Individually each one these women were amazing in their own right.
Kathryn Amanda Dechert Krill August 24, 1911 – January 10, 1998 A Rosie the Riveter and Small Business Owner
Mabel Mae Dechert Swanger October 24, 1912 – March 3, 2013 Pursued a Career as a Hairdresser in her 40’s
Helen Grace Dechert Danko September 13, 1920 – April 10, 2015 Registered Nurse, ran the health services for students at DeSales University
Elizabeth “Betty” Mary Dechert Koblentz Kutz November 12, 1926 – July 11, 2011 Beauty Shop Owner
Mildred “Mickey” Alice Dechert Bortz March 23, 1928 – July 10, 2020 Home Health Care Provider, long before it was ever classified as a real occupation
As a group though, they were a force to be reckoned with.
All strong women forging their own paths at a time when that was not the protocol for women, they were certainly pioneers. BUT they didn’t see it that way. They never saw themselves as anything other than ordinary.
BUT ordinary they were not.
They were feminists before feminists were a thing, but they never came off as anything other than caring, loving women, who wanted nothing more than the best for every person they ever met, especially their family.
Family always came first, no matter what.
They loved completely, lived fully, and persevered through some of the toughest situations: divorce, loss of a spouse, loss of a child, health challenges, and financial difficulties.
And lived through some of histories greatest events: The Great Depression, World War I and World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, President Kennedy’s Assassination, Watergate Scandal, Persian Gulf War, and the Terrorists Attacks on 911.
Plus, endured ridicule for being poor, their heritage, their “duchy accent”, and their religion/faith.
YET, they never flinched.
Did they cry? Most definitely. No matter how resilient they were, they were human, with huge hearts that felt everything.
Did they get angry? Sure, why wouldn’t they? Once again, they were human, and felt everything very deeply.
Did they retaliate? ABSOLUTELY NOT, it wasn’t in their nature. They wouldn’t stoop to the attackers level. That was not who they were.
They had each other’s back and were always there to support one another. They were all cut from the same cloth and they understood each other better than anyone else.
Regardless of what they may have been confronting, others always came first. A rarity no matter what era. Their empathy for their fellow man was greater than any struggle they may have been enduring.
Kassie, Mabel, Helen, Betty and Mickey, lived their lives by following the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
They were the “Personification of Love and Kindness.”
Their every action was motivated by their deep, unadulterated love of family and their fellow man. At their core they knew nothing more.
The Dechert Sisters legacy of love left an indelible mark on the hearts of all who knew them. They may have achieved great things, but who they were at their core, what made their souls shine, is how they are remembered.
“You have no idea what your legacy will be because your legacy is every life you touch.” – Maya Angelou
Their children and grandchildren cherish every memory they have and honor the beauty of their souls by trying to carry on their legacy.
Living up to these women’s example is a tough feat, but the amount of love that flows through this extended family is a true extension of the love these five beautiful women bestowed upon every one of them.
Family continues to be the priority for each of their children and grandchildren, and it’s obvious the circle of love will continue for generations to come.
Especially by keeping their astonishing stories alive.
Betty Dechert was the 4th child born to Sallie and David Dechert and very much the baby of the family at least until her sister Mickey was born in 1928.
Her sister Helen was 6 when she was born, and Mabel and Kassie were 14 and 15 respectively. One would think the age gap would have impacted the relationship between all the sisters, but not with the Dechert Girls, they adored each other, and spending time together meant the world to them throughout their lives.
AND, they always had each other’s back.
Being teenagers, Mabel and Kassie helped care for both Betty and Mickey, but there was no resentment; this just helped tighten their bonds. Plus the older sisters were always keeping tabs on the younger ones.
Like all the other Sisters, Betty was weaned into the ranks to help sell Sallie’s shoofly pies and homemade egg noodles. Sallie’s little side-hustle helped support the household, and she took her business very seriously, training each one of the girls from an early age. First with the baking/cooking and clean up process, then the actual door-to-door sales, traveling around town with the goods in a wagon.
Betty and Mickey became a tag team for the sales part, but Mickey often noted that Betty preferred to stay with the wagon instead of doing the actual sales transaction.
Not sure if Betty’s reluctance to be the sales person was before or after the infamous “You dum ‘tings, I bet you broke every noodle in da box.” incident, but I could see why this incident might impact her reluctance to be any more involved than necessary
As the story goes, when Betty was 10, she fell down the steps that Sallie so carefully lined her boxes of noodles on to dry. During her fall, Betty some how was able to knock down every box. Needless to say, when Sallie discovered Betty at the foot of the steps with toppled boxes and broken noodles all around her, she was not pleased. Not only was the days work ruined, but it was also a loss of income, income the family needed.
Now, if Betty had been injured I’m quite sure Sallie’s reaction would have been different, but other then a few bruises, Betty was OK.
As a child, Betty was your typical kid, but by her teens it was obvious her spark was a little different than her sisters. All the Dechert Girls were beauties with a personality to match, but Betty was the glamorous one and turning into quite the charmer, especially with men. Her stunning red hair and hazel eyes did not go unnoticed.
By the time she was 18, she was dating Bob Foreman, a tool and die maker for the Bethlehem Steel, extremely handsome and 5 years her senior. They had met at a dance and had an immediate connection.
At the age of 19, Betty was a contestant in the Miss Lebanon Pageant. The local newspaper referred to Betty as “a titian haired beauty.” Which is evidence enough to confirm she was a standout in the beauty department.
For the talent portion of the pageant Betty sang accompanied by her sister Kassie on piano. Both Bob and her sister Mickey were in the audience cheering her on.
In the Spring of 1947, at the age of 20, Betty and Bob were married. On December 6, 1947 their daughter Linda was born.
It was the events surrounding Linda’s birth that would impact Betty in ways no one can fathom unless they experience it themselves.
For all appearances, Betty’s pregnancy was a very normal one. That was until her sister Helen, who was a nurse, came to visit to check on her because she was a week past her due date.
Upon examining Betty, Helen was concerned that something wasn’t right and told Bob he had to get Betty to the hospital right away.
At the hospital the doctors discovered Betty was not only in labor and didn’t know it, but the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck and the baby was experiencing Meconium Aspiration Syndrome (MAS).
Both these issue in themselves are extremely dangerous, but combined they can be fatal. MAS occurs when stress, such as low oxygen, causes the baby to take forceful gasps, thus inhaling amniotic fluid containing meconium into their lungs. Even though fetuses do not eat, their intestines contain a sterile substance called meconium. Meconium aspirated into the lungs may block the newborn’s airways and cause regions of the lungs to collapse.
Getting the baby out was the priority, but the doctors knew it would be risky, not just for the baby, but for the mother too. They told Bob he may have to choose between his wife or his child.
An emergency C-section had to be done in order to save Linda because Betty’s hips would not loosen enough to have the baby naturally. Fortunately the doctors got Linda out just in time, but Betty was told she should not have any more children because she might not make it through another birth.
The doctor’s most certainly saved both Linda and Betty, but both of them always felt the real hero was Betty’s sister Helen, whose natural instincts as a nurse knew something was wrong. Had she not come to visit things most certainly may not have ended up they way they did.
It goes without saying this was a traumatic event, and one that would leave scars, even if they weren’t visible.
Betty was physically, mentally and emotionally drained from this event, and needed help caring for Linda. Fortunately Betty and Bob had already been living with Bob’s parents, so Bob’s mother stepped in to help, not just to care for Linda, but also help care for Betty who was put on 5 – 6 weeks of bed rest due to a swollen leg, also known as “milk leg” – a painful swelling of the leg caused by inflammation and clotting in the veins, affecting some postpartum women.
Finding out at the age of 21 you shouldn’t have any more children was a tough pill to swallow, so when Betty was back on her feet she threw herself into her work.
After high school Betty had gone to the Bryland Beauty School in Reading, graduating with a certificate in cosmetology and completing an apprenticeship at the Heffelfinger’s Beauty Shop in Lebanon.
Falling back on this training Betty was able to secure a position with the Stuart Wood Salon in Lebanon. Because her mother-in-law was already caring for Linda, she had a built in babysitter, which enabled her to establish herself in the world of cosmetology.
This also gave Betty and Bob the money they needed to move out of his parents, first into an apartment and later purchasing a house, both in Lebanon, PA.
Even though they had their own place, it was decided it was best for Linda to stay with Bob’s mom during the week and spend weekends with Betty and Bob. This would keep some level of stability in Linda’s life, and allow Betty the opportunity to pursue her vision of owning her own beauty shop.
By 1956, Betty and Bob had enclosed their porch and converted it to a beauty shop for Betty. Betty was in heaven, slowly building up clientele and creating a place where Linda could spend time with Betty even when Betty was working.
With cookies, coffee and adult conversations always available, Linda loved hanging out at Betty’s shop. She not only got to spend time with her Mom, but she also got to know all of Betty’s regulars.
Unfortunately Betty and Bob’s marriage started to have problems, there were obvious signs of abuse and by 1959 they were divorced. Their house was sold along with the shop and Betty temporarily moved in with Mickey and her family till she could get back on her feet.
This time with Mickey was a life saver because the troubles Betty faced in her marriage were very damaging to her psyche and having a sister always by her side was the comfort she needed to heal before stepping back out on her own.
It also gave Linda the opportunity to hang out with her Mom and Mickey and her family, who she adored. Needless to say the relationship between Betty and Linda was challenged enough, and with Linda heading into her teens, it was important she have the comfort of family around too.
Sometime in the early 60’s, Betty reestablished herself getting a small apartment of her own, and got involved with the Lebanon County Hairdressers and Cosmetologists Association, even becoming the secretary.
She also once again ventured forth into the world of beauty shop owner. This time though she rented space in Lebanon.
Betty would run Betty’s Beauty Shop until she retired in 1992 at the age of 66. Her shop became her refuge and her life. And although Linda continued to spend a lot of time at her Mom’s shop, by her teens she started to feel a little resentment. This could be expected considering all that had transpired, but it would put a strain on their relationship that wouldn’t show signs of healing until Linda was older and a mother herself.
Being very outgoing and friendly, Betty got very close to a lot of her clientele, some of who also became close friends. She would often go to events at the local synagogue and Jewish center with some of these women who were of the Jewish faith.
AND, in so doing, she would meet the love of her life, Isador Koblentz, better known as “Izzy.”
Izzy was a well-educated, well-dressed, well-mannered and very handsome gentleman, who treated Betty like she was the only woman on the face of the earth. They adored each other, and it showed in the joy on both of their faces.
Betty was truly happy and her heart could once again feel love. BUT, due to Izzy’s mother’s objections because Betty was not Jewish, the two settled on dating for many years before they could consider marriage.
As long as Betty and Izzy were together it didn’t matter to them though. They had each other and that was enough. Betty was complete with Izzy, whether she was wearing a ring or not. They didn’t need a marriage license to prove their love. Their actions said it all.
They would often do romantic things like take trips to the Poconos where they would rent a cabin, take long walks and later warm themselves in front of the fireplace or just linger chatting on the patio taking in the beauty of the mountains. They also loved to share a bottle of wine with a gourmet meal, and could even be seen holding hands. They made the best of their situation and were very content.
Their day did come though and on Christmas Eve of 1971 Betty and Izzy were finally married. To say they experienced wedded bliss after all those years is an understatement.
By this time, Betty’s daughter Linda was 24, and married with 2 children, Lori, 6, born in 1965 and Lanny, 7, born in 1966.
Betty had discouraged Linda from marrying so young like she herself had done, and this only added to the friction between the two of them, but with Izzy in her life Betty began to lighten up.
Izzy had stepped into his role of stepfather whole-heartedly and was there for Linda whenever she needed fatherly advice. As a matter of fact he was more like a father than her real one and she referred to him as “Pop.”
The bond between Izzy and Linda truly helped heal the friction between Betty and Linda and by the time Linda’s third child Jenny was born in 1983, Betty had fully embraced being a grandmother.
Izzy’s presence in both Betty and Linda’s lives was what they both needed to heal old wounds and move forward. As the wounds healed, so did the amount of time together.
Holidays were always a big thing with Betty and Izzy, but now they could expand their celebrations to include Linda and her family. They would host a light meal after Christmas Eve Services followed by a big Christmas Day gathering at Linda’s house.
Things weren’t perfect, but they could finally really feel like a family again. The strains of the past were not gone, but things had mellowed with time.
This mellowing was very evident in the amount of time Linda would spend with Betty and Izzy. They both loved to take walks daily in South Hills Park near their home, and Linda would often meet them for lunch on her days off, even bringing Jen, her youngest daughter, who had gotten very close to Betty.
The strength of the healing bond between Betty and Linda was put to the test when Izzy was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years after Betty had retired in 1992. To say this was devastating news for both of them is understatement.
Izzy had become Betty’s rock and to see him knocked down by illness was a challenge she wasn’t prepared for. BUT, when you love someone as much she loved Izzy, you find that inner strength you need to persevere which is exactly what Betty did. She went from being the center of Izzy’s universe to caregiver.
In the beginning things went fairly well, but Izzy’s battle was a long drawn out one, and eventually Linda convinced Betty it was time for Izzy to be admitted to the V. A. Medical Center where he could get round the clock care.
This was a tough decision for Betty to make, but she wanted what was best for Izzy. As can be expected, Betty came every day to be with Izzy. Even if she just sat quietly by his side, he had the comfort of knowing she was there.
Linda, who had become a nurse, just like her Aunt Helen, also worked at the V.A. Medical Center so she would visit with Izzy and Betty every day on her lunch and after work.
Through it all though, Betty never really knew how bad things were until Izzy succumbed to the ravages of the cancer in October of 1996.
Izzy’s passing just about destroyed Betty. She was lost and lonely. How could she go on without Izzy?
All the troops rallied around Betty: Linda, her children Lori and Jen, and her new husband Pete, and of course all of Betty’s sisters stepped in to be there for her us much as they could.
In so doing though, Linda discovered how much Izzy had actually done around the house and she knew her Mom would never be able to handle it all. Especially in her state of grief, so she took charge of all she could while Betty got back on her feet.
Throughout the grieving process, Linda and Pete would take Betty out for drives, to dinner and to visit her sisters. Seeing her sisters helped a lot. It reminded her of the great times they had over the years.
And, by this time, Lori, Linda’s oldest daughter was married with 2 children, Ashley, born in 1995 and Dylan, born in 1998 and they would spend as much time as they could with Betty.
Linda’s son Lanny was also married with children, Skye, born in 1994, and Kyle, born in 1997, but he was in the service and not available to visit as much as he would like.
Seeing the great grandchildren really helped Betty, but her loneliness was too much to bare some days, so with Linda’s urging, she decided to get out more on her own.
On one of her adventures, she went to a local Burger King, and while there, an older gentleman approached and offered to buy her a cup of coffee. Not quite sure what to make of it, Betty declined, but after giving it some thought, she decided to go back to that Burger King to see if that gentleman would be there again.
Just so happened he was, and after that cup of coffee, the two started to date. That gentleman’s name was Jim Kutz, and much like Izzy, he was well-dressed, well-mannered and very handsome. He was however quite a few years older than Betty, but that didn’t matter to her, she was happy again and that’s all that matter.
It wasn’t long before Betty and Jim bought a home and soon after, in June of 1998 married. All seemed right in the world again for Betty. She had worked through her grief, and even though she continued to miss Izzy, she was able to find some happiness.
Unfortunately that happiness was short-lived. Jim had underlying health conditions and in October of 1998 died of complications from a massive heart attack.
Losing two husbands within two years was more than Betty could process. It destroyed her mentally and emotionally. Once again the family rallied around her all they could, but this time that wasn’t enough.
Linda quickly discovered Betty wasn’t paying bills and doing basic household chores. These all seem like a normal response to all Betty had endured, but because of her age and the trauma to her system, her doctor was concerned this behavior could be signs of Alzheimer’s. He recommended Linda attend a few meetings at Cornwall Manor, a nursing facility for Alzheimer’s patients.
Linda took the doctor’s advice and it was a blessing she did because it prepared her for what was to follow.
Over time Betty’s behavior became even more erratic, including wondering the streets at night in her nighty looking for Izzy. Wanting to keep Betty in her own home as long as possible, Linda brought in nursing care to keep tabs on Betty in the evenings.
Despite all the two of them had been through throughout the years, Linda could not turn her back on her Mom, she felt a deep obligation to her. Their roles had change. Linda was now the mother and Betty the daughter, and it was at this point that all the wounds of the past were permanently erased.
Taking on the role of caregiver for Betty only strengthened Linda’s love for her Mom.
In September of 2004 though, Linda could no longer make things work keeping Betty at home and had to make the difficult decision to admit her to Manor Care in Lebanon. Betty had developed blood clots in her legs and had to be admitted to the hospital for a week, so transitioning her into nursing care at this point was the best thing to do.
Betty battled Alzheimer’s for years. Sometimes knowing her family and other times not, but that didn’t stop them from having a birthday party for her every year, and visiting as often as they could.
Seeing the once bright light that was Betty slowly extinguish was the greatest heartache the family had to endure. And although the pain of losing her on July 11, 2011 was almost unbearable, they knew she was no longer suffering. They knew she was in a better place and whole again.
AND, they had their memories of the days when Betty’s light was shining bright. Memories that remind them of the truly beautiful soul Betty was, both inside and out. No disease could take those away.
Memories like the story of how Linda’s male classmates in high school were so enamored by Betty’s glamorous presence when she would come into school for parent/teacher conferences they would send notes home with Linda for her. As Linda noted, I was extremely popular on those days.
Or the twinkle in Betty’s eyes when she would great her niece Pam, Helen’s daughter, with “There’s my Scorpio Buddy.” They had birthdays one day a part, and this greeting always made Pam feel exclusive to be paired with her glamorous aunt.
Or the joy Betty would be beaming with when she was with her Sisters. The love the Dechert Girls had for each other was only matched by the love they had for their own families.
BUT, most of all, was Betty’s dazzling smile and sparkling eyes that would light up a room when she walked into it. No matter what challenges Betty was facing, she always had a smile on her face.
And it is that smile that will forever shine in all of our memories.
Please check back next month when I will feature Mildred “Mickey” Dechert Bortz, the fifth of the Dechert Girls.
Many thanks to my brother-in-law Terry Stout for his assistance with scanning all the photos for not only this post, but all posts on the Dechert Sisters.
Mabel was the second oldest of Sallie and David’s 5 girls, and only 18 months younger than their oldest daughter Kassie. Being the only two in the house for 8 years before Helen was born just reinforced the tight bond these two had not only growing up, but throughout their lives.
All the Dechert sisters were extremely close, but Mabel and Kassie had a special bond, formed not just by their placement in the line of birth, but because they were the only two who never graduated from high school. Not because of any fault of their own though.
They were teenagers by the time their youngest sisters Betty and Mickey were born, in 1926 and 1928, so it’s understandable they wold be expected to help with their younger sisters. Especially in that time period.
But they were needed more full-time because their mother Sallie was 42, and running a thriving side business selling homemade pies and noodles. Adding two little ones into the mix was a lot for her to handle even if she was a fireball of energy. Kassie and Mabel were the extra help that enable her to keep things running smoothly.
They had always helped around the house and even with the pie and noodle business, becoming Sallie’s delivery girls, as did all the girls when they became old enough, but now Kassie and Mabel were needed for an even greater task, tending to an infant and toddler.
Beyond this though, there was also another factor that came in to play.
The Dechert Sisters had a half-brother named Ralph, who was in his 20’s by this time, and a well establish business man in the Philadelphia area. He had built up a business selling Amish goods at a farmers market and was always in need of help. Not just with the market, but also with his own young daughter Jeanie.
Who better than his siblings to solicit for help?
So, Ralph saw this situation as an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Telling Sallie and David “Girls don’t need an education.” He helped reinforce their decision to have Mabel and Kassie drop out of high school.
And, eliminated any guilt Sallie and David may have had about pulling the girls out of school.
Although this gave Mabel and Kassie the opportunity to explore the world beyond Myerstown, and earn some money, not graduating from high school would be a stigma that Mabel wouldn’t shake her whole life.
Even if this was a very common practice in that era, Mabel was embarrassed by this and very rarely ever spoke of it. She often said she came from nothing and had nothing of importance to say.
Which is oh so wrong, because life is our best teacher, and it is the things we learn as we face all that life can throw at us that teaches us far more than anything we could ever learn in high school.
AND, Mabel just so happened to live a full and long life, celebrating her 100 birthday the Fall before she passed in 2013. This in itself is an achievement far greater than graduating from high school. It’s a sign of a life well lived and most definitely filled with lessons learned.
Lessons worth sharing with her loved ones, which Mabel most certainly did, especially her grandchildren. It is her sage words that they still recall with fond memories and have heeded on many occasions.
Some of those sound words of advice were:
“Stay away from the bums.”
“If he/she doesn’t treat you right, give them the shoe.”
“You must rise above it.”
“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
“Drink a glass of water in the morning to get the bowels going.”
“If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”
While cleaning up in the kitchen “Lick the spoon.”
Some of these sage words were garnered from hardships Mabel herself faced. She learned early on how important it was to stand up for yourself and to not let anyone treat you badly.
Plus, how critical it was to be proud of your heritage regardless of what others thought. Mabel took a lot of ribbing for her PA German accent, but she never let it hold her back from living her life to the fullest.
Her other words of advice were just a way of life learned growing up in a humble, simple and faith-filled household. From an early age Mabel learned you had to work hard for the things you want, and never look for anything to be handed to you.
It was this lesson that inspired Mabel to go to beauty school to learn to become a hairdresser in her 40’s. Even though she was married with children, she no longer wanted to ask her husband for money if she wanted or needed something for herself. Nor did she want to rely on him for transportation. She wanted a car of her own. She wanted to be self-sufficient.
Needless to say, Mabel was fiercely independent, and wanted to live her life on her terms.
This of course was something other woman in her neighborhood couldn’t understand. They were living the June Clever life, but she wanted more. Not that she didn’t love being a wife, mother and housekeeper. Her family was the most important thing to her, but she knew she needed her independence too.
As a matter of fact, when she bought her first car, she was furious the registration was put in her husband’s name. It was her car, not his, why would they do that?
As her granddaughter Aria stated, “She was a feminist before her time in her own Mabel Mae Dechert way.”
And indeed she was. Raising a family and having a career was not something you saw many women do in the 50’s, but that didn’t stop Mabel. She moved forward and never looked back. Getting a job as a hairdresser at Lit Brothers Department Store where she worked until her retirement in 1974 at the age of 62.
Mabel loved being a hairdresser and took her career very seriously, carrying her scissors with her wherever she went. Even at family gatherings she would offer haircuts, especially to anyone with long hair.
As a fan of short hair she couldn’t resist. As a matter of fact both her and Kassie got in trouble with their Mother and Grandmother for cutting their hair short when they were young.
As a woman with boundless energy, it’s not a surprise Mabel was able to accomplish being a wife, mother and career woman. She was often called the “Energizer Bunny” because she was always one step ahead and constantly on the move. Even well into her senior years she could run circles around people younger than her.
Mabel was a natural beauty with wavy, short red hair and beautiful, flawless, ivory skin. She never washed her face with anything but water, and the only make-up she wore was eyebrow pencil. There’s even a story that in her senior years, when driving by the funeral home, she insisted on stopping in to drop off her eyebrow pencil to insure they had the right color.
One can only imagine that it was her stunning looks that caught the eye of her husband Lloyd Swanger. Although we aren’t sure about the story behind their meeting, it is believed they both worked for the same hosiery company, Nolde & Horst Hosiery Company in Womelsdorf, PA and once Lloyd spotted Mabel the writing was on the wall.
Mabel and Lloyd were married on August 25, 1935 at her parent’s house in Myerstown. They had a small civil ceremony followed by an intimate reception with family and close friends.
In 1943 Lloyd was drafted into the Navy and served aboard the USS Tuscaloosa from May 19, 1943 to November 25, 1945.
Mabel and Lloyd held off starting a family until September of 1946 when their first child, David, was born. Followed by Sallie, their second child, in September of 1948. Yes, Mabel named her children after her parents. Just another sign of how tight knit the Dechert family was.
Mabel and Lloyd lived in Myerstown until 1951, when they moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia in search of a better employment. At this time, David was 5 and Sallie was 3.
Sometime in the 60’s they purchased a cabin in Deer Lake, PA on a beautiful wooded lot with a little stream running through it. This place became not only their escape from the city, but a place for the large extended family to gather every Summer.
AND, these gatherings became legendary.
Grilling duties were left in the hands of all the Sisters husbands who were always having a few beers and playing cards while they performed the task. Needless to say, some of the food ended up burned, in particular the chicken. After awhile though, this was just expected.
The sisters were so busy getting caught up and preparing the rest of the food they were oblivious to what their men were up to and that was just fine.
All the kids would go off on adventures. The cabin was near the Pollack Mink Farm and Muhammed Ali’s Training Camp, so there was always an excursion on foot to see if they could spot any minks or Ali.
PLUS, there was a huge park and playground along the lake, so after the excursion the kids would head to the park to hangout and play till the food was ready.
In addition, even though the cabin had running water and a real toilet in it, there was an old outhouse, which for the kids, in the dark, was a scary place to venture to. Needless the say the boys did all they could to scare the girls. All in good fun of course.
Even when the kids hit their teens, these adventures didn’t loose their charm. Being able to hang out with all the cousins was the best thing in the world.
Even as adults the cousins are the same way. We wish we had more opportunities to be together. The tight bond all of our mother’s shared is most definitely part of the gene pool. Family means everything to all of us.
Falling in love with the Deer Lake area, Mabel and Lloyd decided to build a home on the lot next to the cabin when they retired in 1974. And even though the lot was smaller, they continued to host the annual family gatherings.
Mabel absolutely loved having all the family together. She was in her element. She would scurry between the kitchen and the guests, dabbing her brow with a hanky she had tucked under her bra strap. Beaming with love seeing all of her extended family gathered together.
And these Summer gatherings would not be complete without Mabel’s famous fruit salad and cabbage slaw. Both extremely refreshing treats on a warm Summer day.
Mabel was noted for spending a lot of time in the kitchen when she had family visiting, but this is what brought her joy. She always made sure she had her children and grandchildren’s favorites on hand, like mashed potatoes, applesauce and corn & broccoli with brown butter.
Butter being a critical ingredient in everything she made. As it’s been noted, she put butter in or on everything she made. Her granddaughter Stacie even noted that she got dubbed the “Butter Grandma” by some her friends.
She even made sure her children’s spouses had their favorite foods. In particular making sure there was a basket of bread when Sallie’s family was visiting because Sallie’s husband Fred was Italian, and they always had bread with their meals.
Keeping busy was part of Mabel’s DNA. Even when her children or grandchildren would finally get her to sit down when they would visit, it would not be long before she’d be up and scurrying back to the kitchen getting a jump on clean up.
AND, when she wasn’t in the kitchen cooking for her loved ones, she’d be busy with housework. She kept a very clean and tidy home and was very proud of this. She even had her seasonal cleaning she did ritually like taking down curtains to be washed, and cleaning inside cabinets. Climbing up on stepladders well into her senior years.
Nothing was going to slow Mabel down. Determination ran through her bloodstream from an early age.
Being an early bird certainly helped. She was generally up before sunrise to get a jump on any tasks she had planned for the day. There’s even a story about a time her sister Betty and her husband Izzy were visiting and Izzy got up to use the bathroom around 6AM. Mabel was already up bustling around the kitchen, when she caught sight of Izzy, she said ‘Now how do you like your eggs?”
Needless to say, Izzy felt compelled to stay up and have breakfast.
Mabel’s love for her sisters was endless. Just speaking about them brought a smile to her face and joy in her heart. Getting together with her sisters meant the world to her, and she so looked forward to their time to visit and share a beer together.
AND, not just any beer, a “Sister Beer.”
The feeling was mutual with the Dechert Girls. As Lloyd often told Mabel “There’s nobody like your sisters.”
No matter what their age, they always looked out for each other. Being a generous, and kind-hearted soul, Mabel would often slip Helen, who was widowed at a young age, some cash at family gatherings, often noting, “Don’t tell Lloyd.” She felt there was no need to let him know, after all Helen was her sister, and it was her money.
The level of kindness and compassion all the Dechert Girls had not just for each other, but for everyone, was immeasurable.
Sometime in the early 80’s, Mabel and Lloyd moved back to the Myerstown area. By this time they were in their early 70’s and living in a more rural area like Deer Lake wasn’t the best idea, plus, it meant Mabel could be closer to her sisters.
By this time, both their children were married with families of their own.
David had married Ruth Parkhill in 1970 and had a daughter Kim in 1973, and son Michael in 1976.
To say Mabel and Lloyd were thrilled to become grandparents is an understatement. Being the first grandchild, Kim was like royalty in their eyes. She was treated like a Princess. Not that they didn’t love and adore all their grandchildren, it’s just being the first one that brought perks with it.
Sallie married Fred Galletti in 1977, and had three daughters, Aria in 1979, Stacie in 1981 and Amanda, who was named after Mabel’s sister’s Kassie, who’s middle name was Amanda, in 1986.
Sallie and her family lived in Florida for a while, and during this time if they weren’t visiting Mabel and Lloyd, Mabel and Lloyd would visit them.
Being able to spend time with her grandchildren meant the world to Mabel.
As a matter of fact, when Aria and Stacie were little, Sallie got pneumonia and couldn’t care for the girls, so Aria went to be with Fred’s Mother and Stacie stayed with Mabel. Mabel would take her to visit Kassie and the three of them would just hang out. Even well into her 90’s Mabel would remember fondly the time Stacie stayed with her.
Mabel was not only blessed with 5 grandchildren, but also 5 great grandchildren. David’s daughter Kim has 3 children, Jessica born in 2000, Evan in 2004, and Mia in 2012. And, Sallie’s daughter Stacie has 2 children, Huck born in 2009 and Django in 2011.
It has been well documented that Mabel had quite the “sweet tooth.” She had a candy addiction unrivaled by anyone and one she did not deny.
As a testament to her faith though, she would religiously give up candy for lent. Never once bending. Talk about strong will and commitment.
In her senior years, candy was often the gift of choice, and once the wrapping was off, Mabel would crack open the box so she could sample her tasty treat. AND, as was her nature, she would always be sure to share.
When her grandchildren were little they always wondered which one of their teeth was their sweet tooth, or if “sweet tooth” meant Mabel had one tooth that was black and rotted through. It wasn’t until they were older that they realized it meant she had a massive love of candy.
One of the best stories regarding Mabel’s “sweet tooth” came in her senior years when she was living with Sallie. After being gone all day, Sallie asked Mabel if she had breakfast, Mabel’s response was “Of course, candy.” and when asked about lunch, Mabel’s response was the same.
Mabel would often note “It had a moreish taste.” meaning it’s so good you want to eat more. Her sister Helen also used that expression and stated it came from her mother Sallie. Whether this is true I’m not sure, but it’s more than a coincidence that two of the Dechert girls used this same expression, especially in reference to sweets.
After Lloyd passed in 2000, Mabel lived by herself in their home, with David and Sallie checking in on her regularly. It wasn’t until she started to show signs of having vision problems that she moved in with Sallie, who had lost her husband in 1999.
Setting Mabel up with all new physicians, Sallie found out Mabel had macular degeneration and was considered legally blind, this combined with her failing hearing presented it’s challenges, but having her Mom with her meant the world to Sallie.
AND, Sallie’s daughters loved the opportunity to get to know their grandmother even better, and they cherished the time they had with her. Often recalling with great love some of the silly things she said because she didn’t hear well.
One incident was when the girls were leaving and they said, “See you next Tuesday.” Mabel turned around and yelled ‘What’d ya say about the cheese?”
This expression is still used between Sallie’s girls when they miss what the other one said.
Hearing issues were definitely in the family. Not only did one grandfather suffer with hearing issues, but also both Helen and Mickey ended up very reluctantly wearing hearing aids.
To say the Dechert Girls were a bit stubborn at times is an understatement.
One of the other things the sisters had in common was they loved to dance. At family gatherings the sister’s would often hit the dance floor as a group.
Polka’s were Mabel’s favorite and at her granddaughter Aria’s wedding in 2007, when she was 95, she and Helen, who was 87, kicked up their heels to the Polka of her choice.
To say they were the hit of the reception is an understatement.
It didn’t need to be a big party to get Mabel up on her feet though. Sallie’s girls vividly recall a snowed-in Christmas when Mabel was living with Sallie and they all hung out in Pj’s listening to music and dancing. This time though it was Elvis music that got Mabel up on her feet dancing with Aria.
In addition, the Dechert Girls all had their own unique style, and Mabel was noted for her awesome sweaters, cool aprons and love of the colors kelly green and purple. Green in particular was not just for her fashion; it often came into play in the décor´ of her homes and the color of her cars.
Mabel’s style was certainly a reflection of her spunky, go-getter personality, which even into her very senior years was very present. BUT, behind this spunky, fireball of a woman was a resilient spirit, who despite hardships, always had a smile on her face, never complaining or speaking negatively, and most definitely never raising her voice.
As her granddaughter Aria has stated, “ She didn’t know how great she was, but we do.”
Please check back next month when I will feature Elizabeth “Betty” Foreman Kobletz Kutz, the fourth of the Dechert Girls.
Logically it would make sense to honor each sister in the order of their birth, but because Helen, my Mother, would have turned 100 this month I decided to start with her, even though she is the middle sister.
Helen and her Sisters, Kassie, Mable, Betty and Mickey were as thick as thieves as the expression goes. Even with a huge age gap between them.
Kassie, the oldest, born in 1911, and Mabel, the second oldest, in 1912, were 9 and 8 when Helen was born in 1920.
Then there was a gap of 6 years until Betty was born in 1926, and Mickey 2 years later in 1928. So Kassie and Mabel were teenagers by the time the youngest two sisters were born.
The older siblings always helped with the younger siblings, but there was no resentment. The love they had for each other was too strong. And this love grew even stronger as the sisters aged and ventured out on their own journeys. Their bond was stronger than any I have ever seen.
As individuals they were unique in their own right, paving their own paths, but united by the belief of kindness and compassion for all, something that came naturally for all of them. And something they saw first hand in their home growing up.
The story surrounding Helen’s birth is one that has become cemented in family history, and can even be considered legendary.
As the story goes, when Sallie, Helen’s Mother went into labor, her father David noted “But Sallie there are no fresh baked goods in the house.”
SO, before giving birth Sallie made sure to baked 12 small shoofly pies so David’s sweet tooth would be satisfied while she tended to the new infant in the house.
This in itself isn’t what makes the story legendary, the fact that Helen became an amazing baker in her own right proved it was in her genes from birth, and as my sister noted she was “Born to Bake.”
Of course her first teacher was her Mother Sallie, teaching her all the traditional foods unique to their PA German heritage, like shoofly pie, fastnachts, whoopie pies, apple dumplings, Moravian sugar cake, strudel, and sugar cookies (both the thin cut ones and the thick ones with icing.)
Over the years though, Helen would expand her baking skills beyond that, learning traditional foods of her husbands’ Slovak heritage like kiffle and nutroll, and experimenting with her own ideas, often entering baking contests. Unfortunately she never won though, why I’ll never figure out.
Helen was also a fantastic cook, mastering cuisine from both cultures, especially with traditional foods of the Easter and Christmas holidays, like cirak (homemade cheese) at Easter; and bobalky (poppyseed dumplings), noodles with cottage cheese and lekvaur and sour mushroom soup (machanka) at Christmas.
Plus, there were dishes not related to holidays like halupki (filled cabbage) and huluski ka pusta (cabbage and noodles), plus homemade pizza. Helen mastered the perfect thin crust and no chain restaurant or manufacturer will ever match it. Plus her homemade bread was better than any bakery.
Some of the holiday dishes are still continued in our family, which is all due to Helen’s intense desire to keep traditions alive.
Family heritage and traditions meant a lot to Helen, and she instilled the rich history of both cultures into her children, who in turn continue to share these traditions with their children.
Helen’s PA German heritage wasn’t just about food though, it was also about faith. She was raised Dunkard Brethren, which is similar to the Mennonite and Amish, and classified as Anabaptist. They don’t believe in baptism at birth, but when the individual is old enough to understand the teachings of the Bible and accept them. If a child was baptized at birth, they would be baptized again. Their baptisms took place in a body of water, not in the church.
Which is just how Helen was baptized, in a creek near their church by Reverend Harry France. As Helen told the story, after the baptism she asked the Reverend if he was Jesus. His response “No, but I work for his office.”
Clever comeback for a man of the cloth, don’t you think?
Helen took her faith very seriously, and it is what carried her through every challenge she faced through out her life. One of her most popular words of advice was “Put it in God’s hands.”
At her core was an unbreakable belief that the Lord will always see you through, and that with every challenge is a lesson to learn or stage of development to reach. You might not see it right away, but with time it will come to you. You just need to pause, ponder, and pray, “putting it in God’s hands.”
Then, put it aside, and patiently wait. As they say patience is a virtue and this is something Helen mastered at an early age.
From all accounts, Helen had a pretty normal childhood. She was somewhat quiet, and spent a lot of time with her grandfather Jonathan at his bike repair shop. He was her buddy.
She often spoke of a sledding accident, which caused her to loose a few teeth, and left a scare on her cheek. It occurred on a Saturday and when she wanted to stay home from church on Sunday her Mother Sallie stated, “If you had time for sledding, you have time for the Lord.”
Sallie was tough; there was no getting around her. Her word was the be all and end all.
Helen also noted she was called “Little Fat Hellie” because she was chubby as a kid, and had a sweet tooth. Who wouldn’t with a Mom who was a baker?
As Helen hit her teens though that nickname was far behind her. She got involved in sports and cheerleading. Playing basketball and teaching herself how to play tennis with a racket she bought for .25¢. She was also an avid ice skater.
She was a determined young woman, and didn’t let her humble home life stop her from exploring the world around her.
While in high school, Helen was also involved with a singing trio who sang radio commercials and even opened for the famous big band leader Kay Kyser. How she was able to do this with the strict rules of the church and her Mother, we’re still not sure. Must have been a covert operation on her part, although her cousin Vivian was part of the group too, so maybe that helped.
With a large extended family, Helen was very close to her cousins. The two that became her close buddies though were Harry and Charles Forry, sons of her Aunt Lizzie, who had 10 children. Both went to the Hershey Industrial School because their Father passed when they were young and it was too much for Lizzie to care for all of them. This of course broke her heart.
Later Harry and Charles became soldiers and fought in WWII. Harry was a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and was reported missing in Australia and ultimately declared dead on July 14, 1942, while Charles was captured by the Japanese and was a prisoner of war. Based on the story Helen told us, Charles escaped and even brought home kimonos he took en route to safety. Because of their bond, he gave two to Helen. My sister Pam has one, but where the other one is still a mystery.
Helen was a natural caregiver and it was this observation on her father David’s part that would land her at St. Luke’s Nursing School in Bethlehem after graduating from high school in 1938.
Helen would be the first Dechert Sister to leave her hometown of Myerstown to venture out beyond the comforts of her home to learn a trade.
And it was this decision that set in motion the true path Helen was born to take, that of a nurse. A profession that truly encompassed the person Helen was at her core; kind, compassionate, caring, helpful, loving, and trustworthy. If you were in need, Helen was there. She always put others first, no matter what her own personal circumstances were.
Helen started her career at St. Luke’s Hospital after graduation in 1941, working the ER, and becoming the Assistant Night Supervisor. While working one night, a handsome young man with coal black hair named Bill, brought an injured co-worker from the Bethlehem Steel in for care.
As the story goes, Bill took an instant liking to Helen commenting how beautiful she was, but added she needed to do something about taking care of her hands, which looked awful. He did however make sure to make note of her name and boldly called to apologize and ask her out on a date.
And, the decision to say, “Yes” to that date would change the course of Helen’s life. Having been offered a scholarship for Columbia University, Helen was seriously considering this opportunity to pursue a career as an obstetrician.
Not wanting to lose Helen, much to Helen’s surprise, Bill proposed. Upon popping the lid on the ring box, he said, “Well you love me, don’t you?”
And the truth was, Helen did love Bill, so she followed her heart and married Bill, never once looking back.
William (Bill) Henry Danko, and Helen were married on January 23, 1943 at the Rectory of St. Theresa’s Church followed by a reception at the Bethlehem Steel Sunshine Club in Hellertown, PA.
Early on in their marriage, Helen and Bill lived in an apartment in a building owned by Bill’s Mother Agnes. This situation as can be expected came with some challenges not just because Helen’s Mother-in-Law was the landlady, but because Agnes was not happy that her Son married a girl who was not Slovak or Catholic.
Helen did not let this get between her and Bill. Being the kind of person she was, she accepted Agnes for who she was, and understood it was part of her culture. Not that it didn’t hurt at times, especially when it came to the dislike of her PA German heritage.
Helen had already endured enough teasing and harassment about her PA German accent while in nursing school, she had hoped that discrimination would be behind her. Unfortunately it was not.
Helen knew she couldn’t change her heritage, but her religious affiliation she could.
At some point in their marriage though, Helen converted to Catholicism. This could have upset her Mother, but her response was “Well they’re good people too. They believe in Jesus Christ.”
Helen took her religious training seriously and became an active member of St. Theresa parish. Joining the guild, singing in the choir and making sure to contribute fresh baked goods for the guild bake sales. Once it got around what a phenomenal baker Helen was, parishioners would wait for her contribution so they could be the first to purchase them.
It wasn’t long after their marriage that Helen and Bill started a family. By December of 1943 their first child Carolann was born, with Georgene following 18 months later in 1945. Then Pamela in 1951 and Francine in 1956.
Much like Helen’s own family, there were age gaps between the children, but that didn’t impact the camaraderie between them.
Once children entered the picture, Helen left her job at St. Luke’s to become a full time Mom and housekeeper. Something she adored. Being a Mom took precedence over everything else.
Stopping housework to make oatmeal box houses for the girl’s dolls, or to have a picnic inside on a rainy day throwing a blanket on the living room floor and making peanut butter sandwiches with sprinkle sugar cut out with cookie cutters, or walking Carolann and Georgene to the Steel Club (miles away) for swimming lessons in the middle of doing laundry.
Agnes was not happy with Helen’s actions, she thought they were frivolous, but Helen and Bill knew the needs of the children where more important than any housework. The children would remember time spent with them, not how clean the house was.
Fortunately for Helen, she had also bonded with their neighbor Anna Killian and her husband Charlie. They would become a buffer for Helen when Agnes’ criticisms were too much to bear. They were also like surrogate Grandparents for the children.
Helen would also feed the hobos who would hang out at the picnic table in the back yard. As she told the girls, Christ is in everyone. As a matter of fact, Georgene even asked one of them if they were Jesus. Their response was “Hardly.”
Granted in these days, this would be quite dangerous, but back in the 40’s and 50’s it was a different world.
Although Helen and Bill’s apartment was not big, they made it work for their family. There was a decent size backyard where Bill built a sandbox for the girls, a large vegetable garden, and dog pen for Bill’s hunting dogs.
That sandbox was just a simple homemade one, with old coffee cans and muffins tins to play with, but the neighbor kids always ended up there, despite the fact that they had fantastic ones with fancy toys.
As my sister Pam has said, “Mom knew how to make the ordinary into something special.”
There was also a large basement that opened up into the backyard, which extended the girls play territory. Using the basement to perform plays, create an ice cream parlor, and of course celebrate birthdays.
The basement was also where Bill had his workbench where he created original furniture designs, and even had a dark room. Photography was one of Bill’s passions and he even had a little side business doing portraits.
Both Helen and Bill were very creative and playful and it showed in their style of parenting and how they approached the holidays, especially Christmas. It was most certainly a magical time.
Bill would create the most amazing Putz with real moss. It was so large it took over the living room in their small apartment. Staying up till the wee hours of the morning preparing stockings and gifts. One key feature was the Surprise Balls filled with little toys rolled up in paper that unraveled.
AND of course all the amazing baked goods created by Helen. Baked goods Helen had to be a “culinary sleuth” (as my sister Pam stated) to figure out because Agnes did not willingly reveal the recipes for the traditional Slovak dishes of the Christmas holiday.
There is also a story of one Christmas Eve when a woman and her baby showed up at the side door. She appeared to be in some sort of danger and it was believed she had gotten out of the car with her husband and somehow found the side door to the apartment. Bill took her somewhere, but where no one knows for sure.
The mysteriousness of the story, just added to the magic of the season, and further shows both Helen and Bill’s kindness toward their fellow man, which is why this story is still told today.
In 1958, Helen and Bill would find their emancipation from living in Agnes’ home when they built their own home in Bright Acres/Bingen, which was just outside of Hellertown.
This was an exciting time for the whole family, a place to finally call their own. Bill would plant a huge vegetable garden surrounded by raspberry and currant bushes, which Helen would use to create wonderful jelly and can and freeze their harvest.
As an avid hunter, fisherman and outdoorsman, Bill was in his element in this more rural setting and would decide to raise German Short Haired Pointers to be sold for hunting. He would also make his own lures for fishing and do custom designed carved gunstocks.
Helen would also learn how to prepare wild game and fresh fish. There is story that she even helped to gut a deer while she was pregnant.
Helen and Bill were green and sustainable before they were the trend. Starting a compost pile, and harvesting fresh organic produce and cooking from scratch, every day.
They would recycle everything they could, which back then took effort. Cans went one place and bottles went back to the beverage distributor.
Plastic baggies and aluminum foil were never used just once either. If they still had some life in them Helen would wash them out and dry them on the dish drainer. As Helen would say “This could come right handy in.” I have to confess I do this too. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
The neighborhood was the perfect place to raise a family too, all young families with children of similar ages. The women would gather for coffee klatches, often at Bill and Helen’s where they could enjoy Helen’s fresh baked goods.
AND, an Annual Halloween Parade was organized with reception and prizes to follow. The location was rotated through different households every year. A visit from Santa was also initiated with the Fathers taking turns to play Santa.
All this was done with donations from the neighborhood, each household rotating the chairperson duties each year.
When word got out that Helen was a nurse, she quickly became the nurse of the neighborhood. Never once hesitating when someone was in need.
In 1961 Helen and Bill would expand their family, with Mariann being born in March of that year, and then William, born in December of 1962.
Bill loved all his children, but was overjoyed to finally have a boy he could take hunting and fishing. He had always wanted a large family and hoped to one day have a boy.
In 1964 though, this happy household would be dealt the cruelest of fates. After a long battle with the Asian Flu, Bill would be diagnosed with colon cancer. On October 1st he would pass, leaving Helen a young widow with 4 children still at home.
Carolann had recently graduated from St. Luke’s Nursing School, and Georgene was a student at Kutztown University. Both moved home to help with the younger children; Pamela, 13, Francine 8, Mariann 3, and William (Billy) 18 months old.
Helen had to fall back on her faith and every deep reserve of strength she had to overcome her grief and focus on caring for the children.
Bill had no pension to draw on, but there was a small life insurance policy, plus, Bill had very wisely purchased Mortgage Insurance that insured the mortgage would be paid off when he died, thus providing a place for the family to live. This enabled Helen to stay home with the children for about a year and figure out where to go next.
First thing she had to tackle was learning to drive. One neighbor, Buddy Gress, was willing to help, but after neighbors started to talk, he had to step back. Helen would not only learn to drive, but also learn basic car maintenance because she learned early on no man in the neighborhood would help because their wives would not allow it.
It was sad that the neighbors she would drop everything for would turn away during her most desperate times.
Fortunately she had her sisters who were always there for her, Anna and Charlie, her friends from the old apartment and a fellow widow, Helen Barndt, who lived in neighborhood. These two would become close allies in their quest to overcome the heartache of grief and discrimination.
Throughout all of this though, Helen didn’t turn her back on her neighbors. It was not in her nature. She continued to be the kind, caring and compassionate woman she was before her loss.
Her children were her priority and she knew that neighborhood was where they needed to stay. After all it was the home she and Bill bought specifically to raise their family. And that was what she was going to do, no matter how many challenges she would face.
In July of 1966, Helen would embark on a new adventure that would ultimately help her heal and move forward. She took on the task of starting the first Health Service for students at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, which would later become DeSales University.
Over time she and her partner Jean Mauer developed a Health Service Department that lured other directors of health services from local colleges to come and tour their facility.
In the beginning she had to bring the two youngest children, Mariann and William (Billy) with her to work every day. As she told the school when she was interviewed, my family comes first.
The college community, staff and students, would become a second family for Helen. And she quickly became a second family for the students. Often bringing the extremely homesick students home for a home cooked meal. She knew the students needed more than medical care, they needed a listening ear, and someone who could “hear what they weren’t saying” as she put it.
In 1990, DeSales honored Helen with the DeSales Award, the highest non-academic honor awarded by the college to recipients who had given outstanding contributions to the development of the college through personal service. This was the first time it was ever given to an employee; it was usually presidents or monsignors.
As it was noted at the service “ Helen Danko is a living symbol of the humanity of this college. She is distinguished for the witness she gives in her life work to the ideals most highly prized by St. Francis de Sales, the college’s patron saint.
Later, in 2013, DeSales would create the Helen Danko and Jean Mauer Wellness Award, to be awarded to a student who exemplified the qualities both Helen and Jean embodied.
When Helen passed in 2015, the outpouring of love from former DeSales students was overwhelming and a reflection of Helen’s true character.
Helen would be part of the DeSales community until she fully retired in her late 70’s, after slowly cutting back her hours from 5 days to 1 day. Her reason for retirement was to turn her energy to helping care for her grandson Billy, one her son Bill’s children, who was born in 1997.
Her Grandchildren were her pride and joy. And she helped all she could with every one of them. Dustin, Georgene’s son was born in 1971, then came Ethan and Dylan, in 1989 and 1991, both Bill’s sons and later Roy, in 1999, Mariann’s Son.
She was also blessed with one Great Grandchild, Ian, Dustin’s son, who was born in 2004.
Helen also had two Step-Grandchildren, Crystal and Dale; and two Step Great Grandchildren, Damian and Aiden.
Even in her later years Helen still had a childlike and playful outlook on life, despite all she had endured over the years. It was this childlike quality that made her the Best Grandmother any child could ask for.
From playing super hero; to lion, crawling on all fours; to coloring and painting; to playing with Legos and board games; and most of all baking cookies. Helen did whatever the Grandchildren wanted to do.
One of the best stories though is the time she and Billy got locked in the laundry room until Judi, Helen’s daughter-in-law got home from work. They were playing hide and seek, and when Billy found Helen in the laundry room he pulled the door closed behind him, thus locking the door from the outside. Helen made the best of it, singing songs, playing games and telling Billy they would play make believe hide and seek with Judi, so when she came home she could find them.
Needless to say, Judi was quite surprised when she came home and found them in the laundry room. She thought they were there to greet her, little did she know they had been locked in there for hours.
As my sister Pam has said, “Mom knew how to make the ordinary into something special.”
Her family was her priority, and being able to spend time with them was what brought her pure joy. Whether it be with her immediate family, a visit with her sisters and their families, or large gatherings with the extended family, Helen would be beaming, swelling with love and gratitude for the greatest gift bestowed on her, family.
AND, if there was music playing at any gathering, Helen would be sure to be up on her feet dancing. Even in into her 90’s she would kick up her heels if the mood hit her. Especially if you put on some Big Band music, she just couldn’t resist. Something I know for a fact all of her children inherited.
The last 15 years of Helen’s life, she lived with her Son Bill and his family, but would spend weekends with her daughter Mariann and her Son Roy. In the beginning it was because Mariann was working weekends and needed someone to watch Roy, but when the weekend work stopped, Helen still came. Weekends with Grammy were something both Roy and Mariann looked forward to. Roy would anxiously wait at the window every Friday, looking for Grammy to arrive, greeting her with a huge hug and kiss.
Some weekends Carolann would join them and they quickly became the “Four Musketeers” doing everything together. With Roy as the ringleader, and Helen going along with whatever he so desired.
Being part of these two households was extremely fulfilling for Helen. She would help not just with the children, but also in the kitchen and with the laundry. I dubbed her the “Laundry Fairy” because some how she magically got everything folded and put away before I even knew it.
Helen was a pure joy to have around. She always had a kind word to say. As her daughter-in-law Judi noted, every morning before Judi left for work, Helen would tell how beautiful she looked in the color she was wearing. Didn’t matter what color it was, she always looked beautiful. It was these kind words that were the sunshine Judi needed to make it through the day. As she told her co-workers, “I have the best Mother-in-Law.”
One of Helen’s catch phrases when something pleasant and unexpected happened was “Well that wasn’t in my Star Gazer today.” Something tells me if she could read this post, that’s exactly what she would say.
Helen was a woman of great integrity, coming from humble roots, overcoming discrimination, and major loss. Never once feeling sorry for herself and always putting others first, her compassion for her fellow man can only be rivaled by one other person, Mother Theresa.
And it is this quote from Mother Theresa that I feel encompasses all that Helen stood for and what guided her every day of her life.
“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.”
Many thanks to my family for their contributions of stories and memories which enabled me to pull together Helen (Mom’s) story.
Please check back next month when I will feature Kathryn Dechert Krill, the oldest of the Dechert Girls.
As noted in last month’s post, I will be dedicating my upcoming posts to my Mother and her amazing sisters.
With the passing of my sweet Aunt Mickey, my Mom’s last living sister, I realized the era of the Dechert Sisters had come to an end. This ushered in a floodgate of cherished memories. Memories of days gone by when life was simpler, and family always came first.
As these memories meandered through my thoughts, I began to ponder what an extraordinary group of ladies these Dechert Girls were, and how blessed my siblings, and cousins were to be able to call them Mom and Aunt. It was at that point I knew, in my heart, it was time to honor their legacy.
So, with the help of my siblings and cousins I set out to pull together history, stories and life lessons learned from these amazing ladies.
Their legacy however would not be complete without including a little backstory on their parents, Sallie Markey Dechert and David Daniel Dechert.
So, the first in the series will be dedicated to them.
Sallie Markey (Merkey) was born February 13th, 1884. She was the first born of Jonathan Markey and Catherine Hunsicker’s six children.
Note – The original spelling of their last name was Merkey, but Jonathan had it changed because there were so many people with similar last names that their mail often went to the wrong household and that made him angry.
Sallie was a petite and feisty lady with strawberry blonde hair, who “Drove the horse buggies like a man.” as she was quoted saying.
Jonathan, her father ran a bike repair shop in Myerstown, PA and was fascinated by motor vehicles. My Mother Helen, Sallie & David’s 3rd child, was very fond of him and spoke often of her time spent hanging out with him at his bike shop. He sounded like a very kind and gentle man.
Jonathan was born July 15, 1858 and passed on March 28, 1928.
Catherine, her mother, was a homemaker, teaching her 5 girls the skills necessary to run a household: cooking, baking, sewing and housekeeping.
She was born July 11, 1863 and passed on December 21, 1944.
After Jonathan passed, Catherine moved in with Sallie and David, and their children in Myerstown.
The Markey’s were simple folk rooted in their faith, Dunkard Bretheren, which is similar to the Mennonite and Amish, and classified as Anabaptist. They don’t believe in baptism at birth, but when the individual is old enough to understand the teachings of the Bible and accept them. If a child was baptized at birth, they would be baptized again. Their baptisms took place in a body of water, not in the church.
Following the rules of the faith, Sallie was not baptized till she was 13, and as the story goes, the water still had ice on it and had to be cracked in order to perform the service.
Sallie carried her strong faith with her through out her life. Converting David Daniel after their marriage and raising their children within the faith.
Simple clothes and head coverings for the women were part of the tradition, and Sallie dressed just this way till the day she died on October 6, 1972.
She was senile by the time I was old enough to remember her, but I do remember her simple clothes and head covering. Her beautiful grey hair pulled tightly back and tucked up into her covering.
As a young woman, Sallie was prone to headaches and it was believed the tightness of her hair was the cause, but we know now she had migraines, an ailment that has run its course within the offspring of the Dechert family.
Sallie’s father would often farm out the children to help on other farms for extra money, and it is because of this that she met David Daniel Dechert. He was a travelling salesman at the time, selling cigars and saffron, and he spotted Sallie when he came knocking at the farm where she was working.
Sallie and David Dechert were married on December 22, 1910.
This was a second marriage for David, who’s first wife Agnes, had passed at the age of 34, in September of 1909. They had a son Ralph, who was just shy of his 9th birthday when Agnes passed.
A man raising a child on his own was far from the norm at the time, so I’m sure that helped spur David on to find a new suitor to help him raise Ralph.
That didn’t mean David didn’t love Sallie though. As my Mom Helen always told me, he called her his “Little Valentine” because she was born around Valentines Day.
It was widely known though that Sallie was the disciplinarian and she was very strict to include spanking the girls with a “switch” when they misbehaved. David was not fond of this and would often ask “Why do you want to spank these pretty little girls.”
I have no idea what the response to that question was, but I’m sure Sallie had quite the comeback based on her feisty character.
David, born on March 1, 1872, was 12 years older than Sallie, and based on the handful of stories that have survived over the years, was a gentle soul, who liked to hang out with the chickens in the chicken coup and smoke a cigar.
Apparently he found solace with the chickens when there were too many people visiting in the house. As the story goes, Sallie would keep a pot of coffee going on the stove all day for whoever might stop by, and she was known to drink up to 8 cups a day. As one of my Sisters noted, “this must have been her secret to accomplishing so much.”
David passed on November 17, 1955 from lung cancer, so even my oldest siblings and cousins were very young when he passed. Any memories they have are very limited.
One of the main stories that has survived over the years though was David’s fondness for gin, which was not approved by the Brethren, who were teetotalers. Add to that, Sallie was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, so if he wanted to take a nip or two, he had to be secretive.
As the story goes, he kept his gin bottle hidden in the basement and would take a nip with the premise he was getting coal from the coal bin. One of my Sisters also noted that Sallie kept her mincemeat pies in the basement and he often would slip a little whiskey in them. I’m sure those pies were a hit.
In David’s later years, he would walk into town with my cousin David (Mable’s oldest child), who would have been maybe around 5, in tow in a wagon. The purpose of the adventure was generally some sort of errand, but some how he would end up at the Bahney House, a local bar and restaurant on Main Street, and just had to have a spot to wet his whistle.
Conveniently, Mickey, his youngest daughter just so happened to work there, so it was easy to say he stopped to see her while in town.
You have to admit; he was good at covering his tracks; although I’m quite sure Sallie knew what he was up to.
The wagon David used on his excursions, is also the one used by Kassie and Mable, and later my Mom Helen, to deliver pies baked by Sallie, which she sold for .50¢ for a large and .25¢ for a small.
Turns out Sallie was a bit of an entrepreneur, not only baking for people in town, but also making noodles to sell at the farmers market, and taking in laundry, which in those days was done with a ringer washer, air dried and pressed.
It’s obvious Sallie’s unyielding spirit, determination and willingness to work hard to achieve her goals, rubbed off on the girls, because each one them lead their lives in the same way. Never wavering in the face of challenges and setbacks, AND, teaching all of us, my siblings and cousins, the importance of a good work ethic.
Baking was an art form for Sallie and a skill passed down to all her girls. Baking and cooking were at the epicenter of this family. Family, faith and food are what held them together, something that the girls would carry with them to their own families.
Sallie was also quite the seamstress and quilter, sitting with the other PA German woman quilting and chatting in PA German. Even darning socks was a chore she enjoyed doing, and would continue to do well into her senior years.
This was also a task my Mom Helen enjoyed, which made me extremely grateful. She kept a little sewing kit by her side when visiting, just in case something needed darning.
Another little habit Sallie had was keeping money stuffed in a hanker chief which she would then tuck up into her blouse. I mention this because Mable would continue this habit, although I recall she would tuck it under her bra strap. Mable very much had the same spunk too.
The Dechert’s most certainly fell into the poor category, never owning a home or car, but that didn’t stop them from living the best life possible.
The home they lived in was a classic old German style red brick house that only had heat in the basement. It would seep up through the grates in the floor to the main floor of the house, leaving the second floor quite cold, especially in the winter. It would take multiple quilts just to keep warm. Good thing quilt making was one of Sallie’s specialties.
One of my older Sisters has fond memories of coming downstairs from the cold bedroom into the warm farmhouse style kitchen with the smell of coffee and fresh baked goods in the oven. She noted our Mom Helen’s kitchen always having that same welcoming feeling.
Another Sister also remembers a breakfast treat called “eggs with a hat” which was toasted bread with a whole cut out in the middle where the egg would be dropped into and fried, then the cut out piece put on top of the egg.
The house had a second floor porch on the side that was used to hang laundry on rainy days. I’m guessing considering Sallie did laundry for people that this was often used.
They also had no bathroom, they had a chamber bucket that would have to be emptied into the outhouse. This was a chore none of the girls enjoyed. My Mom Helen noted it was embarrassing because their home was close to the State Troopers Barracks, and on some days when she was doing this task they’d be out doing their morning drill. She did her best to get the task done without being noticed.
Incidentally, turns out the State Trooper Barracks just happened to be on the grounds of what was formerly Albright College, which is now located in Reading, PA and the college my Son attends. It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I realized this. Kind of makes me think my Mom, who passed 3 years before my Son graduated from high school, helped to steer our decision toward Albright
After David passed, Sallie moved in with her daughter Mickey, her husband Forrest and their oldest Son Jimmy, who David had endearingly called “Jimmily.”
Speaking of “Jimmily”, there is on last thing to note about David.
One of my Sisters recalls David bouncing her and Jimmy on his knee and singing an old PA German rhyme called “Hubber-de-bubber-de”
The song went like this: (PA German) Hubber-de-bubber-de, unnichem bank, Hubber-de-bubber-de, owwichem bank, siss keen mann im ganse land Das hubber-de-bubber-de fange kann. (En fatz.)
Translated it is: Hubber-de-bubber-de, under the bench, Hubber-de-bubber-de, over the bench; There is no man in all the land Can catch hubber-de-bubber-de again.
Can you guess what the song was about? I’m guessing not. It’s about a fart.
Who would have know?
The PA German were noted for silly little rhymes, some of which made no sense, but they sounded great in PA German. In her later years Sallie would often rock in her seat and rattle off rhymes. I’m sure it brought her comfort.
In her prime though, Sallie was full of wisdom and some of her quotes still hold true today like:
“Don’t let the sun set on your anger.”
My Mom Helen often used this all though she would say “Don’t go to bed angry.” Something my siblings and I remember when a conflict arises.
“Stop it off when it gets ugly.”
I’m thinking these words of wisdom are very crucial now considering the state of the world.
“If the good Lord wanted you to know it, you would know it.”
This one sounds like a classic for all Parents. Wish I had known this one when my Son was younger.
Sallie would live with Mickey and Forrest and their family until her passing in 1972. As I noted earlier, she was senile by the time I was old enough to know her, but she had the sweetest smile and the most gracious heart.
She loved spending time with us younger grandchildren, and it was comforting for us to have her nearby.
Sallie’s senility kept her stuck in the old days and would cause some confusion at times, but it was never anything serious. One of my favorite stories goes back to a time when she and Mickey’s family and Kassie were visiting our house.
Sallie was sitting with my Mom, Mickey, her husband Forrest and Kassie on our carport in the early evening and noticed a light shining on a statue near our goldfish pond next to our shed. When she inquired as to who the lady by the chicken coupe was, my Mom told her it was Mary.
Her response “Mary Who?”
My Mom responded, “Jesus’ Mother.”
Sallie then responded, “Well that’s alright then.”
This transaction was repeated multiple times throughout the evening, which is why the “Mary Who?” story has become part of the family legacy.
Family legacy is a funny thing. As we’re growing up, we generally don’t think about it. We hear stories told by the elders of the family, but don’t think much about them until we too are becoming the elders.
As I’ve spoke with my siblings and cousins, we all noted we wished we had written some of the stories down because now, when we want to remember, we only recall fragments.
Fortunately, there are enough of us that we can piece together the details we each remember to make a fluid story of the Dechert Girls and their parents Sallie and David.
A key thing that has fallen by the way side though is the impact the Markey and Dechert families have left on history. If not for my Sister Georgene’s interest in our family heritage and ancestry, we would not be aware of these facts because they were never mentioned.
The Dechert Girls all thought they came from nothing, but in reality their family is rich with history.
Turns out, Issac Meier/Myer/Meyer, the founder of Myerstown, the town they all grew up, was our 5th Great Grandfather.
There are many relatives on the Dechert side that fought in the American Revolution. The girls could have belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), an organization considered important to most historians and ancestry buffs.
The family history is rich with important figures involved in the Protestant religious movement that left Europe because of religious persecution.
As it turns out these Dechert Girls most certainly did not come from nothing.
Not just because they actually have a past rooted deeply in the history of this country, but because at the roots of their family was a deep and profound love for each other, their community and God. They would never turn their back on someone in need, and regardless of their financial standing were always willing to help.
Their kind and generous nature just came naturally. They knew no other way; it was part of their soul.
And, when you think about it, is the very reason why they thought they came from nothing. Because as my Aunt Mickey often said when she went out of her way to help someone “It was a nothing.”
Many thanks to my siblings and cousins who helped me flush out the story of Sallie and David, and the roots of the Dechert Girls history.
Please check back next month when I will feature my Mom Helen, who would be celebrating her 100th birthday on the 13th if she was still with us.
It’s not often I’m half way through a month and lost for a theme for my post, but this month I can say I was beyond writer’s block.
I could blame it on a couple things: getting busier and busier at work, and still working an odd schedule, family crisis regarding one of my sisters which created excess stress, or even just the fact that since the Pandemic hit daily life is very limited. A lot of the same old same old, nothing new or intriguing going on, which is the case for everyone I suppose.
And the last thing I wanted to do was write about the same old same old thing like; quarantine, social distancing, or wearing masks in public and at work.
Although a post about life wearing a mask in public could very well be in the future. You have to admit; only seeing someone’s eyes is an interesting thing, especially if the eyes are truly the windows of the soul.
I have noticed that the eyes can be very telling as to the mood of the person behind the mask. We’re so use to basing mood on other facial expressions, but now we only have the eyes to go by. And surprisingly they can reveal a lot.
This observation however will take a bit more research to see if it’s worthy of an entire post.
So as the month ticked away, with nothing sparking my writing soul, I began to think for the first time since I started blogging six years ago I just might have to concede to writer’s block.
Then, the weekend the crisis with my sister hit it’s peak, my family also experienced the unexpected passing of my dear Aunt Mickey.
Although we were concerned about the situation with my sister, we had traveled this road more than once, and were just grateful she was finally in the hospital.
The passing of my Aunt however was very upsetting, not just for my Cousins, but also for the entire extended family. My Aunt Mickey was a sweetheart of a woman, who treated her nieces and nephews as if they were her own. Her home was your home too.
Some of my greatest childhood memories are about time spent hanging at her house for a week during the Summer. Our annual trips to Hershey Park with my Mom, my Brother, my Aunt and my Cousins were epic.
My Aunt Mickey was also the last of my Mom’s living Sisters and her passing became the end of era.
An era steeped with amazing family gatherings, with five sisters who stood by each other’s side through every life experience possible; marriages, births, divorces, deaths, etc. and with their Pennsylvania German heritage, from religious beliefs to the food. Oh so much amazing food.
My mind was flooded with memories the days leading up to my Aunt’s funeral.
AND, I couldn’t help but ponder about my Mom and each one her Sisters and how they impacted my life.
To say my Mom and her Sisters were unique is an understatement.
They came from very humble roots, and through out their lives never forgot that. They were all selfless, caring and giving women, who looked at everyone as equals.
Family came first. They were always there for each other, regardless of what was going on in their personal lives.
The Sisters were a tight group of ladies who cherished each other and encouraged each other’s individuality.
Looking at today’s standard this may seem normal, but you have to remember these ladies were born in the early 1900’s. Encouraging individuality was not a common thing.
Especially growing up in a strict religious household.
They were raised Dunkard Brethren which is an offshoot of the Brethren, very similar to Protestant, but closer to Mennonite because they had to wear head coverings, and drinking, smoking and gambling were prohibited.
Now, by the time these ladies hit high school, like normal teens, they started to rebel, but not in a wild way. They wanted to wear more stylish clothes, high heals, and make up. Plus be involved in things at school, like sports and clubs.
BUT, they never forgot the roots of their faith.
The oldest two, Kassie (Katherine) and Mabel, paved the way for the younger three, Helen (my Mom), Betty (Elizabeth) and Mickey (Mildred).
In addition to the restrictions put upon them by the church, they also had a very strict Mother. She was the disciplinarian, not the Father. Which in itself speaks light years as to why these five ladies grew up to be five very uniquely different women.
The more I pondered all of this, the more I realized these amazing women needed to be honored, by documenting their story and individuality.
Not just for their uniqueness, but also for the lessons we all learned from them. My Siblings, my Cousins and all of our extended families are who we are because these five special ladies touched our lives, and forever made a mark.
Each one of them imparted upon us little bits of wisdom that have guided us through good times and bad. AND, by example, showed us that family, faith and food, are all one needs to be truly happy.
So, It brings me great joy to say for the next couple months I will be dedicating my posts to the Dechert Sisters. I have reached out to my Siblings, Cousins and extended family to aid me in this quest.
After all, part of rediscovery is looking to the past, and what better time to do so.
I haven’t quite decided if I will dedicate a month to each Sister, or mix it up. This idea is a work in progress and to a point a labor of love. A way to carry on the legacy that is “THE DECHERT SISTERS – KASSIE, MABEL, HELEN, BETTY AND MICKEY.
I hope you enjoy reading about the Dechert Sisters legacy as much as I do sharing it.
And, maybe you too will start to ponder those within your family who have also left a legacy. Because, it’s those legacies that have molded each of our families and lead us to where we are now.
TRADITIONS – the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction
CUSTOMS – a usage or practice common to many or to a particular place or class or habitual with an individual OR long-established practice considered as unwritten law
It’s hard not to think about traditions this time of year. From Thanksgiving straight through the New Year the season is brimming over with traditions and customs. Whether they are unique to a family, culture or faith, they’re there, large and small.
Even if you don’t think you have them, you have them.
If there’s something you do annually, like coloring eggs on Good Friday, going to a pumpkin patch every fall, or putting up holiday decorations on Black Friday, you have a tradition.
Some of them may be ones passed down from family members over the years, while others may have been created or adapted from another source.
It doesn’t have to be annually, or even tied to a holiday. It could be something you do monthly, or even daily that has become part of who you are.
For example, my Son and I had a little ritual every night before bed when he was little. After reading a book, I would tuck him in and say, ”Good night, sleep tight, sweet dreams” and give him an Eskimo kiss. And, although he’s older, when he’s home from college, I still make sure I give him a kiss on his head and say, ”Good night, sleep tight, sweet dreams, Eskimo, Eskimo” Saying Eskimo, Eskimo replaces the Eskimo kisses.
Funny thing is, my Son looks for this. It has become part of who we are. Hopefully when he has children of his own he will carry this tradition on.
Traditions/customs are the threads that weave the fabric of the family together. No matter how small or simple they may seem, they matter. At their root is the history of who we are.