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A Well-Kept Secret about Lloyd C Douglas

by Ronald R Johnson (

In his 1929 novel Magnificent Obsession, Lloyd C Douglas taught that we can gain a special intimacy with God if we invest in the lives of others and do it secretly. Throughout the years of my research, I’ve been on the lookout for signs that Douglas practiced what he preached, knowing that, if he did those things in secret, then it would be difficult – if not impossible – for me to discover them.

It was difficult, but I did discover a clever investment he made in a young shopkeeper during his time at the University of Illinois. I don’t have conclusive proof, but I have a very strong case. I believe that he wrote anonymous ads in the Daily Illini for Roger Zombro, owner of a haberdashery on Green Street.

In the two photographs below, Jack Scanlan (Class of 1911) is surrounded by four of his female classmates. They’re goofing off in the first picture, but it looks as though, in the second one, the photographer has spoken to them sternly and tried to get a serious portrait, although there’s still a hint of mischief on some of the faces.

Jack A. Scanlan Scrapbook, 1907-1911, University Archives, Student Scrapbooks and Papers, Series No. 41/20/39, Box 1, University of Illinois.

Notice what young Mr. Scanlan is wearing: not just a suit, but an old-fashioned detachable collar, as well as a tie. That was the dress code in those days.

At his store at 604 East Green Street, Roger Zombro sold just such small-ticket items: shirts, collars, ties, umbrellas, etc. He had a lot of competition, for there were bigger clothing stores in town, and they sold suits as well as accessories. They also put more money and thought into their advertising in the student newspaper.

Here’s how Roger Zombro originally presented himself to the student body:

Daily Illini, Wednesday, September 20, 1911, p. 6.

Doesn’t exactly make you want to stop what you’re doing and go to his store, does it? But then, a year later, his persona changed drastically:

Daily Illini, Thursday, October 31, 1912

The ad mentions campaign cigars because the 1912 presidential election (Taft vs. Wilson vs. Teddy Roosevelt) was wrapping up. This ad is so much more interesting, more lively, more in tune with the life of the students it was designed to reach. And I’m convinced it was one of many that were written anonymously by Lloyd C. Douglas between Fall 1912 and Winter 1915, as a personal investment in the life of Roger Zombro – an investment that not only boosted Zombro’s career but also helped Douglas find his voice as a writer.

I had to do a lot of detective work to uncover this secret – both men were serious about keeping it secret, apparently – and there’s not enough space on this page to tell you how I did it. I’d love to send you the free PDF document in which I lay out my case. Just fill in your name and email address in the form below.