The headline on the two-paragraph story on Page 3 of the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune on November 29, 1911 read:
MAN CAUGHT BETWEEN CARS
John Leo Koelker Almost Instantly
Killed in C & O Railroad Yards
My mother was three years old when that happened.
I had known that her father died when she was young. But I didn’t know how young. And I didn’t know how he died—UNTIL I decided to write the history of my family as best I could.
And that’s the moral of this story: Preserve your family’s history as best you can, while you still can.
I have been a writer, or at least involved in writing, my whole adult life: forty-eight years in newspapers, author of eleven books and editor of more than a dozen others.
Yet I never thought of writing about my mother and father . . . their mother and father . . . or their mother and father . . .
UNTIL IT WAS ALMOST TOO LATE.
Two experiences caused me to wake up to the importance and enjoyment of preserving my family’s legacy.
One was reading Bret Baier’s Three Days On The Brink, his historical account of the meeting in Tehran during World War II between FDR, Churchill and Stalin at which the D-Day invasion was agreed upon.
How did THAT spark a desire to tell my parents’ story?
Well, Baier devotes twenty-eight pages—all of Chapter Four—to a recap of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s life, and in the course of that writes briefly about The Great Depression.
It occurred to me as I read about the grim aftermath of the market crash in 1929—and I cannot explain why it never occurred to me before—that my parents had the courage to begin their life together during that time, during the worst financial crisis in American history.
Right then, I had to write about them and their family.
The other experience that influenced my appreciation for family legacy, and a sudden passion to preserve it, was working with others to help them tell their stories. I had been conducting senior writing programs at retirement communities long before I read Three Days On The Brink, but walking my talk didn’t occur to me until that book struck a nerve.
My epiphany resulted, eventually, in Charlie & Marie, the story of my mom and dad and their family tree.
Fortunately for me, a county judge in northern Kentucky had done the hard work of researching my father’s origins more than 25 years earlier. Irene Dressman had been a classmate of my wife’s at Notre Dame Academy, and her father, the Honorable James Dressman, asked if I’d contribute my family’s genealogy to his larger Dressman family research.
When he finished, he sent me a copy of his hand-written charts along with documentation that traced my dad’s family to Bremen, Germany in the mid-1800s. What a beginning!
All of my parents’ brothers and sisters are deceased, and so are most of their children. But a couple of my mother’s nieces were kind enough to try to answer my many questions as I undertook Charlie & Marie.
One who resided in a senior living center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, made reference in an email to my mother’s father being killed in a railroad accident when she was three.
She thought I knew, but I was stunned. I was aware that my mom lost her father when she was still a girl, but I didn’t know how old she was at the time, much less how it happened.
My cousin couldn’t give me any details so, being an old reporter, I knew “to check the clips.” That led to the discovery of the two-paragraph account of John Koelker’s death, and a follow-up short about the devastating effect on my mom, her three brother and two sisters, and their mom. The headline on the second story read:
FAMILY LEFT DESTITUTE
Seeing that made me wish I had asked my mom about her childhood.
But I hadn’t.
I had to piece it together as best I could, knowing there was so much that was gone forever.
And THAT’S the message of Charlie & Marie.
A family’s story across the decades (and centuries) should be preserved for future generations, and usually can be told only by someone asking the right questions before it’s too late.
The harder lesson was in the answers I didn’t have and could no longer get.
Charlie & Marie turned out pretty well, thanks, in particular, to my surviving sister Evelyn, those cousins and some of Charlie and Marie’s grandchildren, with extra help from Arapahoe County Library District research librarian Pamela Hallaren and, of course, Kenton County Judge James Dressman.
One unexpected outcome was my wife’s request that I write a companion book about HER family! (Coming soon.)
I hope this tale inspires others to preserve their families’ histories, too, before it’s too late.