Freedom’s Light Burning Warm

This Independence Day, I listened to the Neil Diamond classic, “America,” a song that pays tribute to his grandmother who emigrated to the United States from Russia in the early 1900s,  reflecting on my own heritage, family, and country. We performed this song as the choir finale during my 9th-grade year at Pound Junior High, dancing in the aisles, shining little flashlights (circa 1980.) I felt so proud of the United States of America and the light of freedom it provided.

… Far
We’ve been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star
Free
Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream

They’re coming to America today!

On a recent country drive, I passed through Prague, Nebraska, the small town near where my mother was born. I made a quick stop to purchase some freshly made kolaches, a traditional Czech fruit-filled pastry.

 

I also drove up and down the streets, noticing particularly the intersection of Elba and Moravia. Many of the town residents can trace their family roots back to Czechoslovakia and the Bohemia and Moravia regions. I imagined those first Czech immigrants who came to Nebraska—the familiar names and food of their homeland must have given them comfort, even as they sought a fresh beginning in this new country. The famous Nebraskan author Willa Cather wrote, “If security could ever have a smell, it would be the fragrance of a warm kolache.”

As a fourth generation immigrant, I am grateful their heritage was kept alive. My great-grandfather, Frank Blazek, arrived at Ellis Island in 1906 on the Barbarosa ship, not knowing a single soul or a speck of English. He came with only his work ethic and the desire for freedom and a prosperous life. He never saw the parents and siblings he left behind again. His family became his wife, Carrie Pekarek, and their six children—Lod (my grandfather), Rosalie, Frances, Bessie, and twins, Louis and Lillian. If he only knew that his great- and great-great-grandchildren would become park rangers, counselors, graphic artists, law enforcement officers, attorneys, biologists, bankers, teachers and more—I imagine he would have been surprised.

Bararosa

frank and carrie wedding.png
Frank Blazek, Carrie Pekarak and wedding party, 1909.

We are mothers and fathers, town and city dwellers, Republican and Democrat, Catholic and Protestant, single, married, divorced and re-married, high school graduates and college-educated. Most of us have stayed in Nebraska, some have moved out of state, a few have studied and traveled abroad. Each of us, offspring from a blacksmith shop owner named Frank, who until his dying day spoke mostly Czech, with his wife being his connection to the English-speaking world.

 

Photos: Frank Blazek’s Blacksmith shop (and advertisement) Weston, Nebraska 1908-1931.

When I traveled to the Czech Republic, I was shocked how the Czech traditions I had grown up with were not as apparent as I expected, sabotaged of their significance by World War II and the takeover by communists.

Czech Republic
Photos: It was surreal to see the Blazek name on a WWII war memorial in Telc, Czech Republic; likely not relation with spelling change from Frank Blazik to Blazek in America. Czech countryside resembles the area near Prague, Nebraska referred to as the Bohemian Alps.

All the more important, I realized, it is to preserve our heritage or it will die—a little more with each person who passes from this world. My dad, Tom Blazek, played his part by writing the book, My Valparaiso I and II, capturing the history of his hometown, Valparaiso, Nebraska, and the many families who lived there.

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To purchase either book, see the Valparaiso, Nebraska Memories Facebook Page.

Connecting to our heritage does not mean that we are stuck in the past; rather, it allows us to embrace where we came from as well as being open to new beginnings. My cousin, Mike, demonstrates this poignantly. Recently, he purchased my grandma’s old house, the house she bought after my grandfather, Lod, passed away. This tiny house packed three generations (my grandma, her five sons, their wives and seven cousins) in to celebrate every holiday.

 

Photos: My grandma, Helen Blazek and the seven grandchildren that celebrated every Christmas in the tiny house. Circa 1974.

Mike tore the house down to its frame and rebuilt it piece by piece with his own hands—new walls, floors, ceilings, windows, everything. Mike and I reflected that it feels a little smaller to us now, but it never felt small or crowded to us then. We had family and traditions and that was plenty.

 

The before photos: Mike Blazek, my cousin, tears grandma’s house down to the frame to rebuild.

I love how Mike has honored our grandmother and the family she nurtured, while also creating a new beginning for himself (just as she had done.) Sometimes we must tear things down to the foundation to begin again. He preserved the old and created the new; we need both.

 

The After Photos: Mike’s house after working on it for over a year. 

“As we grow older we have more and more people to remember, people who have died before us. It is very important to remember those who have loved us and those we have loved. Remembering them means letting their spirits inspire us in our daily lives. They can become part of our spiritual communities and gently help us as we make decisions on our journeys… Remembering the dead is choosing their ongoing companionship.” Henri J. M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

 

Photos: Frank Blazek, my great-grandfather, was called “Doda” by all the grandchildren. 

In the spirit of remembering, my dad has gathered many memories, photos and artifacts into a family history. As I read the correspondence of postcards across the sea from father to son, sister to brother, I consider the immigration crisis my country, and many countries around the world, face today.

 

Postcard on left: My beloved brother! Another year has passed, your dear name day, your whole family wishes you what is best for every person, mostly health in your family circle. I have been able to live to this day. Wishes your sister, Marie Kytokova 10/10/62 Breelev  Other postcards sent from the home country through the years. 

 

My dad writes, “Now…everyone is protesting immigrants coming to America. We must remember we wouldn’t be here if our grandpa wasn’t one of those immigrants. (We) are lucky; we were born in America thanks to Frank Blazek. No one can tell us to go back where we came from like immigrants are told now.” 

My prayer for this Independence Day and for the tumultuous political environment we are in:

May we remember the courage it took for our ancestors and forefathers to seek freedom.

May we be compassionate to all those seeking freedom and safety today.

May we be the light—in our lives and in this country—a shining star for all.

May we recognize when we need a new beginning, a fresh start.

May we not cling to the past, but preserve it gently in our memory, keeping the richness of our heritage alive.

On the boats and on the planes
They’re coming to America
Never looking back again
They’re coming to America

Home, don’t it seem so far away
Oh, we’re traveling light today
In the eye of the storm
In the eye of the storm

Home, to a new and a shiny place
Make our bed, and we’ll say our grace
Freedom’s light burning warm
Freedom’s light burning warm

Everywhere around the world
They’re coming to America
Every time that flag’s unfurled
They’re coming to America

Got a dream to take them there
They’re coming to America

#KnowYourNeighbor

freedoms light

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You are never too old to set another goal, or to dream a new dream.

never too old

My dad, Tom Blazek, had a dream to write a book about his hometown, Valparaiso, Nebraska—to create a timeline of its history and to share stories of growing up in a small town. Passionate about history, he would devour a book on a topic he loved—about World War II, the Civil War, the history of Lincoln or Nebraska. He could find bits and pieces about Valparaiso from different sources, but he had a dream of gathering it all into one book, from the birth of the small village up to the present. His love of reading about history turned into a passion for sharing with others.

For some, his ambition to write a book came as quite a surprise. My dad wasn’t a
particularly motivated student, he is the first to admit.  One classmate said he was the least likely of their class to ever write a book.  As a teenager, any reason was a legitimate one for skipping school. One afternoon, hanging out at the town gas station with his friends, my grandma (God-rest-her-soul-for-raising-five-boys) discovered his truancy, went to the gas station, and strongly encouraged him to get back to school. Mrs. Jean Ang, my dad’s 7th and 8th-grade teacher, commented, “the Blazek boys, they had a lot of life.” God love his teachers and parents for tolerating his alternative form of education. As a teacher, it’s important for me to remember that everyone learns differently. Regardless of what he did or didn’t learn in school, he always worked hard. 

grandma and pa blazek w boys
Grandma and Grandpa Blazek with the five boys that “had a lot of life”                 Jim, Tom, Don, Rick and Randy.

I’ve observed a work ethic in my dad that is unmatched. From delivering newspapers, farming and working at a gas station as a teenager; being a manager at Safeway grocery stores, working in dispatch, sales and management in the transportation industry; and, finally, in production and office management, my dad has ALWAYS worked hard, whether he liked his job or not.  And for many years he supplemented his full-time job with hauling jobs—cleaning out attics and basements, taking trash to the landfill, and helping people move their belongings.

He had a good example of work ethic in his own grandfather, Frank Blazek, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, who walked twenty-some miles to work on Sunday nights from Valparaiso to Gooch’s Mill in Lincoln, lived in a rented room all week, and, then walked home on Friday night to bring his paycheck home.  And his own dad, Lod, worked wherever, whenever, doing whatever he could to make some money, even if the job took him a distance from home. Work wasn’t a choice. Work wasn’t about self-fulfillment or purpose or happiness. Work was a means to an end—it was food on the table.

So when my dad finally retired, he wasted no time getting to work on his dream (and if you know my dad, you understand there is no such thing as procrastinating or wasting time—he gets things done and works fast! And if there is a free moment, he washes his car.)

Each morning, rain or shine, for three years, he drove to downtown Lincoln, found a cheap place to park for four hours and walked to the Nebraska History Museum. While reading through archives, he took copious notes by hand. He read through every edition of the town newspaper, The Valparaiso Avalanche (1878-1887), followed by every edition of The Valparaiso Visitor (1887-1945), before diving into the Wahoo newspaper, the county seat, for anything about Valparaiso from 1945 on. Over 600 hours he spent at the Nebraska History and Saunders County Museums.

After gathering a morning’s worth of information, he went home to type up his findings, adding old family and town photos and local advertisements throughout the text. And when he had questions about what he read, he tracked down people he could talk to. He interviewed dozens of people who grew up in Valparaiso, often accompanied by his brother, Don. People loved to share their stories and some even offered up old photos and newspapers that weren’t available in the archives. My Uncle Don said, “I was amazed to hear people tell their stories when asked a question about the past. One question could ignite a person’s memory, some that probably had trouble remembering what they did last week, but, man, how they enjoyed reminiscing about their youth!” 

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Tom Blazek with his first shipment of “My Valparaiso”.

Stories are as important for those who hear them as the one doing the telling. Being listened to validates our experiences; we matter when we are heard. When we were kids, my brother and I would beg for stories about our dad’s growing up shenanigans, a window into his life before we were in it. His stories helped us see what life was like for him and helped connect us to the generations before us. But these stories are lost if not written down. Writing this book was part fact-finding and part storytelling, both his own and others. 

My dad had a goal to have his book completed, printed and ready for distribution at the 2014 Valparaiso Heritage Days, an event that hundreds would attend. My dad was a town hero that day. Tom Blazek, the most unlikely person in town to write a book, had accomplished just that.

The skeptics who didn’t think he could do it or who didn’t think people would spend $25 on a book, were the same folks who couldn’t put the book down. (Pictured below on top-right is Mrs. Ang, his teacher—she still looks skeptical, doesn’t she?)

People, scattered throughout the American Legion Hall, were leafing through “My Valparaiso”, reading, laughing, reminiscing, and sharing their own stories.  It was a special day of recognition for my dad, a goal accomplished, and a dream come true. The response was overwhelming—people bought not just one copy, but two, three or more autographed copies for gifts.

Valparaiso Heritage Days
Top left: me and my dad. Top right: Mrs. Ang and my dad.

Over the next weeks and months, the reaction to the book was overwhelming. People loved it, ordering more copies, calling friends in distant states and telling them about it. From all over Nebraska and the country, people called and wrote to order a book or share their stories. My dad heard from people in every region of the United States, including Arizona, California, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, North Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Who knew that the small town of Valparaiso had scattered its townspeople so far? Who knew “My Valparaiso”, and my dad’s work, could have such a far-reaching impact?

The conversations that followed unearthed new stories and information; a second book was born. Some, like sweet old Edna Johnson, who enjoyed the first book so much, pre-ordered “My Valparaiso II” before it was even finished, but, sadly, didn’t live long enough to see it published. Another lady, in her eighties, said she read things about her family that she had never heard before.

my valp1a
Published in the Wahoo Newspaper

“My Valparaiso” and “My Valparaiso II” are chock full of events and anecdotes that warm the heart and keep the history of the town alive—everything from tornados, fires and blizzards; to the first automobile, electric lights, and pool halls; to horse and buggy accidents, train wrecks, burglaries and even suspected murder; difficult times during the Great Depression, illnesses like hog cholera and scarlet fever; and festivities including Fourth of July celebrations, the traveling circus, auctions and church gatherings. You’ll also find a list of every person from Valparaiso who served in World War II, every graduate from Valparaiso High School and every business ever established, along with photos and advertisements that span the years.

A topic of great concern for many years was alcohol—would the town be dry or not? In 1908, apparently “German and Bohemian immigrants brought with them the thirst for beer.” But Valparaiso was a dry town, off and on, for several years. The town newspaper reported in 1909, “If Valparaiso goes dry again next spring, the Visitor will be for sale. We, the editor, must simply have an occasional nip in order to ward off despondency and keep up a business appearance.” In 1912, fifty drunks were caught celebrating the 4th of July, and concerned wife, Lillie McMaster, took out an ad in the paper saying, “I hereby forbid any person or persons to give or sell my husband any kind of liquor. This applies to the saloon keepers of Valparaiso and Touhy.”

One of my favorite stories that my dad told, included in the first book, is the time he blew up his dad’s car. Yup, he blew up his dad’s car. My dad and a few of his friends had a plan to drive into Lincoln and “cruise through Kings on O Street”, a popular past-time in 1962. The first attempt, after some likely reckless driving, resulted in the “knocked-out rear end of the car.” They needed different transportation and my dad had a bright idea: “My folks, along with another couple, were in Lincoln… my brothers and I were told not to touch the car. Knowing my Dad always checked the speedometer, I unhooked it.” But then they needed gas. (You can see where this is heading.) Siphoning gas from one vehicle to another was the second bright idea: “We had a pretty big stream of gas running between the two cars when Richard Draper lit his cigarette and accidently dropped it causing the gas to go up in flames…and burning the whole back end of the car. Needless to say, when my folks got home I was in big trouble.”

My dad is a lively storyteller (he has pretty good material) and is an attentive listener. What a gift Tom Blazek gave to those he listened to and to the folks who learned something new about their relatives because of his books. What a gift it was to tell the stories that otherwise would have been lost and for the childhood memories that were stirred. What a legacy that will live on because of my dad’s dream and hard work! 

And yes, there will be another book. My dad says, “I may not live long enough to do Book 3 but people keep sending me stuff.”  He’s also been asked to write a book about Touhy, the town a few miles north of Valparaiso. He thinks he’ll have that one published in about a year.

This, among many other things, is what I’ve learned from my dad: Where we come from is important, but even more so is what we leave behind. 
“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” -Martin Luther

For more information, see Valparaiso, Nebraska Memories on Facebook. 

 

 

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