It was a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon in the home of Oscar and Helen Staby. Then again, most days were warm and sunny in Los Angeles. They had both loved living in the Midwest, but you sure couldn’t complain about snow being too deep in Southern California.
Oscar smiled to himself as he looked around the room at his wife, two daughters, and mother-in-law. At 41, he had done well for himself. He’d worked hard and earned his slice of the good life here in California.
But things hadn’t always gone so well in his life. Oscar had come a long way since his early days.
Oscar had been born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1886, the only son of John and Elizabeth Staby. His early childhood had been a happy one until he was about ten years old, when his father deserted the family.
Surely Oscar was upset, but his mother Elizabeth was no shrinking violet. Although her husband had left her, John’s parents had not. They invited her and Oscar to move in with them at their home at 919 Fifth Street.
Elizabeth immediately went out and sought work to help do her part for the family. Eventually, she found a job in the needlework department at W.M.D. Peterson and Sons department store in the downtown shopping district. The store served many people around the area, not the least of which were the wealthy upper class of the city.
In just a short amount of time, Elizabeth, a hard worker who was good with people, had climbed the ladder to become head of her department. She earned a solid paycheck, and made many good friends.
Meanwhile, her in-laws helped to watch after and raise young Oscar while he received his education at local schools.
After he graduated from high school, Oscar began working as a salesman, a position that he worked hard at and performed well in.
At some point, Elizabeth met William Bettendorf, one of the richest and most influential men in the region.
William was an inventor, and had designed and manufactured the Bettendorf Truck, a railroad car part that was extremely durable and made train travel much safer. The businessman became smitten with Elizabeth, and they were married in Cook County, Illinois in 1908.
The next year, William decided to build a new home and his family. This was to be a grand mansion, a showcase for his success.
While the mansion was being built, William moved his parents, Michael and Catherine, as well as his wife and stepson, into a large bungalow across the road from the construction site. William, a stickler for detail, wanted to make sure that he was on-hand to personally oversee the project.
Elizabeth also helped with some of the planning, which included accompanying William on shopping trips to Europe where they bought hand-crafted furniture for their new home.
By this time, Oscar was not only living with William, but was also working as an office clerk for his stepfather’s company. Just as he had done before, he worked hard and tried to build upon his previous success.
Unfortunately, William would never see his magnificent home finished. He passed away suddenly on June 3, 1910. For the second time in his life, Oscar had to let go of a father figure.
But Oscar wasn’t a ten year old boy anymore. He was a man, and a successful one at that. He had a strong work ethic, and a good working record. Not only that, it’s very likely that Oscar received some solid business advice and philosophy from his stepfather, a man who had himself risen from a humble farming background to the very heights of success.
The Mansion Years
Elizabeth inherited a good deal of money from her late husband, more than enough to live very comfortably for the rest of her life. A local judge also made a ruling that allowed funds to be diverted from William’s estate to complete the construction of his home. As soon as it was done, Elizabeth moved in.
In 1913, Oscar married Helen Ronley, a young socialite from Clinton, Iowa. They moved to Davenport and began to make a new life together, eventually having two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret.
Oscar had continued to build his business interests, and held several around the area. He was also a high-ranking Freemason, and held a high position within the benevolent order.
In 1921, his mother Elizabeth passed away while wintering in Los Angeles. She was brought home and buried next to her husband, William, and her estate was settled out. By the end, Oscar was left with the mansion.
The mansion was a truly beautiful home, and it had been a part of Oscar’s life for many years. It was also huge and expensive to maintain. While he was undoubtedly very successful in his own endeavors, the funds that were required to take care of such a place were a bit beyond even his considerable means.
Still, Oscar held onto it for a few years. In all honestly, there probably weren’t a lot of people looking to buy a property like that. The home was valued at over $100,000, which would be nearly $1.3 million today. While it was well-maintained and worth the cost, it would still take a very interested buyer to take it off Oscar’s hands. It would take about three more years for one to come along.
In the early 1920’s, the Freemasons of Iowa began to actively seek out a place that they could turn into a retirement home for their aging members and their families. They looked into several prospective places throughout the state, but none seemed quite right.
Oscar, being a prominent member of the order, had heard about this. He quickly contacted the people in charge of the search and told them about the mansion. They were very interested and a tour was arranged. The Freemasons loved the property and eagerly sat down to discuss price.
As much as Oscar’s reputation as a successful and savvy businessman had grown over the years, so had his reputation for being a caring and giving man. He was always willing to help someone who was down on their luck, and was someone that they could depend on.
In an act of impressive generosity, Oscar offered to sell the mansion, grounds, and all of its furnishings for only $50,000 – half of the property’s value. The Freemasons were stunned. They accepted the deal and plans were set in motion to purchase the home.
Around the same time, Oscar and Helen moved their family west to Los Angeles. They settled comfortably and Oscar quickly began to accumulate several successful business investments there. Their roots were still strong in Davenport, however, and the couple frequently traveled back to visit friends and relatives.
In 1925, the sale of the mansion to the Freemasons was finalized, and Oscar happily turned over the keys to them. While that chapter of his life had closed, he was forging ahead into a new one.
Oscar’s investments in Los Angeles had done well, and the ones that he still held in Davenport continued to perform. In true California style, he had even become a movie producer.
By October 23, 1927, the future couldn’t have been brighter for Oscar and Helen. When the family sat down for Sunday dinner that evening, all was well with the world.
As Oscar looked around the table, he saw friendly faces all around. There was Helen and her mother, and of course his daughter, Margaret. And there was Elizabeth, back home from boarding school for a visit. He might have even smiled as he began to carve the roast that had been made for Sunday dinner.
Suddenly, his hands began to shake. He felt nervous, so nervous that he couldn’t control them. Oscar excused himself, dropping the knife and fork on the table. He walked quickly out of the room and up the stairs.
The rest of the family was surprised. The attack had come so suddenly, and Oscar had left so quickly. As they sat there, they heard a gunshot from upstairs. After a shocked second, they raced up to find out what had happened.
There, in the bathroom, was Oscar. He had been shot through the head.
The authorities were called, but there was nothing left to do but take away the body and try to find an answer to the burning question on everyone’s mind – why?
The family got along well. There were no secret affairs or disgruntled relatives. Everyone was happy and well adjusted. Oscar’s financial situation was also good. He made a good living, and had no dishonest or illegal dealings.
An autopsy was performed, and it showed that Oscar had died from a single gunshot wound to his head. Ultimately, it was concluded that Oscar suffered a sudden bout of temporary insanity that had driven him to suicide.
But had brought it on? Some thought that ill health might have been a contributing factor to his disturbed frame of mind. Was there some secret guilt that he had over an unknown action? Why had such a kind-hearted and generous family man suddenly run upstairs and commit suicide before Sunday dinner?
By this point, it didn’t matter. Oscar Staby was dead.
He was buried in a simple grave in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Los Angeles. Friends and family attended, and his death made headline news back in Davenport.
Oscar Staby had been a kind and generous man, much like his stepfather, William. They had grown successful both privately and publicly. Both of their lives had also been cut tragically short before their time, leaving the world a little dimmer for their passing.
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