Raised by Germans


Well, here we are.  It is 5:30 pm on Thursday evening, and I am quite spent after a grueling week.  But tomorrow is Friday, and I must have a blog post up.  But why must I?  It is not a work deadline, and Lord knows it does not make me any money.  Nobody is relying on a new Friday morning post in order to complete some other project.  Nobody will get fired, nobody will get arrested, and nobody will get killed or go hungry.  So, why do I have to do this?  Because I was raised by Germans.

I joke about this – even though my name is Irish, my mother was a Keck.  Things don’t get much more German than that.  Does it matter?  The older I get, the more convinced I am that there are certain tendencies shared by ethnic groups of all kinds that are hard to explain in other ways.

When I talk about what makes a German, please understand that I have met maybe two people actually from Germany in my entire life.  My experience is from growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  There was a lot of German immigration into Indiana a century or two ago.  Of course, the Catholic Germans and the Lutheran Germans settled far, far from one another.  The Catholic Germans seemed to gravitate towards Jasper in southern Indiana, where the Lutherans settled around Fort Wayne in the northeastern part of the state.

The first day of elementary school was notable every year for one thing: the first roll call.  Every year, the teacher would have no trouble whatsoever with names like Kleinschmidt, Goeglein or Uebelhor.  But when she would come to Cavanaugh, it was like she had no idea what to do with that odd combination of letters.  “Cav – – a – – nack?  Cavanack?  Where is Cavanack?”  In fairness to the teacher, there was only one other family of Cavanaughs in the entire city, and none of them were in my school.

I didn’t really start to realize that there was something special about German lineage until I made a trip to Jasper.  By that time, I had been to several other cities in Indiana.  I spent my college years in Muncie, that was completely unlike the society in which I had grown up.  In Fort Wayne, you see, people were orderly.  There was very little flamboyance.  It was a place where folks worked hard, kept their lawns cut and their houses painted and their cars washed.

Muncie was not like that.  Muncie became home to a great migration from the south in the 1920s and again after the war, as able-bodied men were needed to fill the factories there.  The flavor of the population was completely different.  Folks were more relaxed, a good thing in some ways, and maybe not so much in others.  And a Lutheran church was not easy to find (not that I really went looking for one in those years.)  Other cities had other unique flavors, but none of them was like my hometown.

Until Jasper.  I immediately saw the sense of order and decorum there.  This, I decided, was like home.  The people here seemed just like the people I grew up around.  Only here they were Catholic instead of Lutheran.  So Catholic, in fact, that there was a great big picture of the local Catholic church hanging in the Courthouse.  In the 1990s.  I guess it wouldn’t offend anyone when practically everyone in town belonged there.

But whether growing up in Jasper or in Fort Wayne, there were rules for life.  You don’t eat your dessert until you have finished your dinner.  You don’t spend all of your money, you put some of it into a savings account.  You don’t stay up too late at night, because you need to get up bright and early in the morning.  You don’t buy clothes that are too stylish, because you won’t be able to wear them as long.  You don’t buy a car that is a bright color because it will stand out too much.  And even if you could afford a Cadillac, an Oldsmobile was plenty good enough.

The picture at the top of the page is of the brand new Wolf & Dessauer department store that was built in downtown Fort Wayne in 1959.  Why would they build a brand new department store downtown in 1959?  Because that’s where department stores belong, not out in some suburb.  And one rule was the clearest of them all: when you tell someone that you are going to do something, you’d better be sure and do it.

Every one of these things was drummed into my brain as a child, whether overtly or just by osmosis.  I wish I could say that I have done a better job at living them.  But my problem is that I am more Irish than I am German.  I would rather drink a Guinness and tell a story than go to bed early.  And that thing that needs done?  I don’t need to start right this second, because there is plenty of time.  See?  I am not German at all.

But the German is still in there and makes my insides all black and blue as it fights with my Irish nature.  Like with this blog.  “Dammit, you told everybody that you would have something new for them every Friday morning.  And here it is Thursday evening, and just what have you gotten done?  Nothing, that’s what.”  How can I reply other than to silently stare at my shoes?  Nothing to do, I suppose, but march myself over to that computer and get something done.

And that, dear readers, is exactly what I have done.  And you can thank that milieu of German-ness from my childhood for this little thing that you are now reading.  Because without it, nothing would have been written this evening.  Hopefully there is enough Irish in me to pull a decent story out of it, though.  There, it’s done.  I think I’m ready for a Guinness.

22 thoughts on “Raised by Germans

  1. This sounds rather familiar. The Jefferson City area is highly populated with German Catholics, with names such as Kliethermes, Sydenstricker, and Stuckenschneider. I even know a Kleinschmidt. Osage County, next door to me, supposedly once had the highest concentration of Catholics (German, of course) of any county in the nation, at 98%.

    Your internal struggle sounds somewhat familiar. With an Americanized German name, imagine my shock when I learned the Shafer line has a quorum of English lineage. I have no doubt there has been a German or two in the woodpile along the way.

    Yes, I do think there are generalities based upon lineage but not to the point of being stereotypes.


    • It never struck me as odd that we could buy toys and bikes at Koehlinger’s, candy at Lenkendoefer’s, hardware at Schlatter or Baer and records at Duesler’s. All of those little local places are long gone now, but i think that Atz’s ice cream parlor is still there. I miss the ethnic distinctiveness that used to be so much more common before so many people moved from place to place and chain business took over.


  2. My mom’s family is German: Frederick. My dad’s family, who knows, they’re from West Virginia. Scotch I guess. American Indian thrown in there as well. I’ve always felt mostly German, and my life reflects that.

    My girlfriend? Irish. Yin to the yang!


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  10. This was a great read. I can identify with the half-Germanness and the qualities you describe, and also with the other half not being that similar. I’ve come to realize that perhaps my own drive to have my own online essays written, proofread and ready to go by Monday mornings comes from this, but it is sometimes a struggle – but I do it, anyway. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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