Category Archives: Family Life

Leaving One’s Mark: Letter Writing As History

By Richard Poethig
June 13, 2018

Poethig family in the Philippines, circa 1960

This Spring I learned the importance of letter writing in the preservation of history. Following my wife Eunice’s Memorial Service at Lake View Presbyterian Church in Chicago, my son Scott invited me to spend time in Philadelphia. I used the time to research Eunice’s and my archives at the Presbyterian Historical Society library located in Philadelphia.

Over sixty-six years of marriage we have saved correspondence related to life together. Our files revealed the crucial role letter writing plays in a family’s history. It tells the story of the times in which a person lives. This was true in the letters Eunice wrote from the Philippines to her mother in the United States. The letters brought me again in touch with her fine and steady hand and her ability to provide the detailed description of events she was reporting. This was an expectation that her mother had for family correspondence. Letter writing was a family tradition even as long distance telephone calls became more frequent.

There was a warm connection in the words Eunice wrote home. Her words and stories were meant to bring her mother close to the happenings in family life. As our family grew the various diseases of our children became a daily and weekly concern. The letters carried all the specifics of the illness, its duration and the final remedy. We knew that living in a new region of the world we might encounter new versions of a local malady. But in the end there was always Dr. Reyes who seemed to have a solution to all body ailments.

Then there was the buying and sending of fabric to make the dresses for the first three daughters to keep them in style. Some of the need for new clothes for the growing girls was solved by the school uniforms worn in Philippine schools. The exchange of fabric went both ways. The fashion and design of Philippine dress material had an appeal to Stateside relatives.

We now lived in a hemispheric and geological sphere where the natural world makes dramatic appearances. In his letter for the family, Scott at age seventeen recounted the events of 1970 which he called our Christmas “disasters” letter. He named five typhoons for the year in which the fifth typhoon “zipped right through Manila and its 200 MPH maximum winds broke a record set in 1882.” He also recounted the two earthquakes that he surmised was “one good method of discovering which buildings public officials made a profit off of… school building collapsed.” Then there were two floods that “seemed to be the advent of another 40 days flood, but the waters in Manila subsided with 37 days left to go, and no sign of Noah’s ark.”

Never to be dismissed from the correspondence was the recognition that we were residents in a new nation. We were sensitive in our responses to the political, economic and social events in a country in which we were invited participants. We could not easily disengage from our nation’s part in the 400 hundred years of colonial history of the Philippines. Neither could we live apart from the issues that were part of our daily life. There was a fine art to being invited workers in the Philippines and also inheritors of Philippines colonial history.

Eunice’s letters reflected the reality that we had been invited by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines which expected us to live out our religious commitment. The tenets of our Reformed faith allows no separation between that faith’s commitment and its engagement in the world. The letters were a witness to the fact we were not outside arbiters but fulfilling the task of providing our faith’s insight into the issues of emerging society. If we overstepped these bounds we were responded to with silence.

One event our son Scott listed in his review of 1970 was the student riots of January. The riots erupted when the global oil crisis of the early 1970s struck the Philippines. The rising price of gas in the Middle East forced up the costs of both global and local transportation. President Marcos immediately imposed a 50% tax increase on gas, which raised the prices of transportation in Manila. The jeepney drivers, the heart of the Manila transportation system, in turn raised their own rates. Financially hard pressed students, riders of the jeepneys, were the end recipients of the financial crisis. The students, already wary of the growing power of Marcos, had set in motion a season of unrest.

This was the beginning of the political drama that embroiled Manila and the Philippines for the next two years. The words in the letters in those two years were carefully chosen in reporting the events that ultimately led to the Marcos declaring martial law in September 1972. They painted a picture of the response our Philippine friends and others were making to the rising political crescendo leading to the diminishing of Philippine democracy.

When our family returned to the United States in the summer of 1972 daughter Kathryn remained behind to finish her senior year in high school in December. She continued the family letter writing tradition. She experienced and reported the immediate effects of martial law declaration in September 1972. She told of the unease among our friends, particularly those taken into custody and she described the beginning of what was to be fourteen years of Ferdinand Marcos authoritarian rule. Remarkably it was Kathryn who returned to the Philippines to work at a Vietnamese refugee processing center in 1984 and who was present to see and report on the dramatic end of Marcos rule in 1986.

A Twenty-first Century Yorkville

0208-rea-web-LIVINGmap-300The February 4th New York Times issue states that Manhattan’s Upper East Side Yorkville  neighborhood is on the rebound. A recent visit to my old haunts at the Heidelberg Restaurant at 86th and Second Avenue was hampered by a hole in the ground, the new Second Avenue subway.   Eighty years ago, when I was ten, the Second Avenue Elevated Line provided the means of transportation for the neighborhood. That line along with the Third Avenue El bit the dust in the late 1930s.

The Times article is filled with pictures of high rise rental and co-op towers which now dominate the Yorkville scene.  The five story First Avenue old law tenement into which both my mother and I were born passed out of existence in the 1960s.  When I returned to First Avenue with members of my family in the 1990s, on the city block on First Avenue between 80th and 81st, now towered a twenty-seven story high rise.  The line of five and three story tenements were gone.  Rents for the newly constructed high rise co-ops sell for $ 350,000 to $ 500,000 for a studio apartment to $ 600,000 to $1 million for a one bedroom.  The remaining rehabilitated  tenement  two bedroom apartments rent for  $ 2,500 to  $ 2,800.  These are usually shared by the young aspiring urban dwellers.  As I reminded my grandson Luke who not lives in such an apartment in Brooklyn, the monthly rent the up and coming millennials now pay would have covered the rents for all the tenement families on my First Avenue block back in the Depression years.

The New York Times lead-off picture showed residents casually strolling along the East River promenade in Carl Schurz Park.  The East 84th Street scene in Carl Schurz Park in the 1930s were rocks off  which Yorkville boys took their diving and swimming lessons.  At 86th Street a large drain pipe poured the affluence of the neighborhood into the East River.  In the center of the Carl Schurz Park was the attractive Gracie Mansion.  For those of us who played ball in the Park, the Gracie Mansion provided the public toilets from our game breaks.

The Yorkville map which accompanied the article sparked memories of the role that the neighborhood provided for growing up on the East Side.  The neighborhood as I characterized it represented the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Among my friends there were those of Czech, Slovak, Austrian, Hungarian and German background, and others of  Russian, Irish, Scots-Irish and Italian heritage.  The languages of the various ethnic groups were still heard on the streets and in the shops.  As the New York Times reminds us this ethnic blend is missing from Twenty-first Century Yorkville.  But one thing does remain: The public school which provided a lively mix of all these children.  I noted on the map on 82nd Street between First and Second Avenues the notation of Public School 290.  Back in the 1930s this was P.S. 190.  Except for the numerical change the public education of the children of the neighborhood continues on.  There were many happy memories of P.S. 190.  As the article  tells us that even today that families moving into Yorkville are attracted by the quality of the public education in the area.  Life in Yorkville says the New York Times “is relatively quiet and family oriented compared with other other Manhattan neighborhoods.”

Chapter 26 – Leaving New York Behind

“We’re off on the trip of our lives!”

Richard introduces Eunice to the Poethig clan at a raucous feast at his aunt and uncle’s apartment in Yorkville. Eunice introduces Richard to her mother and brother at Christmastime in Dayton, Ohio. They begin plans for a June wedding. All the time Richard is writing his senior thesis on “A Christian Doctrine of Work for a Modern Technological Society” and trying to tie down a job. An intriguing prospect is a new church development in a working-class, industrial suburb of Buffalo. Richard travels Upstate to meet with the organizing committee. The folks in the Town of Tonawanda invite him to organize their congregation, and Richard and Eunice agree. They finish up their studies, graduate, and head for Dayton to be married. The wedding on June 7, 1952, is a joyous assembly of people from Eunice’s and Richard’s lives. The couple returns to New York from a honeymoon camping trip in New England in time for Richard’s ordination at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on June 27th. After saying goodbye to his father and sister, Richard and Eunice drive north out of New York City. As Richard watches the skyline change, he has a strong feeling that a new book is opening in his life.

Chapter 25 – Starting A New Chapter

As seniors at Union, Richard and his roommate, Jim MacNaughton, are responsible for welcoming the incoming students through “round robins” hosted in the homes of faculty. Richard takes notice of an attractive newcomer in Jim’s group. He conspires with Jim (who owns a car) to drive Eunice Blanchard back to her residence at the James Foundation, with a stop on the way at the Gay Vienna, a German restaurant in Richard’s old neighborhood. Over apple strudel, coffee, and dark beer (for the men), a romance begins that in less than a month, on Columbus Day in October, 1951, becomes an engagement.

Chapter 13 – Reclaiming A Heritage

Richard returns to Wooster after his mother’s death emotionally drained. With the encouragement of his friends, he runs successfully for the Student Senate, wraps up the school year, and returns to New York. Richard’s job as director of  a Y.M.C.A. summer camp for 12- year-old boys keeps him busy; nevertheless, he witnesses one of his father’s epileptic seizures. Richard remembers the fun times he had with his father going to Giants games and “crabbing” on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. They had gotten along well, but Ernest would never understand Richard’s aspirations or his decision to go away to college. Back at Wooster in the fall of 1946, Richard throws himself into his academic work, four jobs, and campus political and social activities. He helps organize a chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which heats up criticism of his “socialist” leanings. He runs for president of the student body and loses in a run-off election. Moving on, Richard is elected as president of  “the Big Four,” representing the four major religious organizations on campus. Richard returns to New York where his leadership in the Student League earns him a job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Chapter 12 – A Time to Live, A Time to Die

Henrietta Schoelzel Poethig, 1901-1946

Henrietta Schoelzel Poethig, 1901-1946

In September 1945, the war is over and former students, now veterans, return to the dynamics of rebuilding the post-war world. Richard learns the value of a liberal education at the College of Wooster, where the study of science and religion are complementary. He holds down three jobs on campus to cover expenses. In December, his father, Ernest, falls from a ladder at work and fractures his skull; the accident causes epileptic seizures. Henny, Richard’s mother, leaves St. Francis Tuberculosis Hospital to care for Ernie at home. Richard rushes back to New York to help. He takes his mother back to St. Francis, and, believing the situation at home to be stabilized, makes the decision to return to Wooster. During Easter break, Richard is urgently summoned back to New York.

Chapter 11 – Going West!

Boarding the Broadway Limited at Penn Station in January 1945, Richard begins a new venture. Descending the train in the gloom of winter in Wooster, Ohio, is a sobering experience. Richard faces the uncertainty of college life and its requirements. There was housing and work to find and the intense pace of academic learning to tackle. Richard’s heavy New York accent marks him as an outsider among the (mostly female) student body at the College of Wooster. In the midst of his anxiety over his mother’s declining health at home, Richard breaks through on the academic frontier. At the same time, history was changing fast: President Franklin Roosevelt dies, the war in Europe comes to an end, and in the fall the campus spirit takes on a new vitality.

Chapter 10 – A Turn in the Road

Richard’s attempt at working during the day and going to night college at the City College of New York fails. Restless in his effort to further his education, Richard determines to attend college full-time. But he is caught between two philosophies of life: his father’s hard work ethic which saw Richard’s responsibility to help meet the immediate expenses of the family, and his mother’s long view, which saw the need for Richard to prepare himself for the future. An uplifting experience at church points Richard in the direction of the ministry. With the help of mentors and friends at the church, he chooses an exclusive Presbyterian college in Ohio. At the same time, his mother’s health is failing and family tension mounts. Knowing the implications of his decision, Richard chooses to take the turn in the road that leads away from the past and into an unknown future.

Chapter 9 – Facing a World at War

Photo of Fred Waring signed by Fred Waring

“With benevolent good wishes to the Reverend Dick” – Fred Waring

The late 1930s was a period of mounting tension in the world. People in Yorkville were on tenterhooks waiting for the next explosion in Europe. Richard rapidly advances through junior high and into the High School of Commerce in 1939. One Monday in December, 1941, the students are called into the auditorium to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio over the speaker system declare war on Japan. Too young for induction into the army, Richard works at Best & Co. and buys his first Harris Tweed suit. Next he gets a job with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians in the shipping department. Here Richard learns how business gets done and how to be entertained along the way. Upon turning 18, Richard submits himself for the draft but is rejected because of his poor eyesight. Richard resolves to go to college.

Chapter 6 – A Summer to Remember

Photo of Mr. McCreery holding the family dog Spot

Mr. McCreery and Spot

Richard’s mother, Henny, pays constant attention to protecting Richard and his younger sister, Erna, from her tuberculosis. One summer, through the help of a tenement neighbor, Henny sends Richard to live with the McCreery family on a farm outside of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. At the McCreery’s, Richard learns quickly about farm life. Children who grow up on a farm, he discovers, know more about the facts of life than any of his New York street gang. Richard finds the old swimming hole in Cherry Valley a great respite on the hot summer days. It was certainly more inviting than the garbage-filled East River, Richard reflects. During his visit to Cherry Valley, Richard encounters his first rattle snake on the McCreery lawn and takes an unexpected journey to the Stroudsburg hospital for an emergency appendectomy.