Building Bridges: Meet Joe & Lucille Wankerl

By Jennifer Moore-Kerr

Jennifer Moore-Kerr

I met Joe and Lucille Wankerl at their kitchen table on a quiet street in Plain where they had moved when they left their family farm in 1988. The house had once been owned by Lucille’s uncle, a sign of how tied together their families remain. When I asked to interview Joe, he made it clear that his story wasn’t his alone and that to interview him meant interviewing both of them. Throughout my time with them, his respect for, and appreciation of, Lucille continually shown through. Perhaps he is of a time, and perhaps he is just a man who knows the value of a wife. When he spoke of his grandfather, who had lost his wife when she was in her 50s, and then sold the farm to his son, he said, “A farmer can’t farm without that wife — I promise you that. It did not work.” But to be clear, the family still held together. A widowed grandfather lived with his son or daughter’s family and was taken care of. There was no question of that.

The walls of Joe and Lucille Wankerl’s home in Plain are full of pictures of their children. To meet them is to understand the role that family has played in their lives as the children of immigrants who grew up when church and family farms were the foundation of the community.

Joe spoke of a time when families were large, times were hard, and survival was a skill that everyone had to learn. He was born number seven of 10, in 1930, in Plain. But he starts his story with that of his father. His father had emigrated from Germany in 1914 as a 26-year-old. As the third boy in his family he did not get the family farm in Bavaria, and like many before, and after, him, he chose to try his luck in America. This area had already been settled by other families from the region of Germany from which Joe’s father came, and there was land available here for him to farm. It was a good place for him to settle. By 1919, he bought the farm where Joe and his siblings would grow up. In February 1919, he married Joe’s mother. It wasn’t a big farm and they worked hard on their 36 tillable acres to make a living. They had a survival mentality that was the glue that got them through. Joe remembers as a boy taking their winter wheat to one of the water-powered mills in Lodi, Blackhawk, Witwen or Leeland to grind it into the flour.  That bag had to make the family’s bread until the next year’s crop was harvested. They also grew 2 acres of potatoes, and an acre of vegetables, all of which was to feed their large family.

Early on Joe decided to be a “shadow” to his father, a term he used repeatedly when talking about his childhood. He learned to speak the Bavarian farmer language spoken by him: “I remember being the shadow to my father, being determined, ‘I’m going to learn his language … I’m going to learn the language because I want to communicate with him.’” He learned of his father’s good career as an officer cook in the German military before coming to the United States, and how he had been popular for bringing leftovers to the enlisted men after the officers were done. He grew to honor his hard-working immigrant father. In telling his story, Joe told much about his father, the struggles he had as an immigrant in the first half of the 20th century in rural Wisconsin. While with the help of local teacher Celia Ederer he and others were able to gain their citizenship early on, he never quite learned the English language, and he often struggled because of that. Those struggles motivated Joe to always work hard for justice.

Joe and Lucille grew up in a different time — a time when church and family farms were the foundation of the community. The Ten Commandments were the rule of law. Competition between neighbors was strong and good will ran strong. They were “all poor and all looked after each other. When someone needed help it was a battle to see who got there first to provide the help.” There is both a sense of pride in their voices as they reminisced, and a sense of sadness that times seem so different now.

Lucille shared with Joe the experience of growing up with an immigrant parent. She remembers being bullied on the bus because her father only spoke broken English. She also shares the memories of people helping each other out. Together they share the hurt that came from not being able to fully communicate with, and learn from, their fathers.

They also share a lifetime of memories together. While they rode the same bus to school as children, they did not date until 1950. But when they did, Lucille saw a man with talent who would take care of her. Now, 69 years later, the laughter they share as they tell me stories from their life together is a joy to hear. Joe felt that when you work hard you can reward yourself. That you should “live life to its fullest (that you think proper).” Their stories suggest that these were not idle words. 

Joe flew a small airplane, taking his lovely wife on weekend trips around the Midwest. He played the tuba in a band called the Plain Hotshots more Saturday nights than Lucille wants to remember! They raised three girls and three boys, and they still have on their kitchen table the sugar bowl given to Lucille’s grandparents in 1920 by Joe’s father, who had worked for them, and wanted to show his gratitude to them upon his own marriage to Joe’s mother. Years later, that same sugar and creamer set was given to Joe and Lucille when they married in 1952. Today it still serves them, as a beautiful reminder of their heritage, and for me, as a symbol of their commitment and the stability of their strong family roots.

Their lives have not been easy. They have worked hard. Neither thought they would be farmers, and yet they were. Joe graduated from St. Luke’s High School on May 26, 1948, with dreams beyond the farm. However, his father told him on that day, “Den ersten June du must bauer mit mich machen:” “The first of June you will come work for me.” And so he did. “You did not question your father.” He does not tell that story with angst or bitterness. It is just what you did. When I asked what makes him stay in the area, his answer is that his father decided that for him.

Joe does not accept sadness, he gets busy. At one point in our interview, this delightful 92-year-old man said, “I have ants in my pants, I cannot stand to be bored!” They still play euchre with the same, albeit smaller, group with whom they always have played. They play “for the fun of it, and to keep our lives active. We all look out for one another.” Joe now makes reed baskets by hand, a skill he was taught in fifth grade in their one-room school house by teacher Geraldine Bauer. He generously gifted one to me. And Lucille laughs at the memories of their life together. She is gentle and soft spoken, but it is easy to see the spirit that drove her to stand up to that bully on the bus so many years ago with the awareness that “nobody’s going to tell me that I don’t belong.” Her religion and her trust bring her happiness. She hopes to see the area schools and church be more prosperous, and she takes pride in her home and her village. The walls of their home are full of pictures of their children from when they were toddlers to now. 

Interviewing Joe and Lucille gave me a glimpse of the roots of Plain, the strength of community, and the value of that strong work ethic they spoke of. It was an honor to hear their story.

Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found around Spring Green welcoming locals and visitors alike. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email jennifermrkrr2@gmail.com.

In what seems to be a time of ever-increasing strife, this column is a small attempt to build bridges with our neighbors. The broken bridges and steel-clad social bubbles that keep us apart can begin to mend and thin as we get to know the stories that define each other. In this space I interview community members of all walks of life from throughout the Voice readership area. May you enjoy meeting them, and may this build bridges for us all. Thank you for joining me on this journey.