He Who Hesitates

January 26, 2010

I’ve often advised people to pick the brains of their older relatives while their brains are still around to be picked. For whatever reason, people don’t seem to get interested in genealogy until later in life… after their parents and grandparents have gone on to their eternal rest.

I’m down to my last two good sources of information: my sister, Gert, and my cousin, Ruth Morris.

I’m going to ask my sister to read this post. I’m hoping she can answer some questions that never occurred to me prior to this morning.

First, some background. Our oldest brothers, Bill and Lew (Seward and Somers to the family) dropped out of high school and joined the Navy during World War II. They both became Sea Bees (Construction Battalion) and spent at least six years each in the service.

As Sea Bees, they drove trucks and operated heavy machinery as they helped build landing strips, boat piers, bridges, and other facilities for the military.

So, why, after leaving the Navy, did they each go out and get a job working in an office?

Bill (Seward) went to work in the city or county Prothonotary’s office. For those of us who had no idea what a Prothonotary is, it’s the principal clerk of courts.

At the time, the Prothonotary was a gentleman by the name of David Lawrence. Lawrence would later become the Mayor of Pittsburgh and, still later, the Governor of Pennsylvania.

Bill did not like the job and soon went to work at Hammel’s Express as a truck driver.

In the meantime, Lew (Somers) took a job with American Standard and was soon transferred (promoted?) to New York City. Like his twin, he failed to warm up to the office environment and left American Standard to take a job driving a truck for the Fort Pitt Plumbing Supply company.

Now I find myself wondering why either of them took office jobs in the first place. I also have to wonder how they got hired back in the early 1950s when neither of them held a high school diploma.

Unfortunately, I never thought to ask those questions while they were still alive. I’m hoping Gert knows the answers.

In the meantime, let this be a lesson to anyone who might one day get interested in family history. Don’t hesitate to ask while you still have someone around to provide answers.

He who hesitates is lost.


New Jersey Aunts & Uncle

April 30, 2009
The Crowley residence

The Crowley residence

This house on Shore Road in Somers Point, New Jersey, was the home of my two ‘spinster’ aunts – Mary and Josie Crowley. It would appear that when Uncle Lewis B. Leeds married Nellie Crowley, it was a package deal.

The Crowley girls had been born and raised in Pittsburgh and Uncle Lewis met Nellie sometime after he and dad rode double on a motorcycle from South Jersey to Pittsburgh. That trip to find employment occurred in 1910.

I’m not sure of the time frame, but at some point Uncle Lewis and the girls moved to Florida. A few years later, they moved to South Jersey. That’s where they were living when they each eventually passed on.

Uncle Lewis' home in Linwood

Uncle Lewis' home in Linwood

The entire arrangement is one I never thought about until the last few years as I learned various details from my cousin, Ruth Morris.

According to family rumors, Aunt Nellie refused to allow Uncle Lewis to consummate their marriage. In the meantime, Aunt Josie may have had at least one secret affair that was consummated.

My sister, Gert, somehow found herself as the executor of Aunt Josie’s will. Josie was the last of the group to pass away. During the process, Gert learned that Josie had left everything (which turned out to be a negative number) to some woman who could only be contacted through a church. Unfortunately, the woman could not be located, but it is surmised that the lady in question might have been Josie’s daughter – born out of wedlock and given up for adoption. We’ll never know the whole truth behind that one.

In the meantime, when we would visit Mary and Josie in the 1950s, there was a blind man living with them – a Mr. Biddings. Again, the rumors insisted that Mr. Biddings was Josie’s live-in lover. Another thing we’ll never know for sure.

According to Ruth, Uncle Lewis and the ladies also had a habit of checking out of hotels without bothering to pay the bills.

That’s one of those rumors that, on the surface, doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure what Uncle Lewis did for a living prior to becoming a politician, but he eventually became a Freeholder in Atlantic County. I, being a little boy at the time, bragged to my friends that he was a freeloader. I might have been right!

I’ve been told that a freeholder in New Jersey is the equivalent of a county commissioner in other states. I have no idea how much he was paid in that capacity, but I do remember he drove a big Cadillac.

Aunt Josie worked at a mental hospital in Pleasantville. She called it the Looney Bin. Uncle Lewis used his political clout to get her the job. Considering some of her idiosyncrasies, she may have made a good resident of her place of employment.

For one thing, Josie refused to drive faster than thirty-five miles per hour. I can recall riding with her on the Garden State Parkway. I was greatly relieved that we only traveled a short distance on that superhighway.

When Uncle Lewis died, Josie inherited the Cadillac as she was the only sister who drove. She immediately had her garage remodeled. The finished product had doors on either end so she would never have to back in or out.

Aunt Mary was the chief cook and bottle washer in the family. I should note that when Uncle Lewis died, Aunt Nellie sold her home and moved in with her sisters.

Eventually, Aunt Josie was the only one left.

One time I had a business trip to Philadelphia. I decided to take my middle son, Kenn, and planned a side-trip to Atlantic City. Kenn was around twelve years old at the time. We dropped in on Aunt Josie and both Kenn and I soon realized what we were dealing with.

Aunt Josie repeatedly asked me how Jimmie was doing and I repeatedly explained that I was Jimmie. The house was a total disaster and Josie kept offering us something to eat. She finally went into the kitchen and invited us to follow. She pulled out an apple pie that was covered with mold and offered us each a slice.

It was then I decided the visit had lasted long enough. I stretched the truth a bit and explained that we had a dinner reservation in Atlantic City and really had to be going. Kenn was pleased that we had escaped without being fed.

About a month later, Gert was in the area and stopped in to see Josie. To Gert’s surprise, Josie was royally angry at me. After Kenn and I left, she had prepared a meal for us… and we never returned to eat it!

There is one more memory I have of Aunt Josie. When Aunt Mary died, Josie had her body shipped back to Pittsburgh for burial. I went to the funeral and rode in the limo with Josie to the cemetery. They had a very nice memorial service in the chapel. When the service was over, Josie insisted on seeing her sister’s coffin lowered into the ground.

The undertakers and cemetery officials were not prepared for that and tried to talk her out of it. She was adamant… as were they. Fortunately, I bumped into another undertaker, Ray Brusco, whom I knew through the Lions Club. I explained the situation to him and he pulled some strings.

Later I learned that the main reason for Josie’s insistence is that she did not trust the undertakers. She was afraid they’d open the casket and steal things from Mary’s corpse.

Just think, I could get ornery and crotchety when I get old. Nah, that would never happen.


A Tribute to an Unsung Hero

October 27, 2008

In 1936, George Washington Vanderbilt III sailed his yacht, Cressida, to the Far East. His expedition is best known for a visit to Sumatra where he, with the aid of one of his passengers, was able to identify a number of new species of reptiles. Eventually they made their way to Tokyo and in 1939 were sailing out of Tokyo Harbor – beginning their return trip to the United States.

It was then that Vanderbilt’s passenger decided to take some pictures of the harbor. Within minutes, a Japanese military vessel pulled along side and forced the Vanderbilt vessel to stop. They demanded that the man surrender his camera and film. Because the roll of film also contained photographs of a zoological nature, the man refused. It wasn’t until Vanderbilt convinced the military of his close relationship with the Emperor that they relented and allowed the Cressida to resume its journey.

The photographer and zoologist was a man named Frederick Ulmer – the unsung hero who is being featured in this story.

The remainder of their trip home was relatively uneventful. They filed their scientific reports and life returned to normal until December 7, 1941. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the FBI appeared at Mr. Ulmer’s door. They asked to see the photos he’d taken of Tokyo Harbor. Those photographs, taken innocently by a zoologist who was acting as any tourist would in 1939, were instrumental in the first bombing raid of Tokyo on April 18, 1942. Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his pilots used those pictures to help them zero in on important targets.

Frederick Ulmer, who was more interested in wildlife than anything else, continued to work in the field he loved. Shortly after the war, he received another call from a governmental agency enlisting his help.

This time it was the State of Pennsylvania. They were planning to build the country’s first turnpike and were facing a major problem that could only be solved by someone with Frederick’s background.

Speaking of background, it would help if you had some.

In the late 1800’s, Andrew Carnegie decided that the railroads were charging him too much to haul his steel. He issued an ultimatum – either lower your prices, or “I’ll build my own railroad!”

The railroad men didn’t take him seriously until they realized he had enlisted the aid of William Vanderbilt and they were building a railroad from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. They had over one-half of the road-bed built and seven tunnels bored through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Although Vanderbilt went broke in 1885, the railroad barons got the message. Not surprisingly, the prices charged to Carnegie were soon significantly lowered and Carnegie halted construction of his own rail line.

Those tunnels that sat unused for more than fifty years had suddenly become the key elements of the planned Pennsylvania Turnpike. However, there was one major problem. The tunnels had become the homes for millions of bats.

For the next year or so, Frederick Ulmer and his crew captured the bats and sent them to zoos throughout the world. Many were released in other parts of the country, but the net result was seven tunnels that could then be used for automobile, bus, and truck traffic.

Frederick Ulmer later became the Curator of the Philadelphia Zoo and wrote many articles on various forms of wildlife.

There’s not much written about the man. In fact, this is the only place you’ll find that tells about his photos of Tokyo Harbor.

In case you’re wondering the source of my information, I had known about the turnpike tunnels for most of my life. My father told me that story while we were driving through one of the tunnels… about fifty or sixty years ago.

As for the Tokyo part, Ruth Morris told me all about it when I visited her in 2006. How did she know? Her maiden name is Ulmer and Frederick was her brother. Frederick passed away in September of 1995, at the age of seventy-nine.

Frederick and Ruth, as well as their brother Leeds, were the children of my Aunt Gertrude. So, this story is one of those family history tales.

It makes me wonder if I can find a way to rub elbows with someone named Vanderbilt. Perhaps my visit to the Biltmore mansion is as close as I’ll ever get.