My maternal grandfather, George Joseph Niesl was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s hard to write about my grandpa, not only because I miss him, but also because he was a walking paradox; the original Renaissance man. There is no single human being who has touched me in more ways than he has.
I’m sure Grandpa Dodge’s influence is felt by others in my family in different ways, some of which I maybe haven’t considered and some of which may not be entirely positive. I thought about asking some of my cousins about some of their memories of Grandpa but decided that, in the end, this blog is intended to communicate my family history to my kids. I’d rather have them see Grandpa Dodge through my eyes.
Dodge was born to George and Katie (Dachs) Niesl on August 6, 1909. George and Katie had 5 children who died shortly after childbirth, two of them also named George. Born in 1905, John would be the first of the 7 Niesl kids to survive. They lived in Milwaukee roughly on 20th and Vliet.
My grandpa’s fondness of giving us nicknames must have been a tradition he learned from his dad. In the Niesl family, there were nicknames like “Hans”, “Mutz”, “Katzie”, and “Happy” and
of course “Dodge”. We learned that Grandpa got his nickname because of the way one of his younger sisters pronounced George. Most of my siblings and cousins had nicknames given to us by Grandpa. There was “Moe”, “Mugs”, “Dynamite”, “Missy”, “Rump Roast”, and “Loud Mouth” to name a few. I was “Beans”. My daughter Betsie was one of the last to get a nickname, “Liza”. Besides Liza, my kids now have nicknames that I’ve given them. Korey is Boris and Nate is Knuckles.
His ability to coin nicknames wouldn’t be the only thing passed down from his dad. His dad was a painter, a devout Catholic hired to create artwork in Catholic churches all over the Midwest. Dodge would inherit many of his father’s artistic abilities. My uncle George has a collection of post cards sent from George Sr. to his son throughout the years while he was on the road painting churches. Despite having what to me would be a prestigious job, the Niesl family didn’t have a lot of money so Grandpa was forced to leave school at an early age to get a job. One of his first jobs was riding a horse drawn beer wagon, delivering Schitz beer to saloons in Milwaukee, one of them owned by his grandfather, Alois Dachs.
Early in his career, Grandpa earned a reputation as an excellent sign painter and specialized in Gold Leaf signs. I remember my mom telling me how Grandpa could identify different types of paints and finishes by their smell.
Because he left school early, education would become a priority throughout his life. Not only formal education, but informal. Shortly after I got my first “real job”, Grandpa recognized my opportunity and told me, “just make sure you keep your eyes and ears open, and keep your damn mouth shut.” Despite not having a lot of money, my grandparents made sure there was a set of encyclopedias in the house. Whenever any of us had a question about history or science, Grandpa (while he probably could have just given us the answer) always told us to look it up. Knowledge was power.
Grandpa and his brothers were known as brawlers, this brawling most certainly being fueled by beer and their Bavarian sense of Gemuklichheit. Grandpa met my grandmother after a night of drinking when he and his brothers stopped at the diner where my grandma was working. As the story goes, they tore the place up, pulling the stools right out of the floor. He must have had some charm to go with the bravado because he won Emma over. She was going through some hard times, having recently had my Aunt Doreen out of wedlock and coming to terms with the reality that she would probably never marry Doreen’s father who was going to school to be a Draftsman and who was also Catholic. Marriage to Emma, a Lutheran, while their son Peter was in school just wasn’t in the Diller family’s plans. Grandpa, knowing full well what was going on finally said to Emma, “What are you doing wasting your time waiting for that jerk, he’s never going to marry you. Why don’t you marry me?”. Grandma always said, “That’s all I needed to hear”.
Three more kids would come out of their marriage, George in 1936, Sandie in 1939, and my mom, Kitty, in 1944. All of the kids would tell you their dad was a great dad, but that his
drinking could make their lives very uncomfortable. The Gemuklichheit was out of hand. Grandma was always known for her cooking, and always made home made bread. When Wonder Bread first came out, she thought she’d give it a whirl. While at the dinner table that night, Dodge grabbed the stack of bread on the plate, mushed it into a ball with his hands, and threw it saying, “This isn’t bread. Don’t ever put this on the table again.” Grandpa would try several times to quit drinking, but it wasn’t until the late ’50′s when, basically on his death bed with cirrhosis of the liver, his doctor told him, “George, let’s be honest with each other. I won’t waste your time, and please don’t waste mine. If you don’t stop drinking, you’re going to kill yourself.” That was it. He never drank again, until the last year or two of his life, when I remember him having a “good German beer” every once in a while with my uncle. I still have visions of Kingsbury near beer in their refrigerator.
I’m very fortunate in that I lived with my grandparents for a while when I was 5 and 6. Shortly after my parents divorced, my mom and I went to live with Dodge and Emma on 37th and Lloyd on Milwaukee’s north side. My aunt and uncle owned the house and lived with my 7 cousins downstairs. The period when everyone lived in this house may be the happiest period of my life. Never before, and not since have I been so close to family. I have vivid memories of watching Lawrence Welk on Saturday nights, The Wonderful World of Disney Sunday nights. Most of my cousins were my age, plus or minus a few years. I learned how to ride a bike while we lived here. We played baseball in the alley. We walked to school. We laughed to hard, I peed my pants more than once.
In the late ’50′s, Dodge and Emma, along with his sister Gertie and her husband Stanley, bought a cottage on Two Sister’s lake hear Lake Tomahawk, Wisconsin. The memories all of us kids have from our time “up north” could fill a book.
When we got our report cards, we all stood in line waiting for Grandpa to look them over and give us his blessings. We craved his approval, because we knew that if he complimented us, we had done something good. But we were also afraid of him. Grandpa had his workshop in one half of the basement. We were strictly forbidden to enter his shop, but boys being boys, my cousin Matt and I would dare each other to go into this forbidden land. I remember one time, both of us in his shop, hearing Grandpa’s footsteps. Matt and I literally hid under his workbench while Grandpa looked for one of his tools. A minute or two seemed like an hour or two.
It’s amazing what he could do with those tools, many of them home-made. I don’t think he ever bought a new tool. There was nothing he couldn’t either find at a rummage sale or make himself. He made his own table saw. He made his own templates for making various pieces of furniture. Later in his life when Dodge and Emma lived outside of Huburtus in their trailer park, his workshop was a 6 x 6 metal shed. He lived to make things for his kids and his grandkids, the boys getting toy boxes, the girls getting elaborate doll houses, and later, jewelry boxes or music boxes. He turned rough basements into rec rooms, knocked out walls, and reconstructed interiors of entire houses. He hand-crafted cabinets and vanities for bathrooms. Late in his life, he made beautiful hutches for each of his kids. And then there was his Rosmaling. It was amazing that a man who could be so big, intimidating and sometimes gruff could create art like this. But as I said, he was a walking paradox.
When I was making drums, there literally wasn’t a single time I stepped foot in my shop that I didn’t think about him. I knew he’d be proud of what I was doing, and whenever I was doing the tedious work of sanding and rubbing out a finish, I’d have to chuckle, remembering when as kids, we’d bring home a shop project and he’d say, “You’re gonna sand that a little more, right?” He was meticulous and he wanted us to be too.
During high school, when I was really pouring myself into my drumming, I thought music was something he just couldn’t relate to. Unlike my Grandma, who was always singing or whistling, I had just never seen his interest in music, aside from watching Lawrence Welk with my Grandma. I remember between my junior and senior years of high school, I saw Buddy Rich play with his big band at Summerfest. After Buddy finished playing, there was a crowd near the stage door waiting for autographs. I’ve never been much of an autograph person, but this was one of my drumming heroes. I didn’t have anything for Buddy to sign, so I had him sign my forearm. The next day I showed my Grandpa, thinking Grandpa lived through the big band era, he should know Buddy Rich. My Grandpa looked at me and said, “What the hell would you have a hop head like that son of a bitch sign your arm for?” Evidently hop head was the term for pot head back in the day, and evidently my Grandpa knew about Buddy’s rap sheet. He told me Gene Krupa was no better, and that Gene was a druggie too.
In 1984, at Dodge and Emma’s 50th wedding anniversary my Grandpa shocked me. The whole night was probably just like any other 50th wedding anniversary. But at one point of the night, my grandparents were sitting at their table and started singing together. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I had never, ever seen my Grandpa sing and never knew that such beautiful music could come from inside this man. But I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. He was a walking paradox.
Dodge and Emma took regular trips to Sacramento where they spent winters with my California relatives. 1987 would be Dodge’s last trip. While in California that year, cancer swept over him like locusts over the prairie. He came home to die and I got to see him one last time in the hospital. As I entered his room, he tried waving me off. He didn’t want me to see him in this weakened state. But it didn’t matter to me. I had so many other memories of him, that there was no way this last memory would have a negative effect. I just wanted to say good bye.
During times in my life when I don’t know which side is up, I wonder if he ever felt like that. Even though he was paradoxical, things in his world were black and white, at least to us as observers. He was stubborn and opinionated, but had a lifelong thirst for knowledge. He was stern and sometimes gruff, but he always had time for his grand kids, showing us the RIGHT way to hold a paint brush. He could be as bigoted as Archie Bunker, but then a day later tell you why and how the Mexican Americans were going to use their work ethic to make a permanent home for themselves in Milwaukee. He was John Wayne. He got his teeth knocked out in a bar brawl, but could sing like a bird. I miss him.