A few years ago, I penned a piece about Don “Doc” Adams, the longest-serving Illinois Republican Party Chair who also was a force on the national Republican stage. That piece focused on Doc’s Adomaitis-Adams and Yacubasky-Yates Lithuanian immigrant ancestors–and the 1930s rise of their first American-born generation from coal-mining and bootlegging to political power in the Republican Party.
The intermingling of the two political families in the 1932 marriage of Bertha Yacubasky and John Joseph Adomaitis (Adams) ended prematurely in divorce. But not before producing son Don “Doc” Adams, whose political and business gifts became legendary in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
Outside of politics and patronage, “Doc’s” biggest impact on Springfield was probably through the hospitality strip mall the Lincoln Center, located on North Grand Avenue near the Monument Avenue entrance to Oak Ridge Cemetery and Lincoln’ Tomb. The center included a Lincoln souvenir shop and the exquisite Ann Rutledge Pancake House, where in the late 1960s, my Lithuanian great aunt, Teta Mary Yamont (Marija Jomantiene) introduced my sisters and me to our first deluxe strawberry-covered pancakes topped with whipped cream.
Although I loved that pancake house, back then I knew little, and thought less, of its place in our local Lithuanian-American community.
Doc’s son Don Adams, Jr., remembers being a short-order cook at the pancake house when he was home from college for the summers. The younger Adams remembers that the Lincoln-themed descriptions of the food on the menu were often as memorable as the food, itself. For example, there was “The Getty’s Burger” and “General Sherman’s Baked Ham: Sherman would have stopped on his march to the sea for this one.” In addition to pancakes topped or made with blueberries, strawberries, peaches, and even coconut, the menu also included mouth-watering “Manhattan Blintzes” and “French Suzette.”
“Doc” spent most of his working hours in an office behind the souvenir shop, when he was not in his office at Republican headquarters. Don, Jr., also recalls that on most Saturdays, local power-brokers like Bob Cohen, John Short, and Bill Cellini would meet for brunch or lunch with “Doc” at the pancake house.
Don, Jr., doesn’t recall how or when his dad became a fan of Abraham Lincoln—perhaps when he was introduced to the Republican Party by his maternal uncles, the Yates-Yacubaskies, who had been influential in the party locally since the 1930s. “Dad was definitely a big fan of Lincoln; there was a lot of Lincoln memorabilia at home and in his office in the Lincoln Center,” Don, Jr., says. In addition, the pancake house, named for Lincoln’s first, ill-fated love, had a wall-sized mural with events and themes from Lincoln’s life.
Lincoln Center Draws ‘Doc’ Home from College
“Doc” first became involved with the Lincoln Center when he received a series of letters from his mother Bertha requesting that he come home from Northwestern University to help manage her Yates brothers’ family businesses. William Yates always included his brother Joe and two nephews, Eddie Balisky and “Doc” Adams, as partners in all his businesses. The period when “Doc” was called home, in the mid- or late-1950s, coincides with the period when the Lincoln Center was in development.
In any event, “Doc” acceded to his mother’s requests, returning from his studies in Evanston without completing his degree. Soon, he was immersed in, and later, ensconced at, the Lincoln Center, as he simultaneously moved up the ladder of the local Republican Party. According to Don, Jr., “Doc” eventually bought out his uncle and cousin partners to wholly-own the two strip mall businesses, which he kept running until the early 1980s.
Like his uncles, the Yateses, “Doc” was always in business for himself outside (his work for) the Party, Don, Jr. says. “At one time, he also formed a corporation to buy and operate the Lincoln Depot as a museum. I have stationery from that dating to the early 1970s.”
Keeping Business & Politics in the Family
Young “Doc” naturally grew close to his Yates uncles, and had little influence from his father, after his mother Bertha divorced John Joseph Adomaitis (Adams) and took her two sons to live with her sister Anna Balisky in the Yates-Yacubasky immigrants’ original home at 1501 Pennsylvania Avenue. Many large Yates Thanksgivings that included the families of Bertha and Anna’s brothers Joe and William, Sr., were held there.
According to “Doc’s” first cousin, William Yates, Jr., his dad William, Sr., was the clan’s driving force in both business and politics–which were always conducted in tandem, and as a multi-generational family enterprise. Because William, Sr., made brother Joe and nephews “Doc” and Eddie Balisky part-owners of all his businesses, “Doc” ended up at least a passive partner in the downtown Governor Hotel (with Jack Weiner), as well as the Yates brothers’ Y-B Market, a grocery on the site of the future Lincoln Center at First Street and North Grand.
Origin of the Lincoln Center
In the mid- or late 1950s, in the heyday of Route 66 tourism, William, Sr., pushed to demolish and replace the Y-B Market with what he conceived as tourist retail/restaurant complex. “Dad and his brother Joe made sure that ‘Doc’ and Eddie were partners with them in the new center, like everything else,” Bill, Jr., recalls.
The establishment of this upscale tourist strip mall also benefited from the input of William, Joe, and Bertha Yates’ sister Belle Walons, who had left Springfield for Chicago years earlier with her IRS-agent husband, and who operated her own beauty shop in Chicago’s famous Drake Hotel. “Aunt Belle came down from Chicago and told her brothers William and Joe how to lay out and decorate the interior of the Lincoln Center–basically, how to make everything–and they listened,” Bill, Jr., recalls.
‘Doc’s’ Principle Mentor: William Yates, Sr.
He also described his father Bill, Sr., who by 1942 had risen to Sangamon County Republican Party Chair, as “Doc’s” principal business and political mentor. Though 12 years younger than his first cousin “Doc,” Bill, Jr., recalls that “Doc” and his brother Jack “would always sit close to Dad at our family gatherings and want to get Dad’s feedback.” According to the younger Yates, Bill, Sr., “was friends with Butch James, a man close to UMWA president John L. Lewis, another man named Lou Byrd—and Governor Stratton was also a very good friend.”
After years of family gatherings in the small house on Pennsylvania Avenue purchased by the Yates-Yacubasky Lithuanian immigrants, by the 1950s, family holiday gatherings had moved to the Sycamore Lane (Lake Springfield) home of successful businessman William Yates, Sr. “And it wasn’t just on holidays—there would be a big picnic with 30-40 people at our lake house every Sunday during the spring and summer,” Bill, Jr., says.
‘Like the Pope, Himself, Coming to Visit’
“I remember Fr. (Stanley) Yunker (pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic church) coming to these big gatherings at the Pennsylvania Avenue house, and at our house on the lake,” Bill, Jr., recalls. I’d seen priests before, but it was nothing like this. Fr. Yunker would arrive in his full glory, in a white robe with his white miter, and it was like the Pope, himself, coming to visit.”
Could the exceptional dress and carriage of Fr. Yunker at those times have been related to the political power and status of the Yates family and their guests? In projecting the power of the church, it seems likely to me that Fr. Yunker was attempting to deal himself into the “earthly” political discussions and power-brokering that must inevitably have taken place at the home of this leading Republican family.
As for the food at the Yates family gatherings, Bill remembers kielbasa and potato pancakes made at home by his aunt, Anna (Yates) Balisky. The table was also laid heavy with turkey, ham, Lithuanian kugelis, and “pies galore,” Bill recalls.
Passing the Torch
Doc’s uncle and mentor William Yates, Sr., died in 1974. But not before expanding into business well beyond Springfield, starting in 1948. According to Bill, Jr., in the 1950s, his dad operated the largest Oldsmobile dealership in Missouri (in St. Louis), as well as an Oldsmobile dealership in Litchfield.
“My dad was very, very involved in politics, and if Harry Truman had been beaten by Dewey in 1948, we heard that Dad would have been appointed Postmaster General. But Dewey’s loss ended Dad’s aspirations in politics.”
It fell to “Doc,” in the next generation of the Yates-Yacubaskies, to pick up the torch. Don, Jr., remembers how his dad was “a great public speaker. That certainly helped him get to the state chairman position and stay there a long time. In fact, Dad held the national record for longest-serving Republican Party state chairman,” Don, Jr., recalls.
Don also recalls that his father’s leadership style was more behind the scenes. Rather than chase glory for himself, Don says, his dad “preferred to help good people get elected.”
On Ronald Reagan’s Transition Team
“He (‘Doc’) did this on behalf of Ronald Reagan, supporting his presidential campaign from the beginning, almost before anyone else did. And for that reason, when Reagan won the election, he became part of his transition team. For some time, Dad was spending more time in Washington than in Springfield,” Don recalls.
(Doc’s family included three sons and a daughter, and lived first in Sherwood, then on Noble south of Outer Park Drive.)
In this day and age, it’s hard to imagine an immigrant’s grandson, who was known for serving his personal recipe chili at the Ann Rutledge Pancake House, as a D.C. power-broker. But it seems “Doc” and his Yates uncles, like the offspring of so many immigrants, straddled more than one world with their political and business ambitions. Moreover, their politics based on family and ethnic alliances served as a bridge to the kind of politics we have today.
Although Don, Jr., couldn’t recall anything specific, he confirms that “Doc” felt “a pretty strong connection, something of an obligation, too, to his fellow Lithuanian-Americans, and tried to help them when he could.” Don says his father also eventually “received three or four awards from Lithuanian-American groups.”
All family photos courtesy of William Yates, Jr.