Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Hail and Farewell!


As the second COVID year, 2021, ends, so is this blog.  Having reached the advanced age of 86 and, more important, run out of appropriate topics about which to write, I am concluding any further contributions to this website.  

The site was initiated in April 2009 when I was introduced to and fascinated by the Internet possibilities.  Christened “Bottles, Booze, and Back Stories,” the blog initially was aimed primarily at collectors of antique ceramics, glass and other antiquarian artifacts, although a wide range of subjects was explored.  Several years ago the name was changed to “Memories and Miscellany” to reflect a growing emphasis on personal memories and family history.

Over the dozen years of its existence the site has featured 335 posts and as of today attracted 586,889 look-in “hits” from all around the world.  It has also received 327 comments, most of them gratifying or helpful.  My number of followers has been low, as expected given the eclectic subject matter.  Only nine signed up and the majority of them were relatives.

From what I am told, the blog will continue to be available on the internet for an extended period of time, allowing the interested to access it through topic “labels.”  I will continue to post on my other website, devoted to the stories of  individuals involved in the American liquor industry prior to National Prohibition in 1920. Called “Pre-Prohibition Whiskey Men,”  the site has been popular, attracting 1.2 milllion “hits” and 346 followers during its ten years of existence.

Looking back on my experience with the blog now concluding, it primarily seems to have been a convenient vehicle to express a wide range of interests in a way that would attract others of similar interests, as well as a means to preserve other writings not previously available online.   For anyone looking in during coming days, my hope is that you will find the material worth your time.  Jack Sullivan

Saturday, December 4, 2021

German Ancestors: Part 2: The Lays of the Land

At this point we return to Germany,  to a very small town in Baden-Wurtemberg, not far from Heilbron, called Berg.   There in 1888 a 14-year-old boy was working as a farm laborer for his mother and neighbors to put by enough money for his passage to America.   His name was Heinrich Adam Lay (in German pronounced “Lie”).  Later Americanized as Henry and called “Pop” by his children,  he already had farmer brothers in the U.S.,  living in Illinois near Peoria.   They were among the children of Friedrich Lay,  a farmer, born in 1836 in Kreuzle, Germany.  Friedrich was the son of Johann Christian Lay of Kreuzle and Rosine Schmidgall,  all of this known through rigorously-kept lists in German in the Lay family Lutheran Bible.    

Friedrich married twice.  In 1863,  he wed Jakobine Sinn who bore him two children before dying in childbirth.   In 1869 he married Barbara Waldbusser,  our great great-grandmother, born in 1842.   She was the daughter of Friedrich Waldbusser and Katharine Schluchter and apparently a cousin of Jakobine .  She bore Friedrich Lay 17 children,  of whom only six would live beyond infancy.  Of those,  Henry was the second son,  born in September, 1874.   He would remember his mother fondly as a warm and caring person.

Henry was only 10 years old when his father suffered a fatal injury.   Friedrich was driving a team of oxen and a wagon over a wooden bridge when it partially collapsed under the weight.   He was thrown under the wagon and suffered a wound to his arm.   The wound became infected with tetanus,  he developed lock-jaw and died.  The year was 1886 and Friedrich was only 48.   Barbara never remarried.  She and the children did the farm work,  Henry recalled,  even though she insisted the youngsters all stay in school.    Like many German communities,  the farmers lived in villages on the hilltops and went out by day to their fields on the slopes and in the valleys.    Henry would remember the rigors of the climb and much prefer the flat land of the American Midwest.   A 2003 visit to Berg, which means “mountain” in German,  confirmed that the town,  though small, still exists at the top of several hills, but by no stretch mountains, with fields spread out all around.   Even by German standards it is a small village.


Shipwrecked and a Job

  Family members believe it was Barbara who urged her son to emigrate to the United States.   The specter of conscription into the Prussian military was an ever present threat for all young German males.   Whatever the reason,  in 1888 the very young Henry Lay left for the United States on a sailing vessel out of Antwerp, Belgium.   He came alone as a third-class passenger in the lower parts of the ship where he saw rats mingle freely with the paying customers.

As the ship neared the U.S. coastline,  it struck a fishing boat.   Panic ensued as water began pour into the hold.   The crew was uncertain how long the ship would stay up.  A  S.O.S. failed to rouse any immediate response and it was two days before help came.    It must have been a very anxious wait.    During this emergency, however, Henry was fascinated by the crew of the fishing boat who were taken aboard the larger ship.  They were of African descent and Henry never before had seen dark-skinned people.  Years later in a newspaper interview he said that the novelty helped him forget the danger.    

Following the rescue of the passengers by another ship,  Henry landed in New York Harbor,  passed by the Statue of Liberty which had been dedicated only two years earlier,  and was processed through Ellis Island.   He was greeted in New York City by German friends of his older half-brother,  George, who already was farming in Illinois.   Because Henry could not speak a word of English at that point, those friends accompanied Henry on the train as far as Peoria.   George met him there with a horse and buggy and the brothers rode to Tremont,  a few miles south.   George arranged for Henry to work there as a “chore boy” for a well-off farmer named John Buckley.

Henry liked Buckley and his wife very much.   They allowed him to go to school, helped him learn to read and write English, and treated him like one of the family.  They also provided comfortable surroundings in a spacious farm dwelling.  In return his job was to feed the livestock.   Buckley owned several farms;  sheep were kept at one site and horses at another.  Henry’s chore was filling large sacks with corn and grain and carry it on horseback from place to place regardless of the weather.   It was heavy work and he was not a big man but he managed.  He never forgot the kindness of the Buckleys.

Enter Pauline Reger

For seven years Henry Lay toiled as a farm laborer before returning to Germany in 1895 when he was 21 to visit his mother.    During this visit,  through a neighbor,  he met Pauline Reger,  our Great Grandmother,  born in 1876 at Adolzfurt,  a larger town not far from Berg.   She was the daughter of Carl Christian Reger of Adolzfurt (1839-1918),  a farmer and  Lutheran evangelist.  Carl’s parents are recorded as Jacob Joseph Reger (1807-1887)  and Maria Grasser (1815-1880), both of Adolzfurt.  Pauline’s mother was Rosine Pfisterer (1850-1918).    Rosine’s parents are recorded as Georg Michael Pfisterer (1802-1857) of Weisslensburg,  and Rosine Christine Kramer (1821-1878),  originally of Schwollbronn.   The Regers can be traced back several further generations,  most of them farmers from Adolzfurt and surrounding towns.

Whether Pauline had “set her cap” for Henry at that point is unclear.  She organized four of her friends to accompany her and Henry back to America.   She and the others came as bonded servants,  bound for a certain period of time to the family that paid for their passage,  and provided with room, board and a small amount of spending money.

The trip back was made by steamer, not sail, and in second class quarters.  Despite better accommodation, the trip provide a trial for Henry.  By his account the five girls were hard to keep track of and kept getting lost on the large ship.   In New York his problems multiplied as the they agitated to be allowed to see the sights of the big city.  Even on the train trip to Peoria,  Henry worried that one or more might get off to look around and be left behind.    It must have been with a  deep sense of relief then that the group reached Peoria and most of the girls went on to prearranged jobs in the Chicago area.  Henry took Pauline to Tremont where she found employment as a housemaid until the couple were married in March 1896.

In a strange land and not speaking English very well Pauline was homesick for Germany.    The Regers in Germany persuaded her sister,  Karoline,  to emigrate and keep her company.   Karoline arrived and also was employed as a housemaid,  both in Peoria and the Chicago area.  With the presence of her sister Pauline settled into her role as wife and, soon, mother.  

After their marriage Henry and Pauline lived on a farm owned by a man named Leonard, near Tremont.  There their first four children -- Carrie,  Minnie, Clara and Henry -- were born   They were followed by two others,  our Grandmother, Emma Margaret Lay, born in Deer Creek, Ill. in 1907, and a younger sister, Alice.

Back East to Ohio

The Lay family story might have played out in Illinois except for a disparity in land values.    Prices had skyrocketed in Illinois to more than $300 per acre but Henry Lay found that Ohio farm land was being offered for considerably less.  So ignoring the national mantra to “go West” the family looked eastward.   In 1908 Henry bought an 80-acre farm in Paulding Country near a hamlet called Haviland,  100 miles south of Toledo and not far from the Indiana line.   The price was $115 an acre,  for a total cost of $9,200.

Haviland, Ohio

A word should be said about Paulding County,  which looms large in our family story:  Named for John Paulding,  one of the captors of Major Andre,  a British spy and co-conspirator of Benedict Arnold,  the county was created in 1820 from land ceded to the white men by the Indians in the Treaty of 1818.  It was settled very late because much of the region was marshy and plagued with malaria.    Described as “low, wet, swampy, and heavily timbered,” even as late as the 1880s,  Paulding County changed radically when a barrel-making industry grew up.   Trees were harvested to make hoops and stays, and the subsequently vacant land was turned to crops.   

Farming, however, was problematic because of the presence of highly unusual, widespread deposits of red clay.  Formed over millennia from oxide bearing rocks and more usually found in tropical climes, this soil is known by agronomists worldwide as “Paulding laterite.” The land is not easily farmed,  being rubbery when wet and rock hard when dry, which may offer a clue about why Henry Lay received an affordable price on the land.

One of Henry and Pauline’s daughters,  Carrie,  later remembered the train trip from Illinois to Ohio with the family,  including toddler Emma.  Carrie was unimpressed with the sight of her new home and surroundings.  Why had their father brought them to this place?   The family provisions,  including their furniture,  a team of horses, a cow and a dog,  were loaded into a boxcar and arrived a week later in Haviland,  that had a rail spur.

The new home for the Lay family had a log barn and a farm house that was an ell-shaped,  seven-room white frame dwelling.  It must have seemed like a dream come true for Henry and Pauline.   The family had a foothold on the American dream:   They were on the way to owning their own land and there was free public education in the form of a one-room school in Haviland.   In good weather the children walked to school;  in bad, “Pop” would hitch up the horse and take them in the family cab buggy.  Education always was given strong emphasis in the Lay family.

Death of a Mother -- and After

On August 19, 1912 -- some four years after the move to Ohio -- tragedy struck the Lays.   Mother Pauline, only 36 years and five months old,  died.   She had had gall bladder attack and the protocol of the time was to operate.   The procedure took place on the kitchen table.   As so often in that time,  the patient succumbed.   We have a copy of a memorial card that was issued for Pauline’s death.  It contains this verse:

We have lost our darling mother, 

    She has bid us all adieu,

                   She had gone to live in heaven,

    And her form is lost to view,

                   Oh, that dear one, how we loved her,

                        Oh, how hard to give her up,

But an angel came down for her,

      And removed her from our flock.

The verse fails utterly to reflect the trauma of Pauline’s death on the family.  The oldest of six children was 14,  Emma was five, and Alice was still a baby   Henry Lay, consumed with the backbreaking work of the farm,  had a desperate need for someone to run his household and look after the youngsters.  It was agreed that Pauline’s sister, Karoline, would come from Illinois to assist.   Two years after her arrival in the household,  she and Henry were married.   They would have three more children of their own,  Pauline,  Lillian and Richard.  Karoline would be known as “Dundy,”  to family and friends,  even to her own children,  The name was a corruption of the German word for “aunt,”  and given her by the youngest of her sister’s children, Alice.

Life on the farm was difficult even in the best of times.   Paulding laterite proved fertile in when the weather was relative dry but difficult in wet seasons.   Among the crops grown were sugar beets which required back-breaking work to cultivate.   First the seed had to be drilled into the ground in the spring.  Then the small plants were thinned in the rows, usually by hand using a short-handled hoe.   Late in the fall when the beets were mature they had to be dug out by hand and the tops lopped off with a large specially constructed knife.   Piles of beets then were lifted by pitchfork onto wagons where they were unloaded onto railroad cars and carried to the sugar factory in the nearby town of Paulding.

The farm, early 1920s

Much of what the farm produced was for home consumption.   The family grew all its own fruits and vegetables.   Its cows, pigs and chickens produced all the milk,  butter, cheese and meat for the dinner table.   There was no electricity and consequently no refrigeration,  so that preservation of food became a major occupation.  Fruits and vegetables  were canned or stored in a “root cellar,”  a earthen floored pit dug inside the house and accessible by a ladder.   In the root cellar produce such as potatoes, cabbage, and apples were buried under mounds of dirt and straw.  In winter, as food was needed, the mounds were uncovered and items removed for consumption.   Some meats were canned,  others salted and smoked for preservation.  

Farm life held few nostalgic images for the Lays,  mostly just memories of unremitting hard work.



Sunday, November 21, 2021

Our German Ancestors Part 1: The Boers and the Webers


Previous “family stories” provided on this blog have involved ancestors whose origins were almost entirely in the British Isles --  English,  Welsh, Scotch and Irish.   They were high and low born, rich and poor,  Protestant and Catholic,  farmer and city dweller.  But they all shared one attribute --- all spoke English as a native tongue.   Moreover, most could read and write in English.   This was of immense benefit in America,  a prerequisite to “getting ahead.” 

As the 19th Century progressed,  however,  other groups of immigrants were arriving who were not so privileged, people who did not come here speaking English.  They came from Central and Southern Europe.   Many originated in Germany and some of those German immigrants were our ancestors.  They are on both sides of our family.  In this post we tell the story of the ancestors of Paula, from her mother’s side.  In Part 2, to come, the story is of Jack’s German ancestors.

Going AWOL to America 

Although Germans had been emigrating to America for years, the 1860s were a period of strong movement from that country.   Compulsory military service had been initiated in Germany in 1859  and the Iron Chancellor,  Otto von Bismark,  had initiated an aggressive foreign policy that would eventuate in a series of wars.   For enlisted men, service in the German Army was akin to a prison sentence.    Common soldiers were brutalized and forced to survive in a de-humanized atmosphere,  even in periods between actual combat.  Many recruits died as a result of harsh treatment during basic training.

 Paula's great grandfather, Bernhardt (sometimes”Bernard”) Boers was a “house” tailor,  apparently working for a wealthy family in Drensteinfurt,  Munster,  Westphalia, when he was drafted into the German Army in 1863 or 1864.   Within a short period,  Bernhardt was convinced that military life was not for him.   He went absent-without-leave and returned to Drensteinfurt.   There he married Anna Sumering,  who had worked as a maid in the same wealthy home.  Shortly thereafter,  probably one step ahead of the authorities,  they took off for America.

We know nothing about the origins or parentage of Bernhardt and Anna,  but among all our more recent ancestors,  this couple is the only one whose ocean passage we have been able to document.   “German Immigrants - List of Passengers Bound from Bremen to New York” records the passage of Bernhardt and Anna aboard the steamship,  America, from North German Lloyd in Bremerhaven, shown below.   It arrived in New York harbor on July 18, 1864.   His age is given as 27,  which is internally consistent with other records.  She was 24.


The Sidewalks of Peoria

We do not know why the couple settled in Peoria, Illinois.   Bernhardt,  according to the family,  had sister who preceded him to the U.S. and who ultimately went out West.   He also had a brother named Henry who was a Catholic  priest and emigrated later and settled in Wisconsin.   We have found a record of Henry serving briefly in 1870 as a pastor of a German Catholic parish in Kewaskum,  Wis.,  in Washington County. But Bernhardt and Anna did not move on to Wisconsin.  They made Peoria their permanent home and are buried there.

Since Peoria figures large in our German ancestor story,  a word about it is appropriate here.   This city in northern Illinois was the first European settlement in the state and one of the earliest in the Northwest Territory.  Located 130 miles southwest of Chicago,  Peoria lay at the southern end of a long lake and was an area rich in fish and game.  Using the Illinois River,  which flows to the Missouri River and thence to the Mississippi,  access to Gulf ports was possible.   The earliest European inhabitants were French settlers who eventually were made to move when American soldiers built a fort on the site in 1813.   As in Wisconsin,  fertile land could bought cheaply from the U.S. Government and widespread farming began about 1819 with Peoria as the market town.  It is shown below as it looked in 1867.

In 1854 the first of 15 railroad lines was established.   By the late 1800s 120 trains per day left Peoria,  bound for cities small and large,  including New York and Denver.  The city prospered and experienced both an economic and population boom.   Among early industries were meat packing,   casting foundries,  pottery makers,  farm machine manufacturing,  and -- of more than passing interest -- brewing and distilling.

In this vigorous economy,   there was a need for craftsmen like shoemakers and tailors.   Bernhardt Boers soon set up his own tailoring business.   In an 1883 city directory he is listed as a tailor at 408 Oak Street.   His wife may have worked by his side.   A census document lists her occupation as “tailoress.”   Bernhardt and Anna had eight children, of whom two died in infancy.   Among the living was Paula’s grandmother,  Elizabeth,  called “Lizzie” by her brothers,  born in 1876.

The Saloon Keepers Cometh

George Weber,  Paula’s great grandfather,  was born in Peoria in 1847.   We know nothing of his parents except that in the 1900 Census, they are recorded as having been born in Germany.   His occupation was saloon keeper.  We have an 1883 Peoria business directory in which George advertised his establishment,  located at 206 North Fayette St.,  as “saloon and beer bottler.”  He married Albina Huber, a Peoria girl who likewise was born in the U.S., in 1849, to German immigrant parents.  We know little about Albina’s parents, including their names,  except that they eventually resided in Peoria and Albina’s family was involved in the local distilling industry.   A contemporary Peoria directory lists an Emil J. Huber as a saloon keeper,  but we have no records directly linking him with Albina.

Brewing and distilling were common occupations in Peoria of that era.  At one time Peoria produced more whiskey than any city in the United States.  So great was the revenue from the whiskey tax that Peoria share of taxes paid to the federal government was greater than any other town in Illinois, including Chicago.  An abundance of corn and barley,  good water, and ample transportation were reason why beer and whiskey were major Peoria products.   From 1837 to 1919 and the onset of Prohibition,  the city housed 24 breweries and 73 distilleries.  Among them were the Leisey Brewery, below, in which George Weber is said to have worked for a period of time.

A Broken Marriage

The Webers had four children,  of whom the only male child was Hermo Henry Weber, Paula’s grandfather, born in 1877.  He was one of twins.  We know little about his early life, education, or how he met his future wife.  Henry married Elizabeth Boers (whom we met earlier) in Peoria, date uncertain.   They then moved to Independence, Iowa, where Hermo had a job as a bookkeeper for the Maytag Company which in those days was manufacturing farm equipment and, briefly,  automobiles,  as well as kitchen appliances.   The couple’s first two children would be born there,  Hermine in 1911, and our Grandmother Aileen Catherine in 1913.  Aileen was born on January 4, 1913, in Independence,  Iowa,  and baptized at St. Joseph’s Church on January 19.   A third child,  Hubert, was born to Hermo and Lizzie in 1915.

.   At some point the couple with the children moved back to Peoria where marital discord soon was to break up the family.  Hermo has been depicted as a stubborn,  demanding and penny-pinching husband who found it difficult to get along with other people.   As a result,  he frequently was  unemployed.   His behavior became unacceptable to Lizzie.  She sought and was granted a divorce.  After the divorce Hermo stayed in Peoria and moved in with his spinster sister.  Eventually Hermo moved to California where he died.  Neither married again.

  Lizzie was faced with the need to keep her family together despite having a difficult financial situation.  She moved to Milwaukee with the three children and lived for a time with her brothers,  Barney and Max,  who were musicians and cigar-makers.  There this single mother of found work as a stenographer in a local hotel.  She, with her brothers’ help, was able to keep the family together.

           Here we suspend the story of Paula’s German ancestors.  The next installment will tell the story of Jack’s German ancestry.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Friday Lunch Group: 50-Plus Years & Going Strong

Any group that can trace its origins back more than a half century must indeed be formidable.  Particularly in the fast paced atmosphere of the Washington, D.C. area. Such is the Friday Lunch Group (FLG) of which I was an original and youngest member in 1970.   

The FLG began that year as a weekly Friday assembly at the Hawk and Dove Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, Capitol Hill. Originally it was largely staff of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Through the years the membership has expanded to Senate staffers, lobbyists, and others involved in national policy issues.  Except during the pandemic year of 2020 very few Fridays have been missed during the ensuing decades. At this writing we are in our 52nd year with some 2,450 lunches “under our belts.”

From the outset the idea was to bring together individuals with an interest in and knowledge about national and international issues, who also enjoying a good meal and a libation or two.  The FLG has little structure, except for a chairman whose duty it is to remind members of the meeting and other information pertinent to the gathering, to deal with the dining location, and at times to direct the discussion in order to engage the greatest number of attendees into the conversation.

The Hawk and Dove was a convenient walk from our offices in the House Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill.  The owner was friendly, the food on the American saloon style, and the beer fresh.  We also met from time to time at the officer’s club a DC-area military base where our favorite dish was the “diet special” that was simply a huge patty of rare ground beef and cottage cheese.   At the outset the membership was small and I was the youngest member at 35 years old.  Our first chairman was Harry Cromer.

It was Harry who first laid down the rules for our repast.  Each diner was allowed two beverages at lunch, including alcohol.  (One observer said we were the last “two martini lunch group” left in the DC area.)  One could order any entree on the menu but no appetizer or dessert, just coffee.  The check was divided evenly among the assembled — cash on the barrelhead, no credit cards.  Over the years, those rules have prevailed with a few changes.  Under what is known as the “Pat Holt” exception a member is allowed to substitute two appetizers for an entree.

When Harry left the Hill to work in the State Department in the late ‘70s to become Inspector General of USAID, he moved the lunch to the nearby restaurant of the Watergate Hotel that was walking distance from his office.   There we met and made the friendship of the Maitre D,  Franco Rivera, the banquet manager, John Atus,  and the chef -- Klaus.  When the three opened a restaurant in Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Key Bridge from the District called the Tivoli, the FLG followed.  For almost 25 years, we met virtually every Friday at the Tivoli.  

FLG at the Tivoli


These were “palmy days.”  The food was excellent, the welcome hearty and the service from our once and always stellar from our cranky waiter, Tony.  The location was easily accessible to our membership, one that had expanded beyond Capitol Hill to individuals with other backgrounds, including the military, journalism and academia.  We also began a custom of inviting guests from among sitting and former Congressmen and other involved in international activities.

With Harry’s death, Chips Chester became chair, a position he held for some two decades.  Chips’ reign was characterized by a looser interpretation of Harrys coat and tie dress code.  It also was notable for the standard large plate of cooked spinach that served the table.  Chips detested broccoli as did several others and Popeye food became the standard.

When the Tivoli closed in 2009, the FLG for some months became a homeless wanderers.  We sought to stay in the Rosslyn because of its centrality to our membership.  We tried several restaurants in the area without success and then went to Bethesda where for years we rotated among several sites -- including the Bethesda Country Club, Kenwood Country Club,  and Le Ferme Restaurant in Chevy Chase. 

During Chips chairmanship we began series of FLG trips.  Among the early ones was a three-day visit to Milwaukee, home town of five of our members, called “The ZIG trip,” in honor of the deceased Rep. Clement Zablocki.  During the sesquicentennial of the Civil War (2011-2015) FLG field trips were arranged to battlefield sites in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, several with Park Service guides assigned to assist our historical understanding.  

With wives FLG made visits to Leesburg, Virginia, to tour the George Marshall House and the Woodrow Wilson House and Museum.  Wives also were part of an excursion to Staunton, Virginia, to see a play at the Shakespeare playhouse, visit a winery, and stay at a historic hotel.  The most “far afield” excursion was a trip of five to France, originating in Paris for a barge trip through the canals of Burgundy.

Holiday lunch at Bethesda CC

With Chips’ passing in 2011, I became chairman.  This ushered in one change.  Although we previously had marked the Christmas holiday season a special lunch, spouses were not part of the celebration.   That changed and annually for more than a decade we have been having a larger group that includes wives and, more recently, women staff members who assisted us during our years on Capitol Hill.

The FLG completed 50 years with a virtually unbroken record of weekly lunches only to be confronted in early 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown.  We compensated that year with a weekly email to which FLGers contributed items both serious and comic.  That was supplemented with monthly ZOOM sessions. 

First post-lockdown lunch, Tempo

With the relaxation of restrictions in 2021, we resumed actual lunches. As this is written, the FLG now has two cohorts, one in Bethesda dining at the country clubs mentioned earlier. It chaired by Mike Finley.  A Virginia group that I chair meets at Tempo Restaurant in Alexandria.  Joint lunches occur from time to time.  Currently the active membership is about twenty with another seven or eight at a distance and attending only occasionally.  Our deceased former members number fourteen.

One final note:  We have been accused of being utterly prosaic in not giving the group a name other than Friday Lunch Group (FLG).  In 50 plus years we have never found another that does not sound pretentious.  Ours works well.


Saturday, October 23, 2021

How I Became “An Agent of the Vatican”


A book published earlier this year, entitled “The Enduring Struggle:  The History of the U.S. Agency for International Development and America’s Uneasy Transformation of the World, quotes the former head of the agency’s population program, Dr. Reimert Ravenholt, shown here, calling me an “anti-birth control Catholic zealot.”  Elsewhere Dr. R. has labeled me “an agent of the Vatican.”  Let me set the record straight in a year by year account of those long ago events:

1973.  That year, on behalf of the House Foreign Affairs Committee I led an onsite study of four Asian countries that had been recipients of USAID population assistance.  The study found a number of problems besetting the programs, the most serious being the waste of more than $1 million on vasectomy/IUD materials that had been left moldering unused in warehouses in South Korea and the U.S.  This was fallout from Dr. Ravenholt’s belief that simply supplying birth control materials guaranteed their use.  When the Korea Mission Director, Mike Adler, a distinguished USAID executive, said “no more,” Dr. R tried to have him fired.  Our report backed Adler strongly.  Dr. R. dismissed it as the work of “amateurs.”

1975.  I led a study of USAID family planning programs in six countries of West Africa.  Once again the report detailed problems relating to Ravenholt’s belief that supply created demand.  The program largely was ignoring concomitant health needs in woefully under-served African populations.   The report also leveled strong criticism of USAID contributions to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) for ignoring Congressional strictures against funding abortion and for lending U.S. program funds to senior employees interest-free for personal use, also a violation of law.  By now Dr. R. was seeing me as a prime antagonist.

Early in 1976.  It came to light through the Congressional Record and subsequent news stories that in a memo Dr. R. had demanded the prime supplier of contraceptives for the USAID program produce red, white and blue condoms to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial.  Jokes about “saluting the flag” abounded.

Later in 1976. Imagine Dr. R’s concern when the Carter Administration put me in charge of the transition at USAID.  He advanced a candidate to be his superior, someone without qualifications but in thrall to him.  That individual subsequently was turned down.  Through his brother, the staff director for a powerful senator, Dr. R made a feint at stopping my appointment as head of USAID’s Asia Bureau. It failed. 

Early in 1977.  After only a few days at the Asia Bureau, I received a communique from the mission director in Nepal saying that some 50,000 condoms foisted on him had reached their expiration date and asked my permission to burn them.  In a response entitled “The Smell of Burning Rubber,” I criticized Ravenholt’s policy that initiated the condoms and suggested instead of burning the Mission bury them.  The memo “went viral” at USAID.

Later in 1977.  Dr. R called an Asia-wide conference of all population staff that was held in the Philippines. I attended. There he proposed ending the program in Indonesia, one that in its initial stages had been promising. He likely expected I would jump at the opportunity.  No way, I responded.  We would double down on success. 

1978:  By now the Asia & Pacific Bureau was moving ahead strongly in health-integrated family planning with robust projects in Philippines, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well as Indonesia, a start-up in India at the government’s request, and agreement by the Catholic cardinal of the Philippines to a USAID-funded sterilization program.  Soon the Bureau would be accounted the world’s largest single purchaser of condoms and birth control pills.  Dr. R. began complaining about our spending USAID dollars he thought were his.

1979:  Dr. R contracted for and bought 250,000 “menstrual regulation kits,” a euphemism for abortion ensembles involving a variety of hard plastic instruments.  After personally examining the kits and finding that they violated the legal prohibition against abortion, I notified the Administrator who ordered that they not be used.  After they were sent to a warehouse, Dr. R complained that I was against “the most effective means of birth control.” Indeed.

1980.  Dr. Ravenholt was fired.  His assumption is that I had a hand in it.  Not true.  The impetus came from Capitol Hill where he had angered members by an inflammatory public statement that half the women of the world wanted to be sterilized.  The claim had imperiled passage of the foreign aid bill.  Dr. R’s immediate boss (Jewish) and the Deputy Administrator (Ethical Concept) lowered the axe.  I never lifted a finger.  Ravenholt had dug his own grave.  

The Rest of the Story:  In the book cited above an ally of Dr. R is quoted  saying “Both sides of the issue made tremendous mistakes.”  Wrong.  Integrating birth control with maternal and child health care, something Ravenholt distained, was the key to the successes seen throughout Asia and other parts of the world.  My particular pride is in the drastic reduction of family size in Bangladesh as contraception has been adopted. The outcome of the Asia programs should answer Dr. R’s attacks on me as an “anti-family planning Catholic zealot.”  As for being an “agent of the Vatican,” if that claim is sufficient to assure my beatification, let it be.

Note:  The 2021 book cited at the outset of this post was written by John Norris.  Although Author Norris fails to capture the spirit of the many marvelous people who have staffed USAID through the years, he provides a useful “top down” assessment of Agency policy since 1960.