“Uncle Fred passed away.” That was the curt message my brother sent to my siblings and me several days after Uncle Fred Wehr died on August 1, 2017.
At age 92, and having fought cancer for a number of years, Uncle Fred’s passing was neither surprising nor unexpected. But his passing struck a chord because he was the last of our family’s “oldest generation.” With him gone, I have now become part of the “oldest generation.” This fact gave me pause!
Uncle Fred was my mother’s brother, one of six brothers and two half-brothers. And then there were six sisters in the set including my mother, plus one who died as an infant. Therefore, if you counted the two half-brothers from their father’s previous marriage, there were fifteen siblings in all. At age 92, second youngest of the fifteen, Uncle Fred had outlasted them all.
I knew most of them growing up. Some were closer to my mother than others but we fondly called them all Aunt and Uncle. They all had the same warm, friendly demeanor. They were modest, unpretentious, humble folks. They were the grandchildren of German Catholic immigrants. They worked and played together in a relatively primitive farming community. They were farmers, homemakers, businessmen, and craftsmen. No matter their occupation, their kind, benevolent nature was evident in their speech and their smiling, sleepy eyes. Look at Uncle Fred’s photo, especially the young man in uniform; his warm expression and slightly cocked service cap belies the fact that he helped fight a serious war in 1942. My mother had the same warm, sleepy eyes. Even after she took a needed switch to my bottom on various occasions, her eyes suggested she really didn’t mean it.
My father, his sister, and four brothers are also gone. The youngest, Ambrose, passed away February, 2013, at age 89. These six were also grandchildren of German Catholic immigrants who were farmers, but the family demeanor, compared to my Mother’s, was aggressive and competitive in ways that were both good and bad. My father (Emil), the second oldest, was told he would stay on the farm despite having aspirations beyond the 8th grade. His three younger brothers all pursued college educations, one achieving a Master’s degree (Raymond) and two the PhD (Othmar, and Ambrose). Othmar earned the rank of Lieutenant JG in the Navy and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in action on Iwo Jima. Ambrose was also a WW II Veteran having served under General George Patton. He also received the Purple Heart and an Oak Leaf Cluster.
My parents and my Aunts and Uncles were part of the World War II generation. Tom Brokaw, TV journalist and author, in his widely acclaimed book, referred to their cohort as the “Greatest Generation.” They suffered and persevered through the Great Depression and then went on to fight or support World War II. Common traits among them were personal self-sacrifice, families working together, and marriages bounded by deep commitment. They were humble with a deep sense of personal responsibility; they were loath to blame others for any short-comings. They had a deeply ingrained work ethic and were frugal to a fault given their experience during the Great Depression. They were faithful in marriage, family, and friendships. Today, a 50th wedding anniversary is not a common milestone moving into advanced age; for them it was commonplace.
The “Greatest Generation” wasn’t perfect. My parents and Aunts and Uncles were not perfect. Yet the hardships and events of a tumultuous time in history made them some of the finest men and women in the nation’s history. We will miss Uncle Fred and the rest of them. They are all gone now. My generation has taken their place in the continuum. I wonder: How will we fare in the eyes and minds of those who will write our history? Maybe our children’s generation already has the answer.