Friday, May 30, 2014

Frank and Helen, Part II

Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel, 1950s
Elkhart, Indiana

With the birth of their child, Carol Sue Miller, on 31 December 1946, the last forty posts of this blog have come full circle to where we started our journey (see Hoosier Daddy?: In the beginning...). But what became of Frank and Helen Strukel while their daughter was being raised by Ray and Rita DePrato just twelve miles to the west in neighboring Osceola, Indiana?

After their marriage in 1947, Frank and Helen moved into their first house together at 1418 Perkins Avenue, just a little over two miles south of where Helen had lived with her first husband, Eldon Miller. The home was a modest bungalow, a one-bedroom single story house built in 1930, but its 1300 square feet of space was enough for the newlyweds and Helen's young daughter, Sandy. Frank continued his factory work at the Northern Indiana Brass Company, and for a short time, Helen worked as a waitress at Boris Micoff's lunch diner on Main Street in downtown Elkhart. Just as a decade before, Helen was again a new bride, scrimping and saving to make her new house a comfortable and cheery home, and ensuring her husband was happy and content. But this marriage was not one entered into with misgivings and parental prodding like her first. This was a marriage forged on sacrifice and heartbreak, and its happiness was almost guaranteed after weathering its stormy beginnings.

It was not long after settling into her new home as Mrs. Frank Strukel that Helen became pregnant again. Shortly after her thirty-second birthday in 1949, Helen's awareness of a new baby on the way probably stirred up recently buried emotions and memories that her previous pregnancies had not. Somewhere, her daughter Carol had just passed her second birthday. Was she happy? Who did she look like? Looking around at her circumstances in her small but tidy home in Elkhart, did she wonder if giving her little girl up two years previously was the right thing to do? Did envisioning what might have been bring sadness or relief? Was she more overjoyed to tell Frank they were expecting a baby together, or saddened that there would be no older sister to greet her new sibling?

Upon discussing baby names, Frank had suggested naming their baby Carol if it were a girl, to honor the daughter he had lost. Helen quickly quashed the idea by reminding him that Carol was not gone from this world, only gone from their lives, and they still had a daughter named Carol out there somewhere. Having two daughters by the same name would just be silly. In the fall of 1949 they did welcome a new baby into the world - another daughter whom they named Dianne. Well into Dianne's childhood, Frank called her his "Little Duck," which was likely a reference to how she looked walking in her diaper.

The early 1950s brought a series of upheavals to the family. Helen had sent her daughter Sandy to California to visit with her father and two older brothers, Ted and Jerry. Eldon Miller, still using his daughter as a pawn against his ex-wife, refused to send her home. Helen immediately appealed to the county courts and local law enforcement, who readily recognized her legal custody. She was informed that they would promptly send county officials to California to retrieve Sandy and bring her home - and that the bill for such services and transportation would accompany her. Unable to pay an astronomical amount of money to recognize her legal rights, Helen lost the daughter she "bargained" for when she gave up her infant in 1946. Even though having two older brother and two older sisters - one of which remained unbeknownst to her - Dianne spent her early years as an only child.

Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel and daughter, Dianne
Elkhart, Indiana, mid-1950s

The Perkins Avenue home was also becoming too small for the family, and after a short stay with Frank's widowed mother, Rose Strukel, at 716 West Garfield Avenue in 1953, Frank and Helen embarked on a series of rental residences centered much closer to downtown Elkhart. Until 1957, they lived at 670½ Strong Avenue, a duplex house built in 1926 and split into four apartments. It was during this time that Frank took a job as a laborer with the Smith & Johnson, Inc., a construction company based in Indianapolis, where from 1955 to 1957 he worked on a construction crew building the Benham Avenue Railroad Underpass near Third Street in downtown Elkhart. He was familiar with the railroads, as his father and brothers had worked for them in some capacity for decades, and he also spent time working in the Robert Young railroad yards. In 1957, Frank took a job as a factory worker at Adams & Westlake, Ltd., a manufacturer of various products for the railroad and transportation industry. He eventually ended up in the maintenance department, where he was employed until the time he died.

Frank never shied away from hard work. He was frugal and resourceful, and he saw value where others saw garbage. He burnt the furring strips from some discarded aluminum windows so that he could sell them for scrap metal. He demolished an old home slated to be torn down, and he gutted it for any scrap value that could be found within it. He made arrangements with local factories to pick up their left over wood scraps that he would use in the home coal furnace for winter warmth. But when he had time away from work, he could always be found with a beer in his hand, and he enjoyed playing shuffleboard and poker, as well as a day out mushroom hunting.

Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel
at Ted Miller's wedding,
Elkhart, Indiana, 1961

After a very brief stay at 419 East Jackson Boulevard, the Strukel family had moved to 169 North Sixth Street in Elkhart by 1959. Although an older home built in 1900, it had considerable more space and three bedrooms, as by this time Helen's daughter, Sandy, had returned home. After a few years held hostage in California by her father, Eldon had allowed Ted and Sandy to return to Indiana to visit their mother. Eldon's sister was driving from Indiana to California, and she was instructed to pick up the children and bring them back with her. When the sister arrived to retrieve her niece and nephew, both steadfastly refused to return with her to Monrovia, California. They remained in the maternal home, where Sandy Miller enrolled in Elkhart High School in 1956, and from whence she graduated in 1960. In 1962, the family moved down the street to 161 North Sixth Street into a similarly built, but more spacious house. Frank and Helen would live there until 1967.

As with all marriages, there were bumps in the road. In the early 1960s, Frank Strukel turned to alcohol more and more readily to cope with his problems. It wasn't until 1964 or 1965 that a psychiatrist explained to Helen that Frank was relying on alcohol to continue dulling the horrible memories of his war experiences. Little was known at that time about the chronic psychological manifestations of post-traumatic stress, and many veterans like Frank found substances that allowed them to cope or to wipe their minds of war atrocities, even for short periods of time. It was not until the 1960s that any information of his experiences in war was learned, of his hiding overnight behind a rock formation in the bitter cold of northern France with his dead buddy, or of his persistent teetering on death from starvation. He buried these memories, he shared them with no one, and they tortured him. But he found strength to successfully complete a detoxification program and never drink thereafter. He was one of the lucky ones, and his focus on his family was his motivation.

When we had first identified and located my mother's birth family, but before we met them and learned the details of their lives, the paper trail for Frank Strukel went surprisingly cold after 1967, and Helen did not resurface until 1974 (see Hoosier Daddy?: My Cup Runneth Over). 

I was finally to discover why.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Baby and Its Consequences

A receipt dated 6 January 1947, presumably for hospital expenses incurred
by Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller upon the birth of her daughter the week before.
The original was in the possession of Raymond and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato,
who reimbursed Helen for medical expenses upon the adoption of Carol Sue Miller.

Three months into Helen (Timmons) Miller's pregnancy, her husband Eldon filed for divorce. Perhaps it was the much needed, yet jarringly unplanned, impetus for Helen to end the miserable drudgery that was her marriage. Eldon would suspect the child was not his. After all, he had plenty of outlets for his sexual needs, and for quite some time his wife had ceased being one of them. Perhaps the unborn child making itself known via Helen's expanding waistline presented her with an all-or-none proposition, and she made it clear to Eldon that their marriage was over. She had fallen in love with the father of the child, and she wanted out.

Or perhaps she kept quiet, and when Eldon became cognizant of the all-too-familiar silhouette of his wife's pregnant form, he demanded an explanation and an end to the ruse of a marriage. In his mind, he had been free to sow his oats throughout his marriage, but his wife participating in similar behavior was completely unacceptable. No child of another man was to be borne of Helen while she was married to him. He filed for divorce in July 1946, and he made the distasteful situation evident to the court.

Eldon made sure Helen would pay for her sins. He requested custody of his two boys, Jerry and Ted, and while the divorce proceedings plodded through the courts, he procured a new job in Monrovia, California. Not only would he deprive Helen of raising her two eldest children, he would move them across the country and away from their mother's love. And what of his daughter, Sandy, who had just turned four years old the week Eldon filed for divorce? He would not seek custody of her if Helen rid herself of the child she was carrying - the child that represented her infidelity to him. Knowing the court would grant him custody of Sandy as well based on the superficial assessment of the situation, Eldon dangled the bait under Helen's nose. Pick a child. Which one will you choose, your daughter or your unborn child?

But the decision was not just a face-off between Eldon and Helen. Frank Strukel had a say in all this too. The horrors of war still fresh in his memory, it is likely that he was simply not psychologically ready to accept the unexpected birth of a child. But when questioned by a representative of the St. Joseph County (Indiana) Welfare Department a few months later, Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato recounted the discussion she and her husband Raymond had with the expectant mother and Frank Strukel:
"Mrs. DePrato was under the impression that Mr. Strukel and the mother of the child intended to be married after the baby was born. They had not planned to keep the child because Mr. Strukel did not want his family to know that he had gotten the mother in trouble and did not want his family to hold the birth of the illegitimate child against his wife. He said his family were very straight-laced and would not be able to accept the mother of the child as his wife if the family knew about the situation. Furthermore, Mr. Strukel had not been out of the Service very long and was not in a financial position to take on the responsibility of a wife with two children. The mother already had an older child by a previous marriage."

As discussed previously, the Strukels were strict Catholics, and the church played a very important role in their lives. They probably struggled enough with the idea of their son marrying an older, divorced woman. Rose (Stupica) Strukel, who had agonized for months over the fate of her missing son in the Prisoner of War camps in Nazi Germany, was none-to-pleased with the match her son had chosen. Knowing an illegitimate child was part of the package would have pushed her past her breaking point. And Frank was very much concerned about his mother's opinion. How ironic it would have been to Frank had he known that his own grandmother, Elisabeta (Cimperman) Strukelj, was born eighty-eight years earlier, the third illegitimate child of Marija Zgonc, who worked as a domestic in the port city of Trieste. Marija had married Anton Cimperman eight years later, and Anton had retroactively claimed Elisabeta as his own, therefore legitimizing her. Whether he was truly her father or claimed so only to reduce the shame on his new wife is unclear. Nonetheless, Frank Strukel would not be the first in his family to deal with illegitimacy, but he did not know of these facts hidden from him within his family. He only feared the repercussions of his staunchly religious parents with whom he was living.

With the weight of Eldon's threats and Frank's reluctance, Helen decided to relinquish her unborn child to a suitable family. Although an obviously heart-breaking decision, Helen knew that bringing a baby into the volatile, tumultuous situation playing out before her would only compound her problems. This way Eldon would allow her to raise her daughter, and she and Frank could start life together without the scorn of her new in-laws. Under the pseudonym "Dorothy Turner," Helen placed an advertisement in The South Bend Tribune on Tuesday, 22 October 1946, seeking "any couple interesting in adopting a baby...immediately." Frank's only binding stipulation was that the couple who raised his unborn child be Catholic.

The closing months of 1946 brought on a flurry of life changes for all parties involved. Eldon Miller and Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller were formally divorced on 26 November 1946 in the Superior Court of Elkhart County, Indiana. In an ironic twist of fate, President Harry S. Truman proclaimed Thursday, 28 November 1946, the first national holiday of Thanksgiving. With her release from an unhappy marriage, was Helen thankful? Or was she overcome with remorse by the price it had cost her?

During that same month, Frank and Helen had met with and decided upon Raymond and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato as the couple to raise their child. The DePrato's desire to have a child, and Arreda's inability to conceive, were certainly factors upon which they were chosen amongst dozens of couples who had answered the newspaper advertisement. But it was their strong Catholic faith that was the deciding factor. With four-year-old Sandy in tow, Frank and Helen and Ray and Rita finalized the details of adoption. The DePratos would cover Helen's medical costs, and Frank and Helen would sign away their parental rights immediately so that the adoption could proceed unhindered.

Helen, who had maintained residence at the Gladstone Avenue residence in Elkhart after her divorce from Eldon Miller, went into labor on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, 1946. Rather than deliver her baby at the nearby hospital in Elkhart, just three miles from her home, Helen opted to travel to Goshen General Hospital over twelve miles to the southeast. The child's birth would generate less attention in Goshen for those friends and family members who were unaware of Helen's pregnancy.

Helen's recollection of the labor was one of stoic determination. She uttered not a cry of pain or discomfort and asked for no means of consolation or relief from the hospital staff around her. She had reasoned to herself that any physical torment caused by the rigors of childbirth were hers to bear without complaint. It was her punishment for bringing a child into this world that she was unable and unwilling to care for. She was not deserving of any relief from that punishment. The doctors and nurses marveled at her silence.

After only three hours of labor, at 7:52 p.m. on 31 December 1946, Helen (Timmons) Miller gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

Six days later, baby Carol Sue Miller, went home with her foster parents, Ray and Rita (Dobyns) DePrato. Both mothers claimed to have named her. Until their deaths, neither would back down on those claims.

Eighteen days later, on 18 January 1947, Frank Louis Strukel and Helen Marie Miller were married in a simple ceremony in Elkhart, Indiana, by Jesse N. Myers, a Justice of the Peace. No friends or family attended the nuptials. Seventy-six-year-old Jesse officiated, while his wife, Elizabeth Myers, and unmarried sister-in-law, Margaret Meiser, served as the couple's only witnesses. Although it was a day to celebrate, it was done so with the somber realization of how much was sacrificed for this event to occur.

Frank and Helen (Timmons) Strukel would begin their journey together on this day at the beginning of 1947. Their infant daughter, Carol Sue Miller, was barely two weeks into her own evolving life path. It would take thirty-five years for them to cross again.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Frank and Helen

Frank and Helen Strukel on a trip to Colorado, 
shortly after their marriage in 1947.

Nobody seems to know the circumstances behind Frank and Helen's first meeting. No stories exist as to first dates, chance encounters, or initial impressions. Most who would have been privy to such details are gone. Those who knew them after their marriage do not recall a particular story behind such meeting. The children Helen raised never asked. After finding her and reuniting in 1982, I did not ask, nor did my mother.

The only thing Helen ever said regarding meeting Frank was this: "Eldon said nobody would ever want me or love me. Frank did."

At the beginning of 1946, Frank Strukel had resumed work at the Northern Indiana Brass Company, having been recently honorably discharged from the United States Army in November of 1945. Living at home with his parents on Garfield Avenue, the twenty-three-year-old was young in years, but aged by the experiences of war.

Helen (Timmons) Miller was twenty-nine years old, and an unhappy housewife, living on Gladstone Avenue in Elkhart. She was raising three children by her husband Eldon Miller: Jerry, 7; Ted, 5; and Sandy, 3.

It is nearly impossible to guess how Frank and Helen crossed paths. In post-war Elkhart, it is quite likely that Frank walked the the two-and-a-quarter mile distance to work every day. It would be an easy trek, taking about 45 minutes to get to his factory job, the bulk of it being an easterly walk on Middlebury Street. If the weather permitted, it could even be a pleasant stroll, crossing over the Elkhart River and walking between scenic Grace Lawn Cemetery to the north and Studebaker Park to the south.

Had Helen and Frank run into each other innocently during one of these daily trips? The Miller household was situated just two blocks north of Middlebury Street, and just less than a half-mile from the NIBCO facilities. Could their lives have collided and their futures changed so dramatically by a single chance encounter on the street? Regardless, the ten-minute walk between Frank's work and Helen's home likely allowed for ample time for them to meet on lunch breaks and before and after his shift.

And frankly, the topic was not circumvented so many years later because it was a taboo subject, or because it was an uncomfortable situation to talk about. Yes, Helen, was a married woman when she met Frank Strukel and fell for the young, dark-haired, soldier. But upon reminiscing about her life, she hesitated not in the slightest to describe how worthless and ugly Eldon made her feel, and how Frank brought happiness and value to her life. Quite simply, nobody asked for the details.

It is not known how and when Eldon Miller found out about his wife's indiscretions, or really how much he cared. He expected his wife to remain his controllable possession and to raise his children while he sought pleasure and entertainment elsewhere, so perhaps he was blind to the changes in Helen's behavior in early 1946. But by the beginning of July, one thing was becoming more noticeable.

Helen was pregnant.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Another Bothersome Interlude

Among many of my readers are a slew of wonderful genealogists whose paths I cross throughout the year at a variety of research and educational forums. Those people know that the past few weeks have been busy ones for me. I was honored to have lectured at the Ohio Genealogical Society's 2014 Annual Conference in Sandusky, Ohio, from May 1 to May 3.

After a brief stop in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, where I was lucky enough to have been locked for the day in the basement record storage room of the Mifflin County Courthouse, I was able to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for genealogical research at the National Genealogical Society's annual conference in Richmond, Virginia, from May 7 to May 10.

After a long drive home to northern Indiana earlier in the week, I prepare to leave tomorrow to lecture in Indianapolis at the Indiana Historical Society on Saturday, May 17. If you are nearby, please join me for the morning! You can go here to find more information about the day's topic: Deconstructing Your Family Tree: Re-evaluating the “Evidence” — Indiana Historical Society.

Consequently, I have had little time to catch up on my blog, but rest assured that I will be back to regular posts after this weekend! Many of my genealogy friends have seen me dotting about the map the past few weeks, but those who have stumbled upon this blog from a variety of other places non-genealogical may be wondering why I have gone silent.

There is a lot more of the story to tell! I just beg your patience a short while longer!

Thank you!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Helen, Part V: The Divorce Revisited

Elkhart County, Indiana, Superior Court, Cause 17194, Miller vs. Miller, 1946

The details surrounding the divorce of Eldon Duane and Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller are summarized in Eldon's complaint filed on 10 July 1946 in the Elkhart County, Indiana, Superior Court. But this meager document barely runs one-and-a-half pages. Can nearly a decade of marriage, the birth of three children, and the collapse of a family be summarized in just a few words?

Eldon's complaint was divided into six key points. Firstly, he was presently and had been a resident of Elkhart County in the State of Indiana. Secondly, he was married to his present wife, Helen M. Miller, on 30 March 1937, and they had ceased cohabiting together the day before. The fifth and sixth points merely stated that they were co-owners of the home at 625 Gladstone Avenue in Elkhart, and that he desired the court grant him a divorce. The third and fourth segments of Eldon's complaint summarized why he wanted such an action and what future he desired for his children. And so therefore this complex, emotional saga is reduced to a mere two paragraphs.

And in the matter of a few words, we learn that Helen had been seeing another man, and when Eldon "remonstrated with her, she [had] told him that it was none of his business." She was pregnant with another man's child. And that of their three children, Jerry, age 8; Ted, age 6; and Sandra, age 4; he desired custody of the two boys.

For Eldon's desired outcome, there really was no need to go into several paragraphs and numerous pages of detail to document the causes and behaviors and incidents that led to this action on 10 July 1946. As far as the judge needed to know Helen's behavior was reprehensible, and it defied the norms and expectations within the boundaries of marriage. And it did. Being pregnant by a man who is not your husband is a pretty good reason to seek a dissolution of marital bonds. Helen did not countersue, nor did she file a counter-complaint. She did not deny the allegations in Eldon's complaint. The divorce was granted with little fuss on 26 November 1946. 

This is all that is left in the historical written record of the divorce between Eldon D. Miller and his wife, Helen M. Miller.

And from a genealogist's perspective, had this been a document regarding a far-flung ancestor in 1846, rather than 1946, I would have been ecstatic to find the date of marriage of the parties involved, where they resided at the time of this document, and the names and ages of their children. And I would have snickered at the "shameless hussy" of an ancestor who had the temerity to carry on promiscuously with another man behind her husband's back. And perhaps I would have gasped a little, envisioning her defiance when her husband found out: "It's none of your business!" And I would have told the story of my brazen ancestor and her poor put-upon husband to all my genealogy buddies at the next conference or online in a Facebook post. And we would all have a good giggle at the faults and foibles of those who had gone before us.

All because our knowledge of a messy, complicated, enraging, sad, difficult, emotionally-trying event in the lives of two people - and all those affected by it - was relayed to us in two paragraphs or less.

But it was not 1846. It was 1946. Today the events that led to this particular divorce are now nearly seven decades in the past. The primary participants are dead, as are the vast majority of those who were witness to it, as well as many who were affected by it. Soon, our only knowledge of the details of this divorce will be the 104 words on a faded document tucked away in a tri-folded case file. A packet of miscellaneous documents that smell faintly of sweet vanillin given off by the aging paper, overpowered by musty smell of mildew and age. These documents have likely been untouched since they were unfolded and photocopied for me in 1982.

But in November 1982, Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller was still alive. Eldon Miller had died in Portland, Oregon, in January of that year. But had he been alive, it would be unlikely that the fifteen-year-old version of myself would have sought out his version of events thirty-six years before. But I heard Helen's version. And this version, as well as the version of many, many others in similar situations, will never be found in the records we scour in the county courthouse.

Eldon Miller and Helen Timmons were likely mismatched from the beginning. At least on hindsight, Helen blamed her mother for forcing the marriage to happen. It is more likely that the marriage began with subtle misgivings. Helen probably experienced cold feet as a nervous bride, and her mother insisted that Eldon was a good man, and would make a good husband and father. And so they married. And children were born.

But there were no stories of picnics in the park, or vacations filled with fun and laughter, or the blessings of three children born to a doting, loving couple. The country struggled through an economic depression and then hurtled into a violent European war. Helen's happiness came through her children, and as a couple they likely were more thankful for a steady job, a dependable income, and a father that was not sent into war. Their happiness was likely anchored in the mundane appreciation of having food, water, and shelter - but it was certainly not found within the love that Eldon and Helen held for each other.

Eldon was ecstatic with Jerry's birth in 1938, but his joy diminished with each subsequent child. Like many men that came generations before him, he not only viewed the birth of a son as more "important" than that of a daughter, he reveled in the idea of a first-born son who would be his heir and successor. Where he failed, he would see his eldest son succeed. Perhaps Eldon felt inferior to his own elder brother, Russell Martin Miller, born in 1912. Russell lived at home until his late-twenties caring for his aging parents, then graduated from the Fort Wayne Bible Institute in 1942, after which he ministered to many churches in the Goshen, Indiana, area. Perhaps Jerry's importance as the eldest son grew out of Eldon's insecurity as the younger son who would never achieve the status of his sainted, successful older brother.

Nonetheless, as three children were born in rapid succession between 1938 and 1942, and the country entered into World War II, Eldon became disenchanted with life as a family man. He embarked on one extramarital affair after another, but he needed Helen to stay at home and take care of his children. So he repeatedly told her this was the life she deserved, and nobody else would want her. After all, what could a single mother of three small children do to survive without him? She best endure his whims silently and without complaint.

As war raged in Europe and Eldon took on a new job, he also took it upon himself to "comfort" the lonely, frightened women at work whose husbands were overseas. It was not uncommon for Eldon to bring some of these women home for Helen to cook them breakfast mornings after he had "kept them company." Helen sadly held her tongue, did as her husband demanded, and spent her days caring for her children. What else could she do? As Eldon repeatedly told her, nobody else would want her.

World War II ended, the family moved into a new home in Elkhart, but as 1946 dawned, Helen crossed paths with a young handsome soldier returned home from the war. Eldon Miller let Helen believe that nobody would want her. But he was wrong. Frank Strukel did.