It’s All About Family
With Helen Spiegel of Sharpsville, PA, life has always been about family. Born in 1924, she was the eleventh of George Kautzman’s twelve children. “We lived in this beautiful ten-room house in Brookfield, Ohio,” she said. “It had a bathroom. Nobody else had a bathroom. There was a wine cellar, a fruit cellar, and a regular cellar. We had a coal furnace.”
With such a large house, a barn, and a mostly car-free road, they didn’t need playgrounds.
“We had so much fun. We’d swing on ropes in the barn and drop into the hay. We used to curl up in those skinny old car tires and roll down the hill on the Sharon-Warren Road. Somebody would be down at the bottom to catch us. And we used to go swimming in a muddy pond way back in the woods.”
On Sunday afternoons in summer, the family would climb into their big Hudson touring car and go for ice cream. During Christmas holidays, they would walk to downtown Sharon just to look around.
“We didn’t have a Christmas tree,” Helen said, “but on Christmas Eve we would all gather around the fireplace in the living room and wait while my father prepared our gifts – brown paper bags filled with fruit, candy, nuts, and the most delicious cookies. If we were lucky there was also a pencil and tablet.”
But the good times were tempered by adversity. In 1929, when Helen was just four years old, her mother Marie died in childbirth. That same year the Depression hit and her father’s work at the Malleable steel plant in Sharon was cut to almost nothing. The family’s only resource was their farm.
“We had thousands of chickens, and grew fruits and vegetables,” Helen said. “My father peddled eggs in Sharon and sold produce in the Farmer’s Market. I went along to help. My father also grew flowers and sold them to Brown’s Flower Shop in Sharpsville.”
The whole family worked hard – even when illness added to the struggles.
“Back then houses were quarantined when anyone got chicken pox, scarlet fever, mumps, or measles,” Helen said. “One of us would get it – then another, and another. Before we all got over it, the quarantine sign was on the door for a very long time. Once four of us had rheumatic fever. We still don’t know why they rolled out noodle dough, wrapped it around our legs, and put us out in the sun for hours.”
As the Depression wore on, the family benefited from the love and generosity of family and friends. George’s aunt moved in to help. She took good care of the children, and they loved her. An anonymous benefactor sent hundred-pound sacks of flour and sugar each month. Members of their church came and processed hundreds of jars of fruit and vegetables, which the Kautzmans stored in their fruit cellar.
In 1934, the family’s situation changed dramatically. George Kautzman remarried and his aunt moved out. The children found themselves living with a stepmother who had no idea how to deal with kids. Because the family couldn’t keep up the payments on their beautiful house, they moved to a small rundown house in Burghill. The older children left to get jobs, and the stepmother made life miserable for the ones who stayed.
But Helen always took advantage of every available opportunity to learn something new. “A wonderful family lived across the street with a daughter my age,” she said. “Her father took her to Sharon for music lessons, and I was allowed to go with her. By paying attention I learned to play the guitar and piano.”
At age 14, Helen left home to live with another family. She did the laundry, ran errands, and helped take care of the family’s many children. They treated her well, but she had one overwhelming sorrow. “I cried every day when I put the kids on the school bus,” she said. “I loved school, but I couldn’t go. I was a straight A student when I had to quit in the tenth grade.”
After two years she went to live with her older sister. Then she met Leo (Bud) Spiegel. World War II was approaching, and like many other young men, Bud wanted to get married in the hopes of avoiding military duty. He proposed, and they got married a week before Helen’s 17th birthday. But neither the marriage nor the birth of their first daughter, Alma, in December, 1942, could keep Bud from being drafted. Their first son, David, was born in July, 1945.
Bud came home early in 1946. He worked on the railroad, first as a fireman and later as an engineer. He stayed with the same railroad until he retired in 1981.
“He had a grueling work schedule,” Helen said. “A lot of times he would work 16-hour days. He had to stay at work for three days during the snowstorm of 1950 because he couldn’t get home. I was nine months pregnant with Gary.”
With Bud away from home so much, Helen raised the kids practically by herself. She sewed their clothes, drove them to their activities, took care of maintenance and even home improvement. “I didn’t like the fireplace in one of our houses,” she said, “so one day I knocked out the bricks and threw them out the window. When Bud came home, he found a big pile of bricks on the lawn. He thought I had gone crazy.”
One thing Bud enjoyed was gardening. “From 1952 until 1998, we had the biggest garden in Sharpsville,” Helen said. “I canned and froze a lot of vegetables. In 1960, when I was due to deliver my youngest daughter Kelly, the beans were ready to be picked. I couldn’t do it, and Bud was away at work. So the neighbors picked them all, snapped them, and froze them for us.”
During the 1970s she fulfilled her life-long determination to graduate from high school by getting her GED. She also found other ways to make up for some of the things she had missed as a child. She loved sports, so she started bowling – and bowled in the Hickory Wonders league for 40 years. She had the highest average in the league for half the season when she was 78.
She also loved games. “When our kids came home from school,” she said with a slightly guilty but satisfied smile, “I met them at the door with a game in my hands. I made them play games with me rather than do homework.”
After her youngest child Kelly went to college, Helen overcame the “empty nest” syndrome by taking up quilting. Over the past 25 years, she has made more than 50, giving almost all of them away. Some of them won ribbons at fairs and quilt shows.
Even when their nest was empty, Bud’s and Helen’s family continued to be a major part of their life.
“From the time my oldest daughter Alma got married, we celebrated Spiegel Week every August,” she said. “Everyone came home, and Alma’s husband Woody acted as program director. He would organize special events – a tour of the Lordstown GM factory, berry picking on a farm, a visit to Sea World. Something different every year. We had so much fun.”
Spiegel Weeks ended when Alma got ill with cancer. She passed away in 1995. Helen’s husband Bud passed away in 1999.
Getting older doesn’t slow Helen down. This past May, at age 80, she fulfilled a life-long dream by going on an Alaskan cruise with three friends. And she still loves to play games – Scrabble on the computer and Mah Jongg at the Hermitage Senior Center. At 81 years of age, she is looking forward to the start of bowling season in September. She is still making quilts and participating in the Pieceful Pursuits Quilt Guild. And she is proud to be a member of the Mercer County Historical Society.
It’s no wonder that Helen’s friends see her as an inspiration.
Helen passed away on March 29, 2009. She and Bud are buried in America’s Cemetery.
Excerpt from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007