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Frances B Kimball - Biography

Frances Russell Bill was born October 23, 1921 in Cleveland, Ohio to Fred Russell Bill and Dolly Lee Bill. She was born at McDonald House maternity hospital which is now part of University Hospitals of Cleveland. The doctor who delivered her was her great uncle Arthur Bill. The baby girl was their second and last child. Mary Lee (Merrily) was five years old when Frances was born. The family lived on Euclid Heights Blvd. in Cleveland Heights at the time. Fred was a well respected photographer specializing in portraits of children taken only with natural light. His father, Frank Bill, had been a photographer before him. At the time of Fran’s birth Frank and Fred were running the studio together in the Hannah Building in downtown Cleveland. As a result of their profession we are lucky enough to have a large number of early family portraits.

Frances (her family called her Faf – which she hated) was something of a tomboy. She often told the story of how her parents had wanted their second child to be a boy. Dolly had been told by her doctor (AKA Uncle Art) that because of some of her health issues it could be dangerous for her to have any more children after Merrily. Dolly didn’t take advice particularly well. The name they had picked out for the new baby was Francis Russell Bill (Frank). They had no name picked out for a girl. When the baby girl was born they changed the name from “Francis” to “Frances” and left it at that. She spent a good share of the rest of her life trying to be the “Bill’s little boy.” With that end in mind she could often be found up a tree or in a mud puddle – much to her father’s delight and her mother’s dismay. She got along much better with her father.

Faf was a very good student and a precocious pianist. She was taken along to her big sister’s piano lessons while still much too young to participate. Listening from her mother’s lap, however, she absorbed a great deal of music theory and was quickly playing the family’s grand piano on her own. That piano became one of her dearest friends and confidantes and remained so until she died. She took her troubles to the piano and comforted herself with Chopin preludes and Beethoven sonatas. If she was angry it was more likely to be Rachmaninoff. Though she was trained as a classical musician she very much wanted to learn to play the popular jazz and swing music of the time. Fred, however, wouldn’t allow that “trashy music” in the house.

When Frances was ten years old (1931) the family moved to Lee Road. The Bills would remain in this house until 1963. During the Depression of the 1930’s the photography business was hit hard. It became necessary for Fred and Dolly to relocate the studio to their home on Lee Road. Pictures were usually taken in the living room and Fred set up the basement as a darkroom. Fran had many memories of children coming to their house for pictures in the back garden. Wedding parties were also a staple of the business since even during the Depression people still got married. Fred was something of a pioneer in the use of natural light. In later years a portrait he took in their garden of his first grandchild (Fran’s daughter, Patricia) won a first place award from the International Photographic Society. Fred was also a Mason and could count on a certain number of photographs each year from his fellow Shriners.

Fran excelled all through her school career and was promoted ahead of her age group twice. She was still twelve when she started at Cleveland Heights High School. She was also an accomplished swimmer and diver.

In 1936 & 1937 the Broadway producer, Billy Rose, brought the Great Lakes Exposition to Cleveland. Fran was only 15. She wanted very badly to participate in this highly touted extravaganza as one of the chorus of synchronized swimming beauties. The famous Olympic swimmers, Johnny Weismuller (of the Tarzan movies) and Eleanor Holm, were going to headline.

"The Great Lakes Exposition grounds spanned 135 acres along Cleveland's lakefront from Public Hall to Municipal Stadium east to 20th street. The fair opened to the public June 27, 1936 and ran for one hundred days. It opened for a second season in 1937, drawing more than 7 million visitors in the two seasons despite the hardships of the Great Depression.

Attractions included the "Streets of the World," where visitors could sample food, entertainment, and goods from 40 countries, and the Hall of Progress, which included the "television theatre." The midway offered dozens of rides and amusements, such as "Ripley's Believe it or Not Odditorium," a photo gallery, Venetian boat swing, and the "Custer Car Speedway." The 1937 season featured Billy Rose's Aquacade, a water music and dance spectacular starring Olympians Eleanor Holm and Johnny Weismuller, star of the Tarzan movies.
"

For more information & pictures from the Great Lakes Exposition click here.

Fran was a strong swimmer and had a beautiful figure for a bathing suit. She was also too young. Nevertheless, she went downtown on the trolley, lied about her age (only by a few months), auditioned for Billy Rose and got the job. All she had to do was tell her parents. Amazingly, they recognized how much it meant to their daughter and went along with it (with some conditions and caveats, of course).

She had a wonderful time that summer with the Aquacade. It was hard work and the pay was terrible but what an adventure for a 15 year old. She did meet Johnny Weismuller once. The number that evening called for some of the women swimmers to be brought out onto the stage in fancy curtained litters carried on the shoulders of the men. Fran was selected to be one of the girls in the litters. When they reached the edge of the stage they were to emerge from behind the curtains and dive from the elevated litter into the water. Johnny Weismuller missed his entrance cue and wasn’t on stage where he should have been. The only way for him to get out there without looking like a complete idiot was to jump into one of the girl’s litters. He chose the nearest one which happened to be Fran’s.

She remembered her curtain suddenly being jerked open and being ordered to get out quickly so the star could get in and make his entrance. She didn’t get to swim in that number. It worked out okay, though. “Tarzan” tracked her down after the show, apologized and thanked her for being such a good sport.

Like most Americans the 1930’s were lean times for the Bill family. Merrily was in college, business was scarce and money was tight. Fran was very proud that she earned enough by swimming in the Aquacade that summer to help her father pay the mortgage payment. The Great Lakes Exposition was such a success in Cleveland that Billy Rose decided to reprise it in a slightly expanded form the next summer in New York City. Fran was asked to stay with the show. That was more than her parents were willing to deal with. Swimming in Cleveland for a summer job (at the age of 15!) was one thing. New York City was quite another. That was the end of her show business career.

When Fran graduated from high school she was awarded a full scholarship to Radcliff. She wanted to accept the offer and attend the prestigious school but was dissuaded by her mother. Dolly worried that they didn’t have enough money to provide Fran with the clothes and things she would need in order to fit in socially with the other women at a school like Radcliff. Also, they wouldn’t be able to get her home for visits during the school year. Fran was very disappointed but agreed to attend Mather College for Women at Western Reserve University and live at home. Both Fred and Dolly had graduated from Western Reserve.

Fran majored in psychology and business while at Mather. She continued to be an excellent student earning a Phi Beta Kappa key in her junior year. Also in her junior year she signed up for a semester class in aviation, an elective course which sounded like fun to her. It turned out to be one of the most meaningful experiences of her life.

She took her flight instruction at a little airstrip in Willoughby called The Lost Nation Airport. It still exists today. She flew a little Piper Cub airplane which she liked to say had the same horsepower as a sewing machine. The plane was so small and noisy that she couldn’t always hear her instructor’s directions. Women didn’t routinely shave their legs in those days. If she missed a shouted order to bank to the left or right he would reach around and pull the hair on the corresponding leg. It was crude but effective she always said.

When the time came for her to do her solo flight she took off and picked out her spot points on the ground without any problem. The test required her to take off, make four right hand turns at the points determined to be right for the conditions, and land exactly where she started. Everything went fine until she came in to land. The instructor had neglected to adjust the plane for the difference in total weight without him in it. Fran didn’t weigh enough to bring the plane down and there had been no previous discussion about the process of making the adjustment. She circled until she figured it out and came in exactly on her spot on the runway. Her instructor was sheepish but very proud of her.

The picture we call “Wings” was taken on the day she got her pilot’s license. It was the same day that she received a letter from Mather College telling her that she had been named to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Dolly (a Phi Beta Kappa from Mather herself) wanted Fran to pay attention to the letter from the school. Fran, however, was more focused on the flying. Her dad had found an old WWI leather flyer’s cap somewhere. He put it on her head and took the picture. She described herself as “..one happy kid that day.” The grin on her face attests to the truth of that.

In 1940, while Fran was attending Mather and learning to fly, her sister Merrily finished up her training at the School of Applied Social Sciences (SASS) and got married. One of Merrily’s friends and colleagues was a woman named Naomi Slaughter. One weekend Naomi’s little brother, Oliver Kimball, needed a date for a party. Merrily offered up her little sister, Fran. One of Fran & Ollie’s early dating experiences was in an airplane. Ollie also wanted to be a pilot. He was being patronizing about women flying in general and Fran’s flying in particular. Some of the required elements of her training included loops, spins and stalls. Without explanation or warning she took Ollie up in her little flying sewing machine to three thousand feet (the required altitude for a safe stall) put it into a spin and stalled it. What Ollie did or didn’t say after he recovered from this has never been a part of the story.

WWII was raging in Europe. The Americans were resisting getting involved, but the handwriting was on the wall. Not wanting to be drafted by the American army, Ollie enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He wanted to be a pilot but had a problem with his depth perception. The Americans wouldn’t have let him fly. The Canadians, having been at war for some time already, weren’t as fussy. Fran and Ollie were married in South Haven, Michigan on September 15, 1941. Fran was 19 years old and about to start her senior year at Mather. Three months later the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

The newlyweds lived in South Haven near Ollie’s parents Charles and Helen Kimball. They had a baby coming and the Americans had now joined the war. Patricia Lee Kimball was born April 29, 1942. Ollie was stationed in various places in Canada for his training. When it was possible Fran and Patty went with him. Fran was fairly fluent in French so she managed pretty well in Montreal. Baby Patty was teething, Ollie was flying (sort of- his vision problem led to a few difficulties with landing in treetops…referred to in the family as his “forest landings”), the world was at war and 20 year old Fran was in Canada trying to keep up with her baby and her school work. Mather had allowed her to take a leave and continue with her classes by correspondence. She studied by herself and came back to Cleveland to sit for her exams. She passed them all, of course, and had only a couple of classes left in order to graduate.

Inevitably, Ollie was posted overseas. Like so many of the troops heading over there Ollie went on the Queen Mary. He says he carved his initials –OGK- on the railing of one of the troop decks. He remained with the RCAF for a while then the RAF took him until the Americans decided they needed him for themselves. He couldn’t fly himself but his flying experience had made him useful as a control tower officer. He was sent to an air base in Watton, England north of London. His brother-in-law, Merrily’s husband Hiram Hardesty, was a flight surgeon with the 401st Bomb Group and was at Deenthorpe, an airbase nearby. They got together a few times during their stint in England and had some R&R in London.

Fran and Patty came back to Cleveland to live with her parents in her old Lee Road house. Her sister Merrily with her baby, Susan Hardesty, also had come back home. In January of 1944 Merrily had another baby- Tom.The Lee Rd house now had more people living in it than ever.  With the exception of a few visits to South Haven to see Ollie’s folks Fran remained in Cleveland for the duration of the war. She went back to Mather to finish up her degree- often taking little Patty with her. Patty was used as a test subject by all the psychology students. The young mother was very proud when it turned out that her little girl tested as a genius! She and Merrily helped out in the photography studio and around the house. The war years were hard ones for everyone. Rationing made it hard to run a household – though having three babies in the family allowed for a few extras. There were often lapses in the mail from Europe and very scary periods of waiting.

The war in Europe finally ended and Ollie and Hiram came back to the States. Ollie was scheduled to ship out to the Pacific Theater but the atomic bomb was dropped and it was all over.

Fran, Ollie and Patty went back to Michigan to pick up their lives. Ollie worked for State Steel as a purchaser. On May 21, 1946 Gerry Russell was born. A year later, on May 23, 1947 Allison Ann appeared. The family had a short sojourn in Arizona (something to do with chickens) but came back to Paw Paw, Michigan where they had purchased an old farm house and some acreage. Ollie wanted to try his hand at farming on the side. What that really meant was that Fran lived on the Farm with the kids and he went into Kalamazoo to work. It was a great place to be a kid – dogs, horses, chickens, even a cow and a steer. One old horse named Candy was so gentle that she would allow the little Allison to climb up her hind leg using Candy’s tail as a rope. This was the beginning of great things to come.

Candy stories….

It was not such a great place for a bright young woman with three small children, a dilapidated old house, chores, and no money. Over time they fixed up the old farmhouse and even built a little house for Ollie’s parents next door. Helen Kimball was an enormous help to Fran in those days.  She helped with the children (who  adored her) and was Fran's best friend. stories about Gramma

Fran actually did a lot of the construction on the little house herself while Ollie was at work …..

As soon as she could Fran had her old friend the piano shipped to Michigan where it took up residence in the living room. They had to shore up the old floor in order to hold the piano’s weight. As the years went by Ollie changed jobs now and then. He always stayed in purchasing and moved his way up the business ladder.They lost Ollie's father, Charles Kimball, to a heart attack early  in 1955.

More farm stories to come…

On February 11, 1955 Kathleen Frances was born. Very shortly afterward Ollie was transferred to a new job in California. The days on the Farm were over.

The family moved to Garden Grove, California. Patty was thirteen, Gerry was nine, Allison was eight and Kathy was three months. They had a swimming pool in the back yard and a regular 1950’s suburban life.

 

Fran soon met a woman who was to become one of her dearest friends. Another wife, mother and PIANIST lived nearby. Robin Bowler and Fran would spend the next fifty years getting together and playing piano duets. Their raucous laughter and beautiful music would fill whatever house they happened to be in over the years.

 

 

 

 

 

After four years in Garden Grove Ollie was transferred again – this time to Littleton, Colorado. Patty was in her senior year of high school and wanted to stay to graduate with her class. Robin Bowler came to the rescue by inviting Patty to stay with them until the end of the school year. She did and joined the family in Colorado a few months later.

 

The house in Colorado was built to their design. Ollie’s mother, Helen Kimball, came to live with them. They had some land so once again two horses joined the family.
Patty enrolled as a freshman at Denver University. There she met Robert Thomas, a handsome young Korean War veteran finishing up his mathematics degree on a GI Bill scholarship. Pat & Bob were married at the Kimball’s home on March 19, 1960. Fran’s parents came out from Cleveland for their first grandchild’s wedding and Fred took the wedding portraits. Shortly after this Ollie was transferred back to California.

This time the family decided to locate a little further north. Kathy was just entering school and Fran was appalled at the Los Angeles County schools. She insisted that they move far enough to cross the county line into Ventura County where they taught reading using phonics not flashcards. Thousand Oaks was a small town of about 3000 people just across the county line. They bought a new house there and Ollie settled in for a long commute. Thousand Oaks didn’t have a high school yet so Gerry attended school in the neighboring city of Camarillo where he became their star sprinter. He elected to stay and graduate with his class from Camarillo after Thousand Oaks built their own high school in 1963. Allison moved over to the new school and graduated as valedictorian of her class in 1965.

Patty and her new husband Bob also left Colorado and came to California. Bob was a high school math teacher and Patty was expecting their first baby.

Very shortly after arriving in Thousand Oaks Fran started looking for a job. She had spent the previous nineteen years being a housewife and mother. She was bright, bored, only forty years old and about to be a grandmother. Kathy was now in school and it was Fran's turn to do something that would challenge her.

In short order she found a job as a “Girl Friday” at the fledgling Calleguas Municipal Water District. Her boss, Archie Hill, was the only other employee then. Over the next twenty-six years she and Archie together would shape and guide the water district into an  entity that would provide water for an area that was soon to explode with phenomenal growth and development. The last six years before her retirement she was named the Manager of the District. The Calleguas years were probably the most satisfying years of her life. Sadly, Ollie began to have trouble with his health during those years. The impact on the family was profound. Throughout those difficult times Fran not only held Ollie, her marriage and their kids together but managed to be a pioneering career woman.

During the forty-five years in Thousand Oaks:


Ollie worked for various companies over the years. He commuted from Thousand Oaks into the Los Angeles area for nearly twenty years. He retired from TRW as their Manager of Materiel in the Space Vehicle Division in Redondo Beach. He was a successful and well liked manager. He didn’t really enjoy his work, though. The business world was too hard hearted for him. What he wanted more than anything was to be with Fran. She was the center of his world. He now resides at the Silverado Senior Living Center for patients with dementia in Calabasas, California. It is a remarkable and lovely facility and he receives wonderful care. Mercifully, in his confusion, he believes Fran is there with him. 

 

 

 

Patty and Bob have four children: Brenda, Wendy, Tammy and Keith - all of whom are married and living in California with children of their own. Patty is the retired director of a large preschool program in Thousand Oaks. Bob retired after teaching math for 35 years at a local high school. They still live in Thousand Oaks. She and Bob spend their time playing golf, traveling, and enjoying their children and 10 grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

 

Gerry graduated with a physics/math degree from the University of Arizona. While there he met and married Judy Ackerman.They have two children: Russell and Erin. He is now a retired math teacher in Talent, Oregon. He and his girlfriend, Ruth, live on a mountainside ranch overlooking a beautiful valley. They spend their time working to tame their new property and enjoying the beautiful Oregon scenery. Russell lives in Oregon and operates a landscaping company. Erin is in Chicago working toward her PhD in African Studies. 

 Allison continued with her horses and fashioned a career for herself as a trainer at the Arabian Horse Unit at her alma mater Cal Poly University in Pomona. She married Douglas Elwell in 1968. They have one son, Scott, who is an officer in the United States Army and has just arrived home from a tour of duty in Iraq. Doug is a Judge in Chino, California. Allison and her horse, CP Alchemy “Tag”, were named National Champions in October 2005, crowning a long career that began back on a farm in Michigan.

 

 

 

 Kathy left Thousand Oaks quite young and moved back to Fran’s old stomping grounds in Cleveland. She and her late husband, Tom Hardesty, have three daughters: Carolyn, Jennifer and Heather.  Kathy is now married to Tom Fulton, Jr. and lives on a tree farm in West Farmington, Ohio. They spend their time wrestling the jobs around the place to the ground. Carolyn will graduate from CWRU medical school (Fran’s alma mater) in May. Jenny is in veterinary school at Texas A&M. Heather is a junior math/education student at Hiram College (Kathy’s alma mater).

 

 

 

 

After Fran retired from Calleguas in 1986 the couple spent many years traveling around the country in motor homes often with their cat, Schatzie. They took a few cruises and did some traveling around the world as well as many camping trips with children and grandchildren.

 

 

 

They spent a lot of time on various projects around their house (especially the gardens) on El Monte Drive in Thousand Oaks. It was a showpiece when Fran sold it in 2004.

 

 

 

 

Fran spent her last year living with her daughters: Patty in Thousand Oaks, Allison in Chino Hills, and Kathy in Ohio.

When reunited with her piano (which has come full circle and is back in Ohio at Kathy’s house) she immediately went to it and played a whole number of pieces… Suddenly, she stopped and laid her head against the piano. Weeping, she said, “You can’t imagine what it means to me to be back with my old friend.” Half laughingly, she apologized for being such a "sentimental sap" – and then began to play again. Her energies the last few months of her life were very limited but she managed to spend time at her piano up until the day before she died.

 

Fran died comfortably in her sleep at Kathy’s house at 5:20 A.M. on February 5, 2006.
The end of an era……. But what an era it was!