's supervisor arranged for him to receive vacation time due him. Alton spent the time by driving back to Green Bay to visit his parents, travelling by way of friends in Little Rock, Arkansas, Davenport[?], Iowa, and Madison, Wisconsin. His mother travelled with him on the way back. (As the wife of a railroad employee, she returned to Green Bay on a railroad pass.)

The draftees were instructed to take a commercial train, then transferred to a military train and ended up with the Infantry at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. C.S. Jasper was one of Alton's friends from this time, and also an admirer. They've kept in touch, at least intermittently. In 2005, Jasper [+]wrote, When I was 21, he was 27, and I kinda looked on him as a fatherly figure. And the same time he was my best buddy. He was best man at my wedding, also acted as father of the bride, and decorated the army chapel with flowers. The chaplain was my hometown pastor. William Arnold. He liked your daddy, because your daddy helped him set up the chapel out in the field. Cardinal was making $21 a month, and he'd send $2.10 back to his church in Green Bay; was a good example to all of us.

Jasper also [+]reported that Alton carried a .45 in the army. … He was quick, and was a good shooter. He could beat me, getting bullseyes. (Alton never owned or used any kind of weapon after the war.)

Alton's [↗] army papers

Later, Alton was sent to Engineer Officer Candidate School, where he [+]graduated[-] on October 14, 1942. He was then [+]commissioned, rejoining the Corps of Engineers but now as a military officer. He eventually attained the rank of Captain.

During the war, Alton served in the Pacific, mainly in the Philippines and at Milne Bay in New Guinea.

In the fall of 1945, Alton was released and returned home to Green Bay. He lived with his mother in the Oneida Street house until his wedding in 1946. He was employed by the Wisconsin Highway Commission (later the Division of Highways in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation) District 3, where he spent the rest of his career.

Family Life

wedding couple
[+] October 12, 1946

On October 12, 1946, Alton married Beatrice Ferslev in a small ceremony in her parents' house.

Early family [↗] photo album
and [↗] slides

Alton and Bea bought a house at 973 Christiana Street in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (They paid cash for the first house and never had a mortgage.) There Phyllis Ruth was born on January 25, 1948. David Ralph followed on March 18, 1949.

During this time, Alton was the resident construction engineer on various highway projects over the summer construction season. For several summers, the whole family moved temporarily to the vicinity of projects in Oshkosh or Neenah.

Alton and Bea designed a new house for a lot at 1093 Reed Street, Green Bay, Wisconsin. This was the back half of the property at 1088 and 1092 Shawano Avenue which they [+]bought from Mr. Primley. This was really a double lot and Alton had room for a large vegetable garden. He liked to get up early in the morning to hoe, and he always kept his hoe sharpened. Primley was also a gardener, and their gardens adjoined taking up a large part of the distance between Shawano Avenue and Reed Street.

Christmas 1952
[+] Christmas, 1952

Just after moving into the new house at the end of January, Peter Bruce was born on February 2, 1952.

As a result of the last polio epidemic in August 1955 (just before the Salk vaccine became generally available) both Phyllis and David died.

In May of 1961, the family bought 40 acres of woodland in the Town of Cooperston, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin: the NW ¼ of the SW ¼ of Section 11, Township 21 North, Range 22 East. Alton enjoyed working in the woods. For decades, he split cedar rails for rebuilding the fences around the woods. He also cut wood which he would take back to his woodshop to make into lumber for his projects.

[+] Alton and Beatrice Cardinal, 1996

When Peter went off to college, Alton and Bea designed a smaller house at 419 North Locust Street in Green Bay. For several years, the state highway district office was located at 1125 North Military Avenue. Alton would walk to work, going north on Locust Street, then through Perkins Park and the Fort Howard Cemetery. When there was enough snow during the winters, he would carry his snowshoes and use them to cross the park and cemetery.

In January of 2005, Alton and Bea moved into The Rennaissance, an assisted-living facility in nearby De Pere, Wisconsin.


jail ministry
[+] Alton retired from the jail ministry in 1996

Alton was always involved with his local church, which means St. Paul's Methodist Episcopal Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin – later called "Methodist" and then "United Methodist". He served on the Official Board, he was a member of the building committee for the new (1952) building, he was the congregation's lay delegate to Annual Conference for several years, he held many positions within the Sunday School, and other positions throughout the congregation. Alton and Bea completed their active work in the local church by serving for many years as church librarians.

Beyond the local church, Alton worked with the Wisconsin Annual Conference and the Wisconsin Council of Churches to help initiate formal ministry programs for migrant workers and Native Americans.

Locally, Alton was instrumental in the founding of two strongly ecumenical ministries. A jail ministry emphasizes bringing library books to inmates in the Brown County Jail. Meanwhile, the Seafarers' Ministry of Green Bay sends chaplains to visit every commercial vessel arriving in the Port of Green Bay and supplies Christmas boxes to late-season ships featuring cookies made by volunteers from churches throughout the area. Early on, the Seafarers' Ministry also sponsored visits by foreign sailors with local families. Economic and political factors eliminated that service as shippers sought faster turnaround in port and government restricted foreigners from leaving the ships.

Alton Cardinal died in the evening of Wednesday, July 26, 2006, after years of slow decline. The funeral service, held on Saturday, July 29, opened with the Easter proclamation: Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. His body was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

June and July, 2005.
Written by Peter Cardinal with Alton L. Cardinal.
Updated August 1, 2006.
Updated with added photo April, 2014.
Updated with added links April, 2017.
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See also the transcription of Alton's notebook on the Old Things which form part of the material legacy of the family, and the end of life stories which tell of a different kind of legacy.

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