West End Recollections

Confession: Good for the Soul but Not for the Hair? | 12.11
Ursela Cowan: Child Holocaust Survivor | 11.11
Elberta Nuffer: A Pillar of the Church | 9.11

Decades of Searching for Grandpa's Tomatoes | 8.11

Banking: "The Computer" | 8.11
Reminiscences of West 7th (Caroline Becker, Opal Kuehn) | 4.11
Opal Kuehn | 2.11
Confession: Good for the Soul but Not for the Hair? [IMAGE]

by Opal Nicholson Kuehn

Growing up in Irvine Park (aka Irving Park) in the 1940s when all the other kids were Catholic and we were members of Temple Baptist Church, located at Seven Corners, led to my converting to Catholicism twenty-two years later.

My dad was a Southern Missouri Baptist and his dad a minister. When I was twelve, my mother, my sister Donna and I were baptized. My sister Marilyn (AKA Bup) and Bonnie (AKA Pete) were too young.

I would go to Temple Baptist and to the Assumption Church when my friends went to confession, novenas and Mass. When I got older, I just went to the Assumption with them.

Once I stopped in after work and suddenly the church started filling up. I wasn’t too sure when to kneel or stand up during the service, so I decided to leave. I couldn’t understand why the four older Italian men sitting in the last pew looked at me so strangely as I left. Then I realized that I had genuflected with my back to the altar!

My girlfriends Patty T., Gerry M. and her sister Pat were just entering, and couldn’t understand why I didn’t go back in. I was too embarrassed to tell them, and also I didn’t want to see the old fellows again.

When I was about twenty-one, I and my sisters Donna and Bonnie, who were married to Catholic fellows, started Religious Instruction at St. Mary’s Church downtown. Bonnie’s sister-in-law was married to a non-Catholic and they joined us.

Before I was baptized, I had to go to Confession. I decided to have my usual shampoo and set at the Golden Rule Department Store Beauty Shop. I was single and living at home — I could afford weekly visits then. I did some shopping first and decided to leave my packages at the shop and pick them up after Confession.

Well, I really did not have any “sins” that bad. I think it was nerves. Anyway, Miss LaVonne, the hairdresser, laughed when she saw my straight hair after Confession — no curl left. I probably would have been bald if I had had some real “sins”...Miss LaVonne redid my hair for free.

I was so lucky to meet my future husband Bob a few years later. He was from a strong Catholic family — he had eight siblings and lived on the corner of Goodrich and West Seventh. He has been a member of St. Stanislaus Church for about 70 years. We have been married for 54 years. Our sons Bobby and David and our granddaughter Katie Jo were baptized at St. Stan’s.

I am so glad I grew up with all those Catholic kids. Oh, and my sister Bup married a Lutheran and she was Lutheran too!

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Ursela Cowan: Child Holocaust Survivor [IMAGE]

by Jeanne Salinas

One of Ursela Cowan’s most extraordinary characteristics is that she appears as ordinary as anyone’s “Nana” or in German, one would say “Oma.” Having had the pleasure of knowing Ursela for the past 23 years, however, I can testify that Ursela is not “ordinary” but very special. She is too humble, which makes her all the more endearing. She is so humble, that she really was surprised to learn that she was considered a holocaust survivor. She had never given it much thought.

Ursela Cowan was born Ursel Oettinger in March, 1938, in Biedelfeld, Germany in the Province of Westfallen. Ursela added the “a” to the end of her name when she came to the United States because she “liked it better.” Her parents were Carl and Clara Oettinger. Carl was a Jewish accountant in Biedelfeld and Clara, a “non-practicing Lutheran,” was a pastry maker in a small bakery. In approximately 1943, Carl was taken away from home and basically “disappeared.” She said it was clear that someone had been in their house and her father was gone. No one knew where he was.

Carl was taken to Thereisenstadt Concentration Camp, which is located in what is now the Czech Republic. Thereisenstadt was presented to the “outside world” as a “model Jewish settlement” but it was in reality a Jewish Ghetto created November 24, 1941, to function as a transitional camp en route to Auschwitz. In June of 1944, the International Red Cross was permitted to visit Thereisenstadt. The Nazis staged Thereisenstadt to appear as “spa town” where the elderly Jews were sent to “retire in safety.” Obviously, that was propaganda. In reality, tens of thousands of people died in this ghetto from starvation and disease. A crematorium was built south of the camp.
Clara Oettinger took Ursela to Heiligenstadt to stay with distant relatives. Ursela recalls that she never went outside in the daytime and never saw children. Ursela and her mother were basically nonpersons living in complete anonymity for fear of being discovered and sent to a concentration or death camp. Ursela stated that food was “sparse” and that in the evening, when it was just about dark, her mother “might take her for a walk” outside. One of the biggest deprivations for Ursela was not having friends and not being able to attend school. “If we were found, we would have also been sent to a camp because it was forbidden in Germany for a non-Jew to be married to a Jew,” Ursela said.
Ursela’s current home surroundings at Sholom Home in St. Paul are simple but very artistic and tasteful in appearance and décor. She has a framed sketch of Elie Wiesel, created by Sister Mary Charles, OSB (Order of St. Benedict), prominently displayed. The quotation by Wiesel under his image reads, “We are all children of the same God and Cannot Stop Living.” It’s a long journey from Beideldorf, Germany to Duluth and then to St. Paul. Ursela kept on living and surviving.

Ursela never really “knew” much about Adolph Hitler until “very late in life,” meaning well into her adulthood while living safely in the United States. She explained that, “It’s very similar to people that came back from fighting in Vietnam, they never talked about what they really experienced and my parents never talked about what we lived through and experienced — nobody’s parents who came here really did.”

Ursela recalls that once the war ended, she and her mother endured living in the Russian occupied territory of Heiligenstadt, Germany. Ursela’s mother Clara wanted to go back to their hometown to see if their father would come back. Travel was restricted and since they had no official documents, they could not freely travel without fear of now being caught by the Russian soldiers patrolling in Heiligenstadt. Ursela remembers her mother filling a baby stroller with packages of cigarettes and walking with Ursela on the streets of Heiligenstadt. She said that somehow, they made it back to Beideldorf by way of a boxcar. She remembers very clearly coming into the section of Germany that was occupied by the United States, because a soldier gave her a Butterfinger© candy bar and she knew she must be in a safer place as a result. To this day, Ursela’s favorite candy bar is still the same as it was back then.

At 12 years old in 1951, Ursela next found herself in a “very cold” place, Duluth, Minnesota. Although she does not recall the details, her father did survive the concentration camp, reunite with his family and, eventually, immigrate to the United States. Carl worked as a custodian and general maintenance worker at Temple Emanuel in Duluth. Ursela finally attended school for the first time. She said that she was very shy and that most kids thought she was a “German Hitler Lover” and she never bothered trying to address their ignorance. The first book she read in the United States was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. “My mother told me in Germany that I was to read that book once we were in America, and that is the first book I did read here.”

Ursela attended Central High School in Duluth, where she met her future husband, Gary Cowan. She said that she met Gary on the third stairwell of the school in between her biology class and his chemistry class. She loved to learn. Upon her graduation from high school, Ursela attended college at the University of California, Los Angeles. She returned to Minnesota and completed her teaching degree in Elementary Education. She and Gary married at Temple Emanuel, Duluth. Ursela converted to Judaism. Their two girls were born in 1964 (Carla Beth) and 1968 (Ellie Sue). She told me with a laugh that she does “try” to follow the Jewish dietary laws but that her biggest temptation and weakness is pizza, and when she does occasionally go out, she “might cheat” a bit, but she is mostly “observant” in that area.

Gary attended medical school and became a psychiatrist. Ursela said that he “loved history” and really wanted to be a history professor, but his parents “highly encouraged” him to become a doctor. Ursela said that Gary helped her learn and understand more about the significance of her family’s history and their survival of the holocaust. Gary served in the U.S. Navy for one year as a medical doctor and then practiced psychiatry Duluth. Gary died in 1995 of complications due to diabetes.

Ursela is especially proud of her two grandsons, Caleb Gary Cowan-Wright (b. 1999) and Ethan Isaiah Cowan-Wright, (b. 2001).

Jeanne Salinas earned her BA in Communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. She is a free-lance writer and mother of four girls, living in St. Paul.

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Elberta Nuffer: A Pillar of the Church [IMAGE]

Elberta Nuffer (born April 14, 1910) has been involved with St. Peter’s Lutheran Church for 101 of its 125 year history. Cause for celebration for both. The church has played a most significant role in Elberta’s long life, and she, in turn, has devoted herself to the congregation.

Her earliest memories — of Sunday school where she would at times be the only one in her class — soon expand to cover her many years of service to the church.

Born in the West End house she lived in all her life, she was told by her Grandmother Bertha that she had been named after the Elberta peach. Her father worked in the Omaha rail yards.
Elberta Nuffer at 101 years of age.

She met her future husband Jake at Fort Snelling. She often went to the Fort to watch polo games. That time she had taken her little nephew. An officer approached and asked if he could introduce Elberta to one of his soldiers. She agreed, and Jake asked her out. When she replied that she would have to ask her mother, Jake was impressed and interested enough to ask what church she attended. Before long they were talking with the pastor, and they married while Jake was in the peace-time army. After completing his military service, Jake got a job with 3M and also served on the church board. Jake died in 1990 after 51 years of marriage.

Meanwhile, in 1948, Elberta had begun to volunteer as the pastor’s secretary. She recalls her first days in that position as being “terrible!” For one thing, she found that she was not good at taking orders. She also found that before she started there had been no effort at organizing the church’s papers, historical items and such, and she “didn’t have much to work with.” She recalls, “Pastor Bertram had kept all this stuff in little boxes — about 15 years’ worth.” But she wanted to help and so proceeded to organize it all. Later, the church insisted that she accept some pay for her work, which had continued to expand over the years. She saved that money and used it mostly for trips to Hawaii with — or without — Jake.
Jake and Elberta donated two of St. Peter’s stained glass windows. The first, depicting a Biblical harp, is in the Fireside Room in memory of Elberta’s father William Hedemann. The second, depicting the Good Shepherd, is in memory of their daughter Shirley.

Elberta also volunteered at St. John’s Hospital, working mostly in the gift shop. Even after the hospital moved to Maplewood, she would take the bus out to do her shifts.

As the oldest congregant of St. Peter’s, Elberta Nuffer embodies the qualities that a faith community needs to grow and serve its members and the wider community.

Happy Anniversary to St. Peter’s and many happy returns to Elberta Nuffer.

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Decades of Searching for Grandpa’s Tomatoes [IMAGE]| 8.11

by Barbara (Taubr) Kellett

During every decade of my adulthood I searched for a replication of Grandpa’s backyard-grown tomatoes. Never to be found. The delicious, spectacular tomatoes of my childhood are either an illusion of memory or Grandpa was quite the tomato farmer. I suspect the latter.

Every inch of the tiny back yard of 547 Michigan Ave, located in the West Seventh area of St. Paul, was cultivated and used for a vegetable garden. Multiple vegetables were grown in carefully planted rows. What I recall were the tomatoes. They did not look, smell, or taste like today’s tomatoes that come in one size, shape, and generally have a plastic quality on the inside. His tomatoes grew on huge plants, whose thick green stems were held up by strips of long white rags gently but firmly tied to sturdy wooden poles hammered into the ground.

I was a small child, meandering through this garden of delights. The gigantic plants dwarfed me, and the pungent, fresh smells thrilled my senses, especially the dill weed.

Grandpa tendered and nurtured his garden as one would a child, and I loved him for it.

I was a small child, yet my memory says that Grandpa was a small man. I remember his thin frame and short gait as he walked. He often wore his thick white hair in a crew cut style. Grandpa and I communicated through our own form of sign language. He spoke only Czech. Perhaps he didn’t need to learn English, since Grandma spoke it so well! Now, looking back, I suspect he was an introvert, Grandma the extrovert. He simply preferred the quiet of his thoughts and didn’t feel a need to expand his world view.

The ripened tomatoes were plucked at just the right time. Window shelves, the kitchen table, and other places were filled with tomatoes of various sizes and shapes. A deep bright red color. The curved shape around the bottom was individualized. Each top had a different configuration of a gray star-shaped indentation where the stem once was. When the skin was cut, the juice exploded out of the fruit and had to be collected.

Sometimes I pulled the white, one-step stool from the corner to the white enamel kitchen sink. I climbed the step, leaned over the sink, held the tomato, bit into it, and ate the whole tomato in one fell swoop. Bright red juice oozed down my small hands and arms into the sink. I rinsed the wet seeds and liquid and smiled with content. Oh, how delicious is this memory.
Grandpa’s secrets? Compost. And, at the end of each summer he saved the seeds from the best plants and used these seeds for the next year. Year after year, decade after decade, he did this — until the garden was no more. I wonder what’s happened to the seeds.

When I go to the St. Paul Farmers’ Market or when I stop at a roadside stand in the country I am always on a search for Grandpa’s tomatoes. Decade after decade I am disappointed.

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Banking: “The Computer” | 8.11 [IMAGE]

by Opal Nicholson Kuehn

Monroe High School, spring of 1948. Mrs. Conant, the guidance counselor, sent my friend Lois S. to the Empire Bank for a job interview with the Vice-President, Mr. Blake. I tagged along and he interviewed me, too. When he told Lois she could start work the next day, and he would “let me know,” I was crushed.

I think that he checked with Mrs. Conant and got information about me that he already had about Lois, and he then told me I could start at the bank the next day. There were at least five of us from Monroe. Bob W. started along with Lois and me. The next year Audrey T. and in 1950 Pat T. came from Monroe.

Before school was out for the summer some of the teachers visited the bank to see what we were doing. When Mrs. K, my bookkeeping teacher in junior year, was told that I was a bookkeeper, she was so surprised! She had told me that the only way she could give me a passing grade was if I did not come back for my senior year. I had not planned on taking that subject again.

Bookkeeping in school had nothing to do with my job on a Burroughs machine. Lois and Bob left the bank for other jobs. Audrey T., Pat T. and Teresa T. married and left to start their families. Maternity leave had not been invented yet.

I was promoted to bank teller in 1952. It really helped having a lot of information to carry over into the new job. Knowing the companies, even signatures of customers, helped. We just handled checking accounts, accepted deposits, cashed checks and also balanced small company deposits. A little later, the bank’s name changed to “Northwestern Bank,” and then to “Northwestern National Bank.”

I quit the bank in 1958 to have our first son. When he was eighteen months old, Gen H. and I worked part-time sending out bank statements. Eighteen months later I quit to have our second son. I baby-sat a few children, worked as a banquet waitress at the Prom Center and for a catering company, and went back to work at the bank when our youngest was twelve years old. Same bank name but a new building a block up the street at Fifth and Cedar in the Skyway system.

In twelve years, not much had changed as far as being a bank teller was concerned. Same adding machines, coin dispensers and procedures for handling deposits and check cashing. Even the customers were familiar. The best part was that many of the people I had worked with twelve years earlier were still there. Some had been there for more than twenty-five years. How many companies now have such low turnover?

I was forty-five and all the tellers were in their twenties. They changed jobs and that helped me in dealing with the older, long-term customers with whom I felt a real kinship. Oh, yes, the bank changed its name again, to “Norwest.”

I really liked my job. I worked part time 9 to 4, and then almost full time. But then “The Computer” came along.

Slowly we started getting new responsibilities. A personal banker no longer had to okay a check under $300, and soon under $500. We took orders for Savings Bonds, handled savings deposits and withdrawals and dispensed cashier checks, and dealt with foreign currency, credit cards and the like. We promoted bank services while waiting on customers — I disliked that the most.

Anyway, the bank closed four or five departments. Did we get raises to compensate for the added work? What do you think? No.

I never did learn “The Computer” as fast and easily as the younger tellers, and not as fast as some of the older tellers who were still younger than me. I am just glad that I was able to retire at 65, because I don’t think it was going to get any easier. Do I have a computer now? No! Oh yes, the bank changed its name again, to “Wells Fargo.” Empire, Northwestern, Northwestern National, Norwest — and still Wells Fargo the last time I checked.

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Musings on Then and Now: Redemption Street [IMAGE]| 8.11

by Gary Smolik

I’m beginning to think of West Seventh as Redemption Street. For example, in the near future I intend to write a piece on the debilitating nature of addiction and the efforts to combat addiction’s attending problems by RS Eden, a treatment approach in our neighborhood with a high degree of visibility and success. A cursory visit to their web site offers many avenues of journalistic pursuit; difficulties related specifically to men, to women, to children, to families, to society at large — the mind reels. My plan is to interview a “relapse” specialist and concentrate on that crucial piece of the recovery puzzle.

Another piece I intend to write about is the construction of a 44-unit apartment complex for earners on the lower end of the pay scale proposed by Project for Pride in Living, Inc. PPL is awaiting final word for the financial go-ahead to break ground on West Seventh Street at the southernmost end of Snelling Avenue. I’ve seen the plans, and the excitement to begin is tempered by the process. But the additional housing to that neighborhood, with its access to bus lines and (hopefully) the continued up-tick in the pressing economy, bodes well for the new residents and established surroundings.

But here’s a story from my Then & Now file; it’s a story of my own redemption, and it too, takes place on West Seventh Street. In late August of 1968 I was a summer helper digging trenches for my father’s electrical contracting business, Smolik Electric, located at 1217 West Seventh. I was eighteen years old, recently graduated from Highland Park Senior High, facing an uncertain future. I hadn’t decided on college and the Vietnam War loomed overhead like a thick black cloud.

Business had been good and I was plying my trade of shoveling dirt for sunken conduit shuttling between two job sites, one an apartment complex in West St. Paul, the other an apartment complex on McKnight Street across town.

Then I did a regrettable thing. It was about 9:30 on a Sunday night. I was at a friend’s house on Niles St. in the shadow of Holy Spirit church. My plan was to run home — I lived on Stewart Ave. near Sibley Plaza — to beat my 11 o’clock curfew. I decided to stop at a restaurant on Snelling called the Steak Pit to see if I couldn’t bum a ride home from one of the workers there who happened to be friends of mine. Rory and Babbitt — names are changed to protect the innocent, and guilty — and Carl were there cleaning up when I knocked on the back-alley screen door. Carl agreed to give me a lift if I would help clean up. I did and all was good. Unknown to me at the time was they were waiting for two more friends to arrive so they could turn off the exterior lights, close up and play poker into the night.
The plan was this: clean, take a ride down Randolph to Super America on West Seventh to purchase chips, pretzels and cocktail mix and then drop me off at home, so they could return to The Pit and play cards.

When we arrived at Super America I went to the cooler to pick out mix, Rory chose some chips and dip, and Babbitt stayed at the checkout counter to buy cigarettes. Carl remained in the car.

I heard someone shout “Bleep-off”; I heard Babbitt shout back “Bleep-off yourself.” I saw the manager, there were two employees on the premises, leap over the counter and pummel Babbitt under a torrent of fists. I started fighting the employee, someone called the cops, and in minutes the parking lot was lit up with flashing red and blue lights, sirens wailing. Babbitt, Rory, and I were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. My father reluctantly bailed me out at sunrise, and I went to court the next day. Judge Janes sentenced me to 60 days in the workhouse; Rory got 60, and Babbitt 90.

Thanks to the Huber Law I got out during work hours and dug ditches with a vengeance, vowing never to return to the corrections system with its barred windows and concrete walls. Incarceration worked. As I said, West Seventh Street is beginning to look like a street of Redemption, a place of second chances. I know it was for me.

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Reminiscences of West 7th[IMAGE]
by Caroline Becker Person and Opal Nicholson Kuehn

Caroline Becker
While I was in grade school there took place a “pow-wow” at Hidden Falls Park. It got very dark and eerie. It was thrilling — like we were in another world.

At St. Stan’s Christmas “play” and party we received a bag with an apple, had candy and peanuts.

At the annual summer picnic (in Highland Park) a bell ringing meant “Come and get a Cherrio (chocolate covered ice cream on a stick)!”

Thanksgiving we were at our grandparents — across the street from the St. Clair playground. Mrs. Barkus was the playground director. We could watch the ice skaters going round and round. The food I liked best was red Jell-O.

Liska’s Store was on Oneida and Michigan (or Superior). The wooden structure still stands. My brother Ed, Red Bergstrom and a Blaha boy knocked on the door. They were there to visit Arlene. Mr. Liska would say, “Come on in, boys.” They were invited to sit in the sitting room — not the kitchen!

I was in the girls’ “Sodality” at St. Stan’s. We decided to take something to the Little Sisters of the Poor — I think it was cookies. On a Sunday afternoon we rang the doorbell. “Won’t you come in and visit?” said the Sister. “Oh, we all have dates!” said our leader. We wished we did! I think our leader was Virginia Schneider.

Mary Lou Samec babysat for a woman who lived on Colborne Street. This woman gave a birthday party for Mary Lou. We classmates were there. The woman had a boyfriend. He was dressed in a shirt and tie!

Also, he sat down and played the piano! We were impressed.

Opal Nicholson Kuehn
Because of the Second World War and the man shortage, jobs were easy to find even for 14- and 15-year old girls. We all started out babysitting. Then Gerry M, Lois S and I worked at Booth Cold Storage on Kellogg Boulevard, cracking eggs and sorting them—a little blood went to bakeries, bloody ones were destroyed; and the good ones were frozen, and maybe dehydrated, and used in military K-Rations. Did I mention we had to smell them? OK I won’t!

Anyway, the boss’s daughter was a little older than us and before we left she was telling us in a very snippy way, “Be here on time, eight a.m. means eight a.m. We said, “We quit.” She stopped talking and said “You can’t quit.” We could and we did.

I can’t believe Star Laundry on University Ave. hired seven of us. Lois S and I were Monroe freshman and Jackie C, Pat T, Betty R, Gerry M and Rosie J were eighth graders at Jefferson. Yes, eighth graders. We had to transfer on Seventh and Wabasha from one street car to another. Tokens were ten for a dollar. Our pay, Patty F and I think, was about thirty cents an hour — maybe not even that much.

We worked after school — our boss would tell us how much faster the “day girls” worked and how many shirts they could do. Three of us worked on the steam iron pressing machine doing men’s white shirts. On Friday we were praised because of our output. On Monday not so much. The shirts had been damp and there were a lot — I mean a lot — of complaints. We found out the “day girls” had worked for years pressing shirts.

Patty and I can’t remember why Caroline H was fired, but we all quit. We figured we spent more time on the streetcar than we did at work.

Patty F, Gerry M, Jackie and I worked at St. Luke’s Hospital (now United Hospital) carrying supper trays for nine months. There were three floors and one elevator in 1946. We liked doing that, but I knew then I could never be a nurse even if I were smart enough. I don’t remember if there were any women doctors at St. Luke’s or not.

Then I went to work at the Empire Bank. That’s a story for another day — maybe.

Editor’s note: After Caroline’s and Opal’s first articles were published, we learned that they had known each other in those days.

Opal Kuehn: I Grew Up in Irvine Park
| 2.11 [IMAGE]

by Opal Nicholson Kuehn

I am a West Seventh Street resident or a West Ender — having lived my life in the neighborhood, starting in Irvine Park (we called it Irving) and now two blocks from the West Seventh Community Center.

Irvine Park in the 1930s was a fun neighborhood. Lots of kids — the dads all worked at jobs they could walk to. Well, most of them anyway. I think there were a few mothers that worked away from home, but not many.

I remember winter sliding down the hill — sleds, cardboard — I don’t remember if anyone had a toboggan then. We would stay out all day long, or until we were so cold we had a hard time walking home in our heavy winter clothes and heavy clunky boots.

Summer we played “baseball.” We called it baseball — probably tennis ball or rubber ball would be more like it. We played where the fountain is now.

Kick the can, hide and seek — the girls would play house on Jackie’s porch. Maybe the boys played football in the park — I’m sure they did. When it got dark everyone went home.

As we got older we started wandering away from the park. The caves below Cherokee Park were explored. Bats flying all over the dark, dank, damp caves. We must have been fearless or crazy.

Ramsey Playground always had something going on there — ice skating, ball games, with all neighborhood kids on both sides of the game, basketball and maybe football.

We walked everywhere. Everything we needed or wanted was available. I think all that walking to grade school and home for lunch was a good thing.

As I got older I really appreciated the fact that we were able to go the neighborhood schools. We went to Jefferson K to 8th grade, and then most of the kids all went to Monroe High School. A few went to Mechanic Arts. Some went to the Assumption and Cathedral and then to Monroe High.

Having neighborhood schools made for a closeness in the community that I still feel 63 years after graduating from high school.

Recollections of Life in the West End
Community Reporter has invited West Enders to write down some of their memories of the neighborhood in earlier years. Please send your contributions to Editor, Community Reporter, 265 Oneida, 55102 or editor@communityreporter.org. Call Jerry to discuss: 651-587-8859.

Joseph Taubr — High School Years[IMAGE] | 1.11

Editor's Note:  Our invitation to contribute to the “Recollections of Life in the West End” series connected us with Barbara (Taubr) Kellett, who is involved still in the Czech community of the West End. In March 2010 Barbara completed and distributed among the family a narrative of the descendants of Josef and Antonie Taubr, her grandparents, called simply “A Taubr History.”

A central part of the book is a letter that Barbara’s father, Joseph Henry Taubr, created for his granddaughters Karen Ann and Katherine Mary when the twins were only two years old. Barbara has given the Community Reporter permission to shares the following excerpts.
-- Jerry Rothstein, Editor

by Joseph Taubr

In September 1920 I started to attend Cretin High School. At that time we were living at 243 Duke, where we moved from Randolph in order to be nearer to the center of the Bohemian community and the activity. About 1922 we made another and final move to a home about three blocks away at 543 Michigan, which we bought from my sister’s future brother-in-law. We lived in that house during the time I completed two years at Cretin and four at the University of Minnesota.

Cretin High School was a three-story rusty-red brick building located downtown on the corner of Sixth and Main Streets. This old building would have qualified as a historical monument had there been an appropriate government agency in 1920 to make the selection. It was withered, feeble in the joints, and worn out trying to cope with a student body too large for its halls of ivy. A few years after I graduated it was torn down and replaced by the present complex at Hamline and Randolph. Of course, I am writing this description from a very mature viewpoint; I would have described the building differently in my starry-eyed freshman year, especially after we were frequently reminded by the good Brothers who taught us that Cretin was the best high school in St. Paul.

The first week at Cretin severely strained my good nature. Being the only graduate from St. Stanislaus to enter Cretin that year, and having no acquaintances nor any awareness of places and events outside our tight community, I entered Cretin as a complete stranger, a rustic greenhorn. In my first class I was dumbfounded to learn from the teacher that I spoke English with a foreign accent. The baggy Reserve officers training Corps uniform I wore on a lanky frame and the constant thought that I was the youngest boy in school also lowered my already low morale. If I had been given a choice, I would have quit school then and there.

[IMAGE]A few words about that foreign accent. I previously wrote that we were taught the English language in grade school, but I forgot to mention that the Bohemian teachers themselves pronounced the English words with an accent. In fact, my friends, my parents and even the grown-ups with whom I occasionally spoke, all spoke with an accent. Naturally I thought that manner of speaking was normal. So I entered Cretin with a peculiar Slavic way of pronouncing some common English words, especially those words with a “th” in them. For example, the words “father” and “brother” came out of my mouth as “fadder” and “brudder” no matter in what direction I twisted my tongue. Since I had to say “Yes, Brother” or “No, Brother” in replies to the questions from Brothers who were my teachers, I was embarrassed each time I answered. One Brother in particular tried to cure me by mimicking me and calling the class’s attention to my mispronunciations, but there was no way he, or I, could loosen the stiff tendons and muscles of my tongue. Even now after fifty years of experience I still have difficulty when pronouncing some common words like federal, decision and planimeter.

Besides an accent I had other problems resulting from my immigrant upbringing. The golden America to which our family migrated was an ethnocentric community in St. Paul, roughly bounded on the north by Smith Avenue, on the east by the river, on the south by Tuscarora and on the west by Pleasant Avenue, an area from which we rarely left. And so when I went to Cretin, I was entering unexplored territory; I not only had to educate myself in other matters besides school work, but I also had to teach my parents about extracurricular activities, like athletic games, of which they simply had no conception and very little desire to learn about. Was I unhappy? Probably. Why didn’t I quit school? First, my mother insisted that I continue; second, I knew I had to have an education to reach the goal I early set for myself while reading library books about building bridges and railroads — I wanted to be an engineer.

Let me give you one revealing incident and then we will dismiss Cretin. One sunny spring day while our battalion of students marched in squad formation westward on Pleasant Avenue on a military exercise, we passed along the boundary of the Bohemian community. When we marched by two middle-aged women wearing peasant-style dirndl dresses and the traditional babushkas on their heads, I could hear derisive remarks about foreigners made by some of the students. I recognized the two women, who were friends of my mother, but I not only was too embarrassed to wave to them, I also marched sideways out of step behind others so that my mother’s friends would not see me. This incident and the others I previously mentioned point out how the early pride I felt about my heritage was sapped by the prejudice prevailing in Cretin, a pride that I regained only with the passage of several years.

Joseph Taubr [IMAGE]

Editor's Note: Our invitation to contribute to the “Recollections of Life in the West End” series connected us with Barbara (Taubr) Kellett, who is involved still in the Czech community of the West End. In March 2010 Barbara completed and distributed among the family a narrative of the descendants of Josef and Antonie Taubr, her grandparents, called simply “A Taubr History.”

A central part of the book is a letter that Barbara’s father, Joseph Henry Taubr, created for his granddaughters Karen Ann and Katherine Mary when the twins were only two years old. Barbara has given the Community Reporter permission to shares the following excerpts.
-- Jerry Rothstein, Editor

Dear Karen and Kathy,

On February 11, 1907, I was born in the little hamlet of Viscern near Prague, capital of Czechoslovakia. When I was about four months old, my parents, like thousands of poor and discontented Europeans at that time, made a fateful and heartfelt decision to leave their homeland for the golden country of America. So, with some qualms about being uprooted from familiar soil, but with a profound faith in their stars, my father and mother [Josef and Antonie Taubr, along with a widowed aunt and her two sons and a daughter — the Opatrneys] … boarded the steamer Frankfurt in Bremen, Germany, to set sail for the port of Baltimore in the United States of America.

[When the ship and its large number of immigrants arrived in Baltimore on the evening of July 3, 1907 they were “suddenly and delightfully shown the American way of life.”] They naively believed that this fireworks display was an ovation prepared and produced by the good people of Baltimore to welcome the arrival of the immigrants.

[Unable to speak or understand English, the family needed to get from the ship to the railroad station.] But whatever the problems encountered on the way, these two resolute Bohemian families somehow found the railroad station and boarded the right train for the first leg of their journey to St. Paul.

My earliest recollections began while we lived in a small house at 311 Colborne, one of the smallest houses in St. Paul. It had a large cistern in the basement that was periodically filled from water wagons. I remember being excitingly impressed by the straining of the horses as they pulled and pushed the wagon into position to discharge the water. Other recollections seem trivial compared to my memories of those open-mouthed, snorting horses struggling to obey the whip and lines and curses of the driver.

When I was about five years old we moved to a four bedroom house at 726 Randolph. Probably my earliest recollection of living in this house was the night that Santa Claus paid us a visit and left a Christmas tree all filled with goodies, adorned with shiny varicolored ornaments, and illuminated by flickering candles placed carefully on the branches. I vividly remember the joy and awesomeness, the astoundishment [sic] that this tree gave me.

Soon after we moved to the house on Randolph I started to go to the St. Stanislaus Grade School, about one mile away. Being an immigrant was no problem at St. Stanislaus; most of the students were children of the first generation of Bohemians who immigrated to America. In fact, the Bohemian language was taught in several grades in addition to English, and the sermons delivered by the Reverend Father Rynda on Sundays in St. Stanislaus Church were pronounced in the Bohemian tongue. At that time there seemed to be a valiant effort by the older immigrants to preserve the old country traditions, an effort that diminished over the years as they gradually yielded to the growing indifference of their sons and daughters and to the repeated ridicule of the local residents.

A poignant incident occurred after I discovered that I could borrow books from the downtown public library. Whenever I looked for certain books in the Children’s Room and could not find them, I usually asked for help from a very accommodating librarian. One day a new librarian sat at the information desk reading some papers. When I came to her asking for help in my Bohemian accent, she froze me with an icy stare and angrily told me not to interrupt her reading. Frightened, offended and almost in tears, I ran out of the library, not to return for several years. Much later I realized that both the librarian and I lost stature in this brief encounter; she for her ill will, and I, who lost the most, for my thin-shelled meekness and thick obstinacy.

Other incidents from my grade school days: shuffling home from school while wearing Indian buckskin moccasins; detouring to avoid the gangs leaving St. Francis grade school; acting a role in Bohemian plays performed in Bethesda Hall across the street from school; breaking through the ice while skating forbiddenly on the river; visiting my aunt who used to give me warm milk fresh from her cow; pumping air for the church organ during services.

Like most of the immigrants, we went to church more often than required by the laws of our religion. St. Stanislaus Church was the focus where families converged to attend each other’s baptisms, first communions, weddings and funerals. It was the glue holding the immigrants firmly together. I remember in particular the Christmas Masses we attended — the church was so full that some of the worshippers were compelled to stand along the side walls, family members pressed tightly together side by side in the long pews.

I shall never forget the congregation singing those ancient Bohemian hymns that were transplanted from their native soil: “Ticha Nost,” songs that would be started softly by the choir and the organ, swelling as the immigrants picked up the melody of their cherished tongue, ascending as they gained confidence, one tenor voice riding high above the others urging them on, and culminating as the organ in fortissimo reached the climax, the maximum reach upward. Then the exultation would give way to a desert stillness when the music ended, the silence broken only by a distant voice of the priest at the altar intoning a phrase of Latin liturgy, and soon a profound sadness would fill the church. Those were the Masses that I remember; those were the songs that sadly reminded the homesick immigrants of their childhoods, their homelands.

Joseph’s narrative of his high school years will appear in a future issue.

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