Insights on business -- and life.
The American Dream, Updated
Something achieved, something
lost: the end of a hard, but wonderful era.
by Mike Hartnett (June 18, 2012)
Almost nine years ago I wrote a piece about America. There's been
such turnover in the industry since then, most subscribers probably
have never read it. So here it is again, with an update.
My mother-in-law died last month. She was 92
and suffered from Alzheimer's, so she was gone long before her body
stopped breathing. Mary Witczak was one of seven children, the
oldest daughter of Michael and Anna Tomaszkiewicz, who emigrated
from Poland to Chicago as teenagers in 1905. Michael and Anna had no
money and couldn't speak English. Their first child, John, died
shortly after he was born, as so many babies did in those days.
Michael found work in a steel foundry and one day had three fingers
cut off in an accident. By then there were six kids at home in a
The owner of the foundry gave Michael some
money and promised him he'd have a job as long as he wanted. But the
owner died soon after and the son fired Michael. The son didn't feel
obligated to fulfill his father's promise, and didn't have any use
for a seven-fingered foundry worker.
Michael took the money and made a down payment
on a "two-flat" in a Polish enclave in nearby Cicero, moving the
family into the ground floor apartment and using the rent from the
second floor to help pay the mortgage. Then came the Depression.
Dreams of educating their children were shattered; everyone had to
scour the Chicago area to find work to support the family. Mary
graduated from high school at 16, but had to decline a scholarship
to the University of Chicago to take a job as a secretary.
Eventually Mary and her five brothers and
sisters married and settled down within about five miles of their
parents. There were 14 grandchildren. About once a week somebody
would have an anniversary, birthday, first communion, holiday,
confirmation, or graduation, reason enough for the family to get
together. (Change the title to My Big Fat Polish Wedding and
you'll get the idea.) The food was simple, but plentiful. The
laughter was constant and the joy of being together was always
evident. It was a remarkable support system for the hard times life
brings to everyone.
The dream of education didn't die with Michael and Anna, however.
Their grandchildren earned 10 bachelor degrees, 8 masters, 3 law
degrees, and 2 doctorates. One grandson, Michael, became head of a
company that was the largest owner and renter of warehouse space in
the country. He told the Wall Street Journal that he got the
idea from his grandfather's two-flat.
Michael and Anna's children and spouses are almost all gone now. The
only ones left are Aunt Ceil, who also has Alzheimer's, and Aunt
Helen, who's sharp as ever at 85. The grandchildren and their
children are spread out across the country, from New York to
California, Arizona to Kansas. Everybody is busy pursuing new
dreams. Now the family comes together only for weddings ... and
Since I wrote this, almost nice years ago, Aunt
Ceil and Aunt Helen have passed. Recently we were in Phoenix for my
brother-in-law's wedding. It was wonderful to see everyone again,
after so long. Too bad we had to fly 1,400 miles to do it.