Happy July 4th! How My Great-Grandfather Louis Brought Me To The U.S.

There are families who lovingly and carefully preserve not only their memories, but all the artifacts of their ancestors. Not ours. I had seen a few photos and never got to meet either grandfather.

The very little I knew of my great grandfather, Louis M. Stumer, was a brochure for an office building in Chicago, the North American Building, in which he was an investor at the turn of the century.

With the Fourth of July coming up, and the recent renewal of my green card after 22 years of living in the U.S., I Googled him recently. I wanted to learn some more about the man, and found an eerie set of coincidences. I’m a journalist — he published two successful literary magazines, The Red Book and the Blue Book. I just finished writing a book about the retail industry and discovered that he owned or co-owned one of several prominent Chicago stores of the era.

I even found a photo of his mausoleum, the one to which my mom holds the key.

A photo of his wife, swooning in a theatrical tableau, from a 1907 image in the Chicago Daily News, may explain my occasional penchant for drama.

As I was growing up, Louis was only an initial, S, the middle of my grandmother’s monograms. The man was a total mystery. He was Jewish and Republican; I’m neither.

From a newsletter of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society:

While mail order remains Rosenthal’s chief claim to fame, he was also active in other enterprises. Together with his partners, Eckstein and Stumer, he was involved in such ventures as clothing and millinery establishments, restaurants, and drugstores. Emporium World Millinery was one of their largestventures. The partners also owned and managed real estate properties, and even had success as magazine publishers (The Red Book and The Blue Book).

(The Red Book sold a fairly astonishing 338,5000 copies in 1906 — according to a piece about Chicago publishing I found in the American Journal of Sociology from 1906. Much to Easterners’ annoyance, these upstart Midwestern publishers gave New Yorkers a run for their money.)

The real estate group built on and owned by the Chicago Board of Education, on 99-year leases dating from 1890. The flagship property was the North American Building at 36-44 South State Street, a 19-story office building with many tenants, most of them wholesalers. Benjamin Rosenthal’s office was located in this building. The seven-story Emporium Building at 26-28 South State was occupied for many years by the Miller-Wohl Company, retailers of ladies’ ready-to-wear. The Mercantile Building at 10-14 South State was leased by the S.S. Kresge Company for its own use.

I wish I could have met him. He was clearly a driven, shrewd businessman, and learning these details helps better explain why my maternal grandmother was such a grande dame.

Born and raised in Canada, I always found my American relatives — and their astonishing self-confidence (Canadians hate that!)  — intriguing. I always wondered who they were and what shaped them and how they affected, or didn’t, their own communities of the era.

My new green card arrived this week. It is now really green, with a Statue of Liberty and my photo, this time not in color but sort of a ghostly black and white. My signature is on it below my photo, and my birth date floats above my head in an odd, receding wave. It’s also got my thumb-print. It’s good for another ten years.

Thanks to Louis’s grand-daughter, my mother, who passed on her American citizenship to me to acquire the green card, I get to live in the U.S. — and celebrate the 4th. in his country.

What have you learned about your grand or great-grandparents that took you by surprise?

What Runs In Your Family?

WUHAN, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 16:  Workers place an...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Every morning I knock my Mom askew when I open the bedroom curtains.

It’s a blue and green oil painting of her, done by my father, about 5 x 7, a nude done when they were first married. There’s a red and black version of her, also by him, hanging in the dining room — neither are terribly detailed, nothing creepy or embarrassing.

They divorced when I was six, so evidence of their initial love is as comforting to me as loving the beauty of the images as the fact they’re both well-done and of/by people I love.

Our apartment is filled with art and photos: by us, of us, by our parents or friends, alive or dead. My Dad, a former maker of documentaries and news television series, does just about anything creative well, usually with no training: engravings, lithographs, etchings, silver, oils. My sweetie recently took some great photos of Dad, standing at his easel in his bathrobe, working on a still life in his studio.

My mom was a radio and television and film and print journalist. She never attended college, marrying my Canadian Dad at 17 and following him from Manhattan to Vancouver, where I was born. Living there, they started an art gallery, representing terrific painters like David Milne. She modeled for the local newspaper. Creative fearlessless seemed part of their DNA.

I grew up taking all this for granted. Being creative, taking risks, trying stuff without — oh, yeah, training or education or official certification — having an idea and putting it out there for (gulp) mass public judgment and, one hopes, some decent pay, is just what Kellys do.

My partner grew up the son of a Baptist minister and a kindergarten teacher, of Hispanic heritage, born and raised in New Mexico. He’s the guy who told me — almost a deal-breaker when we were dating — that my closets were messy. (Um, they’re closets.) In his own loving/annoying way, he’s very much a PK, a preacher’s kid. They’re said to share fairly universal characteristics: kind, ethical, empathetic, good around adults, obedient to authority. I swear his gravestone will  carry the words, “Be careful.” In his excessively bossy moments, I call him Hall Monitor Boy. I hate rules!

But I love his ferocious work ethic, his joy in teaching and mentoring, his ability to handle any situation with grace and humility and the right degree of gravitas. When he was little, he was routinely sent out to show visiting preachers the local tourist sights, so he’s at ease with strangers and making people feel comfortable.

We don’t have kids, so whatever we are, or do, doesn’t play out within our own offspring.

What skills or beliefs or characteristics do you carry from your Mom or Dad or grandparents?

What of yourself do you see in your kids?

Does it make you cringe, or smile?