Monday, September 29, 2014

August 17- September 1, 1939: Welcome to McPherson, Tom


Mr. Thomas Deoppner (his name was misspelled)
Amsterdam, Holland

Dear Mr. Deoppner: 

    As President of McPherson College, I am happy to inform you that you have been admitted to our college for the school year 1939-1940. The Board of Trustees have voted you a scholarship of $50. to aid with your tuition and the students of the college have raised about $250 to help with your school expenses. It is also understood that you are to do some form of student labor, which will amount to about $100, to assist with your board and room.

  School opens on September 11. We hope you can be here when school opens. You could, of course, enter a few days late, but it is better to be here at the opening of school. We look forward with pleasure to your coming and hope it will be a happy year for you.

                                            Yours very truly,

                                             V.F. Schwalm

(Notary Public seal signed below)


Mr. Thomas Doeppner,
Amstelveen, N.S.
Emmakade S.

Dear Thomas Doeppner:
               It is great pleasure to forward to you these papers for McPherson College: a letter and a copy of the invitation has already been sent to the Amsterdam Consul at Amsterdam. I am enclosing a copy of the letter I wrote to the Consul. I hope you will have no difficulty in obtaining a student visa. If you should have difficulties or if the issuance of the visa is delayed so that you cannot arrive by the middle of September, please, let me know.
             If you have friends in New York, it might make it easier for you if they could meet your boat. If you do not know anyone, perhaps we could arrange for someone to meet you.

   With best wishes,
   Charlotte S. Salmon,
   Placement Worker,
   Refugee Service.

The President of McPherson College wrote a letter to my Opa to say: “Welcome to McPherson, Tom.” It’s officially official. All the notes are notarized, the letters sealed and registered, and the American Consul in Amsterdam have been notified. Opa has been welcomed to study in the United States of America.

I sat back and looked at all these documents, and I thought about Charlotte Salmon. I know that she knew the journey was not yet finished, but this is such a huge milestone- and few refugees even made it this far. I wonder what percentage made it to this point. In 1939, the borders were starting to close, and as I’ve discussed in this blog, people in Germany were finding less and less opportunity for escape. I hope that Charlotte let out a belly laugh and smiled in victory when she saw these letters from President Schwalm. Would she forward these to Tom Doeppner? YES!

At this juncture, I will take a huge breath of relief and thanks on behalf of Charlotte and her colleagues at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and also for McPherson College. I visited McPherson college over the summer, and I discovered something about that place. This was not (and is not now) a school that had thousands of students and hundreds of small niche groups that could raise funds in an effort to help a refugee student. No, McPherson was (and is) a tiny, tight-knit college where it is likely that everyone knows each other by name, to include faculty and staff. Raising funds to bring this refugee student over to America could not have been someone’s small pet project, it absolutely had to involve the entire college and community to be successful. Now that I have seen the campus and met the folks and looked at their history, I have an even greater respect for how significant their commitment was to helping someone like my Opa. By the way, in case you’ve been saying it wrong- I was reminded (Jason more so) that there is “no fear in McPherson.” So you pronounce it “mc-fur-son.”

Our friends at McPherson sent their letters to Charlotte at AFSC so that she could forward them to Opa in Amsterdam.  I find it funny that no one seems to know Opa’s address. Perhaps they were afraid that he might be transient because of his refugee status? He stayed at that address from the time he permanently left Germany. Charlotte willingly forwarded this information and included her own letter to the American Consul at Amsterdam. ALL of this was sent by registered mail.

REGISTERED.         August 21, 1939.

The Honorable
American Consul General,
        Re: Thomas Doeppner, Amstelveen, N.S.
                         Emmakade 8. Holland.

Honorable Sir:

     Through American Friends in Holland the American Friends Service Committee has become interested in Thomas Doeppner, a student at Ommen School, Erde, Holland, and has helped to make it possible for him to have one year's study in the United States. McPherson College has made all arrangements to take on his living expenses while he is a student there and he has many friends among the Quakers here, who want to extend hospitality to him during his vacation period. It may be that he will want to attend one of the work camps set up by the American Friends Service Committee.
    I hope very much that you will see fit to grant Mr. Thomas Doeppner a student visa and that he will be able to come to the United States in time for the opening of the College on September 11.
                 Very truly yours,

                 Charlotte S. Salmon
                 Placement Worker,
                 Refugee Service.
I love Charlotte’s letter to the Consul. It’s a political genius. I bet the placement workers didn’t realize all the skills necessary to do their job… to include political perfection. Charlotte’s letter to the Consul sounds nothing like Opa is a refugee. To quickly glance at it, you would assume Opa was a promising student with a great number of friends waiting to greet him in the United States. Just for one year of study (the goal is to get there). The Quaker’s use of the word “Friend” comes in handy here, especially for someone who may not realize they call everyone in their scope a Friend. No where does she mention he is from Germany. No where does she mention he was dodging the draft into Hitler's army. She intentionally downplays any financial burden he might be, not only citing McPherson College as his guardians, but also the entire Quaker people who would welcome him with open arms should he need anything. I believe it, too. The best part- she calls his break time “vacation period” - like Opa is studying abroad for fun. I know that no one is buying it, but there are also a beautiful lack of red flags in this letter, and so the American Consul in Amsterdam should have much less to be worried about.

Now we wait and see. Will Opa get his student visa approved? Will he make it to school on time? Just a reminder: they want him to come to school by the start date which is September 11th. The date on the receipt of the letters in Amsterdam is September 1st. (By the way, did you notice who signed? E. Doeppner. I took a double-take before I realized that it was Emma Doeppner, Opa’s step-mother, not Ella Doeppner, his mother in Berlin who we have not heard in a while.) I’m going to go ahead and take a wild guess that Opa doesn’t make it by September 11th- because a boat trip across the Atlantic averages about 6 days now, and I assume it was longer in 1939 with the threat of war brewing in the seas. Opa probably isn’t waiting and seeing. He’s marching to the Consul as soon as he can!

Spotlight: V.F. Schwalm

Remember the guy that signed the welcome note to Opa? He was the President of McPherson College at the time, and a pretty interesting guy... read on for more!
Vernon F. Schwalm
April 10, 1887-May 10, 1972
From the 1941 McPherson College Yearbook

His father was H.M. Schwalm. H.M. was of German descent and was a native of Eastern Pennsylvania. He united with the Church of the Brethren in 1878 and became an elder in the Baugo church in 1900. For twelve years, he had charge of Osceola. He married V.F.’s mother, Margaret Spohn and had eight children.

V.F. was born on April 10, 1887 near Wakarusa, Indiana. He was called to ministry in Baugo in 1908.  He graduated from Manchester College in 1910. He received an A.M. Degree from Chicago University in 1914. He taught history and political science and was head of the department of history in Manchester College. In 1915, he married Miss Florence Studebaker of Shideler, Indiana. In 1927, he left Manchester to be President of McPherson College. Fall of 1941, he left McPherson to come back and be President of his alma mater of Manchester. They have an adopted daughter, Betty, who went to McPherson. 
At his inauguration in 1941

A good blog about his time at Manchester can be found at

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Thank you Letter to Kansas

You know, in my haste to share my love of Kansas with you all- I was going to go day by day from my trip and tell you everything. I realized that if I share too much- I’ll jump too far ahead in our story, and I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves or spoil any twists and turns in the story. So- I am going to restrain myself and wait until the visit coincides with the story’s context.

However, we met amazing people on this trip and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them and their incredible efforts to help us in this project and journey. Here is my thank you speech, and when the time comes for the stories- I will mention them again- and when we write the book- we’ll mention them a third time. That’s how wonderful and hospitable these folks were. Kansans- good folks.

We may be inundated with negative stories and news, and think that the world has just turned upside down with nothing good left. But the more I interact with people in this research project, either through letters or in my travels and emails, the more I see that this world is filled with good people. It’s inspiring. In that vein, to all the good people I met in Kansas, I extend my heartfelt thanks for your inspiration...

Thank you to:
Lynn Beier of Kansas State University who was the epitome of hospitality.

Evan Hamm, Senior at Kansas State University who gave a great tour.

Kansas State Archives:
 Brittany Roberts, student intern who searched hard and found a missing link for us. 

Cliff Hight, the librarian in the archives section who had a busy day, but was kind enough to chat with us and give us a hand in some researching.

Marion and Mary Ann, the women who graciously gave us an idea of what life was like in college in the early 1940s.
Kansas State University -

Marcia Walters of McPherson College who was incredibly helpful and invested in our visit.

Rea Samuels, Student and Track runner at McPherson College who gave a great tour.

Adam Pracht, Coordinator of Development Communications, who waited and searched for a way into the Archives room, and then allowed us free reign inside.

There was an archives volunteer whose name I have regrettably forgotten- but she was incredibly helpful and supportive as we dug for information in the archives.
 McPherson College -

David Nigh, President of McPherson County Historical Society who had the right info at the right time.

Brett Whitenack, staff member at the McPherson Museum who printed, searched, and joined in on the researching fun.

          Jan Moore and Karen Lewis of the Sheridan County Historical Society who were ready for
           us when we came and joined in on the fun of digging for details!
Sheridan County Historical Society & Mickey’s Museum -

All the local folks around Selden and Hoxie’s town who were so hospitable and kind as we retraced my Grandmother’s roots.

           The “Taylor girls” and family who knew my father in grade school and organized a
lunch reunion where I got to hear my father called “Ronnie.” We also learned some
about farming from this family.

Marsha Rogers, librarian at Selden Public Library, who saw us peeking into the library windows and came to open it on an off day for us, and helped us find what we needed!
Selden Public Library -

Jennie, an old friend of my Grandmother’s who refused to give us any dirt on my
Grandmother, but gave us a nice picture of their sweet friendship and interactions.

Neecy Sloan, my great aunt, who I met for the first time (in my memory) and invited us to her home to chat about the family and fun little stories.

Murray Sloan, my Dad’s cousin, who kindly loaned us his very nice trailer to stay in for our stay in Selden/Hoxie, Kansas.

Kevin Stephenson, who owns and lives on the land that my Grandmother grew up on. He was gracious to let us roam the land and look inside the house. His German Shepherd was also a gracious host.

I’m definitely leaving people out- but know this: Kansas is full of really amazing people. Hard working, proud, very cool people. Everywhere we went there was someone trying to help us or get us in touch with someone who could help us. It didn’t matter if a building was closed (we got into at least two buildings that were locked because of kind folks who noticed we were peeking around), it didn’t matter if they were perhaps doing some work- nearly everyone joined in and helped us in our research. And that corn on the cob was delicious.

Thank you, Kansas. We’ll be back.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kansas: Sunsets, Rain, and Tornadoes- Oh my!

It is appropriate that I am able to pause in this blog to post about my trip to Kansas when we were just reading documents of Opa’s acceptance to McPherson College. We went to Kansas to trace my Grandmother’s history, but we were able to make stops in McPherson and other locations that will soon be a part of Opa’s story here on the blog. My Grandmother grew up in Selden, Kansas, a tiny farming community in western Kansas where the eye can see for miles and miles.

Last year I found myself in Berlin, Germany and other places where Opa’s story begins. I learned amazing things about my family’s story, my story, and our world today. I learned that there are some really incredible humans out there. This summer was no different. The trip to Kansas was a first for me- I’ve never been to Kansas (maybe driven through it), and certainly not to western Kansas where my Grandmother grew up. I knew we would be in some small towns and see lots of farmland, but other than that- I didn’t know what to expect. My Dad said to me a few times: “you know this isn’t going to be like Germany, right?” I think I was so excited he just wanted me to scale my expectations down a bit. Sort of like the opposite of “We’re not in Kansas Anymore”- more like…. we’re going to Kansas- not Paris. But I was excited, and I had every reason to be.

On Monday, when we landed in Kansas City (technically on the Missouri side), I stepped outside of the airport and felt like this wasn’t so different. I expected flat expanses, miles of farms and little to no trees. I found some rolling hills and lots of trees! This wasn’t the vast farmland that Ken Burns showed in his documentary on the Dust Bowl! I found out soon that Kansas is a big state, and the further west you go, the flatter it gets.

I finally understood my Grandmother’s obsession with a clear blue sky. The sky in Kansas is so BIG. If you’ve never been in a place like that, it is hard to describe. There are no tall buildings, no trees, no obstructions to your view of the sky. The clouds almost curve into the horizon… it’s like you can see the tops of them from a higher curve of the earth. To see a sky that big without any clouds is pretty impressive.

Another thing I learned about in Kansas was rain. Rain has an entirely different meaning in Kansas farmland than it does in my rain-soaked east coast town. Growing up if it rained while we were with Grandmother, she always said “well I guess we need the rain.” It could be flooding out and she would say this. I never really understood why she was so welcoming of the rain- especially since she loved her clear blue skies. Grandmother grew up on a farm in Kansas during the dust bowl or the “dirty 30s.” After watching the Ken Burns documentary on the dust bowl, I gained a better understanding. Then I went to Kansas, and after seeing fields and fields of crops, dry sand banks where rivers used to be, and hearing the farmers talk with excitement about rain - then it started to make a little more sense. Water is always important. One of the main stops on one of my tours was a lake that was created by a dam. They wanted me to see that Kansas had water. Rain is directly tied up to survival- and it isn’t guaranteed in western Kansas.

The weather in Kansas feels so violent- you can see storms coming from miles away, and yet they can come quickly and pass just as quickly. Every thunderstorm looks like a potential for a tornado. There is nothing to break up the storm or slow its path. The land (and people) are vulnerable to the elements. It was eerie to watch a storm come over the plains. The storms move in a different pattern than they do where I live. I have a weather app on my phone, and usually I’m pretty good at predicting when the storm will come and if it will come. In Kansas a storm would develop out of thin air. It was crazy! And even when the welcomed rain did come, it wasn’t without its own dangers. Other than the obvious fear of tornadoes in the summer, the rain may bring unwelcomed hail, which can do more damage than the rain helps. I love the weather, so I was excited to watch the storms roll through. We got to see two big storms. None brought any danger to us, but we did see some significant hail during the second one. In fact, that same storm brought so much sudden rain that the streets of Colby (where we were at the time) were temporarily flooded. The next day all signs of water were quickly absorbed into the land.

There is one more thing I must mention about Kansas before I close out this blog entry- and that is the sunset. The Kansas sunset lasts forever and can be incredibly beautiful. I’m talking a 1-2 hour sunset. You think that the sun is almost over the horizon, and time seems to stall. It’s awe-inspiring. It actually reminds me of watching the sun set over the ocean- you watch it melt into the water. In Kansas, it melts into the land- the flat, often waving land of crops. The sunset sort of apologizes for the heat of the day and any violent thunderstorm that may have come your way. It is peaceful and beautiful.

I fell in love with Kansas. I invite you to join me. In my next few blogs I will take you through my days in Kansas, and introduce you to some of the folks I met. To get in the mood, take a deep breath and worry about nothing else but whether the sky will be blue or bring good rain- either way it is a win.