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Happy Beginnings vs. Happy Endings

Left to right: Patricia Labuda (later Sr. Maristella), John Malone, Bea Berbach, Victoria & Frank Duntemann, William Mark, and Kathleen DuntemannSixty years ago today, my parents were married, at St. Mary of Perpetual Help church on West 32nd Street in Chicago. It was a remarkable event, not so much because history will consider my parents remarkable (though I do) but because it was, well, unlikely. This remarkableness was not unique, but occurred countless times around America in that era, as social and ethnic barriers that had stood for centuries started to crumble, and men and women began to marry for love and not to satisfy family demands.

Consider Frank William Duntemann, the only son of a bank officer at the First National Bank of Chicago. He had been born and raised solidly middle class in East Rogers Park, of a German father and an Irish mother. Hard-headed, ironic, optimistic, stubborn, bright, slightly snotty, and short–5’6″ of solid muscle, fearless and (especially as a young man) a little pugnacious. He drove his parents crazy sometimes, running off to join the Army in 1938 when he was only 16 (the Army sent him home) and getting suspended from Lane Tech for beating the crap out of the six-foot president of the Lane Tech Nazi Society, after the Nazi had made the mistake of stabbing my father in the stomach with a wood chisel during an argument.

And consider Victoria Albina Pryes, the youngest of ten children, born of penniless Polish immigrants in a ramshackle farmhouse in Stanley, Wisconsin. Artistic, fretful, possessed of a beautiful voice, pious to the point of mysticism, and ethereally beautiful, she trained as a nurse in Chicago after WWII and struggled with the question of what to do with her life. Her family thought she should become a nun, because her high-school sweetheart had died in the War, and that could only be a Sign. But she held back, and one day in 1946 a nursing school friend suggested a double date. Mary’s boyfriend knew this interesting guy from the North Side…

Frank was smitten. Victoria was terrified. He asked for her phone number, and in a panic she made something up. Undeterred, the man who had slept through the bombardment of Monte Cassino sent a postcard to her nursing school (we have that postcard) asking her to get in touch. Even though torn between what she felt to be her family and religious obligations and her own infatuation, she did. Not sure what to expect from a man so far removed from her ethnic heritage and socioeconomic class, what she found was passionate friendship. In 1948 he asked her to marry him. By then, there was no hesitation.

But it was not without challenges. Frank’s parents were furious. They had expected him to marry a nice German girl from the neighborhood. Instead, he had chosen a Polock farm girl living in what they considered the slums. Harry Duntemann was not a man to be trifled with, and he told his son to break it off. Harry had managed to browbeat Frank into a bookkeeper’s job that he hated, and was nagging him to return to Northwestern for a degree in business. But the War had changed Frank, as it had changed thousands of men who had been frightened boys the day after Pearl Harbor. Frank took his father aside and told him, “Look, I’ve made my decision and it’s not open to discussion. I’m going to marry Victoria, and then I’m going to Georgia to get my engineering degree on the GI Bill. If you want us to come back here, and if you want to see your grandchildren, you’d better start seeing things my way.”

Harry, perhaps recognizing his own stubbornness in his son, gulped and agreed. (And to ensure that his son would return from Georgia, helped buy him a house–on the North Side.) And so on that gorgeous June day in 1949, my parents made their Happy Beginning, bridging two widely disparate cultures, he confidently, she (as always) apprehensively.

By any measure it was a successful marriage. Frank and Victoria changed one another: He taught her confidence, and persuaded her that she was beautiful and worthy; she taught him moderation and compromise. She was not sure she wanted children, but he did; he was not sure that a gentle style of childrearing would work, but she did. They were in fact spectacular parents. They read to us, they bought us books, they insisted that we speak correctly and tell the stories of our days at the dinner table. My father threatened to call the Alderman if the Chicago Public Library refused to give me a library card for being underage. (I was six; you had to be seven.) I got the card. He gave me money for electronic parts and bought me a microscope; later, when I was deeply into junkbox telescopes, my mother always had a dollar for one more pipe fitting. We were not especially flush, and were taught frugality, but money was always there for things that mattered. Stubborn as he was, my father had the courage to avoid his own father’s mistakes: He told us that no matter what careers we chose, he would support us in that choice.

My father loved my mother fiercely, and the lesson was not lost on me. More than once, when I was sitting at the kitchen table doing my homework, my father came home from work a little early, went up behind my mother at the stove, kissed the top of her head, and told her he loved her. When I was fifteen, he made it explicit: “Love comes out of friendship. If you’re lucky and smart, you’ll marry your best friend.” I did as he said (and also as he did) and no better advice has ever been given to me.

Happy beginnings are often easy. Alas, happy endings are not automatic. I’ve told most of the rest of the story here. In 1968 my father was diagnosed with oral cancer, from his two-pack-a-day habit he had picked up in Italy during the War. He fought back, and it took nine years, but the cancer killed him a piece at a time, in a gruesome progression that still gives me nightmares. It broke his spirit and finally took his mind; at our wedding in 1976 he was weak and confused. By 1977 he no longer knew who I was, which broke my heart, and in January 1978 it was finally over.

My mother was never the same. Living alone in their house for another 18 years allowed her to brood on questions of divine justice that had always haunted her. What had she done to offend God? How had she failed? My mother’s understanding of Catholicism was suffused with peasant superstition amplified to absurdity by her odd mystical personality. It was a cruel and often bizarre religion, full of prophecies and portents and dark powers, overlaid against the looming background of an angry God and an animate Hell. She was tormented by hideous dreams of accusing demons, dreams that may have led (as Gretchen and I have speculated) to the insomnia that plagued her last years. She was literally afraid to sleep, fearing what she might dream. Her doctors tried various drugs, but nothing helped, and even with Gretchen and Bill’s constant companionship and loving care, she lost her ability to speak, and slowly withered away to almost nothing. When I carried her out to Gretchen’s van the day before she died, she may have weighed fifty or sixty pounds, and looked like a victim of the Biafra famine.

It made me furious then, and I still get a little nuts to think about it. How can people who tried so hard, who loved one another so truly and unfailingly, who were generous and industrious and offered their children nothing but unconditional love, suffer such hideous ends? Where’s the justice here? The answers are complex, if in fact they are answers at all, and my readings on theodicy have been scant comfort.

Yes, they deserved a happy ending. And because they never had that happy ending, the day after my mother died in 2000, I sat down and wrote them one. (Warning: Major tearjerker material. The goal was closure, not publication.) They allowed me to be a writer, which is not as secure a career as an engineer (or almost anything else) so it was the least that I could do.

Still, the question stands: Where is the justice? If God does in fact exist, He owes me an answer to that painful question–but if God does in fact exist, (as I think He does) He’s already provided the answer–and the happy ending–to those, like my parents, who are farther along the Great Path than you or I.


  1. fred says:

    A beautiful tribute to your parents

  2. Erbo says:

    It was Roland Kirk that said, “Nobody dies…they just leave here.” As long as you keep that picture, and the other memories of them, with you, they–just like five of my grandparents, my aunt, my cousin, and my brother–aren’t dead; they just aren’t here.

    But we wish they were.

  3. Bob Fegert says:

    My goodness…

    That short story really touched me, absolutely inspiring! Bravo…

  4. Tom R. says:

    Jeff, This is one of, if not the, most beautiful thing I have read on Contra. It made me think of my own parents, my wife’s parents and my own very best friend — my wife. I shared it with her and she felt the same way. A wonderful piece Jeff.

    By the way, where in Georgia did your Father get his engineering degree? It wasn’t by chance that school in downtown Atlanta on North Avenue where I spent almost 5 very painful, but in retrospect wonderful years back in the late 1960’s was it?

  5. May have been, though not at that campus. He was at a division of Georgia Tech called Southern Technical Institute in 1949, which I see has been through some changes since then, broke with Georgia Tech in 1970 and is now called Southern Polytechnic State University. I want to say he and my mom lived in Chamblee, but all the old papers and such are still with my sister in Des Plaines. My mom worked as a nurse in a veterans’ hospital nearby, and both admitted that those years were among the happiest in their lives. (I was named after a well-behaved boy who lived down the hall from them.)

  6. Tom R. says:

    Thanks for the info Jeff. Southern Tech as it was called then WAS a division of Georgia Tech located in Marietta Georgia just north of Atlanta. I spent one quarter enrolled there, before returning to the main campus in Atlanta, when I changed my major. That happened to be the spring of 1968 when I turned 21! It was the most pleasant and probably the best quarter of my entire college education. I took the technical writing class they had. Although I never would have guessed it at the time, of all the courses I took anywhere that has been the most useful. The atmosphere of the two campuses were very different at the time with the Southern Tech much more grounded in the way things REALLY worked rather than just teaching the theory.
    Finally, it was while there that I really got to seriously dating the young lady that would latter become my wife. Yes Southern Tech does have the best memories for me.

  7. My father had spent a year and a half at Northwestern University in Chicago before the War, and it left him with a gnarly dislike for the academic environment. He did not want to be a desk man, and more than anything else, he wanted to know how things worked. I don’t know how it was that he chose STI, but from what he said about the coursework there it was the perfect environment for him. For example, the industrial heating and air conditioning curriculum included all the math for calculating airflow, heat transfer, and everything else–and as a capper, students took a sheet-metal course that allowed them to get their hands on large-scale ductwork. I wonder sometimes if we’ll get in trouble as a society for not teaching engineering like that anymore. I tried mechanical engineering in the 1970s, and it was all bookwork, badly taught by grouchy research PhDs who hated undergrads, and grad assistants from Eastern Europe who spoke broken English. I bailed.

  8. Bruce C. Baker says:

    Forgive me if this has been covered before, but what sort of work did your father do after he graduated?

    1. My father worked his entire professional career at Chicago’s natural gas utility, which then was called People’s Gas, Light, and Coke. (It’s now called Nicor, and has had some other names in the interim.) He was a sort of senior field engineer, and worked as a technical liaison between the utility and industrial customers erecting or upgrading large facilities using natural gas. He helped make sure that architects who were designing new facilities built adequate infrastructure for natural gas and understood the challenges. (Not all architects did back then, and perhaps don’t to this day.) His biggest single project was O’Hare Field, which took most of his efforts for eight or ten years. He was an interesting cross between an undersocialized engineering geek and a smooth-talking troubleshooter, and I think that one of his greatest skills was defusing conflict and getting oversized and excessively tender egos to work productively together on large and complicated projects.

      Weird sidenote: The focus of his work at O’Hare was their big boiler plant, which you see to your right just after leaving the terminal area on I-190. Twenty years after he died, I was plotting the location of his great-grandfather’s farm on a map, and I realized that the old Duntemann farmhouse was smack in the middle of the boiler plant. As best I can tell, he never knew that. (The farm had been sold to a golf course developer and razed in 1921, a year before he was born.)

  9. Tom R. says:

    I don’t want to belabor this thread Jeff, but the idea that engineering is BOTH art and science is one that is important to me. It sounds like your Father knew that before anyone else!

    I think society — and especially ours — needs people who know how to make things. Engineers need at least to appreciate and understand the skill and craft and deep understanding of how the people who build the things they design REALLY make them work.

    I think you would enjoy reading “Engineering and the Mind’s Eye” by Eugene S. Ferguson. He makes a very good case for engineers having the artists of the Renaissance as part of their heritage as much as the scientists and mathematicians.

    I am thankful that I was a student at a time and place where the theory was at least tempered somewhat by reality and for an interesting and varied career where I was able to get my hands dirty!

  10. […] story is sobering. Happy beginnings are easier to come by and much more common than happy endings, as I’ve noted here before. The real message of Easter is solidarity with God, who is born, lives, suffers, and dies, like all […]

  11. […] say about my father that hasn’t been said already. If you’ve read this entry from 2009, you know most of his history. Maybe it’s time to lay out some […]

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