Monday, January 1, 2007

How Father’s Interest in German Language and Culture Made Him an Object of Neighborly Suspicion as the Second World War Struck Home.

[More from fifty plus years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

My father, Harold Roeser…the greatest man I ever met and loved…who died in 1966 at the age of 68, was in some ways similar to me and quite different: similar for interest in writing and politics which he engendered in me…different because, unlike me, he was a very private man: didn’t particularly care to be known outside his family for hotly expressed views and avoided most opportunities apart from a close circle of family and friends to make pronouncements. Yet with me, he was a particularly well-informed and articulate commentator on public affairs: particularly with respect to his favorite Republican party—and vocal also to me on the bad aspects of socialism which he attributed in its modern phase to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

I guess it’s fair to say that in his very private, sedate demeanor, he was very different from me: a political person, journalist, commentator, radio guy, blogster…who knows what next? as Lillian is prone to sigh. But we were identical in religious conviction (he far more scrupulous in his devotions, far less irreverent in attitudes to some churchmen, than I; he was far more Germanic and European than I despite the fact that he and his parents were born here). Born on December 28, 1898 to a Germanic family in a city where neighborhoods were pluralized rather than integrated: the Germans with their own parishes on the north side, the Polish on the near West with their own churches, the Irish on the South Side and West where there was even difficulty between resolutely Irish pastors who were foreign-born Irish and domestic Irish…he and my Irish mother were products of their time—the Germans more nearly Republican and the Irish almost entirely Democratic.

The neighborhoods were heavily and quite properly, I think, clannish. That is the way it should be when immigrants cluster together: they propagate their own myths, tout their own national pride, demean other rival nationalities, elect their own aldermen, patronize churches of their own nationality and are buried in their own cemeteries: all told, the American way. The Germans had their own funeral parlors and cemeteries as did the Irish, Italians, Poles and Lithuanians. Blacks at the time were a much smaller minority, not so much despised by the whites as ignored and viewed as somewhat irregular, confined to the South Side and the edge of the West Side nearer the Loop.

That blacks seldom came downtown was an anomaly: State street’s pedestrian traffic was almost 100% white. Blacks patronized stores such as those department ones run by S. B. Fuller on the South Side. To digress a bit: on VJ Day, in August, 1945, when I had just turned seventeen, my mother and I went to the Loop to celebrate the end of World War II. Standing in a thick mob at the corner of State and Madison, we were captured by a “Tribune” photo and as two faces in a sea of others—many hundreds, actually—with Mother and me showing up as very-very tiny faces in the crowd of celebrators. Not a single black face is to be seen in that photograph as I re-view it today. Where were the African Americans? Did they have their own celebration on the South Side? The newspapers never recorded it if they did. On the other hand there was no obvious hatred between the races (and I can remember the segregation very well). My wife who was born on the West Side, in the Austin neighborhood which was then all white, would travel to see her cousin on the “L” which went through many-many blocks of black neighborhoods without the slightest discomfiture—but such discomfiture exists in this so-called “enlightened” age when one makes the same trip. Racism indubitably existed in a terrible degree but neither blacks nor whites were as self-conscious of distinctions as

The times were certainly far from good for racial harmony. Blacks were recipients of the demeaning “n” word they have quite justifiably shunned—at least until recently when some of their more radicalized leaders began to apply it to themselves as a mixture of self-loathing and pomposity, to serve as a badge of discrimination which they insist is still meted out in surreptitious ways by the aggrandizing whites. I made to make a speech some years ago at an African-American convention which was so convivial, it was difficult for the chairman to gavel to order.

The chairman was none other than Daryl Grisham, a leading black businessman of the city, many times honored by the Urban League, president of Parker House Sausage, a leading African-American-owned food company in Chicago, longtime president of the Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce with which I worked as a Commerce Department official. I was the only white in the entire convention hall. As Grisham sought to get the friendly, folksy crowd to settle down, he said over the microphone in what could be taken as a rebuke-insult: “My, don’t we n------ have fun when we get together!”

The epithet rang out over the hall and prompted whoops of convention laughter. He smiled at me, covered the mike with his hand and whispered, “don’t you try to say that, Brother Roeser.” No need for the caution. Anyone of my generation learned in the 1960s to steer clear of designations that may be sensitive remembering Bob Dole’s immortal line delivered to a group of black state legislators: “I like to call a spade a spade.” One never knows when, behind one’s back, a new name will be generated as insult without our knowledge.

“Micks” was the name the Dutchies—the slang name for Germans--called the Irish, receiving in return the epithet “Kraut.” All these names have fallen into disuse now but I shall try to recall some of them: “Polack,” of course, for Poles; “Bohunk” for Bohemians or Czechs, “Loogans” for Lithuanians; “Dagos” for Italians; “Chinamen” for Asians which unaccountably got sportscaster Mike North in trouble with the politically correct--but the name also had a venerable Chicago political coinage: attached to any political patron in City Hall who could reward political service with jobs. There were so few Hispanics that I don’t believe they had a derogatory name. There I have exhausted the ancient vocabulary.

My father and mother—Kraut and Mick—grew up in the era when those names were current. All the same, it was fairly uncommon for “mixed marriages”--Germans marrying Irish. My father, who had to the end of his days a Germanic accent he gained from speaking the old language to his parents and grandparents, journeyed to the Irish portion of the North Side to pick up my mother, Frances Catherine Cleary, for their first date in 1922 when he was 24, an apprentice newspaper reporter and she 26, a clerical worker at the advertising firm of J. Walter Thompson (and who was probably making better wages than he). He was all spruced up, hair slicked down and sat in the front parlor to talk to his date’s mother, Anne Kenny Cleary (Mrs. Thomas F., the wife of a marble-layer), she determined to inspect him to see what sort of man he was, while he was keenly aware that through the slightly drawn curtains, my mother’s kid sisters were studying him as well. There was an uncomfortable silence as his date’s mother cleared her throat and he did his.

Then his date’s mother said, quite abruptly: “You know, Cardinal Mundelein is part Irish.” It may have been true, but Mundelein who had become the first Cardinal of the West, was a Brooklyn-born German of whom the Germans in Chicago were preternaturally proud: so German, in fact, that when he was named Bishop of Buffalo, N. Y., the Catholics from Canadian towns objected to his appointment as an affront to Britain which was then at war with Germany (talk about a stretch!). To my father, her words hung on the air: “You know, Cardinal Mundelein is part Irish.” He was never known to be rude to elders but it struck him that by bringing the Cardinal’s nationality up in that way was a kind of insult to the Germans, he resolved not to take it…notwithstanding that the girl he was very-very much interested in was Irish.

So he put on a superior smile and said: “Yes, but they’re trying to keep it quiet.” She smiled politely and soon excused herself. Behind the curtain she told my mother, “He’s rather a German smart-aleck.” If there was anything my father was not, it was a smart-aleck but my mother made her own determination and chose to marry the German smart-aleck in 1923.

When they married, the custom was for the woman to quit her job and be supported by the husband. This she Frances Cleary Roeser did but with serious misgiving. Then she had the title of Production Director for J. Walter Thompson: the person who saw that the ad copy was conceived and written by the proper deadline, that the art department had its finished products done on time and that the art work was sent to the photo engravers on time, returned on time, etc. for final client inspection before publication. On occasion she would be asked to go back to the agency to fill-in on vacation. He was not particularly happy but to keep peace in the family, he assented. For her part, she loved advertising so much she very nearly screwed me up by talking up the business all during my youth and insisting that I at least give it a try. I did; became a junior copy-writer at a small agency and hated it. It didn’t help that I had to write copy for a client who owned Perk Dog Food and whose favorite image was that of a sloppy hound salivating over a dish of the stuff—with the inherited slogan, “Dogs Drool for Perk.” I had to get out of there and get a newspaper job as soon as I could.

My father soon quit the newspaper business (he hated journalism for a reason that I never understood) for a job that he gloried in. His head was always filled with faraway places with strange-sounding names, far away over the sea: and so he landed a job as a salesman for a German steamship line where his excellent German was a great asset. It was the Hamburg-American Line-North German Lloyd, owner of the two fastest ships afloat, the twin liners “Bremen” and “Europa.” They made the voyage to Cherbourg in four days which was then unheard of. The Brits with Cunard got to work and built the “Queen Mary” which either topped it or was a dead-ringer. Harold and Frances saved their money and he took her to Europe on a German liner (the tiny “Berlin”: 16,000 tons) to get the lay of the land for the steamship business. Both of them enjoyed the trip hugely. To go to Europe and come back was a feat of great notoriety in the 1920s that only the very rich could afford. Back home, however, they were having no luck in having a baby. It took five years of their marriage to have me: the doctors telling my mother that she was unable to have children. They figured it out and always wanted more…as I wanted brothers and sisters…but I was it.

In the 1930s, my father received several promotions, based on the fact that with his knowledge of German, he could go to German communities and sell the idea of European trips. He became active in Chicago’s sole remaining German social club, the Germania Club and served as its permanent secretary. He also became assistant western passenger manager for the line which covered the Midwest—not a bad job in the 1930s which some supervisory responsibility over an office in Milwaukee as well to which he would travel once weekly on the train.

It was because of him that I went to St. John’s University in Minnesota, a Germanic Benedictine monastery in the heart of the most Germanic county in the nation—Stearns. Discovering that the Benedictine abbot there was taking a group of monks to Germany, he contacted the Abbot, Rev. Alcuin Deutsch, and made a trip by rail to the abbey, arriving in the middle of a blizzard. He was put up at the abbey and delighted Abbot Alcuin and some of his monks by conversing steadily in their favorite German in the refectory at their meals. He returned to Chicago having made a huge sale and a guarantee that in future years the Benedictines would travel solely via the “Bremen” or “Europa.”

Before he left the abbey, he marveled at the institution as an historic treasure of Benedictine learning and said he would entertain the thought of sending his son there. The Abbot said they would be delighted to consider me and asked when I would apply. I was then one year old but the Abbot promised him that if he were still alive and Abbot when I got ready to go to college, he would personally handle the application. That was in 1929. By 1946 when I was ready to go to College, with the GI Bill in effect, giving veterans preference, the colleges were jammed in that first postwar year. My father wrote the school; the Abbot was still alive and functioning and I was immediately accepted. That started my connection with Minnesota which has stayed with me for life, even though I have lived in my home state of Illinois since 1964.

In 1938, my father was named something like the best-all-round salesman of the year and received, free, a trip for him and his family first class on the “Bremen,” to Europe, along with an all-expense-paid European tour to attend the Eucharistic Congress then held in Budapest. It was so classy that mother and father had to put on evening clothes each night for dinner and I wore little dark suits with, to my pleasure, long trousers, white shirts and ties.

That was a year before the war. We visited France, Italy and Hungary in addition to Austria and Germany. They arranged for me to take off from fifth grade early on the pretext that the trip would be very educational—which it was. We were in Austria following the Anschluss of March 12 and in Vienna were in the crowd when the crowds cheered Austria’s favored son, Adolf Hitler whom I, at age 10, saw as a tiny figure from afar. All the while I was receiving tutorial lessons in Americanism from my father who would comment on the news as he shaved. The only newspapers were in German which I couldn’t read and for some reason which I have never figured out to this day, my father strongly disapproved of me learning German. However the tutorial lessons in patriotism with a slant to conservative Republicanism, were in some nuanced ways while we were traveling there. He did not comment on the situation in Germany while on the trip because he made it clear that conversations were closely monitored by German housemaids, tradesmen and hotel personnel. I thought his concern was unfounded; later I found out the reason for his concern and discovered it was not.

It is hard to realize it now, but when we returned from Europe, we were regarded with great fascination as celebrities. No one in our acquaintance had gone to Europe since the end of World War I. I had been given leave from grade school in early March to go and when I returned, I was required to visit all the classes and make a report: European travel was that unusual.

It was fun to be a kind of celebrity but not long later our trip to Europe and my father’s German connection was recalled in very unflattering ways.

The year after we returned from Europe, on September 1, 1939 the European war began, the Hamburg-American-North German Lloyd line was dissolved and my father was instantly out of a job. There was some concern as to what he would do; he was then 41. He worked for a time as an insurance agent but was dissatisfied. Then he picked up work at whatever I wasn’t told but he went to work at the regular time and came home on schedule. And he continued his civic life at the Germania Club…which struck me as being almost defiant of the opprobrium that was devolving about so-called pro-Nazi groups. The invaluable tutorials centered around his early morning shaving ritual continued with its accent on the need for conservatives to triumph.

At the same time, he seemed to grow more involved in German affairs rather than less considering we were on the brink of war…and both the “Bremen” and “Europa” had been stalked by Brit submarines: the Germans scuttling the “Bremen” and the “Europa” sunk which prompted lots of neighborhood questions to us: “We see your favorite ship was scuttled and the sister ship sunk!” We began to be considered as definitively pro-German and even bordering on being pro-Nazi by reason of the trip to Europe, his employment with a German steamship line and memories of my earlier report to my grade school on my experiences. Therefore, I rather wished he would stop receiving German-language newspapers and quit the Germania Club. The news commentator Walter Winchell, then far more than a gossip columnist, was insinuating that there was a vast pro-German conspiracy to subvert the nation and my father’s undeviating interest in the German newspapers made me nervous. But I said nothing.

. When the war came, on December 7, 1941, he took a job as the editor of a small Catholic newspaper published in Chicago. I noticed he worked late into the hours at home at his typewriter and read voluminously of German newspapers that came to our house including the “Abenpost,” the Chicago-based German daily. I brought up to my mother at age 13 going on 14 that perhaps his deep interest in German affairs was unhealthy at a time when we were at war…with movies and radio beaming out anti-German feeling. She listened but kept her own counsel. By now our former celebrity in the neighborhood as the only ones in our neighborhood who had gone to Europe at all--especially on a German ship and had spent time in Germany a year before the war started—had become a topic of some embarrassment.

About a year later—in 1942, when I was graduating from elementary school and preparing for high school, I discovered the reason for his scholarly work in German but it wasn’t until the newspapers exploded with charges about the Germania Club that complicated our lives for a long time…charges that drew us—the three of us—much closer as a family than we thought possible. That story next time.


  1. Tom -

    Terrific history - I can't wait for the book to come out or at least the next chapter.

    Your history for your family motivates me to pay closer attention to the pieces of live that so quickly pass by. With four kids heartily involved in music, sports, school, and other social endeavors it is tough to see the forest through the trees. I will try to take notes, however, so at some point in the future my grandchildren can benefit like yours are.

    Keep it up!

  2. Tom-
    I'm afraid you omitted:

    Mexican- Spik, Beaner
    Jew - Kike
    Hispanic or Italian - Greaser

    Note: "Spik" was used several times by Clint Eastwood's character Dirty Harry Callahan.