True witness to history
By Jan Dona
There has never been a time in my life when I wasn’t aware of the Lacy name. By the time I came along in the mid 60s, George Lacy had already led the sort of storied life one most often finds in works of fiction: The story of an ordinary person born into an ordinary family, but whose experiences and circumstances created an extraordinary life. Seemingly by fiat, George Lacy was always the right man in the right place at the right time.
Lacy’s life was iconic. So much of what the man experienced mirrored our local history. In fact, if not for many of Lacy’s stories, our past would be much less clear. Like so many families in Macoupin County, Lacy was born to parents who immigrated to America to work in the coal mines. Although he was born in Iowa, it didn’t take long for his family to find their way to Benld. Lacy’s upbringing wasn’t particularly unusual in that he came from a hard working family raising a brood of children in a house that was far too small.
My father was a close friend to Lacy and I was blessed to hear many stories told firsthand by George and secondhand by my father.
When Lacy was young, gangster Al Capone was an area regular, as he produced liquor in the notorious No. 5 Mine, east of Benld. Of course, the No. 5 wasn’t actually a mine, it was a giant still where Capone manufactured liquor during prohibition. Lacy would freely tell stories of how he would haul sugar to the site. Capone treated Lacy well and was good to children.
My father always told me Lacy, who was a highly skilled repairman, started out repairing slot machines and jukeboxes across the region and would occasionally cross paths with other notable gangsters.
While most locals are fully aware of Benld’s history with Capone and all the vices associated with his name, there aren’t many first-hand accounts of some of the treachery that went on in those days. Lacy was there. He lived those stories and had a real gift for bringing them to life.
On several occasions, Lacy would speak at meetings of the former Benld Rotary Club. It was at one of those meetings I heard him relate a truly terrifying story. As a young teenager, Lacy was walking along a Benld street when a man came running past him. Behind the man was a vehicle with men pointing guns out the window. Lacy ducked for cover, but witnessed the man shot down in some sort of gangland hit. Usually, when George was telling a story, he did so with an easy sort of delivery. When I heard him tell this story, though, it was as if he relived it with his words. He was earnest. You could tell he told the story as it happened.
Another of my favorite stories involved Lacy’s interaction with Charles Lindbergh. Long before the flying ace set out in his solo flight across the Atlantic, he was a barnstormer who would frequently land in a field east of Benld. Lacy would carry gas cans to the site so the young aviator could refuel. In return, Lacy got a free ride with Lindbergh in his biplane.
Lacy witnessed the last hanging in Macoupin County in 1924. He witnessed the meteorite that streaked across the sky and crashed through the roof of a Benld garage in 1928. That meteorite became the property of Chicago’s Field Museum. He learned to pilot a plane, but gave up the habit when a plane he was flying caught fire and crashed. He, of course, survived.
Aside from his stories, Lacy was highly accomplished. He was a musician who played violin. He was a skilled artist, photographer, mechanic and model builder. He was a devout Catholic and proud member of the Gillespie Volunteer Fire Department and Knights of Columbus. Beloved by his community, in 2010 he was presented with Gillespie’s Civic Achievement Award.
When George Lacy passed away a few days ago at the age of 100, he took an enormous chunk of our history with him; however, his life and his stories aren’t lost to time. He knew the importance of sharing his stories and he did so generously.
Yes, by the time I came along, Lacy and his brother were proprietors of a small appliance store in Gillespie’s business district. It took many years for me to grasp the scope of the man’s life and talent. He was, truly, a witness to history.