German HeritageOctober 26, 2013
Story by Jason Recker
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
Rafe Ackerman walked into his first day of grade school in Jasper and knew about a dozen English words.
It was the 1930s, some 100 years after the city was founded, but German lingered as the language of choice. Simon and Marie Ackerman spoke German at home, and young Rafael followed along without knowing any different.
The contrast some 70 years later is telling if not startling.
Not all that long ago, the German program at Jasper High School idled with an enrollment of fewer than 40 students. The new teacher was told that if numbers didn’t rise, the program could be extinguished. This year, two of the four young women awarded college scholarships based on essays they penned about Dubois County’s German heritage are not studying the language in school. Their reasons — a scheduling jam for one and the lack of German courses at the other’s school — are legit.
And the JHS German program has swollen to more than 80 students.
But things aren’t the same. That worries those who cling in ways both mild and sublime to this county’s heritage. In at least some way, most of us share a link to Germany and many proudly expose their roots. How long that will last has become a concern.
“It scares me,” says Bridgette Bartley, the president of the Jasper Deutscherverein, a German club that promotes and celebrates the area’s German traditions. “I’m worried about who is going to take over and continue to remember where we came from. It’s about what Jasper and all of Dubois County has — a work ethic, family values, moral values. Who’s going to carry this on? I think it can fade away.”
The conundrum is about numbers.
The Deutscherverein has more than 400 members, but meeting attendance hovers near 100. And those who attend are often older than 50. Bartley, 45, estimates that fewer than 20 couples in the club are younger than 50. Younger than 40? Maybe five people. Younger than 30? Four. It’s not a sudden development; empty-nesters tend to join the club when their children are in high school or college.
“I understand it because everyone has so much going on,” said club member Holly Mundy, 37.
But when the club was founded in 1980, the foundation wasn’t built on the aged.
Gary and Rita Egler were two of the 10 couples that met at a place called Beck’s restaurant in the southeast corner of the Jasper Square, hoping to formulate some way to do three things: start an exchange program for adults and students, organize a festival, find a sister city. They accomplished all three. The exchange program and Strassenfest thrive. And cognizant of the county’s strong wood furniture industry and agricultural bedrock as well as lineage of genes, the founders employed a humanist at Indiana University to help locate a fitting sister city. They found Pfaffenweiler, where today you’ll find names similar to those who have long been members of the Deutscherverein — Keusch, Kieffner, Kiefer, Wehr, Leinenbach, Hopf, Eckert, Eckerle.
During one trip to Germany, Gary Egler was riding on a bus and looked out the window. He spotted a sign that read “Egler Haus.”
Egler, 71, has long treasured his background. During business trips for his work for Indiana Furniture Industries to Chicago, he frequented a German neighborhood to purchase lederhosen. On group trips out of town, Deutscherverein members wear vests adorned with patches identifying their home turf.
“There’s no question we’re a proud group,” Egler says.
He can’t digest the excuse he hears most often when prompting younger acquaintances to get involved. Kids. No time. Work. Too busy.
“People say they can’t go to meetings,” Egler says. “What do you think we did? We involved them. We got baby sitters. We found time.”
The commitment isn’t overbearing. The club meets once a month and takes off June and July to accommodate vacations, and dues are $10 per person per year. The involvement increases before, during and after the Strassenfest, where the Deutscherverein sells Black Forest cake, apple strudel, cream puffs, sauerkraut, bratwurst, knockwurst, wiener schnitzel and souvenirs. It’s the club’s biggest money-maker and Bartley and Mundy have agreed to alleviate the older members’ fest duties by getting more active in organizing the club’s booths.
Many club members agree to work shifts during the fest, and the setup the Tuesday evening before the fest begins is a free-for-all that unfolds without an instruction booklet. It’s like a crumb that draws ants; members appear from north, south, east and west, popping out of side streets that feed into the club’s spot south of the courthouse and near the beer garden entry. An hour in, 25 men and 15 women are busy. Most everyone there knows what they’re doing. They screw together slabs of lumber, roll refrigerator display cases and string lights. When it’s all done, they eat and maybe knock back a couple of adult beverages.
“It’s a thing that makes Dubois County unique,” says Mike Ackerman, 53, the Deutscherverein vice president. “It’s worth putting in the effort to keep. Having a local flavor to the community adds to it.
If we’re all the same, I think you lose a lot of things. Being unique is certainly a positive, and it’s something Jasper can continue to build on.”
Mike Ackerman didn’t join the club until he was past 40. His father, Rafe, didn’t join until he was nearly 60. The hope is to lure younger families, and Bartley has ideas how.
She’s pondered inviting children to meetings then pulling them aside to have them learn German words or color pictures of German traditions; it’s like many churches do during weekend services. She wants to draw high school students into meetings, let them see how the club works and introduce them to programs like the one at the May meeting. Then, area author, historian and judge Hugo Songer told stories about what life was like for those who first settled Jasper.
Mundy has taken her children, 12 and 9, to a meeting. For about an hour, they were engaged. For the final hour, their attention waned.
“You have to keep topics pretty lively for anybody to want to come,” Mundy said. “If you have activities for kids, they might agree to come and they might want to be there.”
There are young residents fascinated by their background.
Lauren Betz was one of those four scholarship winners honored at a German American Day banquet Oct. 9 at the Schnitzelbank Restaurant. Her essay was in part a letter to her great-grandfather, who always wanted his family to extend its roots. Growing up in a cabin that spanned eight generations of Sanders and withdrawing herself from technology — she still doesn’t have a cellphone — Betz has done her part. She wants more.
“I love their style,” Betz said of her predecessors. “I’d love to learn the old dances, the language. It’s unique and many people don’t hold onto that now. I think it’s important.”
So, too, does Shannon Sonderman. She spent part of this past summer in Germany with 17 fellow JHS students. Enticed to the idea by a German exchange student who, like Sonderman, played on the Wildcat soccer team when Sonderman was a freshman, she enrolled in German classes as a sophomore. She yearned for a German visitor and to make the return trip.
“I think people (my age) know we’re of German heritage, but they aren’t as forthcoming about it,” Sonderman says. “It’s not an everyday thing. They don’t live it out.”
Sonderman and her peers in the JHS German Club try their best. They visit the Schnitzelbank to try German food, participated in a party to test German chocolate and coordinate other events throughout the year. The club has 45 students this year, and German teacher and club leader Erin White sees seeds of pride. When she took over German classes at the school eight years ago, her first mission was to ensure all students were aware of where they came from.
“About 70 percent of them have some German heritage,” White says. “I think a lot of them are self-aware of that. They see and hear about the heritage. I want to expose them to it.”
To Bartley and Mike Ackerman and Egler, it’s difficult to grasp at what rate — or if — the gradual dimming of heritage appreciation is proceeding. Ackerman figures the appreciation of heritage will continue on some level, though perhaps on a tangent he isn’t sure yet exists. Bartley says the Strassenfest will survive but wonders if the four-day party alone will be enough to sustain everything it’s supposed to represent. Egler will plug away. He’s having fun and he’ll keep recruiting and keep eating and dancing the way he always has.
If nothing else, age might proliferate a sense of both obligation and gratitude.
“People don’t appreciate their heritage until they get older and have a little more life experience,” says Sandy Wehr, a Deutscherverein member and retired teacher who accompanied the JHS students on their trip to Germany this summer. “Then it comes back to them — it happened to me. You realize, hey, this is where I came from, this is why I do things the way I do, kind of the way I think the way I do. When they get older, start settling down, start having families, they’re going to think, ”˜You know what? That was a pretty good thing we had going on back in Jasper and we want to make sure that continues.’”
Contact Jason Recker at email@example.com.
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