Tag Archive | Carl Korth

“Good enough for who it’s for”

87th Birthday - Smiling Face

Carl Korth

Last Saturday would have been my dad’s 112th birthday. He was born April 2, 1904, and died at home on June 19, 1991, at the age of 87. “Good enough for who it’s for” was one of his favorite expressions. He used to say it jokingly when he gave a gift to someone, or when he did something kind for someone. For example, early in my years of living in Chicago, Mim and I moved into a new, larger apartment. One of the bathrooms didn’t have a storage cabinet for towels. I asked my dad to build one for us. I gave him the dimensions that would conveniently hold several folded towels and a six-pack of toilet paper, and that would fit in the space available in the bathroom. He basically built me a big box out of plywood, put a shelf in the middle, mounted two doors on the front, and painted it white. It wasn’t very elegant, but it was exactly what we wanted. When I thanked him for it, he responded with “Well, I guess it’s good enough for who it’s for.” Said with a grin, the implication was that I wasn’t good enough to deserve anything better than that humble cabinet.

One of Dad’s favorite things to talk about during his later years in life was all the changes he’d seen in his lifetime. He described how his life started out for him on the farm in Lake Mills. He talked about walking three miles with his brothers and sisters and neighbor kids to the one-room brick schoolhouse down the road. (The building still stands today.) He talked about hitching up the team of horses to work the fields, as well as to pull the sleigh over the snow-covered hillsides. Then he talked about changes in transportation – from coaxing the horse to pull the buggy, to crank-starting his first automobile, to zooming along today’s interstates, and watching planes fly overhead. His next topic often was changes in farming technology – draft horses, to the old “F-20” tractor, to his bright red “H” classic workhorse of a tractor, and the huge new tractors sported by some of the young farmers today – those with air conditioned cabs. He would hardly call that farming. Then he talked about the changes the telephone brought about. He was clearly in awe of the changes in everyday life that he’d seen during his lifetime.

IMG_0839

The farm on Rock Lake in Lake Mills where my dad grew up. The farm is now a county park – “Korth Park.” Much of the land is being restored to natural prairie. Walking trails meander along the lake shore and through the prairie.

As I think back about the life he lived, I think of the personal and social changes he saw as well as the technological changes he lived through. He was born Carl Robert Korth, on a small farm in rural Lake Mills, Wisconsin. The farm was next to Rock Lake – a good source of fish to supplement their meals, when they had time to fish. Carl was the fourth oldest of ten children, the second oldest boy. When he reached the age of 12, he had to drop out of school to go to rural Cambridge, about 10 miles away, to work on a farm as a hired hand. His meager earnings were needed to help support the family.

Confirmation - seated

My dad’s confirmation picture

Occasionally, Dad talked about those years of being a teen-aged hired man. He stayed at the farm in Cambridge all week long. Sometimes he was able to go home on weekends. He had a room in the farmhouse where he slept. He was given meals in the kitchen – after the family was done eating. He didn’t have particularly fond memories of those years. He was a German-American farm boy working for a Norwegian-American farm family, and there were cultural differences and biases. Dad’s story-telling when he was in his 80s revealed that he had felt somewhat looked down upon for being just a poor hired hand, and being a German-American one made it even worse in the eyes of Norwegian Americans.

His skill as a farm laborer was a big help to his family in Lake Mills by enabling him to help support them. Unfortunately, his deepest desire was to be a carpenter. But that would never happen. He knew how to farm, and farming would be his livelihood for the rest of his life.

Mom-Dad Wedding Picture - cropped

Mom and Dad’s wedding picture – 1936

The best part of working as a hired hand in a Norwegian-American community is that’s where he met his future wife – Elsie Kenseth. She belonged to the same church as the farm family Carl worked for. The young people of the church had a very active youth group, and Carl was allowed to participate in some of their activities – like ice skating parties, baseball games, and picnics. When in their twenties, Carl and Elsie married, and they took over the operation and eventual ownership of Elsie’s family farm.

Carl also joined Elsie’s church, the church whose claim to fame was “The oldest Scandinavian Methodist Church in the World.” During the time Carl and Elsie were active members of the church, the congregation was very proud of it’s Norwegian heritage. Carl was “welcomed” into the church as Elsie’s husband, but he was never asked to be an usher or have any other role with responsibility within the church. He could attend services and potlucks, but he was never part of the “inner circle.” Life in the church for Carl wasn’t all that different from life as a German-American hired hand on a Norwegian-American family farm.

When I look back at how my dad was treated as a cultural outsider throughout much of his adult life, I think about his favorite joking expression – “good enough for who it’s for” – from a slightly different perspective. I’m glad he was able to approach his circumstances with humor rather than bitterness.

Forty years later, when Carl retired – sold his last cows and butchered his last chickens – he turned the chicken house into his carpentry shop. That’s where he made the white cabinet for our bathroom in Chicago. He also made lots of magazine racks, knife holders, boot jacks, book shelves, and small windmill-style lawn ornaments. He also helped my brother Danny (who had become a carpenter) build modest ranch-style houses in Cambridge throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. In his retirement years, he finally was able to do what he had wanted to do all his life.

Last weekend, Pastor Jeff’s sermon was about kindness, about how being kind is not just saying the right words, like “I’ll pray for you in your difficult circumstances.” Kindness is asking the question, “How can I help you?” For my dad, kindness would have been asking him, “How can I help you feel more welcome?” Just giving him a job as a hired hand and allowing him to attend church services wasn’t really enough. That wasn’t “good enough for who it’s for.”

Happy birthday, Dad. I wrote this blog for you. Hope it’s “good enough for who it’s for.”

Marian and Dad at table - Chicago

Dad and me sharing a joke and some coffee in our dining room in Chicago.

Shopping for a Tombstone

Marian at organ-MessiahSo far this year I have had the privilege of playing the piano or organ for nine funerals. I typically play for between five and ten funerals a year – and it’s only July! In the 31 days from June 1 through July 1 of this year, I played for five of those funerals. Needless to say, my mind has been spending lots of time thinking about funerals lately.

Every funeral is different, and I try to match the music I play to the emotional and spiritual needs of the family. Sometimes the person who died has planned their funeral and they have specific requests for what music they want at their funeral. Other times, family members have requests. Sometimes the pastor will offer suggestions. And sometimes I try to piece together what I know about the person and family and make a best guess at what music will be most comforting. One of these funerals was for a suicide and the family was in shock. One man had died suddenly, probably from a heart attack. One woman was close to 100 and had been in declining health for a long time. In all cases, loving friends and family were left behind and they needed to be comforted.

musical notes cartoonThe musical requests for some of the funerals in June were rather unusual. Besides the popular funeral hymns of “Amazing Grace,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “In the Garden,” and “How Great Thou Art,” I was asked to play polkas, waltzes, and folk songs.

After watching families struggle over what should and should not be included in their loved one’s funeral, I decided I need to add another item to my personal to-do list: to plan my own funeral. Hopefully, I will get that done before the end of the year. At least that’s my target date.

Then, one day last week, I read in Jimmy Carter’s devotional book that I should think about what epitaph I’d like to see on my gravestone. Carter wrote, “I’m sure that most of us have given at least some thought to what we want inscribed on our gravestone…. Our lives need to have the right purpose. We need to look upon our service to Christ as the greatest achievement of all. And when we start thinking this way, we’ll start shaping our lives differently.” [Through the Year with Jimmy Carter, ©2011, Zondervan]

Archie Monuments wideThat reminded me of a day in 1987, several weeks after my mom had died. My dad and Mim and I drove to Archie Monuments in Watertown, Wisconsin, about 25 miles from Cambridge. We were going shopping for a tombstone for my mom’s (and ultimately my dad’s) grave. Before we left on this shopping expedition I called my brother and my sister to see if they had any preferences for style, color, or anything else. Since tombstones aren’t something you shop for every day, neither of them had put much thought into it, so they had no preferences for us to consider.

blank tombstones croppedMy dad had put some thought into it. When we got to Archie Monuments, he picked out his preferred style right away, an upright granite stone with a smooth, curved top. Most of the stones at that time had coarse chiseled tops, but he was adamant about wanting a smooth polished top, and he explained why. He wanted bird droppings to be washed off by the rain. We couldn’t argue with that, so the first decision was made. I completed the style selection by choosing a very dark gray-colored granite. I thought a really dark stone with just a few lighter gray flecks of color would be striking, and actually beautiful.

But then came the hard part. What information should be included on the monument? The name KORTH would be on the top. On the lower left side would be ELSIE with her birth and death dates, and on the lower right side would be CARL with his birth and death dates. No middle names or initials would be included, but exact birthdates would be included, not just the years. My dad was as adamant on dates as he was on the smooth top surface of the stone. I have no idea why he thought it was important for future generations to know exactly what day he died. But it was important to him, so that was what we specified.

2015-07-13 Korth tombstone 1With the factual information and monument style determined, we moved on to the more creative design work. Fairly quickly we decided to have a pair of praying hands etched on my mom’s side because she firmly believed in turning to God in prayer for every concern she had in life. On my dad’s side we selected a flower growing up beside a cross as a reference to his being a farmer who trusted in God.

Then for the hardest part of all – choosing an epitaph. Fortunately, the consultant at Archie’s gave us a book of sample epitaphs to page through for ideas. The three of us finally agreed on “I know that my redeemer lives.” I think my dad was pretty indifferent to the words, but he didn’t have any better suggestion, and he was tired and wanted to go home. We had already spent about three hours making the decisions up to that point. But both Mim and I were confident that those words summarized the most important aspect of my mom’s life – she had a very strong faith, and her belief in God was the most important part of her life. And Dad would just have to live (and rest forever) with the epitaph we primarily selected for Mom.

I chose the font for the text on my own. I don’t remember its name, but it’s very legible and looks dignified. I also asked for the shadow effect in the engraving. We were finally ready to go home. Shopping for a tombstone is not an easy job. All three of us were exhausted, but pleased with our choices.

I don’t think I’ll go as far as designing a tombstone for Mim and me by the end of this year. I’ll be happy if I get my funeral planned. But thanks to Jimmy Carter’s urging, I might start thinking about what I might like our tombstone to look like, and what I would like it to reflect about my life and Mim’s life and our life together. I guess maybe this is something Mim and I have to work on together. Maybe it will be a job for next winter.

When I went to the cemetery yesterday to take a photo of my parents' tombstone, I wandered through the cemetery. This stone is one of my favorites. It's the parents of my piano and organ teacher. The musical staff on top has the notes and words "I love to tell the story. Below Paul's name is engraved, "Local preacher over 40 years" and below Sarah's name is engraved "Church organist over 50 years."

When I went to the cemetery yesterday to take a photo of my parents’ tombstone, I wandered through the cemetery. This stone is one of my favorites. It’s the parents of my piano and organ teacher. The musical staff on top has the notes and words “I love to tell the story.” Below Paul’s name is engraved, “Local preacher over 40 years” and below Sarah’s name is engraved “Church organist over 50 years.” The stone tells the story of their lives very nicely.

Mom’s Big Adventure: A Road Trip to California in 1934

Elsie Kenseth Korth as a young woman

Elsie Kenseth Korth as a young woman

On August 19, 1934, in the heart of the Great Depression, three girlfriends started out on a road trip to California – Elsie Kenseth (my mom), Clarice Jarlsberg, and Eleanor Gilberts – three single young women in their mid-twenties who had grown up together in Cambridge. Within a couple years they would all be married and ready to begin having families. Their new identities would become Mrs. Carl Korth, Mrs. Joe Vasby, and Mrs. Lester Jarlsberg.  But the summer of 1934 was their time for a big adventure – a road trip to California.

Wedding of Clarice and Joe Vasby. Elsie is standing next to Clarice. Eleanor is on the far right.

Wedding of Clarice and Joe Vasby. Elsie is standing next to Clarice. Eleanor is on the far right.

In the early 1930s, Elsie had an office job at Madison General Hospital. Clarice also had a job in Madison, and the two of them shared an apartment, somewhere on the east side of Madison. They got together with their gang of friends from church in Cambridge often, and they all took many short trips together to visit other church friends who had scattered to Milwaukee and Chicago, as well as to neighboring towns.

By 1934, Elsie had saved up enough money to buy her own car, a 1930 Model A Ford, I think. (I vaguely remember hearing that she bought it used from her Uncle Dahl.) That’s the car they took on this adventure to California.

1930 Ford Model A Coupe - I think this is the kind of car Mom drove for this grand adventure.

1930 Ford Model A Coupe – I think this is the kind of car Mom drove for this grand adventure.

Since 1934 was before the time of cellphones, we have a glimpse into what this road trip was like through letters, postcards, and a few photos. The three women had planned the trip well, plotting out their route to be able to visit friends and relatives as well as see beautiful scenery. The earliest letter I could find regarding the details of the trip was dated July 30, 1934. It was from Art (I can’t read his last name) from Davey, Nebraska. The letter was in response to a letter Elsie must have written him about the possibility of seeing him during their trip. Here’s part of his letter:

Dear Elsie,

… Has it been hot out here? Well, we had fifteen straight days with the mercury above 105. How’s that? It’s the worst heat wave we have had for years…

I am at home at present and intend to be for a while as father needs me with his work so he says. Maybe he doesn’t want me to crawl away some place and starve, I don’t know. We have been working rather steady lately and have a few jobs bidded and lay awake nights praying for things to happen soon. But what I mean to say is that I will be home when you intend to come and not wishing for you to fool me and not show up for I really would like to see you again and actually talk to you face to face. Maybe I will be too shy so you may have to help me along. You must spend a day or so with us or I’ll feel bad. Our home is no mansion as the depression caused our taking a smaller place but you will have the typical western hospitality and if you will permit we can show you what there is to see…

A couple weeks later, on August 14, Art wrote another letter to Elsie, firming up the plans for their visit.

Second letter to Elsie from Art. The first one was typed.

Second letter to Elsie from Art. The first one was typed. This letter is extra yellowed because a newspaper clipping was enclosed.

Dear Elsie,

I hope to have your pardon for doing this in pencil but I wish to make a hasty reply so naturally this is it. Received your letter just five minutes past and was glad to hear that you really plan to come out to see us but really must it be only an afternoon visit? Why can’t you stay over and let us show you around Lincoln and our Capital of which we are so proud? We would try to make your brief visit entertaining as I have asked my dearest friend Ernest Johnson to help me. Now I just won’t take no for an answer even if your vacation is limited. Maybe the chance may never be so ripe again.

You say you plan to be in Omaha Sunday morning? Now here’s what you do… [a page and a half of driving directions followed]

Sincerely,

Art

[P.S.] Tell Clarice not to expect too much of the person in question.

Clarice and Elsie

Clarice and Elsie

The big day for the three women to pack up Elsie’s car and drive west finally arrived – August 18, 1934. Elsie’s mother, Hilda Kenseth (the only grandma I ever knew), wrote Elsie a letter the very next day. She mailed it to “Miss Elsie Kenseth, Denver, Colorado, General Delivery.” Apparently, Elsie found her way to the Denver Post Office to pick up the letter since I still have it.

Envelope to Elsie - General DeliverySunday afternoon

Dear Elsie,

Altho you just left yesterday I will at least start a letter today. Maybe it will be in Denver before you.… Was to church this morning.… Molly [Elsie’s dog] is O.K….  Will have to get something to eat now, as it will soon be chores time.

Haven’t any news but lots of love to send you. Quite a few asked for you today… Papa and Ham [her brother Helmer] are reading and Fletcher [younger brother] and Molly are busy at kitchen cabinet.

Lots of love,

Mama

The best correspondence of all was the postcards Elsie sent to Carl, her future husband. Those cards gave a glimpse into the adventures of the trip for these three young ladies. On August 21, four days into the trip, Elsie wrote this:

Elsie and Eleanor - car in background.

Elsie and Eleanor – car in background. Elsie looks pretty tired of driving. Eleanor appears to be texting, but I’m sure there was no time warp or my mom would have told me about it.

Postmarked BRIGHTON, COLO., AUG 22, 1934, 2 – PM

We reached the 1,000 mile mark today – and only have had to buy 1 new tire (the first day). Drove thru sand hills all day today, but expect to hit the mountains tomorrow. It’s a lot of fun – but I’m awfully tired. If you feel very ambitious you could write to me at Long Beach, California, General Delivery. We expect to get there eventually. Only 4 more cards to write – and then to bed.

Elsie

A couple days later Elsie sent Carl another postcard.

Post Card to CarlPostmarked ROCK SPRINGS, WYO. AUG 24, 1934, 6:30 PM

We’re way up in the air, and it’s awfully cold and windy. Have had so much trouble with the car I’m almost ready to go home. Had it in a garage 3 times yesterday and 3 times today. Twice today we were stalled in the mountains – once we had to get help from 9 miles away, and the second time a man towed us 5 miles. The country is beautiful, but the roads are terrible. Guess I’d rather live in Wisconsin after all. Outside of that we’re having a good time.

Elsie

Keep in mind, this was also before the days of credit cards. Elsie, Clarice, and Eleanor must have had enough cash with them to cover the cost of all these car repairs – plus gas, meals, lodging, and any other costs of this big adventure.

On Saturday afternoon, August 25, Elsie’s mother wrote her another letter.

Dear Elsie,

Just a week since you left and I wonder where you are now. Have been receiving your cards and am very glad to get them. Watch for the mail every day. Hope you are thru with car trouble now and will be able to make your destination all right…. Molly is as usual. She went out in the bedroom a few mornings after you left. She must have been looking for you. Papa took her upstairs with him when Helmer went with the horses. As she is so wild to go for a ride…

Where do you want us to write after this? Are you going on to N. Mex. Or not? You didn’t leave any more places you were going but figured on letting us know. Hope you make it all right and have no more trouble.

Love from us all,

Mama

[P.S.]  Don’t forget to bring greetings to Fletcher & family [Hilda’s brother living in Long Beach, California]. How I wish I could see them all.

The threesome did make it to California. On September 1, Elsie wrote this card to Carl:

Post Card of Long Beach 1934

Post Card Elsie sent to Carl from Long Beach, California. They had reached their destination! Time to head home.

Postmarked SOUTH GATE, CALIF, SEP 2, 1934, 4 PM

We’re at the last point of our trip now & hiking back tomorrow. Went swimming in the ocean today & the waves made me dizzy (more so than I usually am). It was lots of fun though. I’d like to come again sometime, only on a train or in someone else’s car. We’re going to church in Los Angeles tomorrow & Clarice is to sing. Will be home next Saturday or Sunday. My car won’t stand another trip so I’ll borrow one next time.

Elsie

That’s all the correspondence I can share in this blog post. I know there’s a box with more postcards from this trip somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet.  I remember reading about some of their meals en route and meeting up with other friends and making new friends (usually in churches) when I was packing up boxes to move from the farmhouse to the condo eight years ago. As I re-read the postcards and letters that I did find, I was quite impressed by my mom’s sense of adventure, her self-confidence in driving a Model A Ford over thousands of miles of only partially paved roads, her friendships, and her sense of humor.

The Elsie I knew as Mom was a Sunday School teacher of pre-schoolers, a secretary who drove to Madison every day to work, a gardener who raised enough vegetables to freeze to keep her family eating vegetables with every dinner for a whole year – year after year, and a mom who kept the cookie tins filled with fresh-baked cookies – often from brand-new recipes she’d discovered somewhere.

Reading about the Elsie who went on a big adventure with a couple girlfriends in the middle of the Great Depression adds a new dimension to her character for me. I wish I had asked her more about that trip. Thank goodness cellphones hadn’t been invented yet – or I wouldn’t know anything about this adventurous side of Mom at all!

Elsie - the adventurer

Elsie – the adventurer