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Your Midwest Story

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The Midwest is a wonderful place. Tell us your Midwest story.

High Winds Bring Rough Surf And Waves To Lake Michigan Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

This is a basic concept. Tell us how you came to the Midwest, tell us about your family, tell us about your cultural background, tell us your favorite 5 hymns from the Methodist hymnal, tell us if you wave and talk to everyone that walks by your house...The Midwest is a wonderful place and we want to hear your stories.


GF: I have a relatively wild story of how exactly my family came to the Midwest. It goes like this:

Louis Filler was born in 1911 in the Ukraine. His family, feeling the winds of WW1 swirling about, made the move to America, landed at Ellis Island, and ended up in Philadelphia. Louis wrote a book called The Muckrakers, which is still the definitive exploration of muckraking journalists and politicians, in 1939. The book became a hit and Louis became a professor at many schools, including Antioch College in Ohio, where we find him still teaching history and philosophy and such in 1971...

...which is when he meets a young student named Saralee Howard, from Hartford, Connecticut. They get along famously, and after she graduates, he convinces her to come study at Michigan State in 1975, where he is doing work and hanging out with his conservative buddy, Russell Kirk. One thing leads to another and in 1977, Saralee and Louis elope, driving off into the Midwest sunset in his old Buick...

...when they stumble a most beautiful Congregational church building in Ovid, Michigan, which had sat dormant for 35 years, because in World War II, the town of Ovid didn’t have enough resources to support a Methodist and a Congregational congregation, so they chose the Methodist church as their meeting place and this church on the corner of Main and Pearl went silent...

Ovid, The Belfry

...and that’s where in 1983, I was born and my Midwest story began.

Oh, and here are my Top Five Hymns Found in the Methodist Hymnal:

1) How Great Thou Art. THEN SINGS MY SOOOOOOUL as the entire congregation essentially levitates and the roof is blown off.

2) Battle Hymn of the Republic. Man the congregation gets so quiet right around that last verse (you can hear it now)...softly In the beauty of the lillies. Ahhhhhh beautiful.

3) In The Garden. You can watch the choir shuffle just a bit during the walks with me talks with me chorus. Those Methodists and their wild spiritual soft shuffling.

4) Blessed Assurance. The Kirk Ferentz of this list. Stable, always shows up, nothing spectacular, an essential staple.

5) Amazing Grace. Of course.


GF3: My parents were born in Ohio. Their parents were born in Ohio. All of my aunts and uncles were born in Ohio. As I alluded in my piece on Monday, my grandfather lived most of his life in the same town where he was born. The few years he spent away were at Ohio State, where he drove a cab and earned a degree in ceramic engineering. My other grandfather only left to serve in the Army alongside his brother in Korea. He returned thereafter, minus one eye and his brother. My folks both left Ohio after graduating from Ohio State with their professional degrees, heading to Washington DC to start careers and their family. They wedded in Ohio in my mother’s church, and had their reception at the American Legion—a venue which played host to many a family event over the years. They returned there in 1990 with three kids in tow.

In DC, I went to a brand new private school where boys sported oxford shirts and girls wore dresses. In Ohio, I walked into a public elementary older than my mother, with hard tile floors and the scent of industrial pine oil cleaner. I eventually graduated from the same high school—the same physical building—as my mother and both of her parents.

I missed DC terribly at first. Change is hard on kids. In retrospect, spending my formative years in a small midwestern town taught me as much or more about life as any private school could’ve hoped to do. Small town life leaves a man with a slew of meaningful psychological artifacts that inform his views on the human condition: singing an ode to the school janitor in our 5th grade concert, the value of a decent public education, and how far a kid can really get on a bicycle. I rode on rides at Cedar Point that my grandfather helped build, including the now-gone Mill Race (peace be upon it), and saw red-brick schools and concrete block fire stations his hands built. I crawled around on locomotives and tractors the family shop produced, and met the teachers who had to put up with my parents in their youth. Not a bad upbringing, in the end.


LPW: My maternal grandfather’s family emigrated from Ireland to Southern Ohio, right near West Virginia. My maternal grandmother’s family is from Denmark and then settled in Chicago. After World War 2, grandpa married grandma and settled in a far northwestern Chicago suburb. My mom grew up there and then later graduated from Iowa.

My dad’s family came from southern Italy and then settled in Western New York. My dad came to Chicago to attend Northwestern University and Northwestern Medical School, following the footsteps of his older sister who attended the University of Chicago.

I was raised in the western Chicago suburbs, just a quick train ride away from Chicago. I live in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago, which is between Wrigley Field and Downtown.


MNW: Obviously you greet everyone that walks past. That’s just common courtesy. But only with a one-finger-off-the-steering-wheel wave as you drive your 1978 station wagon in the other direction. Two fingers off the wheel if you’re having a good day. No, not four or five, damnit! We’re not cousins, don’t act all familiar.

I don't want to steal too much from my piece tomorrow, but as long as both sides of the family have been in the states, they've been in Minnesota. The Czech-Bohemian-German influences that created Papa MNW have always farmed in southern Minnesota, land of Schell's and Sleepy Eye and the Church of the Japanese Martyrs wait whaaaa yeah that's a thing in Leavenworth. Dad’s a proud Mankato State (note the word choice) Maverick. Mama MNW is the urbanite of the family, hailing from St. Paul's East Side, where a few generations back a Horgan put down roots after leaving one of the farm communities founded as part of Archbishop John Ireland's rural colonization scheme for Irish peasants. He married a Grzechowiak, their daughter married a Mueller, and after my mom was born and headed across town to attend Saint Thomas, the ethnic melding was complete when Mom met Dad, got married, and OOPS! there I was. But true to my favorite part of Minnesota history, the Farmer-Labor Party, I come from that twin heritage: the urban and rural Midwest.

Running counter to the Scandinavian tradition of Minnesota and the other cooperative commonwealth states (ND, wi), there is nary a drop of Nordic or Lootran blood in me. Between the hard-drinkin' Irish and Polack Catholics of the East Side and the pot still-runnin' German and Bohemian Catholics of New Ulm and its surroundings, we have a healthy appreciation for the fun things in life—beer, proper reverence for the Virgin Mary, spirits, cards, the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, more beer, and an actual need for fish fry Fridays. Obviously my ass is still in the pew on Sunday morning, only the hangover adds an extra level of gravity to the proceedings: I am truly a sinner in the house of an angry God, but with a priest who also definitely throws back a couple brandies on Thursday night.

So let's sing some hymns!

(5) Pange lingua, gloriosi. Holy Week, you’re transporting the Body up to the altar, you shut up and listen to some beautiful Gregorian chant. This is one of those that just hangs in the chapel for me. All the other stuff in Latin (the Kyrie, Dona nobis pacem, etc) is awesome, too. But this was the one Latin hymn that really came to mind.

(4) Table of Plenty. More hymns should be in 3/4 or 6/8 time. Want to get the crowd of awkwardly-misshapen suburban Catholics swaying just a little? Get that lilt going and let the cantor turn a few of those straight eighth note runs into a dotted eighth-sixteenth. Yeaaaaah, buddy. We’re partying now.

(3) City of God. Now, this one is not popular with Catholic liturgists, as I learned my freshman year when our parish Steering Council chair asked what hymns we all sang in our home parishes. (Sorry, Angela. Really.) Something about it glorifying “us” and not “Him.” But this one always got me toe-tapping, and it was the one we sang almost every Mass when I went to Catholic kindergarten (Minnesota didn’t have all-day K at the time). Dan Schutte is also the guy who brought us “Here I Am, Lord,” which...another classic, unless you’re a liturgist. I apparently am not.

(2) All Christmas music, especially the stuff we still sing in Latin. When I was much younger (late elementary, early middle school) I would occaaaasionally be a dick in music class and sing Adestes Fidelis instead. I don’t know why people would get so mad. The Latin stuff is the best part.

(1) We Shall Rise Again. I'm not entirely sure if it's Catholic (one search says yes), but this one has that hopeful defiance that always raised goosebumps. It was the recessional for my aunt and godmother's funeral Mass last August after she lost a 20+ year battle with kidney disease and eventually leukemia. Did I bawl my eyes out? You bet your ass I did. But that moment of comfort—"coming to the house of Lord Jesus / we will find an open door there / we will find an open door"—that does it. Every time.


BRT: The English and Welsh portions of my ancestry came to the U.S. earlier, and thus naturally spent a spell on the east coast (RI and Pennsylvania) before moving further west. But the more recent arrivals among my forebears came directly from Europe (Sweden and Bohemia) to a rural area of Nebraska, and there they farmed and there they stayed, and there they died, buried in cemeteries replete with Swedish and Czech epitaphs and surnames (Swansons and Carlsons and Krupickas and Novaceks Oh My!). Though many of the Swedish side’s descendants have scattered (mostly to California), a couple are still farming that same land.

As for the Bohemians, they were farmers too. I have photos of my great-great-grandparents celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, my great-great-grandma a stout, strong, broad-faced woman, and my great-great-grandpa a short, sinewy man with an impressive mustache, surrounded by their nine children. Family lore says that my great-grandpa, their oldest son, was walked to school by his father for the first time when he was five or six. My great-great-grandpa left him there, and my great-grandpa, irritated and scared that they did not speak Czech at school, took off, ran diagonally across the section instead of sticking to the roads, and beat my great-great-grandfather home. They waited another year to try again (this time successfully). This great-grandfather grew up to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (becoming the first of an ongoing four-generation streak of attendees), became an engineer and experimenter in bridge construction (some of his concrete bridges are still extant!), and started a road construction company in the early 1930s which existed for over 40 years. In 1921, he built the house that my grandfather was born in, which my parents bought in the 1970s, and where I grew up until I went to college—at the University of Nebraska, like so many generations of my family before me.