French Canadian Interview Project

Elmira (Smith) Wilkey was born on December 13, 1936 in Kankakee, Illinois. Elmira was born to Dorothy (Schilling) and Edmond Smith, who were married in 1928. Elmira and her sister Suzanne were the only children in the family. Her French- Canadian ancestry comes from her father's side of the family. She is a descendant of twelve of the founding families of New France/Nova Scotia.

Before her birth, Elmira's father (Edmond A. Smith) had been working for International Harvester in Bismarck, North Dakota. Then he took over his father's farm implement dealership (sales and service)—"H. Smith Sons"—in 1931, which had been established in1863. In 1933, the Smith family moved to Manteno, Illinois after living in Peotone, Illinois for a short time. At the age of six, Elmira took private art lessons taught by Sister Epfraim, Congregation of Notre Dame.

Growing up in Manteno among some of the original French-Canadian descendants, Elmira and her older sister attended the convent school, Our Lady Academy for twelve years. Our Lady Academy was one of three similar boarding schools (the other two were Holy Family in Beaverville, Illinois and Saint Patrick's in Momence, Illinois). Elmira was early impressed that being French had a certain distinction and pride. One of her earliest recollections was a gift of a bone rosary from the Shrine of Saint Anne d'Beaupre brought from Canada for her after the trip made by her father and sister. That rosary had a mystique and striking power—Elmira still has that rosary, and uses it. As a student at Our Lady Academy, she had the privilege to join in performing at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago during the Christmas season. She and other students presented a French Christmas play complete with traditional French carols in the French Cultural Exhibit (one of several countries represented in the gallery of Christmas trees of other nations). She graduated from high school in 1954 in a class of five.

In 1958, Elmira graduated cum laude from Loretta Heights College in Denver, Colorado. She also took courses at Loyola University in Chicago. Elmira began teaching at Kankakee High School (Kankakee, Illinois) and completed her teaching career at MacNamara High School in Kankakee. She also taught art and literature as an adjunct professor at Kankakee Community College and art at Olivet Nazarene University (Bourbonnais, Illinois).

In 1960, Elmira married Lowell G. Wilkey who was an engineer, farmer, and quality control manager for International Tool Works before he retired. They raised six sons on the farm in rural Bourbonnais, Illinois (Anthony, Eric, Martin, Barry, Tad, and Jeremy) and now have eight grandchildren. Elmira has been active in traveling to France--singing at the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, conducting tours of the family woods to introduce interested persons to the identification and uses of thirty varieties of wild herbs and plants, founding with her sister The Bronte Press—producing their first book (an herbal with original wood engravings), conducting children's summer reading programs at the Manteno hometown library, presenting and reading books as the "book lady" for children on local cable (Manteno), writing letters and receiving letters at the level of a minor art form, cooking the French cuisine, and researching/interviewing/editing/illustrating Rockville, the Ordinary and Extraordinary History and Folklore of Rockville Township for the Bicentennial Commission of Kankakee County in 1976. Elmira also has written book reviews and profiles of notable persons. She also has served as a motivational speaker.

As a teenager, one fond memory of Elmira's was that she sat in the winter evenings with Uncle Joe Smith (her father's uncle) as she stoked the stoker in the old basement. She would watch that he did not have an accident with his two burner kerosene stove that he preferred to the modern version, and that he did not catch fire to his vest smoking his pipe as he dosed off with the radio turned up. It was he who taught Elmira to eat raw oysters with vinegar and a dash of pepper. Elmira was drawn to the French language of her family and studied two years of French at the academy and then a third year in college.