Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Flashback: 1966 Claims the Life of My Father. A Void that Lasts Even Now.

[Memoirs over fifty years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

He was born December 28, 1898, the son of a Germanic streetcar motorman and his Germanic wife—both motorman and wife born in the farming country that existed in the form of great tracts and prairies surrounding the then small village…now thoroughly suburban…of Buffalo Grove, Illinois. Neither his father nor mother were born in Germany (their parents were) but nonetheless they all spoke German fluently and their English was flavored with a light accent. They and he became facile in it—writing and speaking with great fluency as did at least several of their cousins. The Roeser brothers…my grandfather and his brother…determined to forsake farm work and move to the city where they both obtained work with the antecedent of the old Chicago Surface lines: street-cars. One brother became a conductor; one a motorman who also cultured flower plants in the car barn and swept up after hours for a few dollars extra (becoming famous for kicking a salesman out of the car barn because the salesman was trying to sell him what John Roeser adjudged to be worthless stock: “You: vat are you doink heah? Get oudt! You do not belong here! Get outdt I say!”). The thin, slight salesman who left grumbling was Henry Ford. I have never calculated how our lives would have changed had John Roeser, a very close brother to Adam with whom he shared all good and bad fortune, had bought the stock and had become a mega-millionaire.

The Roeser bachelor brothers returned to Buffalo Grove whenever they could as young men to revel with their fellows, drink good old German beer and dance with the local farm girls at Saturday outings. And it so happened that they fell in love with two sisters of the Hinsberger clan of farmers—Mary and Rose. Adam Roeser married Mary Hinsberger and took her to Chicago for which she had always been grateful to the day of her death at 77 in our house.

Adam and Mary Roeser lived on the north side next door to John and Rose, a common occurrence (my Irish maternal family also lived next to cousins). The Adam Roesers had two children—Celina (a feminine name I have never heard of since) and Harold. Harold Nicholas Roeser was my father. At baptism at the Germanic parish of St. Alphonsus in Chicago, the parish priest, a German immigrant, ready to christen the baby Harold Nicholas, paused and shook his head. “Harold,” he said, “iss not a saints name-- so” with a smile, “…ve will change all `round.” And without anyone’s approval, he baptized the baby Nicholas Harold…which also appeared on his death certificate.

That baptism began a love of great closeness to the Church, manifested particularly from middle age (40 or so) to death at 68—a love that I thought bordered on scrupulosity some times: of daily rosaries, frequent silences with lips moving in silent prayer, of mortification at least in one instance as offered up (of which I am entirely sure) he gained a grace for ultimate sanctity that may well have resulted in his being the first Saint Harold: and whom, if lucky enough to get to heaven, I shall not be unduly surprised to find. I was their only child: they prayed and wished for others and, knowing this, I have always sought to make them happy with me. I always think of him with some sadness whenever I hear (seldom now but often once) Eddie Fisher’s or was it Jerry Vale’s “Oh My Papa!” “Oh, my papa! To me he was so wonderful…” It was at once a delight and education to know and love him and at the same time not always easy living with one who was fated to be far more religious (though not ostentatiously so), more athletic, more and more undeviatingly conservative Republican and far, far more spiritually fastidious than my Irish Democratic mother or me.

Nor are saints are always beatific to live with. I remember R. Douglas Stuart, father of Robert D., a former Quaker chairman, who must have been near 90 (who is himself aged 90) asking me delicately in 1964 once he discovered I was Catholic about the procedures involved in canonization; his interest was caused by some fellow executives who had found it pretty rough going many years earlier to deal with a little Italian lady, a nun actually, who solicited funds and alms for her hospital—a nun who always gave the impression that her benefactor could do better by the poor than what they were doing and who received their donations with a dour look. Once they had a few words and the little lady didn’t back down as she dealt with executives. They dreaded seeing her but see her often they did.

Her name was Maria Francesca Cabrini, foundress of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus whose impatience with workaday executives could be laid to stress involved in her founding not just Columbus Hospital here but in other hospitals, schools and orphanages—institutions for the poor in Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, Philadelphia and throughout South America and Europe. “She was reportedly not the easiest to deal with,” he said with a smile, although today she is known internationally as Mother Cabrini or properly as Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. I suppose she was not: after founding her Order in Italy and wanting desperately to be a missionary in China, she was taken by her bishop, Giovanni Scalabrini to Leo XIII who sent her here where the burden of her work was, she dying of typhoid at 67 at her Columbus Hospital in 1917.

Harold Nicholas Roeser was not the easiest man to live with either—but not because he was tough on me…because he was tough on himself, exacting in his self-demands which made us wince at his lack of self-indulgence. A born story-teller, gifted writer who had been a newspaper reporter for the old “Record-Herald” in the 20th century teens, he took not a drop of the potion that enlivened journalism then but knew all the yarns. Somewhere, somehow he had determined to be a saint (far more devoted than his mother or sister) but never comparative. Because he was a sterling exemplar difficult to match for one who was probably more instinctively my mother’s child than his son. To me he was a pussy-cat, never admonishing, only gently correcting; to his wife he was not just devoted but in his later years became so terribly dependent on her that she worried what in the world would happen to him were she to die before he. Fortunately for him and her, she outlived him. No, the difficulty was the agony he put himself through in exactitude which only he could satisfy. But that burden weighed most on him. I remember that he wanted only to stay home after a long day’s work, that he resisted going to family gatherings—resisted with quiet diligence…but when he relented and my mother was exhausted at the struggle and got to the family gatherings he was the life of the party while she was exhausted from the struggle and to get him there…her sisters saying to her, “My! Harold is so funny a story-teller! Why don’t you bring him around more?”

To me he was the most perfect of educator-fathers: never talking in kid-talk, baby-talk, but talking of the world as he would a colleague. His great passion was politics and what interest I have in it comes from him. In his youth he had been a semi-pro baseball player (a first-baseman) and even a semi-pro football player (a quarterback) where he earned money summers and Fall playing for teams that bore the name “Birren’s” …baseball and football…for the northside funeral parlor. I was never an athlete, was uncoordinated and hopeless to the point where kids on my block would groan whenever they were fated to get me, saying, “aw, gee, do we have to get him again? We had him yesterday!” But if he was keenly disappointed, as he must have been, he never said. I do remember once when I missed a fly-ball in the vacant lot across from our house, he noticeably winced but never reproved me. One would have to have been more than a mere saint to ignore how easy it would have been for anyone else to catch.

As I reflect on it, indubitably the most impressive thing he did for me happened every morning, regularly at 6:30 a.m. before I went to school. Then he would be shaving in his steam-filled bathroom with the china shaving mug inscribed HNR on the sink with soggy brush lying therein, with the mist on the mirror above the sink so that he would have to rub his fist on it to see how he was doing with his extra-sharp Rolls Razor with the perpetual blade that never had to be changed but sharpened every morning with a sound I can still hear: whack-whack-whack. This was my time to shine: It was fortunate that I learned to read very, very early because beginning at age 6 or 7 until I left for college, I would perch on the clothes hamper and read aloud to him from the editorial pages of the “Chicago Tribune,” his favorite publication made possible by a man he adored but never met: Colonel Robert R. McCormick. Colonel McCormick detested his fellow patrician and Groton schoolboy, Franklin Roosevelt. His editorials, written by a brilliant rhetorician, George Morganstern, who could really codify anger, rang out against New Deal injustice. And I must say I read them with requisite anger in my third-grade piping voice.

Father was concerned that I pronounce every word exactly right. He would pause, turn to me and say gently, “the word is unconscionable. Say it with me: un-con-scion-able. That’s it. He means that in the matter of this man’s [Roosevelt’s] National Recovery Administration, or NRA, they are stretching the constitution’s limits to an unconscionable degree. Continue.” That was a superb education in reading, grammar and conservatism. He was highly suspicious of betrayal by conservatives who would try to take a middle course in the 1930s between his wish of abject opposition to Roosevelt and outright support. Morganstern’s language was so eloquent, over the top, inflammatory—even outrageously negative—that when I later went to school and confronted with “See Dick Run, Run, Dick Run,” it was duck soup.

It was not always easy in the Depression and going to a small Catholic parochial grade school where the sister superior had a tinted, framed photograph of Franklin Roosevelt mounted on her office wall next to that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus…but Father urged me to be constant and never back down. I didn’t although learned by myself when to speak and when not. In the Fall of 1936 when I was eight I was in the playground for recess at 10 a.m. when I confronted some of my male classmates wearing FDR pins…to whom I shouted with make-believe bravado: “Roosevelt’s in the ashcan ready to be collected! Landon’s in the White House ready to be elected!” They beat me until their arms ached and the superior smugly just turned her back in deference to the just retaliation they were meting out. But that error was mine, not his: the error of imprudence.

Father and I had several heroes—one Augie Andresen, the Minnesota congressman who gave me the idea for Republicans invading the Democratic presidential primary in 1956, a story I related to Father and which he was delighted to hear. But the major one throughout the years was Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio. “Bob-Bob the president’s son will run this country as it should be run!” so my sing-song tirade ran. But one morning while I was in my teens, going to high school, as I read, he paused, wiped the mirror angrily with his fist. I thought perhaps I had mispronounced something again. No, he was just angered at what I had read from George Morganstern. He asked me to read it again which I did. Taft had just announced a modified plan for federal housing. He pondered, scowled in the mirror, turned to me and said: “Do you know what? The socialists have gotten to Bob Taft!”

All I know was that the judgment hit me like a massive fist in the solar plexus. All these years of near-slavish adulation for the portly conservative all wasted—to be wiped away by treachery? At Taft High school which was then brand new, a liberal Democratic poly sci professor who had scheduled me to take the Republican position in a school assembly noticed I was kind of down. He took me aside and said, “Thomas, what is the matter? You look ill. Is there some bad news?” I said yes there was indeed bad news. His eyes grew big and asked: What?

“Well, for one thing the socialists have gotten to Bob Taft!”

He doubled up with paroxysms of laughter.

More of Harold Roeser and his life, invaluable to me, soon.

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