Editor’s Note: Want to share your story? This article is a preview of the upcoming series, “Sign of the Times,” which will chronicle members of six living generations. This story tells the tale of two members of the Greatest Generation (those born between 1901 and 1925). Part I of the series, which will further examine the Greatest Generation, will run in early June in The Gardner News.
Please e-mail [email protected] or call 913-856-7615 if you are interested in being interviewed for the series.
Corbin H. Crable
A small statue of the Virgin Mary stands on a table directly below a photo of Louis and Edith Soetaert on their wedding day.
The statue’s bright blue robes stand out in stark contrast to the black-and-white photographs that adorn the Soetaerts’ living room in their Gardner home. The Holy Mother’s arms are outstretched, watching dutifully over generations of smiling members of the Soetaert family
who appear in the photos.
But the image above her head is the most striking – in it, the young newlyweds’ hands are clasped together at their midsections, and they gaze longingly into each other’s eyes, almost as if no one else in the world exists at that moment.
These images best tell the tale of what journalist Tom Brokaw has called The Greatest Generation – those Americans born between the turn of the century and the mid-1920s. These Americans were youngsters during the Great Depression; they served in World War II – and those who didn’t, contributed in their own way to support their soldiers here at home; they returned from the war to start families and build modern America. And they did so with pride in their spouses, in their children, in their country. For the most part, they lived lives guided by faith. They worked hard, maintained a certain stoicism when life handed them misfortunes or tragedy, and they didn’t complain – after all, being raised during the Depression, they were thankful for what they had and each day God gave them in which to enjoy it.
“It was work and dedication to your job,” Louis said. “Giving 100 percent to it is good, but if you gave 110 percent, you were doing real good.”
For Edith, making do with what one had was characteristic of the Greatest Generation.
“You put in a lot and you didn’t have any extra things,” she added.
It was still dark outside when Louis stumbled out of bed each morning to help his father with the morning chores on the farm. After all, those cows wouldn’t milk themselves.
Although he was only in grade school, he was expected to be up well before 5 a.m. every morning in order to help milk the family cows, bottle the milk and deliver it to drivers, who would make sure those bottles of fresh milk found their way to the doorsteps of Gardner homes each morning.
All of this was done before the mile-long walk to school each morning. Louis, a lifelong Gardner resident, attended classes in a one-room schoolhouse; miles and miles away, his future wife, Edith, was attending school in her hometown of Belvue.
“We had one teacher and 16 kids in the schoolhouse,” Louis recalled. “Our teacher rode a horse to school, and they had a coal shed for the horse to stand in during the daytime. There was a well in the schoolyard, and all of the kids drank from the same dipper.”
There were no indoor facilities, Louis added, so boys and girls used separate outhouses. That often led to plenty of mischief, of course.
“When the girls went in to their outhouse, the boys threw rocks at it to scare them,” he said, laughing. “The teacher would holler at us, ‘You boys leave those girls alone!’”
Louis said he always found doing schoolwork to be a simple task – so simple, in fact, that one year he was tested as the second highest-performing child in Johnson County schools.
“I got all of the top grades, but a girl in Stilwell (barely) beat me,” he said. “I thought that was pretty good.”
When Louis wasn’t in school, he performed chores on his family’s farm, such as feeding the livestock and gathering cow chips and corn cobs to toss in his mother’s wood stove to heat the house.
And, like all children, Louis waited for the summer season’s arrival so he could enjoy more time outside – an activity, he said, which has been lost on some children nowadays thanks to the invention of video games and computers.
“We did visit the neighbors a lot since this was before TV,” Louis recalled. “And we couldn’t wait for the first warm day of summer so we could kick our shoes off and run barefoot through the grass.”
Meanwhile, Edith’s experiences in school were similar to her future husband’s – with one notable difference.
“We did have (indoor) facilities,” she said, noting she, too, had to walk a mile to school each day. “It was a new school the year I started. We had two rooms and two teachers.”
‘There’s so many people out of jobs right now’
Louis and Edith were only six years old when the events of Oct. 29, 1929, devastated the country.
Economists, historians and analysts have referred to the date of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression as Black Tuesday. The effects of the crash were both dramatic and swift, creating iconic images in their wake, such as bread lines that stretched for blocks in major cities, families living in row after row of crudely constructed shacks known simply as ‘Hoovervilles,’ and Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, “Migrant Mother.”
As stock brokers jumped to their deaths from high-rise buildings in New York, Louis and his family found that, thankfully, life didn’t change much on their little farm.
“We were never short on food,” he said. “In fact, my dad would give food to our neighbors, who were worse off than we were.”
Edith said that she, too, was fortunate that the bounty of the family farm kept her stomach full and the Depression mostly at bay.
“We had a big garden and two or three cows, a few pigs and chickens, all on two-an- a-half acres of land,” she said.
But both Louis and Edith said that in their opinion, today’s global recession and its widespread effects rival that of the Great Depression.
“God, there are so many people out of jobs right now,” Louis said, shaking his head. “I feel sorry for an abundance of people.”
Louis said one characteristic of those from the Greatest Generation is their inherent ability to be frugal with money – the Great Depression taught them to covet what they had and to make it last.
“Folks our age got to where we are by holding on to a dollar,” he said. “There just weren’t that many available.”
Rolling up their sleeves and getting to work
Although the paths of Louis and Edith’s lives bore plenty of similarities up to and throughout the Depression, their lives in academia couldn’t have been more different.
Edith graduated from Ruskin High School, while Louis had left school after the eighth grade.
But their divergent paths finally converged when they met in April 1942.
“He was such a handsome young man,” Edith said, blushing.
The two knew soon after meeting that it was love – and thankfully, the ravages of World War II didn’t threaten to separate them.
“I was deferred (from military service) for farmwork since I was the only one at home,” Louis said.
Like Louis, 19-year-old Edith was handed the task of helping to run her household.
“My dad had passed away when I was 15, and my brother went into the service,” she said. “So my mother and I had to put our heads together and work for ourselves.”
The two women ended up working side by side in a factory, making military clothing for soldiers being sent to fight the evils of fascism overseas.
“My mom got real sick after my dad died, and I had to work even more,” Edith recalled. “But we made it. I don’t know how we did.”
After a couple of years of dating and keeping their respective homesteads afloat, something in Louis and Edith finally told the two that they were destined to spend the rest of their lives together.
And that’s how it was. No pomp or circumstance. No big hooplah.
“It was a mutual understanding that marriage was going to happen,” Louis said matter-of-factly. “I told her, ‘Well, I guess it’s a done deal.”
And, as was the custom with those of the Greatest Generation, theirs was a quiet engagement – and that’s how Louis preferred it.
“I didn’t get on my knees to ask her to marry me,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a beggar.”
Thoughts about the Internet Generation and beyond
Over the years, Louis and Edith’s marriage produced seven grandchildren, who blessed them with 18 grandchildren. Now, they boast 23 great-grandchildren as well. Louis worked as a salesman to help support his growing family, while Edith minded the household and their children.
Those children grew up and moved out of the house long ago. And although plenty has changed, Louis and Edith said they are very much aware of misconceptions that younger folks may have of those from the Greatest Generation.
“Some people think we’re set in our ways too much,” Louis said. “But I don’t know any other way to be – it’s worked for me this long.”
Although there are differences between the Greatest Generation and those youths coming of age now – referred to by sociologists as ‘the Internet Generation’ – some similarities exist, too, between the time in which Louis grew up and today.
The need to get out on the open road and explore the world around them, for instance, drives youths to, well, embellish their age a bit when applying for a license.
“I started driving when I was 14. Of course, I fudged when I went to apply for my license, and I told them I was 16,” Louis said, smiling.
Nowadays, Louis and Edith spend much of their free time being involved with Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where Louis has attended Mass since he was a child. The two are a mainstay within the church’s walls, attending without fail every Saturday night.
No matter what changes occur in their community, their nation or their world as one generation grows up and another starts to come of age, the Soetaerts are there, giving thanks for a life of love, hard work, good family and friends, and, of course, strong, unwavering faith.