These posts are presented as a serialization that is best appreciated by starting with the first post HERE. You can then proceed in order by clicking on the HERE links shown in red at the bottom of every post.

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Jen Zettel's story for Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers generated a huge increase in page views! See what she wrote and follow the links to view clips of the interview HERE.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Preacher And His Kids

A three bedroom post war ranch is not what most people would expect a Kimberly-Clark heir to call home. The life my family led here was far removed from the finger bowls and uniformed maids of the house on East Wisconsin Avenue, but even so the world of Neenah's industrial families was inextricably woven into the very simplicity of this house and the people it sheltered. That said, Mom and Dad were not June and Ward Cleaver, my brothers were nothing like Wally and the Beaver, and no problems were ever solved in thirty minutes. You've been warned.

NOTE: The posts in Chapter II follow the events leading up to my father's return to Neenah as I saw and learned about them. If you are just beginning to read this blog you may want to go back and start with the first post  HERE.  For those of you who have been enjoying the background stories about Neenah and its millionaires, I promise you'll find this chapter just as engaging and part of a moving human drama that has everything to do with Neenah, its history and the six degrees of separation that link us all together.


My concepts of home and family began just across the Golden Gate Bridge in what was then the unincorporated town of San Anselmo, in what is now tony Marin County - the very name evokes California chic and sophistication, but back then was a very different sort of place.  Our address was 212 Brookside Drive, part of a failed Depression era subdivision on the outskirts of town that only started filling up with small ranch houses after World War II. Primarily a blue collar mix of young families, retirees and veterans, it was not a particularly welcoming neighborhood, at least not when my family moved there in 1947.  At issue was Dad, or rather Dad’s profession. 

“He’s a Presbyterian minister, so you’ll have to shape up.” 

That was the dire warning issued by the seller to her neighbors immediately upon closing the deal. Only who she meant to impress is not exactly clear. The Jewish widow up the street? The doctor whom everyone thought was an abortionist? The couple who blamed each other for their only child being born albino? My money is on the neighborhood drunk, the improbably named Burleigh MacDonald, who lived right across the street. “Mr. Burleigh,” as he was generally known to his neighbors, always reeked of tobacco and alcohol, and made his presence known by either yelling at his wife Agnes or the children playing out in the street and blocking traffic.

Incensed  by the impending arrival of a preacher and his family, Mr. Burleigh located a pinball machine and set it up in his front window, certain that such a coarse and loathsome device of lowbrow entertainment would shock the delicate sensibilities of a milk toast pastor, his mealy-mouthed wife and their anemic children. Of course, Mr. Burleigh had no idea who he was dealing with. During the war Dad had served as interim pastor of a  Presbyterian church in Watsonville, California near Camp McQuaide, Fort Ord and a string of Navy air fields all operating on high alert. Transformed almost overnight into a staging ground for the war in the Pacific, the area was soon flooded with military personnel and equipment, all arriving in a 24-hour schedule of droning transport planes. Still only in his twenties, Dad took turns watching the night sky for enemy attack, drove the town hearse due to the wartime shortage of able drivers, and married endless young soldiers and their brides whose future together was measured in days and sometimes hours.

An accomplished amateur photographer, Dad took this family shot just before they moved into the house on Brookside Drive. Unfortunately, he didn't think to pull up his socks. From the left is Bill (5), Dad (31), Dave (2), Mom (31) and Bob (8). For all appearances this stained and damage image would appear to capture your typical post-war suburban family, which we were not. Developing a brilliant mind early in life, Bob also exhibited a form of attention deficit disorder, which no one knew anything about back then, creating endless turmoil at school and at home. Mom served as a buffer between Bob and the world, while Bill and Dave gravitated towards Dad, as clearly expressed here in their body language. Their expressions speak volumes.

Adding to the chaos was an influx of Japanese Americans who were rounded up by the thousands and brought to a nearby rodeo fairground, where the stables and sheds had been called into service as housing until the detainees could be shipped off to internment camps being built in Arizona. As a great many of these Japanese were local people with farms and businesses, Dad organized other pastors into a response team that helped record and store their personal property in a church gym appropriated to serve as a warehouse for the duration of the war. And as a result of their efforts, several of the good citizens of Watsonville - or more probably some of the tens of thousands of soldiers flown in every day from around the country - egged the house where my family had been living, made harassing phone calls, and even threatened to kill Dad, Mom and my brothers (the oldest being no more than five at the time) for providing aid to the falsely accused enemy among us. 

Mr. Burleigh had Dad all wrong, not to mention Mom and my brothers.

Upon their arrival at Brookside Drive it was my brother Bob who took immediate command of the situation with a direct retaliatory assault. Establishing a beach head on the nearest street corner, he and my brothers stood there for the better part of an afternoon yelling “shit ass” at every passing car. Bob had learned this verbal weapon of choice in Watsonville on the playground at Mintie White Elementary School (click on the link if you think I made this name up). The phrase, he found, had a similar impact as the atomic bomb when said to adults (or at least it did when used on the adults leading the Sunday school where Dad was pastor). And like a good drill sergeant, Bob insisted on correct pronunciation, giving his full attention to Dave, who as a 2-year-old was having difficulty with the staccato letter T.

"It's not shi ass," Bob insisted. "It's shit ass. Say it. Shit ass. Shit ass. Shit ass." 

Mom, as always, was horrified about what the neighbors would think when she learned what had been going on, but somehow she had the presence of mind to ask Bob if he even knew what he was saying. "It means a grunt donkey," he replied, surprised that he had to explain anything as self evident as this to his mother. As for her concern for the neighbors, Mom's fears turned out to be baseless. When word of the incident got around, the pinball machine quietly disappeared from view, and my family was soon universally welcomed into the neighborhood. Other parents it seems were relieved to know that a preacher's kids could be as great an embarrassment as their own, while the children living in and around Brookside Drive were indebted to my brothers  for effectively lowering the expectation of decent behavior.

CHAPTER II continues HERE.


  1. Oh, dear Peter....I've heard these stories from your mother and I am so glad you are saving and printing them. I can't wait for the ghosts stories in Minneapolis. You are a natural born story teller. How I admire you.
    Gretchen Maring

    1. In this case it's mutual admiration! I hope these posts encourage you to record your own recollections. What Mom did one year was write down all the events leading up to when each of us were born, which has been a valuable record for all of us!

  2. I must say, these stories did not filter down through my family that I remember. Guess your mother thought we girls were too "prim" for such tales. Or perhaps Mother heard them, but spared us the gory details. Unfortunately, I don't have any tales as glorious as this except my version of how my sister Ruth tried to kill me not once, but twice! That will be a tale for the next family reunion.

    1. It may be the difference between a houseful of boys and a houseful of girls, and if you can recount Ruth's multiple attempts at murder, I'd put money on the table that there's more where that came from if you were all sitting around a table! That's what's universal about these stories - every family has them, of one sort or another!

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