ARCOLA — The community of Arcola used the painting of murals by the Walldogs as a backdrop this weekend to honor one of their own World War II heroes, who served in the invasion of Normandy.
Of the 15 Walldog murals — which depict historic themes of Arcola — one is dedicated to Joe Ernst for his service in the Navy and for his service of a different kind.
The mural also tells a story from 1941 — the year before he went to war — about a busload of about 20 very hungry people traveling on U.S. 45 from Chicago who couldn't get served due to the color of their skin.
Then they stopped at a restaurant in Arcola.
Seventeen-year-old Joe Ernst was working alone that night.
"The only thing I thought about was they was hungry and were wanting something to eat, and that's what we done," Ernst said.
They did their own cooking while one woman in the group worked as the cashier, promising Joe she would make sure everyone paid.
"There was a grocery store over on the east side," he said. "We'd run out of food. We'd run back and forth to that store until we got them all fed."
That woman at the register was singer Ella Fitzgerald. Joe didn't know her.
"She said I was such a nice guy that she was going to sing me a song," he said. "She really belted it out, too. It really embarrassed me because nobody had ever sung to me before."
Some in the community were upset that Joe served those particular patrons.
The owner closed the restaurant.
"I tried for years when I was in the Navy," he said. "We'd go in to New York City every time we came into the port, and I'd try to find her to see if I could talk to her again. I never did find her. The one time I didn't try, by God, she was there. I kicked my hind end for years for that."
As the mural declares about Ernst: "He's not your average Joe".