A letter from the past, today

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Just before Memorial Day, I wrote about a plaque on the Denison campus that honored the relatively young death of a former student, the class of 1905, who died as a missionary in China seven years later. What I was able to quickly find was sketchy, and led me to jot down some general observations about the early days of global pandemics.

Then I got a message on Facebook followed by a letter in my mailbox. John A. Cherney, “cheerful, courageous, selfless,” left a wife and son upon his death in Kuling, who returned to America. And her grandson wrote me a lovely note, even as I learned that I had known Cherney’s great-granddaughter for many years!

Chris Cherney, grandson of the missionary who barely knew his own son, tells me that the family now has four generations of Denison graduates, plus the memorial missionary had a graduate brother from Granville, and together they are honored with the “J. and John A. Cherney Scholarship Fund ”for college students.

The infant son mentioned in the snippets of information I found was Paul Russell Cherney, who not only graduated from his father’s Alma Mater himself, but went on to serve in the United States Navy during the Second World War I, and as a social work graduate from Case. Western in the Cleveland area continued to impart a sense of mission and service inherited from his father to his son in turn. This impulse, Chris notes, led him to earn an advanced degree in social work from Columbia and serve in his own mission fields, of a more secular type.

And John Cherney’s great-granddaughter works at Denison, is part of the Granville Education Foundation, and has two daughters who are both in higher education (and my son’s classmate). A whole story of service, commitment and education!

Chris Cherney was also kind enough to include a few pages from a volume on Baptist missions which not only ordered me to worship for his memorial service on May 19, 1912 at the First Baptist Church in Cleveland, but showed a photo of the young man I had often tried to imagine. And yes, I think I see her great-granddaughter in it.

A few years from Denison, Reverend John A. Cherney had learned Chinese with sufficient fluency to preach to local residents in their own language. On his death, these lines of praise add to the bronze plaque to Doane that he “had a genius for friendships.” He was loved by those who knew him. He had a charm that couldn’t be thwarted. It was reported from him to Granville that among the students of his generation there had not been a greater power for good.

That’s a big part of why I love writing this column: to have the opportunity to introduce ourselves to each other, in the village and across generations. It was good to get to know John Cherney and his descendants a little better.

Jeff Gill is a central Ohio writer, storyteller, and preacher; in 1905 all his ancestors on both sides prayed for rain and walked behind plows. Tell him what your family history has taught you at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


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