Legacies of Hope

By Tom Attig

Like so many immigrants before him, my Grandpa Nagel came to America in 1914 to escape a coming war and to find and make a better life for himself and his family. Grandma shared his hopes and supported his aspirations. She followed him with their four children and gave birth first to my mother and then to four more in the years that followed.

The Nagel family echoes with stories of how my grandparents struggled to learn a new language and culture. How they made homes in the row houses of Chicago. How they worked hard to make ends meet and feed their growing family. How the changes and struggles took their toll on the relationship between them.

Grandma believed education was a key to success. Her oldest son, Helmut, wanted to continue beyond grammar school into high school. Grandpa blocked his way, thinking he should apprentice as he would have in Germany. Grandma saw that that was not the way in this new country. She stood up to Grandpa, by no means an easy thing to do. She insisted my uncle be allowed to complete high school. She encouraged all of her children to do well in school. All but two of the nine finished high school. One fell just short. One graduate earned a college degree.

The Great Depression did not diminish Grandma's hopes for better lives for her children. It didn't help that Grandpa stubbornly passed on a very generous offer from the world's leading retailer to market an invention he had patented in the foolish and mistaken expectation that someone else would offer him more. And it didn't help that he left for California for a few years, returned empty-handed, and eventually left for good. The older children found work because of their educations. They pulled together and shared their earnings with Grandma who kept the household going.

The Nagel children realized much of the American dream. The older ones adapted well to their new environment. In later life, one remained at home, held a good job, and cared for Grandma. The others found good work or married hard-working men. They established homes of their own. They provided better for their children than they had known. They passed on Grandma's legacy of hope through hard work and education. The norm among my cousins is a college or university degree, and several of us have advanced degrees. We, in our turn, have passed along this legacy of hope to our children.


My father, eighteen years older than my mother, was really of an earlier generation. He and his nine brothers and sisters were raised by Midwestern tenant farmers around the turn of the century. Because my grandfather Attig died in the 1920s and my grandmother when I was only three, I know very little of their aspirations for their children. It is not a stretch, however, to imagine that they also hoped for better lives for them. They pushed all to stay in school through the eighth grade (the norm for the time). All made it that far. One finished high school and became a teacher. Each one escaped the hardship and poverty their parents knew on the farm.

Dad, like his five brothers, was driven to find more steady, less hazardous, and rewarding work in the city. Still, his and theirs was primarily physical labor and nearly as arduous as farm labor. Life was better for them, but marginally so. Like my Grandma Nagel, Dad wanted nothing more than a chance at a better life for his children. He did all he could to encourage my brother and me to do well in school and get the education and find the opportunities he never had. He was so proud of us that it was sometimes embarrassing.