Remembering Dad

model TFather’s Day is a time when I like to recall stories about my father. This one is a favorite of mine.

While visiting Dad’s family in Wisconsin, the five Simmelink siblings and their spouses went out for dinner one night. I was about 16 at the time and, since we had come from Indiana to visit, I went along. During the meal, an old buddy of Dad’s happened into the restaurant. He spotted Dad and came over to the table to say “hi.” He began reminiscing about their youth.

“Say, Harvey,” the old buddy said, “remember the time we had your father’s Model A and we were racing another guy’s car backwards up a hill?”

Dad looked blank.

“Oh, you remember! It was that steep hill over past the schoolhouse. Your older sister and her date came along and saw us. Your sister got out and scolded you real good for racing with your Pa’s car.”

Dad frowned and shook his head. “No. You must have been with somebody else.”

The buddy looked across the table at Dad’s sister, Etta. “You remember that, don’t you!”

She, too, frowned and shook her head.

The old buddy patted Dad on the shoulder. “Well, anyway, it was good to see you again Harvey.” He moved on to his own table.

Dad immediately began reminiscing about the old schoolhouse.

Etta’s husband sat quietly beside her with a “cat who ate the canary” look on his face that told me he had been her date on that long ago day and the story was true.

Published in: on June 15, 2015 at 6:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Drafted in WWII

4.2.7The United States entry into World War II was a difficult time, especially as the draft board began calling up men for military service. This appeal letter was written on behalf of my father by his employer.


January 16, 1941


          I am asking for your consideration in classifying Harvey Simmelink, who is in my employ as manager of the Manlius Milk Products Company of Manlius, Illinois. My reason for doing so is that I am not in a position to replace Mr. Simmelink with a man that will be able to operate that plant as he is.
          It takes years of special training to learn to make a quality cheese which the trade demands today. Besides that, Mr. Simmelink has the acquaintance, personality and the respect that is required of a manager to make a plant like the one he is in charge of operate successfully in its respective community. The experience and qualifications Mr. Simmelink possesses are outstanding in his profession and he would not be very easily replaced, if at all.
          I would be the last one to claim exemption for any of my help which could readily be replaced, but in this particular case it is otherwise. Harvey Simmelink has been in my employ for better than five years and it is through his efforts that the Manlius Plant has served that community as well as it has.
          In view of the fact that Mr. Simmelink’s work consists of manufacturing food product which is of vital importance, I trust you will consider my request in classifying Mr. Simmelink so he will be allowed to remain in his present position.

Respectfully yours,
Axel Madsen

The letter and an appeal hearing delayed Dad’s induction but he was eventually drafted into the Army in 1942.

Photo from National WWII Museum


Boys of Company C

Veterans Day, seems an appropriate time to remember these men of Company C, 66th Medical Regiment, U.S. Army who served during World War II. Their images were sketched about 1942-43 at Camp Maxey, Texas.  The artist, LeRoy or possibly C. Roy, was a member of Company C. 
          Sergeant “Similink” in the upper left corner is my Dad. He told great stories about the men of his company and treasured this original sketch.

Published in: on November 8, 2010 at 6:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Taking the Census: The Day Dad Found Himself

Dad was 78 when he accompanied me to the National Archives Branch in Denver. He was not a researcher and had no idea that an ordinary citizen could look at census information. He just wanted to spend some time with me while I worked on a family history project.
          Filing cabinets and microfilm viewing machines were packed into the archives reading room. Only the occasional whump of a file drawer sliding shut or the whir of film on fast rewind broke the silence. I settled Dad at a desk next to mine, loaded a census film for Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, and forwarded it to Holland Township, where he grew up. It was the 1910 census. 
          Now and then as I worked, Dad tapped my arm. “Here’s Isaac and Jeanette LaGasse; I used to walk to school with them,” he whispered. I nodded without taking my eyes off my own work. A short time later, another tap. “Here’s my pa’s friend, Ed Ten Haken.” And so it went. Dad spent a nostalgic afternoon following the census taker through his rural farming community, stopping in at the homes of school mates and neighbors long forgotten.
          Everyone in the reading room that day heard Dad’s exclamation of delight when he found himself. He burst out with his customary, “Well, I’ll be switched,” as he pulled me over to look. There he was, Harvey Simmelink, age 9 months on that April day in 1910 when the census taker came to call.
          It was a validating moment for Dad. According to Sheboygan County, his birth had never been recorded. It was scrawled in the family Bible and his baptism was noted in the church rolls, but Dad did not have a birth certificate. Finding himself officially listed in a government record somehow closed that one nagging hole in an otherwise complete life.
          When I took Dad along that day, I was afraid he might be bored. Instead, he experienced an epiphany of wonder. I know my grandparents and those neighbors and childhood friends would be pleased to know that Dad stopped by to pay them a visit after all those years and found them at home.
(This story originally appeared in the New York Times on May 25, 2002 and The Saturday Evening Post Sept/Oct 2002.)
          In 2012 the 1940 census will be publicly available, giving people the opportunity to rediscover themselves as my Dad did. This year, 2010, is a census year. The information we all contribute will not become public until 2082. You never know who, in that distant future, will be as excited to find you as my Dad was to find himself.
         Please respond when the census form comes in the mail or when a census taker comes to your door.

Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 6:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Starting with Genealogy

             Many writers I know, who work in historical fiction and non-fiction, got their start as genealogical researchers. It is a good beginning. You learn the importance of original documents. You discover that not everything written or told about a person is true. You dig deeper and become more resourceful. You network. One contact leads to another and you find photos and diaries and treasures in unexpected places. Research is addictive.

            I credit James Schwengel, a teacher at Harrison High School in Evansville, Indiana, for starting me on the research path that supports my writing today. He taught biology. We were studying genetics and Mendel’s experiments with inherited traits in peas. The assignment: document five genetic traits (eye and hair color, hair texture, skin tone, and body type) for yourself, brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents.

With no brothers and sisters to record, I expanded to aunts and uncles. Asking questions about my grandparents and their brothers and sisters opened a floodgate of stories I had never heard. Mother pulled old letters from a trunk. My aunt produced photos I had never seen. I was hooked. For more the 40 years I have pursued family ties and worked my way back into the Netherlands of the 1500s to find the origin of my family name–Simmelink.

            I applied those genealogical research skills when I first decided to write about Chipeta.  I pursued original sources – census records, newspaper accounts, Indian agent reports, oral histories. After thirteen years and two biographies of the woman, I still discover new bits of information about her in unexpected places.

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 8:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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