April 11 is an anniversary of sorts for me. The year was 1997 and it was the day I began my tenure as a funeral home manager. It was also the day that the oldest family owned funeral home in the Fox Valley, established in 1852, was no longer family owned. There is quite the story of how this all came to be, but I am not going to go into those details today. Suffice it to say, it was a day of mixed emotions for everyone. For me, it was mostly excitement, but not without some sadness. I remember walking with Dick Laemmrich to his car. He was spent. Tired. Before he got in, he said to me with tears in his eyes, “Pat, take care of my people”. It was a moment I will never forget.
I had worked with Dick a little over two years and had been there long enough to know how special the place and the community of Menasha was. I was lucky enough to be born into a family with a pretty recognizable name in the Fox Valley and Dick liked that. That is part of the reason he hired me. The day I showed up for my interview, Dick wasn’t there. Something came up at the last minute. “Tell that Fahrenkrug kid he’s hired”!, he said as he ran out the door. I can’t tell you how many times people would ask me if I was related to Franklin Fahrenkrug who was a police officer in Menasha back in the mid 1900’s. “He gave me my driving test” they would say. ” All I had to do was drive around the block!” Multiple people gave me the same story. I would also get asked if I was related to the ones that owned the bait and tackle shop down on the end of First St. “Yup”, I would always say. “All of the Fahrenkrug’s are related” (because we are). I never offered up that even though we were related, I was actually born and raised in Neenah. I think that might have been a deal breaker.
Without fail 10:00 a.m. was coffee break time. “Coffee Time USA”. If we had a funeral, it was usually down in the cafeteria at St. Mary’s school where Margaret Wolf would always be in the kitchen smoking a cigarette. For me, it was history lesson time. You never knew what stories were going to come up, nor who was going to be stopping by. One person who was a fixture at coffee time was Joe Magalski “Maggie”. Joe was a retired fireman, who was born and raised in Menasha. He was also our hearse driver. Joe had a great sense of humor and was the epitome of a true, blue, Polish guy. One day the phone rang, while we were having coffee and Joe wasn’t there. The phone sat way over in the corner so you always had to get up to answer it. Mary Ellen our secretary (who always sat about six inches off the chair) jumped up and ran over to get it. On the other end was a man: “My 350 pound brother in law just died and he’s on the third floor of our house”. Mary Ellen: “Just a minute, let me get a pencil”. Man (actually Joe) on the phone: “Pencil?, what the hell ya gonna do with a pencil, he weighs 350 pounds!” Mary Ellen: “Oh Joe”!….followed by a room full of laughter. Every funeral home needs a Joe Magalski.
I laugh at Mary Ellen sitting six inches off the chair, but that is truly how she was. A hard working lady who was raised on a farm, she always had a lot of energy and was always busy doing something. If she was too far away from the phone when it rang, she literally would run like Edith Bunker running through the house, making sure to get it by the end of the second ring. Dick Laemmrich would get mad if the phone rang more than twice. Quite often I would come in and Mary Ellen would be walking laps around the inside of the funeral home to get exercise. Either that, or to get rid of some nervous energy. Mary Ellen held that place together in more ways than one. There was no joking about that. Every funeral home needs a Mary Ellen.
The other part of the gang was “Nubs”. He coined the term, “Coffee Time USA”. If you were from Menasha, chances are pretty good that you knew Nubs. If you didn’t know him, you knew someone in his family. He had 12 brothers and sisters, all born and raised in Menasha. They were the classic Menasha family. Polish, Catholic, Kindhearted, Hardworking and Devoted. Nubs wasn’t a licensed funeral director, but he might as well have been. In fact, a lot of the funeral directors previous to me would get angry because Nubs got to work most of the funerals while they had to stay back and cut the lawn. They couldn’t understand why. I figured it out right away. Nubs was Menasha. Nubs was “Laemmrichs”. In 1998 I got invited to go to a ranch in Montana and I asked Nubs to go with me. The ranch was owned by Jerry Brown who owned the Wilbert Vault Company franchise. The first full day we were there we went horseback riding. Nubs at 64 years old had never been on a horse before. While he was sitting on his horse waiting for the rest of us to get saddled up, the horse took off at a full run. Nubs hung on for dear life, all the time yelling, “Whoa, Whoa, Whoa”. He ended up falling off and breaking his clavicle. So, off to the hospital in Billings we went (about an hour drive). Before we knew what was going on with him, I was extremely worried and felt very guilty. Even though a broken clavicle is not fun, I was relieved that it wasn’t something life threatening. Falling off a horse at 64 years old is very serious. It was hard to enjoy the rest of the trip after I went back to the ranch. Nubs stayed in the hospital and after he was stable enough, he was flown home. I just wanted to get home and make sure he was alright. But Nubs was tough. He is still going strong at 80 years old. Even though he wasn’t licensed, he taught me a lot about funeral service. Every funeral home needs a “Nubs”.
I drive through Menasha often. In fact, I get bored with the same route so I will take detours. I will drive by a house and remember being there after a death. Maybe I have been there two or three times for the same family. All different kinds of situations. Expected and long awaited deaths, unexpected ones. All kinds. Some are emblazoned in my memory forever. My route often takes me by what used to be Linsdau Florist. Linsdau Florist was a Menasha icon, just like the funeral home. The owners were the three Linsdau sisters, Corrine, “Gerty” and Helen. Corrine and Gerty never married and lived in the old family homestead across the street from the flower shop. Helen married and lived right next door. Whenever you called the shop you would hear them fighting or hollering at each other in the background. Same thing if you walked in the door, except you had the pleasure of seeing it, instead of hearing it. It was comical. It was “normal”. I remember going over to Gerty and Corrine’s house one day for something and there they both sat in the living room, each of them watching their own t.v. One t.v. was louder than the next. I enjoyed talking to them whenever I had the opportunity. It was cheap entertainment. All three of them are dead now. But they left their impression as the memory of them lives on.
I have managed to maintain a lot of the connections that I made in my years at Laemmrich’s. Dick Laemmrich and Joe Magalski died quite a few years ago, but Mary Ellen, Nubs, myself and other friends from those days still get together for breakfast and talk about the old times. I also sing in the St. Mary’s/St. Johns choir, not because I am religious, but because of the friendships and the memories that I have there. 90% of the funerals we had were at St. Mary’s or St. John’s.
The funeral home is still there. But there is now another name that overshadows the five generations before it. I once made funeral arrangements at Laemmrich’s with a gentleman who claimed to be clairvoyant. He told me there was a lot of energy in the building and that he “saw” quite a few people. I’m not one to believe in that kind of thing, but he told me some things that made me believe him. I would like to have him walk through the building with me today. I’m sure the energy is still there and he would “see” many people. This time, I’m sure I would know many of them.