A few years before my father died, my step-mom, Louise, encouraged him to write the story of his life. Thankfully, he did. He literally wrote it out, in longhand and in cursive. The day of Dad’s funeral, Louise surprised each of us kids with a copy.
I have typed it all. Often, Dad wrote in sentence fragments. I turned them into proper sentences, never altering the sense. At times, I struggled to make out what he wrote, but I believe I never lost track of what he was saying. In a few cases, I have inserted notes to add insight to what Dad wrote. Everything in [brackets] is my insertion.
Based on two of his comments, it appears that Dad wrote this in 2007. He died in 2010.
By John Eilers
Joseph John Eilers
Born March 17, 1927
Oceana County, Michigan
I was born during the Depression and going to school was a big chore. At five years of age you had also to do a lot of work.
The Pine Grove School—now the Claybanks Town Hall—had poor heat, four in my class, and about twenty-five total.
As soon as school was out for the day, it was walk about two miles home and start chores. Sunday was the only time for play and visiting friends and relatives, or vice versa.
High School was a mile walk to the Montague bus. Because of the war, farm work was a must, so up until I was drafted into the army I could only go three to four days a week, yet I had a B or better average. Farm work was hard but had to be done.
Right after my eighteenth birthday, I had to go to Detroit for an exam. Shortly after, I was ordered into the service. Into the Army I went. From Detroit to Fort Sheridan in Chicago, to Camp Hood in Texas. Everyone was homesick. It was hot and a rough seventeen weeks of training. One good thing was a special award from the state honoring me for my service as a 4-H leader. When I was seventeen, and up until going into the Army, I was a young leader because no men were available.
After training, I was home for eleven days and then off to Europe. That was tough not knowing when or if I would come back. I went to Camp Pickett, Virginia, and then Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, and on to a boat, landing in Le Havre, France.
When we were about to leave New York, I had a swelling in my neck and could not swallow sweets. With luck, I passed my physical exam, but was sick as a dog half way across the ocean. When I got to Le Havre, I was sick on the other side of my neck. I thought I would die. In the Army, you did not report sick. I made it and later found that I had the mumps.
Before leaving Camp Philip Morris, they wanted thirteen of the tallest guys [Dad was 6′ 3″] for a special guard for General Mark Clark, a great guy, who was coming up from Italy. We traveled through France and Germany, thirteen of us, and late at night arrived as I later found out in Vienna, Austria, fifty miles inside the Russian area, a total of five hundred soldiers behind the Russian line.
I got assigned to the police, I think, for a couple of reasons. First, when Dad got out of the Navy, WWI, he worked on the Muskegon Police Force and, second, I was put on four Power Patrols working with the French, British, and Russians. It was great work. Colonel Knudsen was right under General Clark and took a liking to me. I got to drive his Hudson, all decked out doing errands for him. I was only a Tech Corporal, but he ranked me higher. I had to be careful around the Russians. I got to salute General Montgomery (British) and General Zhukov (Russian). No big deal.
I left for home out of Bremerhaven, Germany. I learned German and got along well with the natives. In fact, they wanted to know where in Germany I had been educated—in Austria or Germany.
When I got back in the US, the Statue of Liberty sure looked good. I went back to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, and was discharged.
Back Home: 1947
When I got home, along with farming I worked part time in the oil field in the area running a well dozer and everything else. [Oil had been discovered on the family farm, and was pumped for many years.]
I needed my diploma, so I went to school in the afternoon, from March to May. I needed 1/16 of a credit. My service picture is in the school today. [Dad is the only Montague graduate pictured in uniform, a fact we kids loved pointing out to our friends.]
I also started playing trombone in Muskegon, with a military band. We played all over Michigan and in Canada. I also played trombone in high school.
I married Ma [Floye Vogel Omness] in 1951. We lived in Montague. I worked the farm and she worked in Muskegon. Jimmy was born in 1952.
I was commander of the Rothbury American Legion. Ma and I, Doc Gillan and his wife, attended a dinner at the Post, and Doc needed an emcee at the large alumni banquet. I said anyone should be able to do that. A week later, he called and said I was it, and could not back out. I said okay, but how to get a babysitter would be a problem, because the banquet was so big that the sitters were all there, and he would have to supply me with one. Doc said to go down the street and see Mr. Aley, which I did. He asked how I was doing and I said that until something better came along I was fine. His daughter babysat and had a great time. A couple of weeks later, at a FFA banquet—I was FFA president—this Mr. Aley, who sat at the head table on stage, called me and said I should send to the city an application for the police job. Floye and I talked about it and thought I should go for it. I did have police experience in the service. In Austria, I set up the postal service and police department, so I knew a little bit.
I hand wrote an application and sent it in. A couple of weeks later, I was asked to attend a council meeting where five other guys got the same notice. The interview went well. I thought that if I got the job, that would be fine and, if not, that too would be fine.
A couple of more weeks later, Mr. Aley called and said I had the job; get ready to go to work. I started on June 15, 1952.
The job was seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. Along with acting as police chief was the job of constable. I summoned two juries in the township.
1957 saw the city superintendent leave for Du Pont [which had a plant just outside Montague]. I stayed and was promoted to city superintendent and also held the police chief job. In 1958, I was out of police work completely.
I became chairman of the county building inspectors. My farm background and training made the superintendent’s job easy. I joined the Old Newsboys/Goodfellows in 1952, retiring after fifty years. For Montague, I made many big improvements, including a big water job which included the building of Park Street to make another short route downtown. Miss America 1961, Nancy Anne Fleming, was a lifeguard for me. My son, Tom, rode on her parade float.
Off to Hart
The former Whitehall city manager, who went to Hart for the same job, was retiring. He got a hold of me and said it paid really well. I sent in an application. They wanted a manager who was an engineer, but still hired me. In Hart, I became president of the Rotary, built a new city hall, and set up the first fire district in Michigan (Montague’s was number two). I was appointed county supervisor/commissioner and got the board off dead center.
After four years, I was approached by the Muskegon County Road Commission, to take the maintenance superintendent’s job. They had been trying to get me for years. Our house in Montague was available and school about to start. [Dad had built a two-bedroom house, quickly expanding it to four bedrooms; when moving to Hart, they sold it on a land contract to a young couple who was now getting divorced; Dad and Mom took back the house just in time for our return to Montague.] I took the job. In Hart, because I acted as the city clerk from 1964-67, I signed birth and death certificates, so I will be history for a lot of years.
Back to Montague
Hart was good, but we were glad to get back home. I had built our house in 1954. I put lots of hard work into it. Now, we were home.
I served on the city council and as mayor pro tem, and started as maintenance supervisor for the Road Commission in Muskegon. After seven years, the city leaders wanted me to come back as Montague’s city manager, to build a sewer system. I did so in no time.
I was elected Chamber of Commerce president, and also chairman of the building improvement board, which I had gotten started, and at the same time was chairman of the county energy commission. I got the old theater torn down and then moved into the present city hall when we sold the one that was on White Lake. Ferry Street [Montague’s main downtown street] was redone. The Ludington Bank branch closed and I was elected chairman of the Senior Center, which came about after a formal study. The Senior Center went into the vacant bank building after I negotiated the sale of the building and got a grant to buy it. Being downtown, the building was a great location for a Senior Center, and it is still going.
The Park Street extension was completed and a second water project was started with a grant. The citywide sewer project was completed. [When Dad was interviewed by the Muskegon Chronicle, they quoted him saying, “They say if you can go through a project like this without turning to drinking or women, you’re doing good.” Mom was understandably horrified.]
I ran for and was elected to the board of directors of the Government Employees Federal Credit Union. I still am on the board. I was commander of the VFW post in Montague, and then was appointed to serve with the Veterans Trust Fund Board of Michigan for Muskegon and Ottawa counties, serving as the board chairman for many years.
I spoke around the state on having formed the first fire district and then the second in Montague. I succeeded at getting the law changed so these districts could be formed.
After coming back home, I served on the Shelby Hospital Board, and saw a large addition to the hospital. My service on that board concluded when the hospital was sold.
In 1996, I ran for and was elected to the City Charter Commission. The old city charter was revised.
When I retired in 1996, the one award I received was because of Congressman Guy VanderJagt, who had a flag flown over the US Capitol in my honor. I don’t know of anyone else who had this honor.
I joined Christ the Rock food pantry and still serve going on ten years. [This was not Dad’s church—he was Roman Catholic—but, in retirement, he continued his life of service. He was working in the food pantry when, at age 83, his hip broke, which a few weeks later resulted in his death.] I also work for Whitehall Congregational Church food pantry. I had lots of enjoyment with keeping up on my gardening, with the local papers featuring me. [When I was first married, and Dad got me started gardening, I happened to grow a huge watermelon. Dad contacted the Montague Observer, which sent a photographer to my house. I, with my young daughter, Erin, was pictured in the newspaper with our prize melon.] When I turned eighty, the White Lake Beacon did an article on me. [At Dad’s death, the Muskegon Chronicle did a very nice article on Dad.]
First off, let me say that we had a lot of family serve in the armed forces. Dad and his two brothers served overseas in WWI, I served in WWII, and my sons, Tom and Dave, in the Navy, with Tom serving in Vietnam. My brother, Russ, served in the Korean Conflict.
When Jim was born in 1952, he was just perfect, but then a sleeping sickness took its hold and left him several handicapped. We had no insurance back then and loads of bills. All were paid off. Jim is in a home and is doing fine. [Dad and Mom had Jim put in a state home when he was five because Mom simply could not give him the care he needed, they now had Tom and Sue, and I was soon to arrive.]
Tom works for the City of Montague. Dave is with Du Pont. Sue is disabled. Greg is a Lutheran minister. Mark is a machinist. All are doing well.
Coming from a poor family, my brothers and sisters did well. I became a chief of police and then city manager. Francis was on the Claybanks Township Board and farmed. Betty retired as Oceana County clerk. Pat was a nurse. Barb married a pharmacist. Marilyn was a food caterer. Margaret married a fruit farmer. Russ worked for the Oceana County Road Commission.
After thirty-five years, in 1986 wife Floye died of cancer suddenly and I was left alone. Louise [Dad and Louise married six months after Mom died] was just like Floye—a good cook and could handle finances. I have been lucky.
I came into a second family as Louise’s husband died and left her with a young daughter, Allison. Allison would have a son, Anthony—my buddy—and then a daughter, Paisley. We somewhat raised Anthony for his first four or five years. They, like my other grandchildren, are good kids.
Now, the family is of an age where instead of baseball they are comparing illnesses and pills. Me, too.
Over the years, I’ve had a lot of fun and also trying times, but have the best of family.
When I was about twelve, I picked cherries. Those were long, hot days. I made a total of about $15.00. Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs were used in the outhouses, so I knew them page by page. I went through them and ordered a red and blue hanky, six pairs of work socks, a blue denim shirt, and a pair of blue jeans, all of which you can buy today. Jeans bib overalls were just coming out, and Dad said I should have ordered them. I could not wait to get the order; it was just like Christmas.
Next was Christmastime. I was still age twelve. St. John’s [the Catholic church near home] gave each kid a box of peanuts and hard candy. They had a talent show, but no piano. First prize was a one pound box of chocolate. If I could win that, we would have a great Christmas at home. I sang Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. I won the chocolate. The next week, St. James [the Catholic church in Montague] had the same talent show. A five pound box of candy was the first prize. We got there and a lady who played the piano introduced herself (she played the organ in church). Because we had a piano-playing teacher in school, I felt a little at home. We hit it off. I won the five pounds of candy. Now, we had a real Christmas coming up: six pounds of candy, plus each one’s bag of peanuts and candy.
I note that Ma sang in the church choir. And who played the organ? This same lady who, over the years, was a great friend. This experience helped me later on to play the trombone in school band. The school superintendent, Mr. Oehrli, and I were the only trombonists.
I learned over the years that I could face competition and win, and the rest of my life proved so.
The next story in music was after I got home in 1947. I met Bill Thoma, who moved into Montague from Muskegon, at a VFW meeting. Muskegon VFW was forming a professional band and needed a tuba player. Bill’s son, Tom, seventeen years old, played tuba, but could not drive. I had no car, but Bill said I could use his, so Tom and I could go to practice. I was not that good, but made the band. I would leave Mrs. Thoma at relatives, we would go to practice, and then pick her up and go home. Our band was the best in the state. We played all over Michigan and in Canada. I played until I got married in 1951. I cannot believe it.
Getting lost overseas was one I will not forget. We arrived behind the Russian lines—at Vienna, Austria—at night, and went to a bombed out building and slept. The next morning, I was taken to a building and told to wait for someone who never showed up. I was in a place where I did not know how to get back and I was all by myself. How I got back to a place I had not seen in daylight, I will never know. I did not know my outfit—we did not yet have a name, and I had no buddies or anything. The next morning, I told the lieutenant what had happened. This is where I met Colonel Knudsen.
I could be rich today. When in Vienna, I had a worker who had been in a Russian prison, who was working to get back to Prague, Czechoslovakia, and whose family had been killed by the Germans. They were jewelers, and had hidden many diamonds. This man offered half to me if I would go into the Russian area in Prague and bring the diamonds back. I almost did, but I knew that if I were caught by the Russians and found out I was a G. I. I would be killed. I think about that, yet today.
When we started to get Vienna put back together, I was busy and had my own jeep. Hitler took over Austria. Many Americans were caught and could not return to the US. CARE packages were being sent through the Red Cross to them, but they were not getting to the people. My job, among many others, was to check this out. I sneaked into the Russian area. I was wearing a German POW uniform and I could speak German. I found out the Russians were stealing the CARE packages. I reported this. I soon got a letter from some of the sick relatives and one of their families, who were thankful for what I did. They offered me an all-expenses paid trip when I got home, to contact them. They would meet me at home and we would go to Austria, where they would meet their relatives and give them some help. I turned them down. I had enough of overseas at that time. I should have gone, and again probably be rich.
Some of the hard times in my life have been:
- Jimmy getting sick.
- Signing Jimmy over to the state, which meant that I legally was no longer his father.
- Floye dying.
- My fine family.
- Two wonderful wives.
People I met over the years:
- President Ford.
- Chairman Greenwalt of Du Pont; we became friends because he also was a gardener.
- Michigan governors G. Mennen Williams, William Milliken, and Jim Blanchard.
- General Clark.
- British General Montgomery.
- Famous Russian General Zhukov.
- State Police Commissioner Joe Childs, who became a good friend.
- Congressman Guy VanderJagt, a good friend.