In conjunction with the posts I wrote about my Mother, Helen Grace Dechert Danko, and her amazing Sisters; Kassie, Mabel, Betty and Mickey, some of my Cousins and I decided to venture to the Dechert Sisters hometown, Myerstown, PA and explore a few of the landmarks that played a big part in their lives, and ours.
This trip was very much a walk down memory lane for us because Mickey and Kassie both remained in Myerstown, and there were many extended family gatherings either at one of their homes or the local American Legion were both Mickey and Kassie’s husbands were members and Mickey and Kassie helped out.
PLUS, many of us Cousins spent extended time at Mickey’s home, so it was like a second home for us.
Those of us on this excursion were 2 of Helen’s Daughters, Myself and my Sister Pam; one of Mickey’s Daughters, Kathy; Mabel’s Daughter Sallie; and Betty’s Daughter Linda and her Daughter Lori, Betty’s Granddaughter.
The designated meeting spot was the Myerstown Playground were we all had many great adventures, particularly in the Summer hanging out at the pool, going to pool parties in the evening or Playground activities like arts and crafts during the day. This landmark was very much for us, the Cousins, because this was our hangout when we would be visiting Mickey’s house. For Kathy the playground held even more memories because Myerstown is also her hometown.
From the Playground we ventured to Mickey’s home, which was just a few blocks away. Driving down Maple Street was like a flashback to all the times we visited Mickey’s home. I could see the layout of the interior of the home and the smells of Mickey’s phenomenal cooking and baking wafting through the rooms. My heart was overflowing with excitement and love just driving by. Mickey welcomed everyone with a great big hug and kiss, and you instantly felt like you were at home, even though it wasn’t your home.
Our next stop was one of legends. I had heard many a story from my older siblings about this Dechert Sister landmark, but it was no longer in use by the time I was old enough to appreciate it. So I was excited to see this spot who’s legendary stories danced through my head as a kid.
This spot of legend was the location of Kassie and her husband Krilly’s store with a small apartment above it. In addition to the stories my older Sisters Carolann and Georgene had told; Kathy, Sallie, Linda and Pam all had wonderful stories to tell of their time at Kassie and Krilly’s store, and the family picnics in the back yard.
They talked about being able to fill a bag with penny candy and pick a soda from the cooler, and how neat it was to be able to have that much freedom as a kid. Kassie and Krilly had no children of their own, so all their Nieces and Nephews filled that void, and to say they spoiled us all is an understatement.
En route to our next destination, we passed the house Mabel and her husband Lloyd lived with their 2 children David and Sallie. They were only in this house for a few years before moving to the Philadelphia area when Sallie was three years old, but as we passed Sallie noted little details about the house that she remembered, to include a smaller cottage style house in the backyard.
Which is still there, but I was unable to get a picture of because there was a Mennonite Woman outside hanging laundry and I didn’t think she would have appreciated that. We suspected she may be the one living in the smaller house out back, but that was just a guess.
One little tidbit to add here is the fact that this house was across the street from Smith Candies, a landmark in Myerstown that some how escaped me growing up. BUT, that’s probably because all the Aunts always had quite the stash of candy, which I now know why.
Before my Sister Pam and I headed home, we stopped by the retail store and it was a candy lover’s paradise. Every candy you could conceive of from the old days to today was available for your sweet tooth craving. You could purchase in bulk or just a small sampling. My Sister and I settled for a small sampling. Can’t do candy in bulk any more.
Next up on the agenda was the house the Dechert Sisters grew up in. I was excited to scout this one out because I do recall my Mother commenting when we would pass it while we were in town visiting, but I was a kid and it had no significance to me then. Now it most certainly did.
None of us that were on the trip had ever been in this house. I believe my 2 oldest Sisters Carolann and Georgene may be the only offspring that may have actually been in the house when our parents and grandparents actually still lived there. Even they were very young, but their memories painted a wonderful picture of what the inside was like.
“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.”
“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.”
Below is the link to the full post about the Dechert Sisters Parents, which has more details about the Dechert Sisters family roots.
Based on it’s appearances now though, it’s present owners have not quite given it the love Sallie and David Dechert did. We suspect it may now be apartments, which can explain that.
We knew this was the right house though, because it was across the street from the Seminary which used to be the State Police Barracks which all the Sisters would mention when telling stories about the trauma they experienced when having to take the chamber bucket from the house to the outhouse while the Troopers were out doing their morning drills. They were all mortified by this act, and seeing how close the house is, it’s completely understandable.
Note, the house they grew up in did not have a bathroom, thus the chamber bucket.
Another spot we could not miss was the Bahney House, a landmark in town that is still an active business. Back in the Sisters days it was a bar and restaurant that their Father frequented, and where Mickey honed her amazing cooking skills. The building has certainly gone through renovations, to include adding solar panels on the roof.
Plus the building also houses a hair salon and laundry mat, but at it’s core, is still the bar and restaurant. It was still early in the day when we were there, so we didn’t venture inside, but seeing the outside and the care the owners have taken in the upkeep of the building was more than enough for us.
Another destination that was a must to stop by was the infamous American Legion where many major events were held. From birthday parties to wedding receptions, this was the go to place. From an early age I can remember hanging out in the Bingo Hall when one of the Uncles was calling the numbers, or celebrating with family at private parties. It’s too bad poor management closed the place down years ago; otherwise we most certainly would have gone in just to see if the inside had changed.
We had one more stop before heading outside of town to our final destination, and that place of many sweet memories was Kassie and Krilly’s home in the Lynncrest development.
Kassie and Krilly loved to entertain, and once they got this house they could really put on a spread. Hosting a huge Summer cookout for the entire family and their annual Easter gathering at which they held an Easter Egg Hunt for the kids and had baskets made up for each Niece and Nephew.
Although there have been some changes made to the house, and the neighborhood is more developed than back in the “Old Days” it didn’t take away from the memories that came flooding through my mind when we pulled up in front of the house.
From Myerstown we headed into Lebanon, a short 15-minute drive, to a little restaurant called The Gin Mill. This is the place all the Sisters would meet after they were all grown and married. This became their watering hole for their annual “Sister Beer.” As their children aged, many of them would join them on this excursion, to include myself at least once.
BUT, nothing beats the days when it was just the Sisters. As part of our journey this day I wanted to recreate the one photo we have of the Sisters sitting at the bar having their beverage. And although the interior of the building has been updated, it didn’t take away from the history we wanted so much to recreate.
The 6 of us spent close to 3 hours lingering over our lunch reminiscing and getting caught up. I can only imagine this was what it was like when the Sisters gathered at this very spot. We had the most wonderful time and hope to make just getting together a more regular thing, just like our Mom’s did.
We’d love to one day track down the Merkey homestead which was the Dechert Sister’s Mother’s Farm. The actual barn was supposed to be moved to the PA German Heritage Center at Kutztown University, but we don’t know if or when this was done yet.
Having lost my Father at an early age, Father’s Day has always been one of those holidays that was just there. I was only 3 1/2 years old when my Father passed, so I never had the opportunity to get to know him.
Did I feel like I was ripped off? Most certainly.
BUT my Mother Helen was such a wonderful woman and did an amazing job at being both parents that over time those feelings began to fade. I comprehended the load she had to bare. Not only did she loose the love of her life, she had six children, four of whom were still at home, ranging in age from 21 months to 12 years old. It took great fortitude to keep on keeping on after such a loss, but she did.
In all honesty I am extremely grateful I was blessed to have such a phenomenal woman as my Mother. Parenting is a tough job when you have both parents, but doing it solo is a feat not for the weak at heart.
Did I ever wonder about my Father and what life would have been like had he lived? Sure, who wouldn’t.
Especially when my older siblings would tell stories about him. Over time these stories became cemented in my memories, and even though I never knew my Father, I had their memories to cling to. It gave me a little solace and made me feel like I sort of knew the man who was my Father.
While writing the post about my Mother last September, new stories surfaced about my Father. Ones that reflected more about who he was as a man, not just as a Father, and I realized how very little I really knew about him.
At that point I knew one day I would need to dig deeper into those stories with the hope that I could put together a more concise picture of my Father, or should I say “Daddy,” which is how we have always referred to him. As June approached I thought what better time than the month of June, which is when we honor all Father’s.
SO, in this month of June, 2021, I will be dedicating my post to my Daddy, William “Bill” Henry Danko. A man I never knew, but love as though I did.
William “Bill” Henry Danko
July 28, 1919 – October 1, 1964
Bill was only 45 when he passed away from colon cancer, but in that short time he lived a full life. A life filled with hardships and challenges, but through them all he always remained true to who he was at heart and he never forgot his roots.
William Henry Danko was the oldest son of Agnes (Peczuch) and George Danko. Both Agnes and George had immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe in the hopes of having a better life.
Agnes arrived in New York on May 21, 1914 when she was not quite 17. She had $15 with her and was listed as a servant. She had left her parents and 2 siblings behind in their home in Szedikert in the Presov District of Slovakia. She came to America to meet her older brother Victor who lived in South Bethlehem, PA.
George arrived in 1906 at the age of 15. His father and brother were already here and working for the Bethlehem Steel. He was naturalized in 1926 at the age of 35.
How Agnes and George met is not clear, but they both had family who belonged to Saints Cyril & Methodius Catholic Church in South Bethlehem, so it’s very possible that is where the connection was made, especially because that’s where they were married in 1916. Agnes was 19 and George was 25.
Their first child William Henry was born July 28, 1919 and George Francis, their second child, was born on November 29, 1921.
After renting for years, Agnes and George purchased a large home in May of 1926 in Hellertown, PA, not far from South Bethlehem where they had been living. The home had the second floor converted into an apartment, which could be an extra source of income.
Things were looking up. George was well established at the Bethlehem Steel as a repairman, and although he worked long hours, he still helped with the maintenance of the house and apartment.
In 1927 though, George, the Father, was admitted to the hospital with a mysterious illness. He was put in quarantine until it was discovered he had abdominal cancer that had metastasized. He passed away on July 2, just shy of Bill’s 9th birthday.
The sudden loss of her husband at an early age was hard on Agnes, but she had her boys who needed her attention, as did the home they had recently purchased.
In June of 1933, Agnes remarried Andrew Bacha, who was 43 and a widower. As the story goes, Agnes did not tell Bill and George about her plans to remarry, and when Bill witnessed them coming home, he was so upset he ran away from home. For how long, it’s not known, but long enough to let his voice be heard.
This marriage didn’t last long though. Soon after, Agnes discovered Andrew was an alcoholic and it wasn’t long after that he left.
Agnes was an extremely hard worker, but with no man in the house, the boys would have to pick up the slack. Having a good work ethic was something both boys saw in their Father and Mother, so Bill and George fell right into place with the tasks at hand.
In addition though, Agnes was so hardwired to always be taking care of the tasks at hand, that in her mind there was no time for frivolous behavior. This attitude would cause friction between Bill and his Mother as he grew into a young man and his highly creative side began to shine.
Agnes saw no room for such behavior and for this reason showed obvious favoritism to George, Bill’s younger brother. He was very obedient and went to Business School after high school, landing a job as an accountant at the Bethlehem Steel.
In Agnes’ eyes this was the right thing to do and nothing Bill did ever seemed to be good enough. It didn’t matter that Bill was a hard worker, working as a clerk at a meat market, a butcher at his Uncle’s Butcher Shop, and by 1945 getting a job at the Bethlehem Steel, starting in the Lab and working his way up to Safety Supervisor by 1949.
At one point Bill was even taking evening classes at a Penn State Extension to study engineering, his true passion. Unfortunately he was unable to finish, which was always his biggest regret.
Another disappointed for Bill was not being able to enlist in the military during WWII. As a child he had broken an arm and it was not set correctly, so he couldn’t straighten that arm. This was considered a slight defect, which kept him out of the service.
Bill was shorter than George, only 5’ 9” to George’s 6’ 3”, but he was strong and sturdy, even playing football in high school. But that issue with his arm, was all it took to reject him.
Despite all the disappointment and negativity though, Bill never let it stop him from being true to who he was at heart. He had a vast array of interests, and was a bit of a Jack-of-All Trades. If he found something that intrigued him, he would dive in and explore.
One of those interests was photography, which actually became his occupation for a while, starting his own business taking portraits. He thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with different types of cameras and even built his own darkroom in the basement of his Mother’s home. This business stopped during the War though because the cost of materials was too expensive.
Photography always remained a hobby though, especially once Bill had a family. His wife and children became his favorite subject, even setting up backdrops to take portraits of the children.
Bill’s creative pursuits didn’t end with photography. He loved to paint and was an amazing woodworker, carving gunstocks, and crafting furniture. Furniture that is still in use, built better than most of what exists now. He certainly put his engineering skills to use when designing this furniture. They were not just functional, but works of art too.
When Bill passed many of Bill’s so-called friends were quick to show-up and talk Helen his wife into selling them some of his things, in particular this gun. Many years later, Bill’s Son William’s wife Judi was able to track down the person who bought the gun and she bought it back to give to William as a gift. Needless to say William was beyond surprised, but thrilled to own something that his Father crafted and used.
Being true to his heart most certainly came into play when Bill pursued a woman who was not only not Slovak, but also not Catholic. This did not please Agnes at all. She had already picked a nice Catholic Slovak girl for him, but Bill was in love and that’s all that mattered to him.
When taking an injured co-worker to St. Luke’s Hospital ER to be checked out, Bill encountered a nurse who quickly caught his eye. That beauty was Helen Dechert. Being an outspoken man, Bill commented how beautiful she was, but added she needed to do something about her hands, which looked awful. Needless to say, this did not sit well with Helen.
Bill however was sure to note her name and came back the next day to apologize and ask Helen out on a date. Helen was reluctant, but Bill was one handsome guy, he kind of had Clark Cable looks with coal black hair and blue grey eyes, so she agreed to the date.
This was all it took for the two of them to realize they were meant to be together.
Falling in love though was not part of Helen’s plans. She had been offered a scholarship for Columbia University where she could pursue a career as an obstetrician. Something she was seriously considering.
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?”
The truth was, Helen did love Bill, so she followed her heart and married him, never once looking back. The two were married on January 23, 1943, at St. Theresa’s Church in Hellertown, PA. Bill was 23, and Helen was 22.
Bill always wanted a large family and they wasted no time getting started. In December of 1943 their first child Carolann was born with Georgene following 2 years later in 1945.
As the story goes though, Bill was so hoping for a boy they didn’t even have a girls name picked out. He wanted very much to name his first male child George after his Father. In order to compromise they went with Georgene.
It certainly helped that Georgene turned out to be a bit of “Tom Boy” because Bill and Helen would have 3 more girls, Pamela in 1951, Francine in 1956 and Mariann in 1961, before their Son William was born in December of 1962, 21 months before Bill’s passing.
Early on in their marriage, they rented an apartment in Agnes’ house, which at times was a bit challenging, but the two found ways to overcome the friction. Bill helped maintain the property inside and out, which was a lot of work, considering it was coal heat, and the property was surrounded with shrubs. But that wasn’t even enough to please Agnes, particularly because she didn’t quite approve of their parenting style, which was a bit too playful for her.
Seeing Helen stop 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 just was not how Agnes thought children should be raised.
Bill and Helen 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.
That’s why when they started having children Bill wanted Helen to stay home and quit working. Yes this was old-fashioned, but for the times it was pretty normal. Bill felt a woman’s place was at home with the children, and it was his job to provide for the family, no matter how hard he had to work to do so.
Although playful, Bill was a very strict disciplinarian, and would not tolerate picky eaters, disobedience and whining. This also applied when it came to the girls and their grades at school. He highly believed in getting a good education. He felt it was the stepping-stone to a better future, obviously because he himself was unable to finish his engineering degree.
He expected only the best out of the girls with their schoolwork. And the girls never let him down; they most definitely wanted to please their Dad. This gave Bill bragging rights with his co-workers. Especially when Carolann got a scholarship for nursing school and Georgene had to present a portfolio for admission into Kutztown University, both were very proud moments for Bill.
Bill even invested in the very expensive Encyclopedia Britannica, which before the Internet was the go to for information. No such thing as Google back then. All the children made good use out of these, long after Bill had passed, a very wise and worthy investment on his part.
In addition he enrolled in a Classic Record Club, so the girls could enrich their minds and ears listening to classical music.
Bill’s strictness also came into play when he taught Carolann and Georgene to drive. He was very tough on them, but he was also a very good teacher.
Falling in line with Bill’s old-fashion way of thinking was how very strict he was when it came to not only the girl’s attire, but Helen’s too. He wanted them all to be dressed like nice young ladies, properly covered and clean. Helen often made lookalike dresses for the girls and her and Bill just loved that.
Despite being very old-fashioned in his thinking when it came to Helen not working while raising the children, when it came to his daughters the skies were the limits. At one point Georgene mentioned becoming a hairdresser because she enjoyed playing with different hairstyles, he told her that would be a waste of her brains. Later she mentioned becoming a social worker, his response, “that’s for rich kids.”
Bill and Helen were also member of the Bethlehem Steel Club, which had a beautiful swimming pool, clubhouse, golf course and picnic grounds. Getting the girls swimming lessons was important to Bill. He knew the importance of safety in all areas of life, not just in the workplace.
Being a very talented diver, Bill loved having access to the pool as much as the children did. Plus it gave an additional opportunity to display proper pool safety.
The Steel Club hosted Christmas parties, egg hunts and picnics, and this gave the family an opportunity to socialize with other Steel workers families.
In 1958, Bill and Helen took a huge leap when they built their own home in Bright Acres/Bingen, which was just outside of Hellertown. They could finally find their emancipation from living in Agnes’ home.
This was an exciting time for the whole family, a place to finally call their own. The untouched countryside surrounding their home offered a much needed refuge. They felt as though they could breathe again.
Bill wasted no time landscaping the property, which was about 1 ½ acres, planting shrubs and trees that would compliment the house, clearing the fence line and building a rock garden. The girls were all expected to help with these tasks. No complaining, no excuses, and no allowances. It was tough, but they all developed a good work ethic from the experience.
In addition, Bill loved gardening, the one thing he and his Mother had in common. At her home they had a huge garden they both tended to, so it goes without saying he would plant a huge vegetable garden at their new home. Surrounding it with raspberry and currant bushes, which Helen would use to create wonderful jelly to can and freeze their harvest. They lived the farm to table life well before it was even a thing.
Bill’s massive garden was a place of refuge after a long day at work. Often calling Helen before he left work telling her to feed the children because he was going out in the garden when he got home. His garden continued to be a place of refuge even when he became ill, often sitting in a lawn chair watering his plants.
Bill and Helen 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 to one place and bottles went back to the beverage distributor.
As an avid hunter, fisherman and overall outdoorsman, Bill was in his element in this more rural setting. He would continue to raise German Short Haired Pointers to be sold for hunting. He had started this while living at his Mother’s, but he could take it to a new level, building a huge fenced in area for the dogs. Even allowing them in the house on the coldest of Winter’s days.
He also made his own lures for fishing and custom designed carved gunstocks. Both were works of art just like his furniture.
In addition, Bill was a member of the Hellertown Sportsman’s Association and the NRA. While with the NRA he taught gun safety. Even making sure to teach his older daughters Carolann and Georgene how to safely handle a gun.
He also taught all the girls the basics of fishing; Pamela even won a contest at the Sportsmen’s Association. He would sometimes even take one of them with him when he went for a quick fishing trip after work to unwind. Being outside, in any fashion, was a major stress reliever for Bill.
One great adventure Bill took the entire family on was a fishing trip to Canada. This was before Mariann and William were born, so it was just the four older girls, but Francine was little enough to not realize Canada was a country, and thought it was one of Bill’s many friends who they often visited after church. There was one who never had toys, so Francine’s response when finding out about the trip was to ask, “Does Canada have toys?” A phrase that is still used in the family today.
In order to make the trip itself part of the adventure, Bill created a spot between the seats, stacking the suitcases and covering them with blankets, so the girls could sleep. He preferred to drive at night, and this way the girls would be comfortable and could rest when needed. Having tasty snacks like Oreos and coffee milk helped too.
They rented a rustic cabin with a screened in porch overlooking a lake. The scenery was pristine and the water so clear you could see your feet on the sandy bottom. In the evening they would build a campfire to sit around and sing songs. Or, hangout in the cabin and play games.
Since Bill had a background in Amateur Theatre, I’m quite sure he made the games quite entertaining, as well as the group sing-alongs.
One excursion on the trip involved taking Georgene and Carolann out on a boat to catch frogs that would later become dinner. The girls swore they wouldn’t eat the frogs legs after seeing them still hoping about even after their heads were cut off, but upon tasting them discovered they were quite good.
While on the Canada Trip Adventure, when they went out to a restaurant, Bill told the girls they were only allowed to have cereal for breakfast or a hot dog for lunch. Considering the size of the family, this is quite understandable.
Despite Bill’s early passing, his love of nature and the outdoors was instilled in all the children, even Mariann and William, who were too little to even know him. He was a true environmentalist, with a love for every living thing on this earth and knew the value of having a good relationship with the environment, and his children all do too, thanks to him.
As a matter of fact, William has his own landscaping business, Pamela and her husband are both Master Gardeners, and his oldest Grandson (who he never knew) is an Environmental Engineer. To say it’s in the genes is an understatement.
Another trait some of the children inherited, which isn’t a good one though, is his “Slavinsky Natura” – aka temper. Bill was quick to anger, but then just as quickly cooled down. Unfortunately this upset the household, which took much longer to relax after an outburst.
Fortunately, the children who did inherit this trait have very much mellowed as they have aged, which I’m guessing would have been the same for Bill had he had the opportunity to grow old with Helen.
In reference to Bill’s friends, he had a lot of them. All with a variety of skill sets different from his, who could help with things he couldn’t do himself. One of those was welding, which came in handy when Bill wanted a swing set for the children at the new house. This friend also made a custom designed Christmas tree stand, which stayed in the family for years.
Bill also had friend’s who had cherry and peach trees that the family would go pick when in season, and another with a farm where he could cut a fresh Christmas tree.
An interesting habit Bill had in regards to his friends was, when driving, if he saw them, he would nod and say their names as he passed by, just a simple greeting acknowledging them, even if they didn’t see him.
Bill would often randomly stop by to visit friends, usually after church, which meant he had the family with him. The odd thing was, he generally went in by himself, leaving Helen and the girls in the car. Sometimes waiting in the car for an hour, Helen found ways to entertain the girls, but never complained. She knew Bill just needed some time with his friend.
Part of Bill’s escape from stress, beyond his garden or fishing was the huge workshop he built in the basement of the new home. That was a great escape for him where he would create his masterpieces.
He kept it immaculate and well organized. So much so that he knew if one of the girls borrowed a supply for a school project, because it would never be put back in its proper place.
He was a bit of an inventor too and even applied for patents on a few of his inventions, but it’s not known whatever became of them.
Bill also had large fish tanks for a while that he kept as meticulous as his workshop. This was just one more hobby that helped to alleviate stress in his life.
Both Bill and Helen were very creative and playful and it showed in how they approached the holidays, especially Christmas. It was most certainly a magical time.
Bill would create the most amazing Putz with real moss gathered from a friend’s farm. It was so large it took over the living room in their small apartment and half the living room in the new home.
The two of them would stay 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.
At Easter the egg coloring was a major event supervised by Bill. This tradition is still carried on by all the children and grandchildren. Easter just isn’t Easter without this tradition.
Bill was not a very demonstrative man, but he found ways to let his girls know he loved them. Like placing his hand on their shoulder and gently guiding them when they were walking somewhere, or see that he had Valentines for each of them, telling them they’re all his sweethearts.
And, when the girls had processions at school he’d put together bouquets from the peonies, roses and Lilly of the Valley that lined the property at his Mother’s house. These bouquets were more beautiful than the purchased ones the other girls’ at school which made the Danko Girls very proud.
The biggest sign of his love though was his concern for Carolann and Georgene when they went out on a date. He would tell Helen not to worry and to go bed, but then he would wait up. When he heard the car pull into the driveway, he would flash the carport lights on and off to let them know he was waiting for them. I’m thinking this was also a way to worn the boy Dad was watching.
Bill so wanted something more for his children, and he did everything he could to see that their life experiences were ones that would expand their minds and enhance their overall well-being. They were not wealthy, but he made sure everything they did was rich with wonder and awe.
If Bill were alive today I think he’d be pleased to see that all his efforts were not in vain. Each one of his children is unique and have tried hard to stay true to their hearts just like him. And all continue to honor their Slovak roots, which they are very proud of.
Although Bill passed way too young, the legacy of the highly creative, multi-talented, passionate outdoorsman and environmentalist that he was has lived on with not only his children, but also his five grandsons and one great grandson.
AND, if he were here to see his grandsons and great grandson all grow into the fine young men they are, I’m quite sure he would be bragging to all his friends, just as he did about his girls.
When a soul is strong and full of life, their energy lives on even when they are gone. This is just the case for William “Bill” Henry Danko. Physically he left this Earth in 1964 at the youthful age of 45, but the spirit of his soul still lingers within all his loved ones, forever and for always.
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.
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.
Back in May I took a retirement planning class. It was
informative and overwhelming at the same time. Fortunately part of the price
included two very detailed workbooks, which have come in handy as I unravel all
the details taught.
In addition, they offered
two free consultations with the
planner who taught the class. It was those consultations that turned out to be
even more beneficial than the class.
The planner was a wealth of information beyond retirement
planning. He became the source of
inspiration I needed to believe my
dream of turning writing into my retirement plan was and is valid and possible.
To have someone who
spends their days with their head in the
world of investments and numbers believe that something creative was a tangible prospect for my future blew my mind. On the numbers side of things,
he did have me write a business plan and included that in the retirement plan
we discussed at my second appointment.
was the wealth of resources he
passed on beyond that that became the spark
I needed to ignite my plan for the